In All Reflections
Spaces Between Walls
Published: July 30, 2023
Warnings: Explicit violence, character death
Blurb: Prompt: "Strangers from far and wide come to my doorstep to seek asylum. They do not share what they run from. I already know what gives chase."
“There is nothing that can be done for you.”
The statement hangs in the air, final, piercing. Their face contorts; first their brow furrows, muzzle presses back in a snarl, eyes narrow. I sit across from them, stalwart, emotionless, even though my chest tightens.
Their hands clasp in their lap, and I have to steel my heart. I know what’s going through their mind. They think they’re unique in what they feel, that I haven’t seen it before.
That thought just makes me sad.
Their hands unclasp. I see the words forming in their mind, like ambient bubbles, before they speak. I know what’s going to come, but I let them say it anyways.
“I can offer things beyond your wildest imagination.” stated like a fact. “Don’t underestimate my resourcefulness.”
I didn’t. The fact that they knew they were put on the list was enough.
“I understand you may not care for money,” they continue, “with your... abilities to ferret people to safety. You must be quite skilled. But I can provide other things of worth. Raw magic, perhaps?”
I want to tell them: I can only help before the list. My power stops at the mention of the list. Whatever magic I can conjure cannot undo the ire of our Grand Leader. Whatever lies I weave cannot hide from the eye of our Grand Leader.
They appraise me with a keen eye. Their eyes squint, almost, subtly - they don’t think I can tell they’re inspecting me again - trying to grasp at my visage, tucked safely in the darkness of my hood. The cloak reaches down, covers the contours of my body. The best they can tell? No horns, no wings, no unique limbs.
The illusion spell is that strong, after all.
“Or,” they start again, voice a lower octave, “you know, this isn’t information I willingly hand over to most. But I have attained a few artifacts that may convince you.”
I would help if I could, I want to say. It’s not that I’m denying you because I think your cause isn’t worthy, or that you deserve to be hunted like a wild animal. It’s out of my control.
But they never believe me, anyways. So I shift in my chair, like I’m considering, and I say, “I don’t think you can convince me. Though I am curious.”
Now they grin. Normally, I imagine, it’d be smug and confident, on top of the world, a leader, a king. But there’s too much wavering in the corners, in the way they tap a foot against the chair. They’re desperate, of course.
Guilt gnaws at me.
They spread their arms, gesturing to some sort of vastness. “My people and I have procured goods from beyond the Outer Shell.”
My blood is ice.
Questions flood me. How? When? Why? For what purpose? By what means?
But I only tilt my head, loftily, as if to consider, and say, “Tall claims require tall proof.”
“We have a contact,” they say, “forgive my discretion; this information cannot leave this room. But we have a contact, and in return for information, they have given us several things from the void-layer.”
You should ask them more about this, a poisonous part of my mind says to me, and present this information to our Grand Leader. You would be lauded.
But I don’t care about being lauded.
My mouth moves before my thoughts. “What kinds of things?”
Their grin gains confidence. They think they’ve gotten the upper hand; I let my mask slip too much.
It’s going to crush them when I say no.
“A long baton that conjures a slurry of strange shapes when swung,” they say, with a grandeur to their voice, “it ‘resonates’ deeply with eldritch creatures from beyond even the void’s ken.”
“Beyond the void’s ken,” I echo. “That is fantastical. How can you prove this?”
They huff slightly. “Do you doubt my magery talent? Tell - are there wards against summons in this room?”
I snap my fingers, dispelling the wards. “Not any longer.”
The baton is summoned to their hands with a flourish. At physical glance, it is quite ordinary; long and thin, made of a blueish metal and topped with a bright deep blue circle, almost like a bubble wand.
They wave it, almost dramatically. A sparkle flits through the air after its circle, popping in various diamonds and crosses. It almost looks like a cheap party trick.
But it’s not really a physical object.
As it moves, I can feel it rippling under the surface of reality. It’s not really making a hole, or cutting, but shifting underneath, leaving ripples in its wake. Something huge sluggishly pushing through the undergrowth, and the trees shake in response. The suggestion of something enormous.
And it is really enormous. It feels like a finger, almost. A little... wire hanging off the end of a mass of snakes. A single strand of hair, shaking apart trees. Easily forgotten and missed.
I blink. My hand is outstretched towards the baton. I open my mouth to apologize, but they press it into my hands. Their expression is as surprised as mine.
I bring it close to me. Without a deliberate wave, it doesn’t conjure sparkles. I turn it over and over. I pull a bit of magic out of my chest and tuck it under reality’s carpet and prod at the metaphysical wire.
It responds with a throbbing jolt of magic, like electricity, that crashes through my body. I shudder, and feel my soul shift to consume and assimilate the invader, overpowering it.
My magic struggles for a second, and I pull away from the wire. After a moment, my magic rights itself, and gobbles down the new threads.
They’re right. Whatever this thing actually is - it must be connected to a powerful void deity.
My stomach churns. I’m excited and wary in equal turns as I stare at the baton. Did the void deity create it themself? Was this some sort of ritual item their worshippers used? How powerful really were the void deities?
And what information had been valuable enough for this artifact to be traded to this thug?
“There are more,” they say, rousing me.
My chest tightens.
This is always the worst part.
“I’m sorry.” I reach for them, handing the baton back over. They look, briefly, crushed. “I appreciate you showing me this. But I can’t help you after you’ve been put on the list.”
“Nonsense,” they say, but their shoulders are lowered, their ears pinned back. “I’ve heard the whispers of your exploits. And what I had to pay to have you tracked down, to have a meeting arranged-”
“-I know. I’m sorry.” I open my hands placatingly. “But the list is final. I can only sneak people away before that.”
“There must be something you - I - we can do,” they’ve leaned forwards, hands clasped again. “You’re not on the list. But surely they must know of you, with how many you’ve saved? So you must know ways around it?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“So is it all a fraud, then? You’re a plant by the Councils, to give false hope? To corral those desperate enough?” their face contorts again, scrunching.
“No. I’m not a fraud.” I shake my head. “I wouldn’t need to speak to you if I were a fraud. You’d just be killed when you had arrived.”
They ponder for a moment, but their frown remains. “Then how do you remain under the noses of the Councils?”
“I move quietly, and I don’t draw more attention to myself than I need.” it’s filled with omissions, but it’s truth. A kind of double-speak, the same any criminal worth their salt would talk.
They, familiar with this, give an irritated huff regardless. “How is anyone supposed to pre-empt being put on the list, then? How many do you actually save?”
“Not many contact me in the first place. But I save everyone I can.”
“Yet you sit here and tell me I cannot be saved.” they sit up straighter, slap their chest proudly like I don’t recognize the face of renowned warlord Desdemeya Rooks, once a proud king of Layer 9104. “Tell me there is no escape. That the list is final. Well? Is it really? My people have not seen the Leader’s little twins scurrying around our hideouts yet.”
“The list is final,” I say, keeping my voice steady. “It means there will be no holds barred. You are already being hunted.”
Rage overcomes them. They stand, quick enough the chair clatters to the ground. I don’t flinch - there’s no point - but I do hesitate, waiting for them to throw the table.
They actually don’t. They just stand there, hands balled into fists, trembling, face red. I, internally, say a quick prayer of thanks.
“Then the Grand Leader-” his name spat like a slur, “-can have a little fucking taste of failure. I won’t be like the others. I’m not going to take his little twins like a fool.”
Do you even hear yourself? Do you think you’re unique? That this hasn’t been tried before? Immortality makes mortals prideful; it makes mortals stupid.
It puffs them with confidence where there isn’t any. It fills them with self-importance undeserved. It erodes their inherent urge to cherish that their life actually ends.
They reach into their coatsleeve, to a hidden dagger. I don’t bother flinching as they brandish it, still sheathed, at me.
“Do you think that baton was the only gift we brokered?” they wave the dagger even more erratically. “I will relish in their expressions when I slip this between their ribs. I will take pride in being the one to bring them to their knees - after all that they have done.”
With an almost manic grin, they pull at the hilt. The dagger unsheathes - just an inch, but an inch is enough.
The metal sucks the light out of the room. Coldness replaces every other sensation as it chews, idly, at the magic.
It’s almost lazy in its consumption, in its greed. Confident. Cold. My heart twists for a brief moment, my body tenses. It’s hard not to react - a survival response so ingrained it hurts everything in me to ignore.
They falter, knees almost buckle, almost faints - but they hold steady, teeth digging into their lower lip to stay upright. They don’t even flinch at the blood oozing down their chin.
“Oh,” is all I say, “you have some heavensunder.”
Their face pales. They stare, eyes wide, for several long seconds. Then, weakly: “You know of this metal?”
“I know enough of it, yes.”
They just stand there. I watch their mind tick, desperate, grasping at explanations.
Finally: “You must have. Have you been offered it before for escape plans?”
I don’t like lying.
The dagger clicks as it’s sheathed again. The clock ticks, once, twice, seven, twenty, sixty times before the semblance of normality begins to creep back into the air. Magic carefully pokes its head in, carefully steps back into place.
They’re still standing, though. Their shoulders are low again. They’re fiddling with a strap on the sheath, and they’re quiet.
“I will kill them,” they say, firmly, after a long moment. “Do you know what they did to my people?”
Yes, of course. Who doesn’t? It’s the same story every time. But instead, I say, “You may tell me.”
“Our neighbors were first,” they snarl, in a quiet voice. “the people of the Golden Trees. They had powerful mages, and we warred for many generations. We had brokered peace for the first time in centuries. Byiesh was an excellent queen.”
“They were first. That is where the Grand Leader’s army broke through the earth, with their terrible machines made from deepmetals and deepmagics. They claimed they negotiated, but it was no negotiation. It was demands. Of course I said no. Of course I rallied my army.”
“Sixteen thousand strong,” they say, looking up distantly and sweeping an arm, as if staring out over their soldiers again. “Armed with the finest magitech guns we had. A golden dagger strapped to each’s hip. The years of mining it took to harvest that much gold? The smiths who gave up their craft and bodies to forge them? The spouses who worked in the factories to supply our tanks? The farmers who churned crop like mad to feed them? My people’s blood, sweat, tears, lives?”
But I do nod.
“Nothing,” they spit - actually spit, on the ground. “They were nothing. Nothing at all! Less than dust. Crushed like insects. I did not laugh when I saw the army the so-called Grand Leader sent. Two mages? I had seen their machines. In truth, I was terrified. What kind of man makes machines that break through reality, but sends two mages to fight an army of sixteen thousand?”
I just sit there.
“It was a slaughter,” they say, voice quiet again. “It was a genocide. Tell me, Threadweaver, have you seen the twins’ dance? Their macabre magics?”
“Not in person.”
“They are machines, same as the great deepmetal drills. They are lifeless, soulless. They walk among people like they belong, but they are facsimiles. I will slit their fucking throats. I will fucking kill them. Hold me to my word, Threadweaver.” they look up, eyes boring into me. “How can I kill them?”
My breath stills. “I’ve no answers to that.”
“You’ve seen this metal before.” they shake the dagger. “Is it enough?”
There’s so much terror in their voice. They’re doing an excellent job of stuffing it down, but I can hear it anyways. It’s vibrating out of them on every level.
They must have tested the heavensunder, seen its power. And they still weren’t certain if it could do the deed.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m not in the business of killing.”
Everything slows down. My eyes flick to points of interest: the sheath, slowly chucked towards the floor. The dagger, poised to strike. The anger and frustration bubbling out of their face.
I understand. I really do. There is a certain feral kind of desperation that comes when one has lost everything, when one clings to vestiges and ghosts, when all one has left is a comparative ragtag band of outlaws.
My body moves, training over instinct. Hand to their neck, other hand grasp their wrist, twist arm.
They start to crumple, start to summon a spell. Knee into gut, they splutter, but concentration unbroken.
My teeth into their fingers - spell fizzes out. Blood in my mouth. They scream. Ah. I bit down too hard. I spit out their fingers.
My elbow comes to their chin with speed. It connects with a crack, and they gurgle. I check their neck by rotating it up-down. Not broken. I slam my elbow again. It crunches this time.
My fingers work the knife out of their dazed grip. Break the summoning enchantments on it. They groan.
My magic calls the sheathe to my side. I slip the dagger back in and tuck it into my cloak.
The threat is gone.
Back to reality. Clear your mind.
I close my eyes. The noise of the room returns to me: their ragged breathing, the click of the clock. Reality.
“Not in the business of killing,” they splutter, blood welling up.
I stare down at them, the pity on my face hidden by the hood. I want to say I’m sorry. But it’s meaningless words.
Still, I reach down, a hand on their neck, and heal them enough they won’t drown in their own viscera.
Their eyes are wide. Fearful. Uncertain.
I shift to move off of them. They inhale as deeply as they can, with my weight off their hips and stomach. They don’t bother trying to sit up.
That’s understandable. That’s-
My body moves before I register anything. I regain my mind a foot away from them, poised to jump further back, and stare at the golden dagger clutched by their tail.
The remains of the golden dagger. It’s been shattered by a well of magic stronger than it. All that remains is a hilt and some shards, some embedded in them. They whimper, pathetically, trembling like a leaf.
I look up. Ery is standing there, in the doorway, staring directly at me, one hand calmly outstretched. The spell he’d used to burst the dagger fizzles out of his fingers.
“YOU!” they roar, writhing. They scream something about my being a plant. Ery waves a hand and they’re silenced magically.
“Ausana.” he says.
I can’t move.
Ery’s steps echo in the room, every footfall thunder. He’s beside me in a moment, and his hand is on my shoulder, cold steel.
His face softens. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“I can’t do anything for them,” I say, almost automatic, “they’re on the list.”
“No. All of this.” he gestures to the room. “You - it’s -” he sighs.
I know it’s dangerous, I think. I know the risks I take. Isn’t it obvious that I’m willing to take them? That I think this is worth it, even if I can only save a handful?
Ery reaches into my cloak, closes fingers around the dagger. He inspects it, quietly, as if he wasn’t watching the entire interaction.
“For something outside the Shell, it’s rather... humble looking,” he says, glancing at me from the corners of his eyes. It’s almost a joke. I smile awkwardly.
He unsheathes it. The room stills for a second. Life returns when he plunges it into their chest. They scream, but they’re still silenced. Their body thrashes. Ery moves to slit their throat. Their twitching slows.
I don’t say anything as Ery stands back up, flicks the blood off the knife, slips it back in to its home. He teleports it off somewhere. Probably to his armory, next to the other heavensunder he’s collected.
“You said it yourself,” he says, not turning to face me, “they were on the list. It’s easier to get it over with here.”
“I wasn’t protesting,” I say.
Ery sighs, wing slumping. “You were thinking it.”
“I...” I swallow. “Thank you for saving me.”
“You need to be more careful. If they’d broken your illusion spell?”
“If you were going to kill them once I turned them away, does that matter?”
“They could’ve telepathy’d one of their gang members the minute they discovered who you were.” now Ery turns, prods me in the chest. “They could’ve lorded that over your head. Blackmailed you. Or told Grand Leader in return for their life.”
My tail whips involuntarily. I swallow again.
Ery’s face softens. “I just want you to be careful. And safe.”
“Honestly. That I even let you do this....” Ery crosses his arms, glances around the small room. His critical eye scans the scant furniture, the fresh corpse on the floor. He sighs, again, and drops his arms. “It doesn’t matter. Are you shaken up?”
“A little,” I say. “Just a little.”
Ery just looks at me. It’s a tired look of sorts. He wants to remind me: you knew they couldn’t be saved. You knew they were on borrowed time.
You’re as much of a murderer as I am. Don’t be so surprised. Don’t be so shaken.
But he’s being kind enough not to say any of that.
Instead, I crouch, and rummage through their shirt pockets. Ery doesn’t say anything as I slide the baton free and stand.
“They’ve had contact with void beings,” I say, showing Ery the baton. His face contorts in disgust at the sight of the thing. “This is a gift from the void. It’s connected to void deities.”
Ery tries to snatch it, but I sidestep him. His frown deepens. “Don’t touch that thing. It’s brimming with something unnatural.”
“It’s not unnatural,” I protest, “it’s a void deity. It’s something far above us. It could help us leave!”
Ery’s face says it all. ‘Not this again’.
“It’s... we could....” my chest aches, my resolve withers. “the void deities could be our way out.”
“Ausana,” he says, simply, pityingly. “Give that thing to me and let’s get back before anyone notices the decoys you left.”
No, I want to say. No. I believe in this. I believe we can make it out of here. I believe in us. I’ll take you with me, kicking and screaming, if I need to.
But my arm disobeys. It reaches out, unsteadily, fingers uncurling to present the baton. Ery takes it, carefully, still unnerved by the humble little wand. He almost teleports it away - but rethinks, and tucks it into his pocket instead.
He’ll probably put it in one of his secret armories, later, in person. Wouldn’t want to attract unwanted eldritch attention by casting a spell on it.
I can’t muster the thoughts to tell him it’s just a live wire. A forgotten, live wire. That I’d already touched it with myself, assimilated a part of it. I can picture the anger, the horror on his face if he knew.
There’s some things I shouldn’t tell him.
So I don’t.
And I say nothing as he takes my hand and leads me out of my little room, as I drop my cloak in that now-defiled place, as I release the illusion spell around my body hiding myself.
And I say nothing as we walk further and further and away from another corpse we made.