Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 


Chapter 12.
A Matter of Time

The world was still green, but it no longer seemed quite as good. Once again Harmona stood atop the Hearthtower watching the sun rise over the worldforest. Three of the six moons were out of sight, the other three pale as bone against the blue sky.

The armor crafted for her by Artisan Therol was lighter and more comfortable than she’d expected. Plates of silvery metal fit snugly upon her legs, torso, and arms. The intricacy of the overlapping scale-plates was stunning. There was no time among the armorers for indulgent decoration, but Therol had engraved the tower-symbol of HearthHome on Harmona’s breastplate. The suit was light as leather yet strong as steel.

“We call it etherium,” the artisan told her. “Following the guidance of the StoneFathers and using ores from the deepest catacomb, we’ve created an alloy of fantastic durability. And it will fit our soldiers as lightly as a second skin.”

The next batch of swords would be made from etherium as well. By that time every one of the 450 soldiers inside HearthHome would complete their training. All of the martial skills they had acquired during the last few weeks would need to be adapted and re-learned by men and women wearing armor. Yet after donning her own set of scale-plate, Harmona realized that the nature of etherium–strong but light–would not require as much adjustment as she had imagined. Perhaps a week more of training, now that everyone was armored.

She leaned on the black staff and observed the spread of HearthHome’s walled environment. From atop the central tower she could see nearly everything except the Inner Sanctum, which lay directly below the main tower. The Great Hall stretched forward from the base of the tower like a great cylinder turned on its side. A maze of walled gardens and orchards surrounded it in all directions, although most of the produce had been picked clean in preparation for siege rations. The four Towers of Lore stood to the north, south, east, and west, miniature versions of Hearthtower with peaked domes at their summits.

From the south rim of the towertop she looked upon the Grand Amphitheatre and the sculpted landscapes of the Outer Courtyard. Now her eyes rose to the great wall that encircled the entire citadel. Men gathered near the watchtowers or paced along the walls, keeping eyes open for the latest Yicori incursion. The black oil was gathered in vats along the wall at precise intervals, and the watchfires burned day and night.

The gardens of the Inner Courtyards had been cut back to half their size in order to create a training yard ran by Captains Duval, Macre, Andolir, and Fedgemont. Even at this early hour the clang of swords and shields filled the air, rising from that great concentration of discipline and sweat. Not so long ago Harmona could stand up here and listen to the wild symphony of birdsongs. Now the clangor of steel and etherium, along with the grunting and shouting of determined warriors, drowned out any other sounds.

Since the first assault of the Yicori upon the wall, sentries had driven them away three more times. No human lives were lost thanks to the burning oil that scorched the apelings from the walls. The Outer Wall was blackened on every side, but the stone stood strong.

Harmona peered beyond the high walls into the depths of the woodland. The Yicori were out there somewhere and in greater numbers than ever. The last two wall attempts had come only two days apart. The Yicori were growing more brave as the main force of their horde assembled. She imagined them out there among the massive tree roots, drooling and snarling, craving the flesh and blood that lay just beyond the big wall. But where were they? She saw no sign of them in the morning light.

They came from the trees…

Of course. They couldn’t be seen from up here because they weren’t travelling on the ground, moving through open meadows, crossing streams, topping hillocks. They hid in the branches of Gaeya’s great trees, moving between them like oversized apes. As far as anyone could tell, they only came down to feed. She scanned the treetops closest to the Outer Wall and watched the sea of leaves rustle in the wind.

There. The wind wasn’t very strong today, but some of the trees quivered, their leaves fluttering in half-seen patterns. Patterns of movement. Harmona walked the entire rim of the Hearthtower, scanning the tops of the trees. Invisible currents moved among the branches in every direction as far as she could see. The trees outside the walls were full of Yicori. She couldn’t see their shaggy, brutish bodies, or their veiney, oblong skulls, but now their presence was obvious.

There were thousands of them out there.

A familiar anger rose in her throat. She cursed the StoneFathers for not telling her this day would come. She thought of her daughters, safely nestled inside the Inner Sanctum with the rest of the children. If the outer defenses fell and the walls were breached, there would be no way to save them. If total defeat threatened, she could take a small group of them through the Hidden Gate, but they’d be marooned on the Thoroughfare. Not much of an improvement over death.

“Damn you, Wail.” Where was the bastard when she so desperately needed his help? Would he even help if he were here? He was a tool of the StoneFathers, serving their will because he had nothing else left. So perhaps it made no difference.

Now that she could see how great the Yicori horde truly was, she couldn’t wait another week. They were sitting out there in every tree, and it was only a matter of time until they came pouring over the wall from all directions at once. Would the flaming oil work when that happened? They’d run out of it before they burned away half the horde.

Her soldiers were armed and armored. The Yicori expected them to sit in here and wait for the inevitable slaughter. So maybe it was time to do the unexpected. Time to put the strength of metal blade and silver skin to the test. To defend these children with nowhere safe to go.

She marched down the spiral stair with a giddy sense of purpose. At the same time her stomach rebelled, but she refused to allow its sickness. She paused at her quarters to pick up the etherium helmet Therol had made for her. It framed her face with pointed wedges at both cheeks and one above the nose. The helm’s crest was a Gaeyan condor spreading metal wings, its eyes set with a pair of black jewels.

With helm and staff on display she walked through the sanctum into the training yard. Duval and a fellow captain noticed her from across the field of dueling men. They all wore the glittering scale-plate armor now. Their helmets were less ornate than the HearthMother’s, each one topped with a spiked crest. Their shields bore the sigils of the Hearthtower and condor. There were three hundred armored men and half that number of women. More women would be training right now if they weren’t pregnant. The matrons now served as caregivers for all the citadel’s children.

Another reason to do what must be done today.

“HearthMother.” Duval greeted her formally, lowering himself to one knee, helmet in the crook of his arm. He was striking in the silver armor, and the triple-scar on his face could not ruin his natural handsomeness. His hair and beard had grown longer, most likely to cover his scars. She knew he felt some embarrassment about his torn face, but the wound had earned him respect and credibility with the defenders of HearthHome. There was no other captain regarded as highly, and none of the others spent so much time advising Harmona.

If this place had a king, it would have to be you, Duval.

“Captains,” she greeted them formally and loudly. “Soldiers of HearthHome! Sons and Daughters of Gaeya!”

One by one, each pair of sparring partners broke off their duels. They removed helms and gauntlets, giving her their attention. Someone kneeled, and that started the rest of them to kneeling. She hadn’t expected that either, and it almost made her weep. She let the new-lit fire in her belly burn away that weakness.

“I have stood atop the Hearthtower this morning and seen our enemy surrounding us on every side.” Men’s eyes darted nervously, and women regarded her with grim expressions. “As your leader I have reached a decision. You can see that I, like you, am dressed for war. Your blades gleam with the brightness of our hearthfires, and your eyes burn with courage. The time has come to fight for your homes and your children. Are you ready to fight?”

The soldiers cheered as one, raising swords and shields above their heads. Duval stared at her. She had not discussed this with him, but there was no time. The enemy was at the gate, .

“The Yicori are hiding in the treetops,” she said. “They haven’t seen our bright armor yet, though some have tasted our blades. And our flame.” She raised the black staff and green fire flared at its head. Another cheer from the onlookers. Others now were stopping to watch her address the troops, including a trio of curious LoreKeepers.

“The time for waiting and training is over,” Harmona said. Her voice rang from the stone walls. “The Yicori are here and we must not let them swarm our walls. They fear our flame already. Now we must teach them to fear us.”

Another cheer. An excitement ran through the armored ranks. Hearts were beating faster. Harmona could almost hear them pounding beneath etherium breastplates. She was playing a role, like she used to do with the Rude Mechanicals. But this role was that of an avenging queen, a goddess of war. She must play it to perfection, and she was ready. No more waiting and fretting. Time to act.

“Today is the day, my friends! Now! Let us take up our swords, open our gate, and march out to meet the enemy. Let us spill Yicori blood across the rich black earth, take their heads to line our walls! Make them fear us! Cut them down!”

The soldiers cheered and wailed and saluted her. She turned to Duval, who looked concerned and confused. “Assemble them at the front gate in fifteen minutes,” she said. “We’re taking the fight to the Yicori.”

“Are you certain?” Duval asked. His blue eyes bored into her own. Suddenly she missed Dorian, an unexpected stab of pain. Or guilt. But she had no time for such things.

“It’s time,” she said.

The captains began barking orders and the transition from practice-yard to full formation began. The clanging of metal and the shouted bravado of men filled the yard. She stood before the front gate, waiting for the captains to get their men into place. She spoke with the gate captain and advised him to open the gates wide enough for three men at a time to run through, but no more. While the soldiers poured out, there would be no room for Yicori to leap inside, but the gate must be closed immediately after the last soldiers passed through it.

Duval and the captains insisted on leaving a third of their force inside the walls as reserves. That meant 300 soldiers under twelve captains would follow Harmona into the chaos beyond the gate. The gate captain gave Harmona a curved horn that would signal a retreat, although Duval carried one just like it. Until the master of the gate heard that signal, it would remain closed.

StoneFathers preserve us.

Duval gave the call, and gatesmen cranked the winch that opened the great stone doors. A blast of forest air, earthy and fragrant, rushed into the courtyard. Every second the gap grew wider and wider, and every second Harmona feared to see a mass of Yicori pouring through the gap. Harmona held her breath until the gates stood wide enough for three people to pass through it shoulder-to-shoulder. Then she ran headlong into the green shadows with Duval on her left and Macre on her right.

They ran between gnarled tree-roots and clusters of giant ferns. Here and there rays of sunlight fell through the canopy, and sprinkles of pollen glimmered on the air like faerie dust. Yet the forest was quiet. The shouts of men and women running in armor and waving weapons at unseen foes faded to an eerie calm as the gate rumbled shut behind them. The entire company stood outside now, in the killing fields below the great trees. Where was their enemy? Harmona studied the high branches. Her eyes couldn’t penetrate the canopy very far. There might be a thousand Yicori moving into position up there completely unseen.

“I can smell them,” Duval said. “There’s a reek on the wind.”

Men stood with shields and swords at the ready. Eyes scanned left and right, then up, always up. Waiting. Ready to kill, or to die. It began as a slight trembling in the branches. Then a shower of moss and leaves began to fall on the ranks.

“Stay within sight of the gate!” Harmona yelled. “Don’t get lost in the trees. They’re coming!”

“They move quietly,” said Duval, “until they strike.” The horror in his eyes was one of memory, not expectation. He was reliving the attack that killed Dorian and marred his face. She sensed his anger rising like a fever.

“Come and get it you bastards!” someone shouted. Someone else howled a war cry, and if he’d carried a spear instead of a sword he probably would have launched it into the branches.

Harmona raised her black staff. A blast of green flame shot from it and rocketed through the tree canopy. It left a vertical shaft of scorched leaf and wood, and the flames spread into the trees themselves. Now the howls of Yicori filled the forest, and they dropped from the trees like shaggy white boulders.

They grabbed men and dashed them against the tree trunks, wrapped their fanged mouths about arm and leg, slashed with crooked talons. The initial onslaught might have destroyed the company two weeks ago, but the armored men bounced off the trees and raised their swords. Those with enemies gnawing at their limbs drove blades through the eyes and into the brains of the Yicori. The beasts’ fangs and claws could not pierce the etherium armor, but their blows could still knock men off their feet.

Silver metal sank deep into matted fur, sliced open distended bellies. Duval split a beast’s ovoid skull, spilling its brains across the ferns. Harmona blasted a Yicori full in the face with her flamestaff. It lumbered at her through the gout of burning emerald as if it were no more than a spray of harmless water. Yet its fur caught fire, and when it came close enough to grab her there was no flesh left on its blackened skull.

Three times she was knocked down by the claws of the brutes, and three times she responded with a fatal blast of fire. She carried a sword, but it was largely a symbol. She hadn’t had time to get comfortable using it. Her staff was far more formidable, and it too was a symbol of her leadership. A raving Yicori ripped a man’s arm from its socket, and the first spray of human blood littered the battlefield.

She burned the arm-ripper to a crisp. The bleeding man howled and clutched at his ruined shoulder. She couldn’t do anything for him, so turned to face the next rushing Yicori, launching a bolt of flame down its throat. She heard another man die in agony, then another. The Yicori had figured out how to break their enemies apart like shellfish, tearing off their limbs one by one.

Heaps of dead and dying Yicori filled the glade, yet now the bodies of men and women began to join them. Duval killed one beast after another, and most of the warriors followed his example. But the initial shock of their superior arms had worn off, and the Yicori were adapting quickly. More of them dropped from the trees. Their greater numbers meant eventual retreat or annihilation for the defenders of HearthHome. Harmona’s soldiers could only stay out here so long. How many dead men would it take to make her or Duval sound the horn of retreat? She had no time to count the bodies as she moved about, casting flames where they were needed.

The Yicori kept dying, but more of them kept on coming. At least a hundred shaggy corpses lay across the glade. There were maybe a dozen dead men and women. Harmona remembered her daughters inside the sanctum, afraid and probably wondering if their mother would make it back. She had to keep fighting for them. This was no time for weakness. Her people were dying, yes, but they were killing far more Yicori. Eating away at the beasts’ numbers, one sword-stroke, one flame-bolt at a time.

The black staff grew hot in her hands, and she had to drop it. She could not command the staff’s energies unless her bare skin touched it, so she had not worn gauntlets. Yicori blood stained her etherium scales crimson. It leaked down her face from the condor crest. She pulled the sword from its scabbard and met the next charging Yicori. The monster scooped her up in its arms, like a bear might hug its prey, and she looked into its impossible eyes. Planets and stars swum in tiny constellations within those pitch-black orbs. Its tiny snout of a nose gaped redly, and beneath that was a fanged maw large enough to snap the head right off her shoulders.

Tearing herself away from its eyes, she drove the sword point-first through its breastbone until the tip emerged from its hairy back, dripping a syrupy crimson. In its death throes the creature tossed her away, and she crashed against a tree bole. Her sword went flying into the underbrush, and she fell into a mass of tangled roots. There was pain, but no broken bones thanks to the armor. She straightened the helm on her head and realized she had no weapon.

A new wave of Yicori dropped from the trees. Duval stepped in front of Harmona, and a leaping brute smashed into his shield. It drove him and her back against the tree, snarling and snapping at his shield. Duval thrust his blade into the beast’s mouth, piercing the back of its oversized head. It fell away from them, and Duval turned to check her condition.

“I’m all right,” she said.

“They are too many,” he said. “We’ve got to withdraw while this is still a victory.”

The reek of the slaughter hit Harmona all at once. The smell of blood and guts and feces mingled into an aroma of death. Turning away from Duval, she wretched into the mud.

“HearthMother!” Captain Fedgemont brought her the black staff, which was still warm to the touch. Like everything else it was stained with Yicori blood.

So many Yicori had come down from the trees that while some continued fighting others fought among themselves to devour the corpses of soldiers. The turning point had come. Duval was right.

She blew a clear, loud note on the horn while Duval and Fedgement defended her. It rang through the treetops and bounced off the citadel walls, echoing through the worldforest. Even the Yicori paused for a moment, unused to hearing such an odd sound on their world. Perhaps they thought it was the cry of some giant predatory bird about to swoop down and join the killing.

All those who could do so broke off their engagements and fled for the gate. The Yicori snatched fleeing men and tore them apart. Getting back to the citadel’s entrance required a wall of flame from Harmona’s staff. Her palms were blistered from its heat by the time she reached the gate. It stood open once again, enough for three-at-a-time to pass inside.

Soldiers in red-stained armor rushed through the gate. Some carried the wounded between them, while others formed a human barrier to support the retreat. Now the deaths came quicker. Harmona wept as the cost of a successful retreat dawned on her. She rushed away from the gate, weaving nets of green flame among the slavering brutes. Men rushed on either side of her, heading for the gap. She would have stayed there and died for them if Duval hadn’t grabbed her about the waist and carried her through gate.

Her last glimpse of the field was a red tangle of Yicori and human bodies. Fresh packs of apelings dropped now to feast on the dead. One soldier was still alive in the red chaos, crawling toward the gate that was already swinging closed. Harmona reached for him, but Duval pulled her back and the door was almost shut. The crawling man had no legs, but he refused to die. A Yicori leaped on him, lifted him high, and tore off his head.

A few shaggy claws were shoved through the gap, but the closing gate sliced each of them off. They fell twitching and bleeding in the courtyard. The smell of death was in the courtyard now; it had slipped in when the Yicori failed to.

Those inside looked to Harmona with filth-smeared faces, their fine armor tarnished with gore, some of them biting back the pain of open wounds. She took off her helmet and lifted the steaming black staff in her throbbing fist. Her face was a mess of tears and blood, but she didn’t care.

“Now…” Her voice gave out. She cleared her dry throat. “Now they fear us!”

The soldiers cheered and waved their bloody swords in the air. Some of them grabbed the sliced-off Yicori claws and brandished them as tokens of victory. The captains led the company into the Great Hall, where wine and physicians waited for them. A light, steady rain fell across the worldforest, quenching the fires the black staff had started.

Harmona washed her face in a public fountain and waited for Duval’s report.

“Fedgemont didn’t make it,” he said. They shared a bottle of sharpberry wine in the courtyard. Neither of them felt like joining the survivors yet, and neither of them had taken a serious wound.

“How many others?” Harmona asked.

“Twenty-six dead,” Duval said. “Twice that number of wounded. Yet without the armor and weapons of the StoneFathers every one of us would be dead. We did well today, Harmona. You did well.”

His blue eyes sparkled, and she looked away. The face of the crawling legless man lingered in her mind. She couldn’t recall his name.

“Too many deaths,” she said.

“No,” said Duval. “Less than ten percent casualties, and most of the wounds aren’t severe. This was a victory.”

Harmona laughed as she cried. She wasn’t exactly sure which one started first.

“Twenty-six dead and you call it a victory?”

Duval moved closer to her. He took her blistered hands into his own. “You need to see the physicians,” he said. “Get some balm for this.”

“I will,” she said.

“Harmona.” She turned to face him, closer than she’d ever been to his lips and his strong, square jaw. “No war can be won without losses. We killed at least two hundred of those things today. Two hundred Yicori! That means we killed ten times more than we lost. We are ten times more deadly than them. The next battle we will fight even harder, and we’ll know that we can win. Today you did what I never expected, and it’s restored the faith of everyone here. We have hope now, something we sorely need. We made them fear us.”

Harmona shook her head. “No, I don’t think they fear us at all. They’re too dumb for that. We have simply learned how to kill them. Now you tell me we’ll get even better at it. We have changed from hunters to killers, and we’ll never be the same.”

Duval smiled. “At least we’ll be alive.”

Harmona almost embraced him, but she pulled away at the last second.

“Thank you,” she said, wishing the words meant something more.

“I can see now how we’ll have to fight this war,” Duval said. “We’ll keep going out to meet them until we’ve slain them all. If we can learn to do this while keeping our casualties to a minimum–”

“We still don’t know how many are there,” she said. “They could swarm over the walls, five thousand, ten thousand of them at once. What’s to stop them?”

Duval had no answer. “Perhaps the StoneFathers can tell us their numbers?” he said. “Give us a better idea what we’re facing. What do you think?”

“It’s worth asking,” she said. “After I take off this armor and wash the filth from my hair. Tomorrow there will be funerals for those lost today. I’ll speak to the StoneFathers tonight.”

“I’ll go with you–”

“No,” she said. “Meet me at the eleventh hour. We will talk. Sleep won’t come easy tonight.”

She left him there and went to find warm water, fresh robes, and bandages for her hands.


The StoneFathers were waiting for her. The eyes and mouths of all thirty-nine faces glimmered with soft light. They had been doling out secrets and wisdom for weeks now to LoreKeepers and Artisans. Her initial anger at their lack of honesty had kept her away until today.

“Do you see how mighty we’ve made you?” said the face of the Seventeenth Father.

“The etherium has made you invulnerable,” said the Fifth.

“And deadly,” said the Sixth.

“Twenty-six more people died today,” Harmona said. “Were they part of your plan too?”

“You led them into battle,” said the Seventeenth Father. “Yet you blame us for their deaths?”

“I did only what you forced me to do,” she said. Her anger was back, burning in her palms beneath the clean bandages. “Can you tell me how many there are? I need the exact numbers of the Yicori. It will help our strategies.”

“As we have said, this is the last tribe of Yicori,” said the Ninth Father.

“There can’t be more than three thousand,” said the Twenty-Fifth.

“Possibly quite a bit less,” said the Thirty-Ninth.

“You killed two hundred today,” said the Seventeenth. “You make us proud.”

“Do not be proud!” Harmona said. “Do not take pride in our killing to survive. Do not take pride that you trapped us and forced us to fight for a home. Rather you should be ashamed. More will die as we continue to fight. And if you’re right in your estimations, we are still outnumbered ten to one.”

“We understand,” said the Seventeenth. “Your Artisans are preparing even now to forge the first blades of etherium. They will slice quicker and deeper. Your next battle will see twice as many Yicori slain.”

“And twice as many of us dead? Fifty deaths the next time? A hundred the time after that? Is that the heart of this mad game? We keep killing and killing and in the end its all just numbers.”

“We predict ultimate casualties in the forty to sixty percent range, with total victory as the end result,” said the Ninteenth Father. A bat flew out of the tangled moss hanging from his chin.

“Sixty percent?” Harmona took a deep breath. “That’s at least two hundred more people dead. Acceptable losses? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“In the greater scheme of things, yes,” said the Seventeenth.

The thirty-nine stone faces stared at her in silence. They never blinked.

“Tell her,” said the First.

“Go on, tell her the rest,” said the Ninth.

The Seventeenth Father groaned, a sound like a disturbance deep in the earth.

“The transition is already underway,” said the Seventeenth, “therefore it can do no harm. You have earned a greater portion of the truth.”

Harmona waited. Would they give her the whole story this time or keep telling her only what she needed to know. She tried not to think about hundreds more dead bodies in bloodied silver, or packs of Yicori devouring them raw.

“Long ago, as your breed reckons the flow of time,” said the Seventeenth, “we built an empire of worlds. We cast a matrix of immortal stone across a network of parallel dimensions. We gathered Affinities in their thousands and wove them together. The folk of these worlds served us for eons.”

“The Nexus,” Harmona said. A road between worlds made of imperishable stone. Of course it was the StoneFathers who had made the Thoroughfares. Who else could it have been? Wail had always called them something else. The Ministere de Stone.

“We ruled this network of worlds from our home at the center of the Nexus, a place known to you as the Urbille,” said the Seventeenth. “Lesser empires grew beneath us, and empires within empires, yet the whole of it served our interests. Civilizations arose and fell, but the Empire of Stone persisted, a cosmic constant bringing order to a chaotic universe.”

“Until the day when our nemesis arose where we least expected it,” said the Twelfth Father. “An advanced race of great power invaded our Nexus.”

“Like a virus,” said the Third Father.

“With arcane powers they set loose the forces of entropy that we had dammed for so long,” said the Seventeenth. “A wave of cosmic disruption swept across the Empire of Stone, devastating world after world, spreading the disease of apocalypse from reality to reality. They brought us low. We survived only by separating ourselves from space and time.”

“Long and long again it has taken us to reestablish ourselves within the Nexus,” said the Fifteenth Father. “The Urbille is rightly ours, and we will take it back.”

“Our conquerors stole it from us along with the remains of our scattered empire,” said the Seventeenth. “They took the Nexus and all its worlds, only to war among themselves for the next ten thousand years. Their neglect allowed the worlds of the Nexus to fall further into ruin. Their nature was to be vicious, and they slaughtered themselves in stellar conflagrations, until only a handful were left to rule a crumbling transdimensional empire.”

“These last few conquerors became known as the Potentes of Urbille,” said the Sixth, “and they have reigned over the Nexus far too long now. They are few, but their powers are still great. So we have waited, plotted, whispered, appointed our champions, and made our designs upon these Potentates.”

“The Urbille and the Nexus will once again belong to us,” said the Seventeenth Father. “Your people, whom we have rescued from living death, are making this possible.”

“I don’t understand,” Harmona said. “What do the Yicori have to do with the Potentates of Urbille?”

“Patience, little one,” said the Seventeenth. “There is more to reveal.”

“You know that the Yicori are flesh-eaters,” said the Fifteenth Father. “You see how they crave the taste of human meat. Wail has told you the Potentates are carnivores, has he not?”

“He has…”

“The Potentates feed on human flesh that is cast aside during the Conversion process,” said the First Father.

“Their Harvesters gather fresh meat from across the Affinities,” said the Second. “And the population of the Urbille swells ever greater with clockwork replacement bodies. Nobody in the city has an inkling that the fair flesh they were so eager to escape goes to fill the bellies of the Potentates. This is the truth that Wail discovered, and it’s the truth that drove him mad. Yet it drove him to us, and we made him sane again. Gave him a purpose.”

“I know this,” Harmona said. “All of us do. It’s why we agreed to leave the Urbille. And now we find another species that wants to devour us.”

“No,” said the Ninteenth. “Not another species.”

“One and the same,” said the First Father.

Harmona felt dizzy.

“The Yicori that you face here on Gaeya,” said the Seventeenth Father, “are of the same bloodline as those who call themselves the Potentates of Urbille. In fact, the shaggy ones are the direct ancestors of the highly evolved Potentates.”

“Yicorithicus Minor,” said the Sixth Father, “evolves into Yicorithicus Major over the course of several million years.”

“Yicorithicus Major are the Potentates,” said the Seventeenth. “The brutes you fight on this world are Yicorithicus Minor. They will evolve into our nemesis, those who stole our empire.”

“If they are allowed to live,” said the Ninth Father.

“Your people are cutting out the roots,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father, “so that the tree of evil never grows.”

“But how?” Harmona asked. “How are we fighting the distant ancestors of the Potentates millions of years before they evolve into cosmic conquerors? How is that possible?”

“It is in the nature of the Hidden Gate,” said the Twenty-Ninth Father. “All of the worlds along the Nexus flow in a simultaneous and linear temporal progression. The past is the past anywhere along the Nexus, and the future is the future. The Greater and Lesser Thoroughfares flow through space, penetrating and binding domains of positive matter, but they do not flow through time. The Nexus links thousands of dimensions into one great network.”

“But the Hidden Gate,” said the Eleventh Father, “isn’t like the gates of the Nexus, the ones you call portes. The Hidden Gate is a vacuity, an anomaly, like the random fissures in time/space that occur during rabid weather inside the Urbille. With Wail’s help, we manifested and stabilized a vacuity of our own–a hole in space and time–a breach leading outside the Nexus to a specifically chosen world at a very precise time in the remote past.”

“Gaeya lies removed in time and space from the Nexus,” said the Third Father, “by a factor of approximately fifty billion years.”

“This is the birthworld of the Yicorithicus Minor, who will one day become the Potentates,” said the Fifth. “We gave you this home in the remote past so you can destroy this race of carnivorous brutes before they evolve into our nemesis.”

“If these proto-Potentates are completely extinguished here in the past, their descendants will never evolve to conquer the future,” said the Thirty-Ninth Father. “Think of the lives you’ll save across the worlds. Think how many millions of your kind they have devoured, replacing Organic life with mechanical lies.”

“The Yicori here stand at the most fragile point in their evolutionary history,” said the Seventeenth. “Once they pass this phase, a hundred thousand years from now, there will be no stopping them. They will destroy this world and consume several more before breaking into the Nexus and destroying the Empire of Stone. Your people can stop all of it, Harmona. This is why you are here. This is how we bring down the Potentates and reclaim our domain.”

“So you’ve chosen us to weed your garden,” Harmona said. “To drive the serpent from your paradise. You call us champions, but we’re actually your agents of genocide. You didn’t bring us here to save us, you brought us here to use us.”

“And in so doing, we have saved you,” said the Sixteenth.

“Except for the sixty percent of us doomed to die in the struggle,” she said.

“Acceptable losses to win a world,” said the Sixth. “And to save the future from the omnipotent predators who have stolen it.”

“To win an empire of worlds,” said the First.

“To save the lives of everyone who has been devoured by the Potentates,” said the Seventeenth.

“Except for my people! My people don’t get a second chance, not even in mechanical bodies! We die and we stay dead. For you and your rotten empire.”

“For your own world,” said the Seventeenth. “Gaeya is yours forever.”

“Once the Yicori are gone,” said the First.

“What else will you do?” said the Thirty-Ninth Father. “Lead your people back through the Hidden Gate, a pack of refugees lost on the Thoroughfare and begging for a home? How long would they last out there? This is your home now, Harmona. Your only home. You must fight for it, and you have already begun to do so. Take pride in it.”

Harmona nodded, her temper subsiding beneath a grim resolution. “We will do this only because we must,” she said. “Once it’s done I will have this chamber collapsed and sealed. I will take no more advice or assistance from the StoneFathers. We win this war, we commit this genocide, and we’re done with you. You’ll leave us alone and let us find our own way on Gaeya.”

“Agreed,” said the Tenth Father.

“Of course,” said the Ninth.

“We have an arrangement then,” said the Seventeenth, “once the Yicori are gone.”

“None may survive,” said the Fifteenth.

“Not a single one,” said the Third.

“The roots must be cut out,” said the Seventeenth, “so that the tree can never grow.”

The eyes of the great stone faces flickered like torches. She imagined the day when this chamber would be dark and lifeless, the walls and their faces collapsed into piles of dead rock. A silent tomb. She wondered how many more deaths it would take to reach that day.

NEXT: “The Road to Oblivione”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz  —