The memory of impacted and the shattering of stained glass came to Es’Con as he forced open his eyes through the pain that was pulsing through his skull. Rolling himself off his back and onto the sticky, humid stone floor, the hunter had much to take account of in his new surroundings. He knew the cicada would be long gone but where he woke was something equally familiar to before his fall. The temple was lit in dark burgundy light and sat only slight askew despite Es’Con’s fall through one of the sealed high windows. Evidently, time had passed him by, clouds had rolled in, and he’d been placed on a rug. His wounds were treated, and the destruction his fall had caused were largely expunged. However, any of those minor details and irrelevant thoughts fell by the wayside for Es’Con. Instead, the crying and shrieks of pain drew every last drop of his attention from what had passed to what must be coming.
Storming into the elders’ chamber, Es’Con found the sole light source in the temple illuminating a scene he had not anticipated. Quway glanced back from the spread legs of the woman from who the agonized sounds were originating. The message she had imparted on the purloined tongue was still fresh in Es’Con’s mind. He flung himself across the room to stop what was already in motion. From afar, the woman’s face had been less distinct, yet now as he neared, Es’Con could see rifts and valleys forming in the flesh as though the tissue beneath had been etched away. He came to a complete halt as he realized how viciously contorted the girl’s face was, and before he knew it, Quway was swiveling around, a wrapped bundle in his arms.
“Es’Con, time is short; we have to go. I have Thau waiting for us outside with a basket ready to carry us off,” the elder regarded the mother, who had collapsed after the final push. With a grimace, he looked to Es’Con, “We should… try… to bring her with, don’t you think? The child will need to be suckled, and perhaps, in time, she can be made to see reason. Can you carry her?” The hunter looked at both the elder and child with a grim twist of his lips. He was beginning to get down the idea that speech would never be possible for him ever again. With an indecisive cast to his expression, Quway nodded, “I suppose, at Idul Core, we could find a wet nurse. There isn’t time enough to stitch her up anyhow, and… well, the basket can only accommodate so much weight. Very well, you take the babe, I have to fetch my bag, I’ll meet you out front.”
Taking the bundle with quaking hands, Es’Con froze for a time while the elder busied himself with packing various medical instruments. Before Es’Con could depart, a rasping voice sounded from between the beds of Hamah and Kamek. Her empty sockets uncovered leaked the cold, metallic gray water she had been sustained within. It glimmered in the weak light of the desolate chamber. With a sound that was almost painful to hear, the mother spoke, “It’s done now, the flood is upon you, and neither mountain nor fortification will protect you. Almighty O-, I beseech thee, my descendant is your vessel, my fury your wrath, and my voice your beckoning siren. Your prophecy fulfilled, spare me that pain and undo these callous non-believers.”
Quway didn’t seem to miss a beat nor become even the slightest bit distracted as the woman began her chanting. Throwing in what few things he could stuff into the sack, the elder took Es’Con by the shoulder and escorted him out of the temple. A hush hung over the village, one that Quway had not expected, evident in his expression. He tossed his bag into the basket and then took the child from Es’Con so he could climb in. As he sought life anywhere up and down the street, the elder looked almost relieved to see nothing but the titanic moth tied to their transport. Handing off the infant to Thau, Quway pulled himself in and had Es’Con do the honors of taking up the pan flute.
Taking to the sky, Es’Con busied himself with ensuring they would have a clean flight path up and out of the village. When finally given a chance to look below and see the temple shrinking from sight, he was met with a plethora of images that could not have been part of reality, at least not in his mind. From the outskirts and southern front, a horde of naked and deformed humanoid creatures pressed inward to the town’s center. Rising to meet them came geysers of the gray fluid that filled the pods of the Wetlands miles below. And, just when he thought he had seen too much, Es’Con witnessed the temple implode as enormous fingers of sunset orange and rose-petal pink shot from every opening. The masonry crumbled, allowing more of the wiry limbs to show and twitch about, searching as though for those four potential victims sailing away into the night sky. Turning from the grim sight of his home village being turned inside out, Es’Con set his sights on another scene of morose tones.
Thau was begrudgingly clutching the child in the crook of his elbow while the other hand busied keeping the baby’s limbs from flailing. With far from a steady hand, Quway moved in with the hourglass-shaped brand, already glowing white-hot. There was a natural urge in Es’Con to stop the proceedings, to slap the rod from the elder’s grip before it could make contact with the child’s clavicle. Then, numbly, the hunter fondled his own scared over collar bone and acknowledged that it was an act beyond his own intervention. This was simply how things were done and how it had always occurred, no matter the child or the circumstances. However, as the scorching metal made contact, there was not even the slightest wince nor cry from the baby. The fact of it met Quway, and he seemed to almost look accepting of the idea while Thau wore a perplexed expression.
Unwittingly set in the same dumbfounded mode the warrior was, Es’Con was awoken to reality as the elder reached out to him. Taking the hunter’s hand, the elder placed the man’s palm on the child’s head. In a distant tone, as though he were utterly unattached to either person, Quway remarked, “With no mother, no rightful father, this child would be turned over to the elders. However, it is the duty of such principals of society to elect proper guardians for lost or orphaned children. You, Es’Con, servant of the elders, will be that guardian.”
“How safe is Idul Core going to be, elder Quway?” Thau inserted as he hastily handed off the baby to Es’Con, exchanging the bundle for the flute. With the child in hand, the ex-hunter stepped back from the two men and left them to their conversations. Feeling his heart swell with an immense and uncertain mix of emotions, Es’Con did little more than stare at the bundle in his arms.
Though something of a stranger to children himself, Es’Con was not unaware of how a newborn was to act and look, and he could tell very much was wrong with this baby. Its skin was not unlike the mother’s, a pale seafoam green that contrasted with the sun-baked veridian of Es’Con’s own flesh. Yet, more confronting was the lack of crying and fidgeting. Minor spasms and movements were all the infant produced, which was a far cry from the thrashing and bawling any normal child would exhibit. Es’Con was quick to chalk it up to the abnormal circumstances of the baby’s birth, and the living conditions its mother was in during her pregnancy and who could say during the impregnation. However, as the sudden and spastic movements began to shake free the wrappings around the infant, Es’Con was confronted with a more damning visage.
The child’s body was not marked with gender. It lacked any indication that it was supposed to be a boy or a girl. That anomaly of gender would be trouble but not hardly after regarding the rubbery flesh that made up all but the face. It was a grayish hue of blue and felt almost oily to the touch despite being wiped and wrapped in swaddling. The limbs themselves underwent a strange metamorphosis, fingers and toes twining together into queer, paddle-like protrusion of flesh, not unlike a squid’s tentacles. They split once fully formed, making one arm or leg into three thinner, slimier appendages. Es’Con, feeling like only a witness to this nightmare, decided to put some form of effort into confirming this monstrosity was real.
As gently as he would when handling any regular newborn, Es’Con put his hand on the child’s chin and turned the head about. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for or expecting, but the sight of skin tearing and revealing an empty void where gore should have been was well beyond his imagination. The face then fell away, slipping free like an ill-fitting mask to reveal a visor of non-flesh that stretched wide like the wingspan of a hawk but was condensed in the middle, almost reflective of an insect’s anatomy. The feature was of a dark that could have been a portal into space itself, marred only with one oval orb that glowed with a tremendous sunburst of light. Finally, Es’Con’s mind, frayed almost entirely to tatters, shattered in the gaze of the uncouth and beyond belief creature. With rigid and almost mechanical motions, he held the child out over the basket’s lip and, despite so many peculiar thoughts in his head, dropped the unbundled babe into the darkness below.
For an unbearable length of time, Es’Con was lost to that void he had sentenced the deformed infant to with his almost inadvertent motions. When he came to, he found himself face down on a maroon marbled floor, drool half slathering his face. There was an intense soreness in his jaw, and his right temple, the type of pain any amount of touching or prodding would cause to ache worse. Glancing about in his new surroundings, Es’Con found he was in something similar to the temple from his home. There was very little difference beyond minor effects and stylistic color choices. And not unlike the temple miles away by bug, there
was an unsettling emptiness within the structure.
In the stone structure, there was no sense of life beyond Es’Con, and the heavy reek of incense was absent. Instead, a salty breeze wafted in from the high windows and danced across Es’Con’s lips in a way that better befit having swam for miles in the ocean. Rising, despite the dizziness in his head, Es’Con realized at some point chains were fitted to both wrists and ankles. They were little more than cuffs now; the length of iron keeping them in place evidently shatter at one point or another. Seeking explanations, even if he couldn’t directly ask another person why and how he had come here, Es’Con made for the temple’s front door. Trying the handle yielded a resistance that would have made a lock seem superfluous. The only other way out would be through the high windows, far more easily reached from within than outside, Es’Con was thankful to note.
Reaching the rafters and shimmying his way to the open shutters, Es’Con stepped out onto the roof and nearly lost his footing. The roof tiles were slick with moisture, but they were of little concern when regarding the larger picture beyond. Trees stood half sunk where they had grown so enormous during the ages before Es’Con’s life. Homes and structures of lesser height were almost all consumed by a flood of gray water washing over the land. All that remained, or had yet to succumb to the rising tides, was the temple and a statue opposite the direction Es’Con faced. The stone face of the elder looked mournfully out onto the sunken city as though he had predicted such an event would come to pass. Equally downcast, Es’Con nearly mirrored the statue’s expression as he regarded what stretched all around him but, more importantly, the lack of any others to share this damnation with.
Morning the loss of all he knew, and seemingly any of his race beyond this village, Es’con sat, awaiting his own demise. However, as the ear-grating flutter of a dragonfly sounded overhead, the ex-hunter’s expectations for death were no longer so immense. He quickly shuffled into the temple to acquire one of the extra pan flutes and a spyglass stored within. Returning, Es’Con called down the cerulean blue bug and, saddle or not, climbed aboard. Unfortunately, the scene from above was far more damning, and in every direction, the devastation was complete. Es’Con could see fountaining water, gray geysers gushing from what were once ridges and hilltops. They were no longer massive plumes of the strange liquid but slow burbling currents that kept the water flowing. Looking to the edges of the plateau, Es’Con could see the water overflowing into the Wetlands, but there was far more to see there than ever before.
Drawing up the spyglass, Es’Con could see those of the darker green flesh being hauled bodily by those from the pods in the valleys. If he could trust his eyes any longer, Es’Con would have sworn the bulky man being forced down into one of the ponds before having the lid forcibly shut over him was Thau. Not far from the warrior was a thin man being stripped of his robes before being placed into the liquid as well. The elder, possibly Quway, thrashed violently, trying to keep from being sealed within; however, the fluid itself seized and held him better than any of the valley folk could. Seeking any sign of hope, someone resisting and escaping brought Es’Con’s gaze from the immediate area below the plateau to the horizon. In the malignant twilight, a cruel shadow was outlined, filling Es’Con’s guts with a scolding acid.
There was no mistaking the twelve-limbed monstrosity as it so carelessly lumbered away from these scenes of horror. Es’Con wished terribly that he had gone mad and the image a projection of an overworked mind. Yet Es’Con had sense enough to know that was for too much to hope for. As the creature plotted on slowly, it shifted its manta ray-shaped head in his direction. That newly formed star that served as a crude eye fixed Es’Con in place on the dragonfly and to the insect, it did so much more. The creature plummeted to the depths, and for all Es’Con could have thrashed about for freedom and to escape, he was incapable of any such struggle. In his mind, he was transfixed by the incredible aura that had been contained within that infant only hours prior. And as the water rose around him, the ex-hunter was unable to do a thing or shift his focus from that beacon of astral light. In the fridged and dim grips of death, it would keep Es’Con warm and give him illumination, that memory of the cosmic, of the beyond.