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“The world ended.”

“Excuse me?”

He was almost more of a landmass than a person, a forest of blonde hair stretching down his face and along the rippled mountain range that was the arm resting on the Toyota’s rusting window ledge. “Not last time I noticed, pal. You feeling all right?”

They weren’t. Nothing was “all right”. Everything felt wrong. Nykar couldn’t pinpoint anything specifically wrong, but they couldn’t pinpoint anything right, either. Everything felt alien. Like a dream before a storm. Even this man…they didn’t know why he made them feel the way they did. He triggered emotions they knew he shouldn’t, his face reminded them of things they had never seen.

Kyris didn’t care, though. Kyris just laughed a tiny laugh, and stretched a small, crumpled hand towards the glistening black lakes of sunglasses. They liked this man, and their liking alone made Nykar feel better. Kyris had always known what they were doing, and even now, they would be their anchor in this hurricane of wrong sensations. There was a sense of irony to it, that their only connection to reality was through a baby, but they were glad of what they could get.

That was ironic, wasn’t it?

“Bud?” The man had leaned out of the window, tsunamis rippling down the plaid sea of his jacket. “You still with me there?”

“Yes? I don’t know…Where did the Ulos go?”

“The what?” His face was shot through with ravines of concern, or possibly anger, or happiness. Why couldn’t they tell? Should they be able to tell?

“The Ulos. We watched it. Kyris and I watched it. It tore through the Earth, it rippled out into the unending dark. It snuffed out the galaxy, and left what remained to collapse in on itself as we watched over a thousand million years. And now…everything’s fine. Why?”

They were talking faster and faster, but they slowed and stopped as those ravines grew deeper and more intense. “Sir…ma’am…If you wouldn’t mind…could you tell me your name?”

“Nykar. This is Kyris.” They held up the baby in their arms.

“Nykar. Good to meet you. I’m John. Now, um…where do you live?”

Where did they live? Not the ranch, certainly. Not anymore. That hadn’t survived the Ulos’ apocalypse. Nothing there was fit to go near, or walk on, or look at. But it wasn’t like there was anywhere else…

“Nowhere. We…we don’t live anywhere.”

John nodded. “I suspected as much…Hmm…”

They watched his fingers drum on the steering wheel as he pondered what to do. The sense of wrongness was growing, and they felt themselves actually start to back away from him. But Kyris still liked him – more, if anything – so they decided to ask him a question.

“Where are you going?”

He stopped drumming his fingers and looked up at them with a chuckle. “Me? Oh, nowhere exciting. Little backwater in Canada called Howard Falls. My sister’s up there.”

He laughed again, clearly trying to think of something else to say, but that name had triggered something, something that might actually be right. They had been to Howard Falls before – well, Kyris had. It had been a long time, so long that they’d forgotten, but the memory of that smile was still locked in their mind, crystallized like a fly in amber.

“Howard Falls? The Odokathsticon’s roost?”

Now the laughter stopped. Now John just stared, for what felt like minutes. “The what?”

“The Odokathsticon. The Curiosity-Shop. The Keeper of Nightmares. You didn’t know about it?”

“No. I did. And that’s what scares me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the last place Lisa Warden was ever seen was in Howard Falls. In front of a place called the Odokathsticon.”

“So…what exactly is it y’all are looking for?”

That smile loomed across the table, toothless and anticipatory, a shabby black hat on top and an even shabbier black coat beneath. It was a businessman’s grin, yes, but it was something else as well. Something older, more primal. The smile of a predator about to catch a kill, of a black hole preparing to swallow a star.

“We seek a communications device. Some way of talking to God and His kin, of hearing Their replies in ways more reliable than dreams and omens.”

The Odokathsticon barked a laugh, so loud that the other restaurant patrons turned for a moment to stare. “What kind of cult are you people, Kyris?”

“We prefer to be addressed as the Conjoined Minds. And the Late Revelationists are not a “cult”. We seek to honor those Ones that no others remember, and return Them to Their rightful place as rulers of the world.”

There was a glittering sound as a waiter poured more icewater into their glasses. “That’s a cult, darlin’. Worshipping made-up gods is a cult. There are no “Ones”, no long-lost gods of the universe, rising up to claim their kingdom again. Do you really think that anything like that could be affected by humanity?”

Lex started to her feet with a snarl, but at Kyris’ quiet motion she sat sullenly back down. “We do not ask you to believe. We simply ask you to aid us. You have a tooth of the Burrower on High in your museum. Allow us to make use of it, for a short time.”

It leaned forward, arms on the plastic table, that smile changing into some expression more difficult to name. “And what will you give me in return?”

“I –” They hadn’t considered that. They supposed they had been hoping that it would just give them something from its collection. Of course, sat here before it, they could see how stupid that sounded.

Now the smile was gone completely, the wrinkled face collapsing into something that was unmistakably malice. “Then get out of my sight, and stop wasting my time.”

Lex stood almost at the same moment they did, that cold snarl back across her face. “Now, hold on a minute, there must be something –”

“Nothing in my collection is free, Alexys Ratoshka. Nothing. When you’ve found something that’s as valuable to me as a part of the Wormqueen, then I’ll consider your offer.”

“I see. Thank you.” They turned around, began stalking towards the door. “Come on, Kyris. Let’s go.”

“Now, hold on, darlins.” They turned back, saw it standing there, a buzzing, pulsing device hanging from its hand. “Not everything’s as expensive as something like that.”

It threw the thing, and despite its ungainly flight, it seemed almost attracted to Kyris’ hand. “What…is it?”

The Odokathsticon smiled, held up that hand again, and made a painful-looking gesture with it. With an eerie, roaring hiss, the restaurant began to collapse, warping in on itself, stretching the patrons like taffy and melting the walls like metal on fire. And then, when they stood there on the sidewalk before the narrowest of empty alleyways, it spoke again.

“If you are who you say you are…you’ll already know.”

The Toyota drove northwards for days, stopping only for gas and the occasional catnap. Up through Colorado it roared, through Wyoming and Montana and farther on into the vast prairies of Saskatchewan, until days blurred into nights and John’s quiet form stared at the unending road like the figurehead of a ship.

He had said very little since agreeing to take them with him. They still didn’t understand why he’d done it – he had mentioned someone named Lisa, but if he’d said who she was, they had missed it. It shouldn’t have mattered to them, really. He was taking them to the Odokathsticon, giving them food and shelter and rest stop bathrooms, and that was all that should have been important. But it kept nagging at them – the fact that he’d let two complete strangers ride in his truck across two countries and a thousand miles.

“So…why exactly are you going to Howard Falls?”

He sighed, rolling his shoulders as he shook off the highway hypnosis. “Because that’s the last place anyone saw my sister.”

“Your sister being Lisa Warden?”

“Yeah. Five years ago, there was a fire in Howard Falls. The police suspected arson, and three of the people they talked to said they had seen a woman who matched her description going in.”

“Are you…sure it was her? I mean, it doesn’t seem all that likely…”

“The address they gave was the address of our grandparents’ house. Does that seem like a coincidence to you?”

“No. No, of course not.” It did, but it seemed in poor taste to argue with the man who had agreed to do so much for them. “You think she’s still there, then?”

“No. But the Odokathsticon was rebuilt. And there’s a chance, however small, that the people there will know where she went. I know it seems silly, but I have to try –”

But Nykar was laughing, high-pitched and hysterical, so hard that he stopped talking and turned to look at them. “You think the Odokathsticon cares about your sister?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t see why they wouldn’t…”

“The Odokathsticon doesn’t care about anything, John. Anything. It cares about its hoard of horrors, and nothing else. If your sister’s alive, she’ll have joined that hoard, and the only way you can help her will be to kill her.”

The Toyota veered sharply, tires grinding gravel as it came to a stop. “What do you mean, joined its hoard?”

“That’s what it does to people. It takes them, gives them things, does things to them. And then it displays them, in its weird little museum, for some reason impossible for you or I to fathom.”

“You talk about it like it’s a person.”

“It isn’t. It really, really isn’t. But it’s not just a museum, either, if that’s what you mean. It’s…It’s something else. I don’t know what it is. But I know for absolute certain that it does not give a damn about human beings.”

They half-slumped there on the seat, suddenly very tired. Had they offended him, made him want to throw them out? Perhaps. But for now, as they felt the last waves of the sudden rage wash away, they really, really didn’t care.

At last, he spoke. “Have you…met it?”

“Yes. Yes, I have.”

“And it’ll remember you?”

“Maybe. Probably? I don’t know.”

“Then the plan hasn’t changed.” He gripped the shift knob, ground it into first as the engine roared. “We’ll still go. We’ll ask it about her. I hope to God you’re wrong, about…what it did, but if you’re not…” His eyes locked onto the puddles of yellow that the headlights made on the road. “Come on. Best not to think about it.”

The device, as it turned out, had been a detector. For finding Ulos, the Odokathsticon had said. “The blood-droplets of the Nar Gashyn”, it had called them, though it had only smiled when asked what it meant.

And now, at last, it had proved itself. After years of searching, they had found one. It was on a ranch in Colorado, hidden beneath a crook of the Rockies and simple enough to purchase. They had prepared, done what little research they could. And finally, finally, they were ready.

The wind blew, the rain roared like gunfire. Mr. Ferguson had wanted to let it stop before they attempted it, but it would take far, far more than rain to dissuade them now. They had waited so long for this moment. All of them had. A storm seemed a hilariously trivial reason to wait any longer.

A lance of lightning flickered across the sky, the deep drumroll of thunder it sent after it drowning for a second the chanting speech of the gathered circle. Kyris stood at its head, Nykar at their side, their hands held high in ancient supplication. Before them Mr. Ferguson did things to the device, things he understood no better than the rest of them but things that no one was better qualified to perform. It flickered in his hands like a Rubik’s cube, flashes of dark light venting themselves from its pulsating sides, an electrical hum mixing with the crackle of lightning as that chant rolled over him, asking That which waited to hear their prayer.

There was a sudden flash of light, not the blinding white of lightning but something darker, redder, more purposeful. A column of that light lanced upwards through the rain, playing on the clouds as it bored steaming down into the ground like an augur. Mr. Ferguson stepped back, more out of reflex than anything, and that chant swelled to a crescendo as the soil burned away and from the shadows beneath something twitched and moved.

Perhaps, if given time to filter the memory until it was in terms that they could understand, the watchers could have described what happened after that. Something changed, certainly. Perhaps something clawed its way up from the earth, though it had no claws to do so. Perhaps something swelled like pus from a wound, or budded away like a new sea anemone. But all anyone watching could say was that when it was done, that hole went farther down than it ever should have been able to. And above it, floating like a black star, was the Ulos.

It was a ring, ten feet across, nearly invisible in the darkness but clearly rotating, slowly, slowly. It was deadly silent, except for the faintest humming, buzzing speech, saying things that were not words and that were drowned out by the rain. For a moment, the watchers were just as silent, a single held breath hanging in the pounding rain. Then it was released, a cheer running like electricity through the crowd, a cheer both of triumph and of awe that something like this had answered to their call.

The Conjoined Minds did not cheer. Kyris just looked up at that thing, that huge circle floating there like a fallen angel’s halo, and listened in their mind to Mr. Ferguson’s words when they had arrived home:

“Where’s Lex?”

Howard Falls had changed.

For hours now, there had been a creeping sense of unease. Even Kyris had felt it, waking up crying as black tendrils wormed their way around their small, bright dreams. Nykar had not felt it, not really, but despite what the Ulos had done to their brain, they could read Kyris’ thoughts and John’s ever-darkening expression, and understand well enough what was going on.

The world itself seemed to be darkening as well, as though night had decided to come early and bring with it a subtle shift in the landscape. Nothing they could put their finger on, of course – it never was. But it felt almost as though perspective itself had warped and twisted, raising the trees up to looming heights and making the horizon seem almost impossibly far away.

Then they crested a hill, and John gasped.

Below them was Howard Falls – or at least, so the map said, assuming it could be trusted. But that warping of reality seemed to have infected it, soaked into it like an inkblot. It was huge, for one thing, a tiny town inflated to the size of a small city. But more than that, it felt isolated. Where the horizon had once seemed to stretch on forever, now it huddled far too close, leaving Howard Falls an island in a sea of dark and stars. One could still track the roads winding down to it, but at the same time one struggled to believe that they were possible, like a looping staircase. And the city itself…well, perhaps it was just the distance that made it look like streets needed more than four right angles to meet again, or like the height of a building didn’t affect how far it rose above its fellows.

Nykar certainly hoped so.

The Toyota picked its way down those misshapen roads, making its hesitating way around bends that seemed so normal close-up, down to where the lights of that city flickered like orange stars. Then they were among those lights, driving slowly down roads where the only other cars were parked along the sidewalk, combing street after street until at last memory guided them to that eerie, familiar sign:



John sighed, swallowed, brought the truck to a slow, rumbling stop. “Well…We’re here.”

The Odokathsticon had changed as well. What had once been a tiny museum, barely distinguishable from the house it was made from, was now a vast, looming edifice. Its bulk took up an entire city block, and there was a distinct sense that it was reaching out for others, that if left unchecked it would put down pillars and grow side wings and let the other buildings crumble in its path. Its dozen tiers loomed skyward, asymmetric and disproportionate, their already considerable height magnified by the way the sky seemed almost to dip down to meet it. Its architecture looked strangely familiar at first glance, but further observation revealed a subtle but persistent alienness to it, that took those pillars and facades and cast them in an entirely different light. And that sign, that sign that had grown to encompass languages both earthly and not, loomed there above a pair of vast doors of glass and stone, inviting entrance to the dark, twisted halls beyond.

Nykar couldn’t tell whether John noticed just how wrong it looked. Perhaps he didn’t care about the way it seemed to stare down at them as the Toyota’s doors closed with a pair of metallic thuds. Perhaps he did, and that was what drove him so quickly up those steps and through the doors beyond. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Because he had accepted the invitation, and so, with a building sense of purpose beginning to overwhelm the chaos of their mind, had Nykar.

They blocked out the contents of the halls beyond. They had hoped that their earlier visit would have prepared them, would have proved to their frightened mind that whatever the Odokathsticon’s exhibits might imply, they themselves were ultimately harmless. It hadn’t. If anything, the knowledge of what was coming made it worse. There was nothing they could do but shield Kyris’ eyes and keep their own pointed at the black stone of the floor or at John’s ever-more-hunched back as they walked between those leering tanks and ancient, looming forms.

John wasn’t so lucky. After the first few asymmetric things under glass, he tried to ignore them the way Nykar did. But they could see him glancing periodically at the things that hung still beside him, realizing with growing horror that there was nothing but a velvet rope between himself and whatever horrific machine or fractal nightmare hung beneath the stark white lights. Each time they came to a staircase, he took longer and longer to ascend. And each time Nykar spoke to him, his responses became shorter and more distant.

At last, at long last, they came to the top floor. Despite how large it had looked from outside, there was nothing here but one long, long passageway, glass cases down its length holding things that were mercifully too small to take in by mistake. For what seemed like hours they trudged down that passage, Kyris’ tiredness beginning to spread to Nykar as it stretched on and on, until at last they came to a black, looming door, whose brass nameplate was embossed with a single word: Curator.

John clearly didn’t want to go through that door. Nykar didn’t, either. They wanted to sit down, to let the images from the lower floors wash through their minds until they could accept them, if not understand them. But there was nowhere to sit, nowhere one could avoid looking into those cases, and there seemed almost to be some unspoken agreement that if they sat down, they would never get back up.

So John swallowed, shaking slightly, and pushed open the door.

Beyond it was a room, vast and pillared and not quite circular. The walls were lined with windows, huge, sweeping panes that should have looked out over the city, but instead were angled slightly upwards so that they were swallowed up in that star-filled sky. And in that room were figures. A young woman, hunched over a laptop against a pillar. A man, tall and dark and cold, standing before a raised dais in what should have been the room’s center. Huge, impossible things, black fractals that were tiny or mammoth depending on how you looked at them, walking on things that weren’t legs and drooling from things that weren’t mouths. And up on that dais, still small and hunched but somehow bigger than it had ever been before, was the Odokathsticon.

The man had been saying something, discussing some writhing impossibility that hung and fluttered from his hands. But as the door glided open, the Odokathsticon held up a hand of its own to cut him off. It turned, slowly, that eternal smile playing over its lips, and stared out at the across that titan room.

“Now wait a moment, Mr. Anise. We’ve got…guests.”

It stepped down off its dais, brushed the man in black aside as it came towards them. “Hello, Nykar,” it said, staring up at them with that eternal, infuriating smile. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

They felt Kyris recoil in disgust in their arms, and for the first time since the Ulos had fallen, they felt that familiar sensation of a burningly powerful emotion shared. “It certainly has.”

“And who’re you, then?” It turned its face upwards to look at John, watching him try and control the way his body shook as he looked down at it. “Ah, of course! Welcome to the Odokathsticon, Mr. Warden.”

“How…How do you know my name?”

“Oh, please. Your mind is so…open. Unprotected. I couldn’t have avoided it. Though, in fairness, it’s not like I wanted to.”

He swallowed, set his jaw, trying to channel his fear into anger. “Then you’ll know why I’m here.”

“Of course I do. You’re here after Lisa.”

“Is she…is she here? Is she…one of the things downstairs? One of your…exhibits?”

“No, though I can guess why Nykar here would’ve told you that. Lisa’s not here. Nor has she been, for a good five years.”

“She’s not?” His face relaxed, though what that meant Nykar could no longer be certain. “Where, then?”

It shrugged. “Couldn’t say.”

“You must’ve got some idea. She talked to you, didn’t she? What did she say?”

It turned away, its smile wider than usual as it turned towards Nykar. “And what about you? What’s brought you back here?”

What did she say?

“I, um…” Nykar swallowed, glanced at the snarl that was building over John’s face. “I’ve come to ask about the Ulos.”

John made a sudden movement, reaching out to grab it, perhaps, pull it around to face him. But as his hand lunged like a battering ram, the Odokathsticon held up a hand of its own, and Nykar watched as John’s arm came to a sudden, lurching stop, the rest of his body crumpling around where it hung in the air. “Ah, excellent!” it said, its eyes never leaving their face. “The detector worked, then?”

“Oh, yes it did. It found one. It called it up. And it – the Ulos – it destroyed the galaxy.”

“It did, did it? Now, that’s very interesting. Are you certain?”

“Yes. We watched it happen.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t imagine it?”

Nykar threw back their head and laughed, laughed the high-pitched, brittle laugh that was all they could manage anymore. “Oh, of course, I imagined it! My mind is a wreck, my twin is a baby, the ranch looks like it belongs downstairs, but obviously I imagined it! Clearly, I –”

“Nykar,” came the Odokathsticon’s voice, low and serious. “I will warn you once. Do not patronize me again.”

“Or what? What will you do?

“I will tear his arm from its socket.”

John was holding himself up, his left hand wrapped around the rigid mass that was his right arm, half-hanging from where it still floated as though incased in ice. His eyes met theirs, frightened and wild amidst the tangles of golden hair, and he mouthed two words at them across the divide:

Help me.

Nykar closed their mouth, nodded, turned back to the Odokathsticon. “I…I’m sorry. Please, put him down.”

It stared at them for a long moment, and then relaxed its hand. John fell, hitting the floor with a flat thud and a gasp of pain and relief, and the Odokathsticon smiled. “Very well. Then if you didn’t imagine it, I would love to hear your explanation as to why the Earth is still intact.”

“I…I don’t know. I was hoping that you would.”

“Hm.” The Odokathsticon smirked. “Well, if you don’t know, sweetheart, I ain’t sure it’s my place to tell you. Hard on human minds and all that.”

“Right.” They stared at it for a long minute, watching that infuriating smile as it lit up those strange, wrong eyes. “Thank you.”

“Now, if there’s nothing else you want, Mr. Anise here has a few last questions for me…”

“Actually,” came the slow, dark voice of the man they presumed was Mr. Anise. “If what your guest says is true, I would love to speak to them myself.”

The Odokathsticon made a gesture of invitation with one hand.

“Outside would, I think, be better. We may finish our discussion at a future time.”

Its eyes narrowed as it stared up at him. “Do not try to trick me, Roark Anise. Everything inside this building belongs to me.”

“If it were truly that simple, I would be suspended in fluid with their friend. You know as well as I do that this game operates on the law of the jungle. Now, please. We will continue this later. I would prefer to speak to them now, before anything…untoward happens.”

Finally, far too late, Nykar realized what was going on. They turned, slowly, hoping not to attract attention, watching the argument with nervous eyes. And then, with a sudden, frantic movement, they were bolting, running for the door like a frightened deer, pawing desperately at the handle with one hand as the other almost subconsciously tucked Kyris under their body.

And then the door was gone.

They were floating upwards away from it, a force like cold iron wrapping its way around their limbs, watching Kyris start to wail as they teetered in their rigid arms. They couldn’t move, they couldn’t breathe, they couldn’t do anything besides struggle faintly against that unforgiving force. And the Odokathsticon’s smile curled up into a vicious sneer, ignoring them completely, its eyes never leaving Roark Anise’s face. “I will rip your bones from your body.”

“And lose your best source of trinkets? I think not.” He scoffed slightly, walked over and stared up at Nykar’s choking face. “Don’t break them. We both need them alive. I tell you what, though –” Quite suddenly, with a small, soft movement, he reached out and pulled Kyris from their arms. “You can keep this. It seems to be your sort of thing.”

It regarded him for a long minute, until Nykar’s vision started to pulse with the blood in their ears and their clutching fingers started going numb. Then, just before they blacked out, they were falling, air flooding into their lungs as their back hit the floor with a crack of pain. “And Mr. Warden here?”

“Do as you wish. He’s not important.”

They wanted to fight, as Mr. Anise beckoned to the girl and the fractal horrors hauled them shudderingly to their feet. They did fight, as the Odokathsticon turned away and the unreal talons buzzed and flickered around them. But their fists and kicks did nothing but sting and burn around the black not-limbs, and all they could do, as Mr. Anise pulled open the door to let his horrid little party through, was make eye contact with the broken figure hauling himself slowly to his feet as the Odokathsticon approached, and give a single quiet gasp.

“Keep them safe.”

He nodded, once, and Nykar’s last image of him was of him bending down over where Kyris lay before the door slammed shut.

The Storyteller had failed.

She had run, run for the door of the building they had erected to house the Ulos and out into the field, dropping the cutting torch in her panic. They turned to watch her go, the symbols still glowing on the Ulos behind them, and Nykar started running to try and catch her. But Kyris just stood and stared, stared up at the thing as it started to spin faster and faster, those symbols starting to blend into a single blurry afterimage, its shape tightening as it was preparing for something. As though it was preparing to be born.

Suddenly it burst, that ring lashing out into a thousand more, each of those budding off additional rings of its own. Rings and disks and circles of sigils, hoops and cogs and carriage wheels, all of them rendered in ever-looser patterns of light that spun in too many dimensions to count. The thing was huge, impossibly so, the building bursting to splinters as it rose up, up into the sky. Kyris stumbled backward, trying to comprehend what they were seeing, trying to understand how such a thing was possible. And as they went, one of those wheels caught them.

There was a blinding, searing pain, all across their body. It caught them, branded them, flung them away, left them to whirl sympathetically in whatever dimension it had been rotating in. They felt its alien presence brush their mind, felt Nykar’s recoil in electrocuted horror as it dug and shuffled and discarded its way through it, unable to find whatever it sought. Then it hit them, hit them so hard that it could have been a physical force, hit them with a wall of energy that functioned in ways that a human could study and know but never truly understand. And the world was gone, growing up away from them as their mind paled and their clothes fell huge around them, blurring into inconceivability as their eyes and their brain regressed beyond the point of understanding.

Nykar watched them fall, watched them reel backwards through their life, felt the presence that had always been an anchor in their mind drift and dissolve into something that no longer knew what an anchor was. They screamed, screamed in fear and sadness for their ruined sibling, screamed in mental agony as the Ulos abandoned their shuffled mind like an unseeded field, screamed in rage at this thing, this thing that they had brought into existence and in return had taken everything away.

There was a sudden crack, so loud that it would have deafened them if it had truly been a sound, ringing in vibration through the earth and air and out forever along the plains. The whirling, thousand-faceted mass that was the Ulos made a sudden movement from where it was suspended in the air. And then, slowly at first but faster and faster, it fell.

And where it fell, a thousand cities, a thousand civilizations, disappeared into the dark.

They awoke in a dark place, a place that smelled of chemicals and alien blood. Their mind was a haze of hangovers and exhaustion, broken by occasional bursts of pain as they tried to move. Where were they? What was happening? Where was Kyris?

Kyris was all right, thank God. Kyris was asleep somewhere, dreaming of slender arms and dark hallways. They half wished that they would wake up, so that they could get an idea of where they were, but the fact that they were asleep at all meant that they were, at very least, safe.

Roark Anise. Roark Anise had brought them here. Roark Anise, with his long black car that drove itself and seemed bigger on the inside. He had driven them here, to the Sunder Hotel, and he had asked them things. Things about the Ulos, about the Storyteller. About the Odokathsticon.

They hadn’t known most of the answers, of course. They had told him what they could, after his strange injections had done things to their brain, things that had severed their connection with Kyris. They had told him where the Ulos was, described as best they could what it had done to Black Arrow Ranch when it fell. They had told him of their history with the Odokathsticon, and with Howard Falls. They had tried to tell him of the Late Revelationists, of the Gods which they had been trying to contact, but he just smiled a horrible smile and laughed and laughed.

Then he had stood, thanked them, told them he had what he needed. Told them that it was a bit of a shame he’d given the baby up, but the Odokathsticon was not a being to displease, and there were still a great many beings which would tell him very interesting things in exchange for a single Conjoined Mind. And then he had given them one final injection, one which had wiped their mind blank until they woke up here, trapped in the dark.

“Hey,” came a voice, small and nervous.

They sat up, pain washing through their head. Why was it so dark? “Who’s there?”

“Just me.” A pale light flickered into existence, blinding them for the moment it took their eyes to adjust. It shone up onto a face, halfway across the room. The girl that had been with Mr. Anise.

“What do you want?” They pushed themselves upwards, swung their legs down over what felt like the side of the bed? “Isn’t he done with me yet?”

“Other than the business deal, yeah,” she said, standing and coming over to them. “That’s why you need to leave. You don’t want to be here when they happen.”

“I thought you were with him?” They took her arm, used it to pull themselves to their feet. Nausea washed over them, but now wasn’t the time.

“Sort of…” She trailed off, took a few steps towards what they presumed was the door. “It’s complicated. Too complicated to explain right now. Come on, the exit’s this way.”

They followed, letting the pain start to wash away. She was using the tiny flashlight to guide them into what looked to be a hotel corridor, feet padding on plush carpet and light washing over big, dark doors as she turned nervously down it. “How can I trust you?”

“Because you don’t have any better way to get to Kyris?”

They stopped, staring at her, the vast, shadowy depths of the corridor almost eating the beam of light. “You know about them? Are they all right?”

“They’re in the Odokathsticon, awaiting processing. So no, they’re not all right. That’s why you need to hurry.” She put a hand to her ear for the briefest second and turned back to the corridor.

They followed her in silence, watching the way the beam of light danced across their path as though searching for something Nykar couldn’t see. Then, at last, there was an elevator, little glowing arrows shining like eyes from the darkness, the girl typing something into a keypad.

“It should be here any second…Once it gets here, you need to run, kay? Go down to the third floor, run the rest of the way, don’t worry about anything you find there.”

They nodded, nervously, staring at the doors. “Are you coming?”

“Me?” She snorted. “No. No reason to make this harder than it has to be.”

“But won’t you, like –”

They stopped, suddenly, as she put a finger to her lips, her eyes going wide as they shifted focus. Onto something behind them.

“Go,” she said, in the slightest whisper. “Please, go.”

The elevator door dinged.

They didn’t know if she was talking to them or whatever was behind them, but they didn’t care, just leaped for the door as it slid open and pressed a thumb over the glowing number 3. Behind them the girl screamed something, and her scream was answered by a sound like a broken songbird. Then the doors were sliding shut, and the scrabble of whatever was behind them faded and died as the elevator descended.

They stayed there in the humming darkness for a long time, waiting for the seemingly interminable journey to end. Sometimes they thought, running over what had just happened in their mind, wondering what they had abandoned above them. Mostly they watched Kyris, as their dreams wandered through places Nykar was sorry they’d seen, until the elevator stopped with a thump and a ding of opening doors.

They stood up.

Outside was darkness, occasional small sounds echoing through it, the slight chill breeze giving the eerie impression that it was cathedral-like in size. Out and into it they padded, shoes crunching on sawdust mixed into the carpet, hands out to catch themselves if something blocked their path.

Until the guardrail, nothing did.

Their hands hit it, hard, closing around rough, dirty metal. Beyond it was still dark, still cavernous, but something was different. Closer. Something that knew them.

A memory, sudden, faint, of the Storyteller describing the Ulos putting visions into her mind.

There was a flicker of light, suddenly, out there in the darkness. Bright, sparking, like a welding torch going off. It was only for an instant, but it was enough for them to see the thousand interlocking rings, the frozen, budding form floating out and up and down there, the size of a city and the shape of something burned irreparably into their mind.

Somehow, here, in Roark Anise’s hotel, was an Ulos.

It had dug through their mind it had dug through their mind it had rooted through and left nothing unturned

They inhaled sharply, stepped back from it. It flashed again, an electric vein of light running up along one of those frozen rings. It didn’t make noise, like the other one had, but it was still trying to speak. It was trying to talk to them, in a language they could never understand.

So why did they?

It had scraped and overturned and ruined and left a jumble of broken memories and lost emotions and it had thrown them aside like a broken toy

It wanted something. It wanted out. It wanted out more than anything imaginable. It wanted to do what it was meant to do, and it wanted…

It had wanted something it had wanted to make something it was a bird with a nest it was a farmer with a field

And then they understood.

The doors to the Odokathsticon slid open with a whirr of motors, snapping slowly shut again behind them as they passed. Through the lobby they walked, shoes tapping on the tiles, the door to the stairs creaking as they pushed it open. Up they went and up again, through those same hallways they had come through a few hours ago, past those same nightmarish exhibits. But they ignored them this time, walked past as though they didn’t matter. And in a way, they didn’t. After all, they were one of them now.

Onwards and upwards, between things they couldn’t believe they had found frightening so recently, until they came to the final floor. Down the passage, shadow fluttering as the lights on either side ate at it and bled it until at last they threw it up against the black, looming door. And they did what they now realized they should have done the first time. They raised a fist and knocked.

From behind them, a flickering sound, a tap of shoes on stone. “Hello, Nykar,” came the familiar, twisted voice. “Anise not suit your tastes?”

They turned around, stared down into the Odokathsticon’s little, wizened face, let the new inhabitant in their mind pulse and override the intense desire to spit at it. “Roark Anise is dead.”

“Oh, is he now?” Its face showed no reaction, other than the slightest furrowing of its stringy eyebrows. “Shame. He was a lovely fellow. What happened, then?”

“He had an Ulos. It –” They stopped, suddenly, tilted their head. It wasn’t fear, or hesitation – the memory made them feel nothing at all. It was simply that English wouldn’t describe exactly what it had done to the Sunder Hotel, to the cyclopean ruins in which it had sat, and to the hapless star which still stared from its unfathomable distance.

So they chose not to use English.

The Odokathsticon’s eyes went wide. “Damn. I knew he was a fool, but not that much of one. What, did he think he could preserve it?”

They shrugged. “I cannot say.”

It sighed, shook its head. “But that ain’t why you’re here, is it? I expect you’re here to try and threaten me, or throw yourself on my mercy or something. Get me to let go of the baby and that John character, no?”

“Something like that.” They stared down at it, face blank, heart racing. “I wish to purchase them.”

Now those eyebrows went up, and it straightened slightly where it stood. “Well, you know the rules, darlin’. What’ve you got in return?”

They swallowed. “A Conjoined Mind. Playing host to an Ulos.”

It tilted its head, and then, very slowly, its predatory grin began to ooze across its face. “I see. And what d’you want me to do with them, then?”

“Just let them out. They’ll find their own way.”

It nodded, turned, beckoned. “Very well. I’ll get right on that.” It grinned again. “Come with me. You and Alexys are going to look lovely together.”

Written by StalkerShrike
Content is available under CC BY-SA