She woke, wedged into the receding shelf of a cave or crevice. She had to surmise this: she was prone, confined on all sides by what felt like roughly hewn stone, in complete blackness. It was so pitch that she was not entirely sure she was alive: aside from the stabbing confines of her encasement, she felt no way of knowing she was corporeal.
At the same time she became dimly aware of a growing glow, and a light before her face: minute, pulsating and vivid. The light spoke, soft and indecipherable. She could not understand it.
She was also no longer discomfited: as the light grew, she realized that it was the darkness itself that had immobilized her. It seemed as though she was in a large cave, so giant that there were no walls. She presumed it to be a cavern because there was no sky: it seemed the ember of starlight floating before her could only penetrate a few feet.
The tiny globe pulsated again, and she felt its voice now like a wind on her ears, brushing her mind: “Guardian, where is your ghost?”
She had no conception of these words. “Where am I?”
The orb seemed to stare at her, unsure; and as it pondered, she realized she had asked the wrong question. “Who am I?”
“Without your ghost, I cannot hope to restore your memories, Guardian.” It paused. “I cannot be sure which you are; you are so disfigured I am unsure whether or not you are of our party. Don’t touch your face!” She had begun to reach for her cheeks, but the urgency of the light arrested her hands; she sat in dread. The light continued: “I cannot be sure of your name or order, nor your rank. I cannot find my master, and fear that he has let his mania consume him. We must attempt to flee this place and repair to the tower.”
She searched for anything that might tell her where she was, or why she was there. “I have attempted to reconstruct you from the fossil of your conscious,” explained the light. “But there is no way for me to be sure you are who you were, or that your soul might be restored. You are a new being, without the tethers of memory to tie you to your past. Forfeit it to the darkness.” There was uncomfortable silence all around them, like a palpable entity: so insipid and total she was distracted by its enormity.
“Guardian!” hissed the light. “This is urgent, and you must do as I say as quickly and quietly as you can manage.” Dread and silence vibrated in the black at the edge of the light; their tiny pocket in the abyss was an inverse shadow. “We are not far from the ladder; but if I knew for certain that I could reach it alone, I would not have restored you! I require your aid; I am weak, and it required much of my strength to bring you back. You must carry me.”
The light drifted in close to her chest: she reached out her palms and it rested lightly upon them. It vibrated as its whispers touched her mind. “Take me to the ladder; seek the light and it will find you.” With a soft hum, the light sputtered, and suffocated; the darkness pressed upon her again.
“Ghost,” she whispered into the darkness, “why do they call you such a thing?”
She had crawled, hands to the sandy ground, for what felt like days; the orb of light, silent. She had broken a finger in the dark, yelped in pain as the blood flowed from her splintered nail in that black palace, and the orb had glowed awake. It had waxed and waned in the midnight of the cave with her, occasionally speaking.
“Ghost?” Its light bubbled up in the dark.
“It may be difficult to explain,” mused the ghost. “In a way I am a remnant of an incredible power, but the memory of that power is shattered and fragmented. Without knowledge of the traveler it may be impossible to explain. Maybe you could understand me to be the spirit of hope; I am the echo of a better time, a ghost of a golden age.”
“You were correct, ghost,” she muttered. “You are having some difficulty explaining.”
“If we’re fortunate, you may understand at our destination.” The ghost pulsated for a moment. “Above us! Can you see that glow?”
She had stopped already in the dust to peer at it. High above them, like lights on a tower, were what looked like torches burning in the choking black fog.
She climbed, she did not know how; it was as though the thought of going higher had laid a mountain before her, where before there was only desert plain. She realized, as she clambered up the sloping shale in that obsidian place, that she was nearing some kind of ceiling, veiled in smoke. The torches of light grew brighter as she climbed; she began to realize they were not torches at all, but portals of some kind.
“You’ve found us a way out, it seems,” said the ghost. “Steel yourself.”
She climbed until the nearest portal was just above her: a circular doorway in the sky, glowing like jade above her head. She reached out her hand to touch it. The next moment she was being sucked up through it into the light, and she gasped and gulped in air, as if she’d been under water for hours. She was wading, neck deep in a pool of black oil; she struggled to the edge of it, and dragged herself onto a tile floor.
An emerald glow hung like mist on every angle of the strange bath house. Ornate mosaics were laid on the floor, depicting strange and incomprehensible battles. There was a great eight-armed figure on the ceiling, with seven green eyes that glistened even against the exhilarating glow of the sky.
And the sky itself, as she looked out through the open arches of the bath house walls, was horrifying and beautiful. A massive, dead moon hung above her, its orbit impossible and near, its surface shattered to reveal its effervescent core; and beyond it, giant cathedral vaults hung where the stars should have been, shutting them out.
The quaking voice made her start, and she wretched around, her legs a horrific anchor, dead pinning her prone where she lay. An alter lay against the far wall of the room; and splayed upon it, strung upside down with spiked chains, was a metallic form.
“Eris, how…I saw you, slain….” As the metal frame spoke, its eyes and throat glowed.
The ghost bubbled. “It’s Eriana. She is nearly gone.”
She crept across the tile, the filmy oil streaking behind her as she crawled and dragged herself to the alter’s feet. She was face to face with the dying creature; as she came close enough, she put a wet hand on its face to comfort it.
“Eris…” the soft voice of a woman, a young woman, was hardly a whisper. “You must flee. Return to Ikora…oh Eris, what have they done to you?”
She was reminded of the Ghost’s warning to not touch her own face; the desire to trace it overwhelmed her, and she reached to it. Her cheeks were soft and wet; as she reached toward her eyes, the horrific realization came to her that the flesh was gone. At the same time she realized a mirror was set above the alter; she gazed into it, and was lost.
“Eris.” The ghost was calm in the storm of her mind.
“My face,” she murmured. The skin above her eyes had been torn from her head; three glowing eyes stared back at her from her bare, cracking skull.
“Eris, you must not succumb. You must stay with me, or others will suffer worse than this.”
She looked down at the broken robot. Its eyes were slowly fading now, and the glow of its throat was spent. “She…knew me as Eris,” she spit out in breaking sobs. “Can you tell me of my fate, ghost?”
“Indeed.” The Ghost was solemn. “I know entirely, who you are.”
“So this Toland was your master?”
It had been still when she first surfaced in the green glow of the castle, but now the wind was furious; Eris had to shout to hear her own voice.
“No need to shout, Eris.” The vibration of the voice in her mind was a comfort against the howling storm. “I can hear your thoughts better than you. A whisper will suffice.” They stole furtively from hallway to hallway, past larders filled with slimy bones, through Banquet rooms empty as new coffins. Outside the gale tore past the windows, screaming in through narrow arrowslits and whipping through the gates of the fortress.
“Toland was a great collector of artifacts and arcana. The Hive appealed to him with their insipid tomes and languages.” The ghost was weak, his breath a rasp; he vibrated, warm and fragile, in her hands. “He beguiled you and your comrades with tales of impending danger and convinced you all that your might would be enough to crush the arms of Crota; we were all deceived by his lies.”
Eris paused at the gate leading out over the battlements; the gale rifled across the rampart with terrific force, and she was certain it would blow them from the parapet, over and down to the twisting oblivion below. She turned back, and froze.
Gliding, ethereal and lithe, the translucent green form of a giant apparition paced between the doors of the long hallway behind her. She stuffed the ghost into her cloak and shrank into a corner of the doorway, hiding as best she could in the jagged outcroppings of the wall. The vibrant form floated listlessly, immune to the terrific force of the wind, seeming to fade in and then out of reality; its crowned head besotted with 3 vibrant green jewels and immense horns that fluttered like moth wings; its hanging jaw slung to its waist; emerald blood seemed to ooze from its wounded loins, leaving a filthy trail in its wake. Its enormous head was filled on all sides with eyes, perhaps fifteen or twenty in number; as though, like a fly, it could see on all sides. But the creature, sloughing on hunched legs, with scaly arms dragging behind it on the floor, was seemingly blind. It appeared to limp through the walls, vaporously fading and folding into nothing and back again.
It drifted away from her, down the long central hall where she was hiding, than halted; lifting its face to the ceiling, it stood up, erect, towering 30 feet in the air, ostensibly sensing the ether with some strange nostril; then turning to look directly at her, its glowing eyes turned black. She caught her breath up and froze, but it seemed as though the creature could see through the walls of the nook she hid in: she felt paralyzed, naked before its hypnotic gaze.
Suddenly the air around her exploded in the sundering howl of a wounded god. The wind blasted into the fortress, and around her a thousand candles blazed in sudden emerald fire. She spun around and stumbled out the door.
The wind was ferocious and wicked; she clung with her cracked fingers, feebly cloying at the short parapet of the causeway, and scrambled along the spindly rampart. The suspended trail she clambered down led to a guard tower at the fortress entrance; from there, the fortress lay on the peak of a chain of suspended mountains, jutting up from the abyss. The bridge to the fortress led out into a barbican; from there, into the façade of an even taller mountain, dwarfing the fortress and barbican both.
The horrible howl of the apparition was nearly drowned by the wind as she reached the far guard tower; she looked back to see the castle bathed in a blazing inferno of green flame. The dead planet above her was exploding in black negative, and the halls of the sky’s vaults were aflame in blinding jade. The walls of the castle were moving; she realized now they were crawling with skeletal forms, climbing over each other and scrambling towards the rampart.
“Thrall!” shouted the ghost. “Hurry!”
She reached the guard tower, wrenching free a lever to the portcullis to slam it shut as the skeletal creatures massed on the causeway beyond; the wind blasted many of them off as they attempted to cross. In the far gateway, the phantasm bayed, its enflamed being growing inside the burning fortress.
“To the gate, Eris! They will try to raise the bridge and trap us here!” She turned, down the spiraling staircase, flying as fast as she dared; the screams of her pursuers echoing up and down the hollow shell of the tower. With every sundering break of the phantasm’s howl, her eyes burned, and the horrible glow of the castle grew brighter.
She reached the floor and raced out into the giant arch of the castle gateway. The bridge, out of the courtyard of the castle and down towards the barbican, glowed with green torches; she sprinted, through the howling inferno of flame and wind, out across it. Below her the abyss opened out into the horrible void of a netherworld, impossible to comprehend: like a giant maelstrom, it seemed to constantly swallow castle and mountain alike, as if the entire foundations of the world were forever collapsing into its firmament. The dizzying drop and blasting wind nearly carried her off into that abyss; and as she reached the last paces of the bridge, the entire castle collapsed into itself behind her, disintegrating into the void and leaving a great cliff face on the edge of the barbican; as it did, the dead star turned black, and with it, Eris was engulfed in darkness.
She ran, out of the wind and into the silence of the gate-fortress, and immediately the thundering echoes of her footsteps arrested her flight. Behind her, in the suddenly distant howl of the gale, she could still discern the scream of the apparition. The dead, lightless halls of the barbican were tomblike.
“Ghost,” she whispered, afraid to move in the darkness, “What was that monster?”
“I fear I can only contemplate at what my master has said of the Hive’s pantheon.” The ghost, too, seemed to whisper, the darkness so entire she could not even see its light in her hands. “Crota. Oryx. Perhaps something more terrible. We should not loiter here.”
The black passageways were faintly lit green, and the sick realization came to her that it was the glowing embers of her three eyes that cast the light. She tore a lengthy strip from the enfolding, crimson robe beneath her cloak to cover her scalped head and luminous senses. She was surprised to find she could still see through the thick cloth.
“It seems the hive see in complete darkness,” the ghost ruminated, flitting through her thoughts.
“Perhaps they visually perceive with darkness, as we perceive with light?” Eris wondered back. The hollows of the pitch-black dungeon gleamed in photo-negative. “Where is the way out, ghost? Through the mountain?”
“We came through a portal from our world to theirs,” the ghost answered. “This is a pocket dimension of one of the Hive’s lowly gods. Other dimensions exist beyond, both further out and back to our origin. We came this way, through the prisons of Crota’s keep and up into the seat of his power, over the bridge. I believe I can lead you back.”
She traced through interminable chambers, down corridors of cells filled with rotting bones and flesh. The air was rank and fetid, the stone floor wet with slime and flitting insects. At times the ghost dwindled and fell silent, and she wandered, lost in those black halls. Always there were spiraling stairways down, always down. The ghost would wake and wonder whether these were the halls they’d walked before, and just as soon fall silent again.
He had restored what he could to her; impressions, passing conversations. He had done what he could to graft his memories upon her mind, to show her in visions what few memories of her he possessed. She had fought in battles before the spires of a great city. The last city, he had called it.
“You were a gifted tracker,” he’d recalled. “Your knives were legendary; you were known, I heard at least, to eschew the weapons of science for those of primitives.”
“Ghost…something’s been troubling me.” She hesitated, almost afraid to ask. “How did you find me, in those pits? How did you come there to begin with?”
The ghosts response was uncertain. “I was tossed away there, by my master. I long thought you dead at that time. I presume they did the same with you.” He did not seem at all confident. “There were many corpses in that place; be grateful the light was too little for you to see.”
“Where did the dead come from? I thought our party to be small?”
“We were few; only six,” replied the ghost. “The husks and shells of bodies that I found were much older and…less complete.” He hesitated; he did not seem to desire further explanation.
“Less…complete?” she stammered.
“I do not desire to be more specific. When I found you, you were more or less whole. Enough to revive. I’m not sure why they left you in such condition: the hive uses the dead of their foes for fell purpose. I have traced the remnants of many guardians I knew in the frames of the hive’s armies.”
“What horrible creatures.”
“I would not be so quick to judge,” he replied, warily. “I heard tales that Eris Morn was known to hide, dressed in the corpses of her enemies, to lay in ambush for their mourning dead.”
There was silence for a time. She had another thought that burned in her mind.
“Ghost…how did you not recognize me? My clothes at least would be the same.”
“Those…are not the clothes you came here in.” He paused, turned somber. “From what my master showed me of the rituals of summoning, that their witches had performed in ages past…I understand them to be sacrificial vestments. For the summoning of their Kings, as they traverse between dimensions.” He would not speak further on the subject.
Time was incomprehensible in the netherworld. There was no sun, nor stars to begin with, much less to be seen in the dungeons of Crota. Eventually a stairway gave way to a floor of dirt, not stone. “We’ve reached the abyssal gate of this world,” whispered the ghost. “It won’t be far to–“
The words were cut short by a horrible howl from above, but this one was not like the phantasm’s; it was pained, tortured. Human. Eris crouched, looking back up the stair.
“Eris, don’t!” whispered the ghost. “We must escape if we are to warn–“
“Which is it!?” Eris hissed, rounding on him. “Which of us would still be fighting, broken, even now?”
“It’s Omar.” The ghost was morose, resigned. “I know it in his voice, for I heard it before my master cast me down; but how he could he still live, now…? It is a trap, Eris.”
But she had already turned back, flown up the stairs and back through those wet passages. The scream came again, from above; and with each fresh shriek, and each furtive stride closer, strange light grew in the ensuing chambers. She flew fast and far, a silent apparition of vengeance; down long hallways, the source of the glow intensified. Horrible echoes muddled with strange sutras, like a horrible chorus chanting in a nightmare. Down a final corridor, the source of the light emanated in the torches of a forlorn cell.
She rested just beyond the light, in the doorway: furtively, she looked inside. Stretched on a rack, arms and legs chained, was the shuddering, skeletal musculature of the screaming man; his wet flesh glistened, skinless and steaming; writhing in pain, splayed by his cruel bonds. Around him in a ghastly circle, ragged skeletal forms chanted a horrid mantra; they were bedecked in ornate raiment, bearing cleavers and wet carvers bathed in red blood. Hovering above him, silent and mercurial, was the ragged form of a hag, floating, weightless, like a horrible Sea Nettle, circling. The witch poured tendrils of black liquid from two vessels in its hands, down onto the exposed muscles of its wretched prisoner, and as the steaming liquid hissed and evaporated on his form he screamed in agony.
The ensuing moments were a blur. Fury boiled in her eyes, white hot tears mixed with the enraged cry of her voice. She was the flash of a shadow in the chamber: her hands found their cleaving knives, then knives found eyes and teeth, throats and bones amongst the circling deviants; the witch turned to throw its black acid too late, as Eris leapt up, grabbing its face, driving the nails of her thumbs deep into its brain. They collapsed on the ground, the blind witch writhing as Eris stabbed its face, thoughtless, blood-blind.
She came to: covered in ash and smeared in black oil, the dead form beneath her disfigured and unrecognizable. The chamber was silent. She turned to Omar, his splayed form trembling, his exposed musculature drying.
“The oil,” the ghost intoned silently, “or acid, it must have been preserving his organs even as it burned them.” She crept to Omar’s side, his form heaving with anguished breath, his lidless eyes raised to her.
“Eh-hihh?” His unintelligible whisper was pitiful; his lipless, tongueless mouth could barely put shape to his breath. She looked about, through tear strained eyes, for cloth or water to salve his frame; but all that came to her gaze were nails, hammers, and iron armor.
“They would make further disciples of our rent forms,” she choked out, impotently. “They attempted this…they tried to…on me….”Her voice failed her where she stood, hopeless above his broken body. “Oh Omar.” She put her hands on his exposed eyes, to cover them. “Forgive me, Omar.”
They left in silence, as quietly as they came.
“We’re nearing the portal.” The ghost’s voice was deadened and flat; it was the first either had spoken since leaving the cell. As she groped down through the caves, the air grew thinner, and a new kind of light came up through the glistening underworld of wet limestone columns; vibrant, colorless, permeating everything. The sandy dirt smoothed to stone beneath her feet; the world became translucent, as the light grew, until it was blinding.
“Now you must trust my eyes,” said the Ghost, somehow in front of her. He sounded like he spoke from some distance, far away, and she struggled to follow his voice. The air was so full of white light now that she could not even see her hands.
“Where are we?” she shouted after him.
“In the fissure between dimensions. We’re almost through, keep running!”
Shapes began to form out of the light as she chased him: great crystalline formations, like giant diamonds, jutted up from the stone floor at jagged angles. Then the light fell away, and she was running on a great bridge, across a vast black expanse below. The air was thinner still.
“Are we on Luna?” she yelled.
“Up here!” He called. She could see him floating on the far side of the bridge, moving under his own power. He seemed refreshed; his voice was the strongest she’d heard it. “We’ve reached the abandoned staging ground of Crota’s last invasion.” They were in a vast cavern. Towering rock formations led up to a ceiling, far above, invisible in the darkness.
“If we are on Luna…how will I breath, on the surface?” The idea had been troubling her. It was already difficult to breath.
“What atmosphere there is in these caves seems to be supporting you now. Beyond this place, you’ll have to trust me,” the ghost offered, dryly. “I can preserve your light just as your ghost did, but you’ll expire on the surface before I can bring our ship to the hellmouth.”
“Not exactly the most appealing prospect,” she replied. “I will remember you if you do, won’t I?”
“Sarcasm aside, it’s something I’ve done numerous times, and I’m confident I’ll be able to restore you as you are now,” the ghost rejoindered. “Unless you’d like me to leave you alone down here?”
“Expiring sounds preferable,” she smirked half-heartedly.
They made their way through the murk of the abyss as the light faltered, then failed, behind them. The broken path leading through walled garrisons and abandoned sentry posts was a whisper or suggestion in the choking black air. The cave was mawkish and thick with humid soot. Far overhead, strange lights hung like stars in a dead sky.
“More portals?” she asked the ghost.
“Their network sprawls across the moon. They had retreated of late, but I fear our incursion may spur their activity.” They crossed pools of oil and navigated huge pits that shot down for miles. A light grew in the distance, and as they approached, the columns supporting the great chamber became less ordered, more jagged and natural. “That’s the path out,” the ghost whispered.
They crawled down embankments, sloshing through pools of brackish black slime. The portal out was a pedestal, gleaming in a broad beam of sunlight, alone in the abyss. Eris stood up upon it as it glowed to life.
“You’re sure I’ll remember, ghost?” She smiled as she asked, and to her it seemed the ghost smiled back.
“Nothing to fear, I’m quite confident you’ll–“
He stopped, staring directly over her shoulder; as she spun around, a figure loomed from the black, just outside the bright ray of sunlight where she stood. Its face was the ragged face of a silver-haired man; once he may have been handsome, but now his features were stretched and misshapen, as if he’d been stuffed by some cruel taxidermist. Long, spindly, malformed fingers stretched down from distended hands that fell nearly to the ground, hooked to gangly, rippling arms, as if snakes writhed beneath their surface; the undulating trunk of his freakish frame hovered, swathed in wet crimson robes, like bandages, while rivened and mangled flesh sloughed down where his legs should have been, swaddled in the torn remnants of his vestments. The abomination seemed to float there, half man and half monster in the half-light, strange shadows sneering on its horrific face, as it leered with a ghastly smile.
“Toland!” stammered the ghost. “How…? What are you!?”
“Now, now, child of light, is that a way to greet your once master?” The creature spoke in a whistling, hollow rasp, its voice somehow thin and booming at the same time, as if two voices spoke in unison. Sound escaped before its lips began to move, words coming too soon for the mouth that was forming them. Its eyes bulged from its head, oozing black fluid. It turned to Eris. “And you, our queen, is it so soon you would part from your devoted? We chose you, our sweet monarch, for our own divine purpose!” It came forward, arms raised in supplication, then lurched back from the light; it moved as though on strings, circling round them like a giant moth, as though some horrible machination propelled it back and forth at the edge of the light’s reach.
“What are you, wretch?” hissed Eris, crouching, knives out. “What purpose would you have to ply me with my dead comrade? You are not Toland!”
“Oh no?” the sickening aspect of the voice whistled, a second too soon for the marionette’s lips. It spread its frail fingers out in an enormous span, as if to offer open arms for her to embrace. “You do not remember us, who opened your eyes to this transcendent passage? We chose you expressly, sweet Eris; you were to be our gift, our prize!” The corpse wobbled; it seemed to fear the light, to strive against it, rounding the light for a way in. “The mystic claimed he could bring you to us; he wanted only to sing the dirges of our realm, to understand our living tongue, not this dead language that you speak!” It seemed to move further into the light as it spoke; or the light shrank from it. “We were happy to give him all he asked, if he only brought one such as you to us. We have seen you in visions at the genesis of our age!”
“And some reward you’ve given him,” she spat back, edging backward as the creature advanced. “Did he beg you to disembowel him as well?”
“Such was the price he paid when you escaped,” it clucked back. “We thought for certain you were lost but joy alone is in our heart to see you again!” It lurched forward, its outstretched claws grasping nearly within reach of her.
“Ghost, take us back!” screamed Eris. She shrank backward from the monster, too close to the darkness: behind, the evil hands of Toland’s puppeteer reached out of the black for her. Horrid emerald fingers grabbed around her face, digging into her eyes. White pain shot through her head as onyx claws extinguished her green orbs, black blood jetting out from the sockets with a hiss into the air. The world was black, and she cried out in anguish and agony, drowned out by the sudden, sundering wail of the abomination. Then she felt herself being snatched upward, torn from that horrible grip: with a blind rush the air dissipated as her scream became the hiss of evaporate and she gasped and breathed nothing and collapsed and the sound of the vacuum rushed about her exploding eardrums. Then she was dead.
The voice was warm and deep, and in the darkness she felt fresh air and life around her. She heard soft breezes blowing in through an open window, felt the same wind like breathe on her cheeks, and outside the whistle of crickets and a wren lifted her spirits. The voice of Ikora hung over her, half a song of joy and sorrow. “It’s good to have you back this morning.”
“Am I dead?” asked Eris. It was more a plea than a question, and she could feel in the darkness that Ikora took it for the former. Her voice was regret and pity.
“We did what we could to restore you,” she offered. “But I’m afraid we couldn’t repair all of your injuries.” Eris turned away from the sympathetic voice.
“You did what you could, Ikora,” she sobbed. She listened to the birdsong out the window. The sound of Ikora’s departure was muffled by a soft hum near her ear.
“Tell me, ghost,” she spoke softly. “You were there with Toland and you knew his thoughts.”
“What do you require, Eris.”
“Tell me. Tell me of Crota.” Her voice was a growl in the dark. “Tell me all you know.”