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Spaceworms - Chapter 2 - A Worm's Dynamic Entrance

PRW Mar 3rd, 2015 (edited) 2,627 Never
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  1. "Rise," Carrie intoned formally. Amon rose to his feet. As he stood, he kept his eyes on the ground, carefully avoiding meeting the gaze of the bronze-skinned woman in front of him. He was at the head of a line of officials kneeling at the base of the steps surrounding the new temple's main obelisk. At a respectful distance behind the line waited a silent mass of humanity. From the size of it, Amon guessed the bulk of the capital's population had turned out.
  2.  
  3. "You have done well, architect. You finished ahead of schedule despite numerous unforeseen delays. I am pleased." Pharaoh's voice was deep and steely. It had always made Amon uncomfortable.
  4.  
  5. He bowed his head respectfully. "You honor me, Highest One. It is my deepest satisfaction to have pleased you."
  6.  
  7. A hooded and robed figure at his side stirred, and Amon silently prayed she would not speak. His 'mother' had been given permission to attend and watch the consecration ceremony by the side of her son. Amon nearly swallowed his tongue when he realized she intended to accept the invitation.
  8.  
  9. Pharaoh nodded graciously and continued down the line, honoring the other leaders and supervisors.
  10.  
  11. "Relax, Amon," came an amused whisper. "You are sweating."
  12.  
  13. "This is mad," he replied in an equally low voice. "She should be able to see through your disguise."
  14.  
  15. "She cannot. This is not her temple, she only thinks it is; this is MY temple."
  16.  
  17. When she reached the end of the line Pharaoh turned away. She walked to the ceremonial alter at the base of the obelisk and her entourage took up position around her. She gave a short speech to the assembled masses, and after the applause died down the ceremony began.
  18.  
  19. Amon watched anxiously. As soon as they were finished with the ceremony the consecration would begin and his mistress's disguise would be torn off for all to see.
  20.  
  21. The crowd stirred as the Royal Guard brought forth an ornate chest. This would be the Raising of the Eye then, Amon thought. Pharaoh's Eye was the symbol of her power and the most obvious marker of her home and main temple. It was a large magical construct that rested atop the temple's obelisk. Few knew, but it was actually a part of the obelisk. In fact, it was the most important part — if the obelisk was a focus, then the Eye was its lens.
  22.  
  23. The Captain of the Guard opened the chest and gingerly reached inside. The core of the Eye was a large and impossibly pure mana crystal. As soon as the gem came into view the crowd erupted in cheers.
  24.  
  25. Amon gaped. It wasn't the right crystal. He saw Carrie take it for safe keeping when his crews removed the obelisk from the old temple. It was supposed to be a perfect pyramid of clear stone. This thing, whatever it was, was misshapen and shot through with impurities. Amon watched the crowd and officials, expecting somebody to react, but none gave any sign they saw something wrong.
  26.  
  27. Beside him, Apophis shook with silent laughter. "They can't see it — not yet."
  28.  
  29. Pharaoh's high priest took the crystal from the guard captain and lifted it above his head. It slowly floated into place above the obelisk and Pharaoh stepped forward to empower it. A dull halo of energy formed around the crystal and Pharaoh jerked. She turned to Carrie and the priests and spoke softly, "Something is wrong; the crystal feels tainted."
  30.  
  31. "Too late, bitch," Apophis growled. She extended her arm and a streak of black lightning arced out from her clawed fingers. The bolt struck an invisible wall inches from Pharaoh and exploded, sending tiles and chips of masonry flying. Several people screamed and the crowd shifted back. The Royal Guard rushed into the cloud of dust to form a circle around Pharaoh.
  32.  
  33. Apophis let her illusion fall and slithered forward. A gust of wind cleared the air and Amon saw most of Pharaoh's priests were dead. Pharaoh herself looked shaken but unharmed, and was leaning against Carrie for support. She locked eyes with Apophis and called out in a clear voice, "I was wondering when you would show up, Demon. You will pay in blood for the servants you have taken from me."
  34.  
  35. Apophis raised her hand again and the Guard tightened their circle, blocking Pharaoh from view. The bolt of darkness Apophis released went high, well over their heads, to strike the crystal still hovering above the obelisk. She poured her power into it, gritting her teeth in exertion.
  36.  
  37. Amon heard Carrie call out, "Guards, seize the abomination!"
  38.  
  39. They ran forward, toward Apophis, but none of them made it more than a few steps. One by one they collapsed to the ground, groaning in agony. Energy rose from them like steam and was sucked toward the crystal. The dark halo around it solidified into a black pit.
  40.  
  41. Apophis increased her efforts and tore the thing off its obelisk base, pushing it high into the sky. It began to swell in size and a clamor rose behind Amon. He did not need to look to know the crowd had fallen into the same state as the guardsmen — he could see the tide of energy rising from them being pulled toward the darkness.
  42.  
  43. "Stop!" Pharaoh screamed. "You're killing them!"
  44.  
  45. "The strong will survive," Apophis replied coldly, "and they will be free of your filthy touch. They will thank me for this, someday."
  46.  
  47. Carrie rushed forward with a spear taken from one of the guardsmen. Amon ran at Apophis from behind as if he intended to attack, but passed by her and heaved a handful of sand into Carrie's eyes. She flinched and he swept her legs out from under her. Once she was down, he pinned her with the spear and focused his mana into blocking hers. After a moment of coughing and trying futilely to blink the sand out of her eyes, she glared up at Amon in a rage. "I should have known! How much did it cost, Amon!? What is the price of your soul!?"
  48.  
  49. He readjusted his grip and shook his head sadly. "You are mistaken. I'm a liar, not a traitor. I was with her from the start." To his mistress he called out, "What about Pharaoh?"
  50.  
  51. Apophis spoke distractedly, focusing her attention on her work. "She linked herself to the eye; she can do nothing while I hold it. Focus on the dog." A sardonic grin spread across her face. "The other sects could have been a problem but none of them came today. I suppose they were offended by the treatment Hathor's high priestess received when my tampering was discovered."
  52.  
  53. Amon raised an eyebrow at the Anubis. "I thought you said she was fine."
  54.  
  55. "She is, now. I had to be thorough. And I do not need to justify myself to a heretic!"
  56.  
  57. A faint crackle called Amon's attention upward. The Eye was very high now and had grown to an enormous size. Amon half fancied he could see rivers of energy flowing into it from the distant reaches of the kingdom.
  58.  
  59. "Amon, you must stop her. This will destroy us!"
  60.  
  61. The pleading in Carrie's voice made him shift uncomfortably. "Not destroy, just change. Nobody likes change, but it is necessary — and often for the better."
  62.  
  63. She grimaced and began struggling impotently against his hold on her. He watched her sadly. She had no hope of escape; she was no more than average size for a woman and Amon was not a small man. Her power and skill with sorcery was much greater than his, but with her mana blocked it didn't matter.
  64.  
  65. Amon suddenly felt the flow of power from his mistress stop and he turned to her in confusion. She could not possibly have finished already. He found her staring up at the corrupted Eye with the most surprised expression he had ever seen on her face. He followed her gaze and felt his brain come to a halt. Beneath him, Carrie ceased her struggling and the desert became eerily silent.
  66.  
  67.  
  68.  
  69.  
  70. "Owie!" Shai cried.
  71.  
  72. Morgan pushed himself from the gooey crater his body had made in the wall and looked toward her. He found her still standing next to the chair he had been seated in a moment ago. The turbulence had not effected her — her support tentacles made a passable safety harness — but she was wincing in pain. He called out to her. "What happened? What's wrong?"
  73.  
  74. "I hit a hole!" She whined.
  75.  
  76. Morgan gave her a flat look. "Shai, I know I'm gullible, but come on. I know damn well space doesn't have potholes. Look, if you have gas or something you can just tell me, it's nothing to be embarrassed about."
  77.  
  78. "I don't have gas! And I really did hit a hole — look outside."
  79.  
  80. Morgan did, reaching out to her vision by instinct. His mind filled with a mass of color that reminded him of home. "Holy shit, that's close."
  81.  
  82. He fought down a feeling of vertigo and examined what he saw. A tiny ribbon of blue wound its way through a narrow green valley surrounded by desert. Directly beneath them, in the dead center of Shai's view, a patch of desert had advanced into the valley all the way to the edge of the river. The land there was dotted with many small, irregular shapes. Morgan studied them curiously. "That planet could be Earth's twin. Do you know what system this is?"
  83.  
  84. "I didn't mean that. Look behind us."
  85.  
  86. Morgan shifted his attention and froze. Only the eyes near Shai's head saw anything but empty blackness. "Are we still halfway in the wormhole?"
  87.  
  88. "Yes. Like I said, I hit a hole," she complained.
  89.  
  90. "How?" He asked. "Where did it come from?"
  91.  
  92. "I don't know, this has never happened before. I was following that weird smell and it just popped up out of nowhere. I think it might be what was giving off the smell."
  93.  
  94. That caught Morgan's interest and he started scanning the worm's vision again. "Why stop halfway, though?" He asked. "Shouldn't we go through, or back up into the wormhole?"
  95.  
  96. "It's too small. That's what the bump was about. I nearly got the pee squished out of me."
  97.  
  98. Morgan paused then shook his head to banish that image. "So backwards, then?"
  99.  
  100. "I think I should just try to force my way through. It gave a bit when I hit it." Her face twisted with discomfort and the room began to warp.
  101.  
  102. Morgan suddenly heard an alarm go off through Shai's senses. She lessened her straining and asked him, "Do you hear that?" He nodded and she added, "Do you know what it is? I think it's coming from my gizzard."
  103.  
  104. "Let's go with 'cargo bay'." She opened her mouth to object but he preempted her. "I know gizzard is closer to what it is, but it just doesn't sound good." She put on a feigned pout and Morgan focused on the noise. "That sounds like a low power warning."
  105.  
  106. "Do you know how to turn it off? It's obnoxious."
  107.  
  108. "Probably, but you'll have to find what's making it first." Morgan watched through one of the points of vision in Shai's interior as it extended out into the dim space and began searching for the source of the noise. In his mind, he ran through the systems on his station that he had heard that alarm from. It wasn't a short list, but none of them had been nearly so loud.
  109.  
  110. Shai's probing eventually stopped at a large, utilitarian grey block of super-hardened ceramic and non-ferrous metal. A dimly lit panel on the front of it was flashing a warning.
  111.  
  112. "Oh Jesus Christ, you ate one of the fuel cells," Morgan exhaled. "Thank god you didn't try to digest it."
  113.  
  114. She gave him a puzzled look and he added, "They have anti-matter in them. If you breached the vacuum chamber or cut power to the containment field you would have atomized us."
  115.  
  116. "Oh." She paled slightly at that. Her eyes lost focus and she sat motionlessly for a moment before asking, "But if it's out of power that means it's empty, right? Since it siphons off its own power output to keep up the containment field. So it can't run out of power if there's any anti-matter left."
  117.  
  118. "Did you just look up anti-matter cells on Wikipedia?"
  119.  
  120. "...N-No?"
  121.  
  122. Morgan couldn't hold back a smile at the guilty look on her face. "Get closer to that panel, I'll tell you how to-" he cut off and his smile turned into a sickly grimace when he noticed a huge crack in one of the shadowed corners of the cell. "Get close to the panel. I need to read what it says."
  123.  
  124. As soon as Morgan got a good look at the screen his heart jumped into his throat. "Can you press that little icon that looks like a wrench?"
  125.  
  126. Shai noticed his change in demeanor and complied nervously. A thin white tentacle reached into view and tapped the screen, bringing up the diagnostic overview. "What's wrong?"
  127.  
  128. "It isn't empty," Morgan responded, reading the screen. "The generator is damaged so it can't produce power. The containment field is running on battery right now but the batteries are almost dead. Why the fuck didn't the damage warning go off?"
  129.  
  130. Shai jumped and Morgan quickly pulled away from her senses as the cell sounded an extremely loud alarm. "Oh that's just fucking perfect," Morgan groused.
  131.  
  132. "I can power it," Shai suggested. "I can hook it up to-"
  133.  
  134. Morgan interrupted her. "What's faster, that or getting it out of your body?"
  135.  
  136. She thought for a heartbeat before saying, "Getting rid of it, definitely."
  137.  
  138. "Do that then. Right now."
  139.  
  140. Shai gripped the cell in powerful tentacles and began recklessly slinging it toward her gullet. "I can't throw up, I don't have the muscles I would need for that. I have to toss it out manually. How long do we have?" Morgan could hear panic growing in her voice.
  141.  
  142. "I don't know," he replied calmly. "However long it takes for the containment field to fail, plus about a quarter of a second for the antimatter to come into contact with the walls of the vacuum chamber."
  143.  
  144. Shai let out an somewhat unhinged giggle and focused intently on flinging the cell as quickly as possible through her convoluted innards. "My mouth and the upper part of my throat are lined with scales. Once I get it up there I can close off the unprotected lower parts. I've never tried using those to move before, but if I push really hard with them maybe I can cut myself off from the space inside m- WHY ARE YOU HUGGING ME!?"
  145.  
  146. "Just focus on what you're doing," Morgan said soothingly. "Whatever happens, happens." He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
  147.  
  148. "We're gunna die, aren't we!?"
  149.  
  150.  
  151.  
  152.  
  153. "Mistress? What is that?" Amon stared at the creature in the sky, a massive black serpent large enough to blot out the sun. It's head was lined with huge eyes and it's jaws snapped open and closed silently. It seemed to be trying to force its way through the Eye. Amon looked to his mistress.
  154.  
  155. She was thumbing through a small, tattered notebook. She frowned and her gaze bounced back and forth between the pages and the creature. "I'm certain that wasn't supposed to happen. I wonder if I mistranslated something."
  156.  
  157. Amon noticed the moans of pain had stopped. The guardsmen were recovering and several were already on their feet. Pharaoh stood with a look of bloody vengeance on her face and power surged through her. "Mistress!" Amon shouted.
  158.  
  159. Apophis noticed and cursed. She grabbed Amon by the arm and pulled him off Carrie. Sand enveloped them and they vanished.
  160.  
  161.  
  162.  
  163.  
  164. Carrie stood and tried to shake off her discomfort along with the damage to her pride. Her rage boiled at Amon, both because of his betrayal and because of the fact that he managed to overpower and restrain her despite being at a huge disadvantage due to their differing races.
  165.  
  166. Her eyes drifted upwards — to her apparent salvation — and she shuddered. The creature had ceased its struggles, but she was uncertain what to make of that. She ran to Pharaoh.
  167.  
  168. "Are you well, Highest One?"
  169.  
  170. "As well as I can be." Pharaoh's voice was laden with weariness. "Her hold on me was broken as soon as our friend appeared."
  171.  
  172. "She did not summon it, then?" Carrie asked cautiously. "It is friendly? Its physical form is..." she glanced up at the monstrosity and swallowed heavily, "ill-omened."
  173.  
  174. "She did not summon it. As for the other, I do not know. We shall have to..." Pharaoh trailed off and the blood drained from her face as the divine intuition she was gifted with sent her a warning. Carrie felt it too, as a surge of animalistic terror.
  175.  
  176. The creature opened it's mouth.
  177.  
  178. "Lead them in my absence," Pharaoh ordered. She pulled in every ounce of power available to her and channeled it into a complex spell. Blood trailed from her nose as she pushed herself far past her limits. Her eyes rolled back and the world went white.
  179.  
  180.  
  181.  
  182.  
  183. Carrie found herself in a grassy field, surrounded by people. She looked around bewildered. The crowd stretched as far as she could see in every direction. There were far more people than had been present at the ceremony. It looked as if the entire population of Pharaoh's Kingdom had been dropped here in this unknown land.
  184.  
  185. "Advisor!" a man called out. It was the captain of the Royal Guard. Carrie's heart dropped when she saw who he bore.
  186.  
  187. "Highest One!" She rushed to the guardsmen and put her hands to Pharaoh, checking her condition. "What happened!?"
  188.  
  189. "I don't know," he replied miserably. "I just found her like this."
  190.  
  191. Carrie's face tightened as she delved with her mana. Pharaoh had completely exhausted her power. Immortal god or not, she was as good as dead - unless her power could be recovered somehow.
  192.  
  193. "Advisor, why are we here? Did Pharaoh bring us?"
  194.  
  195. Carrie looked up. Something in his inflection tipped her off. "You know where we are."
  196.  
  197. He nodded. "The other side of the wastes. I don't know if the distance has ever been measured but the capital is a good few weeks walking that way." He pointed toward the eastern horizon.
  198.  
  199. At that moment a second sun rose from where he pointed. The bright white glow grew to swallow most of the eastern sky. Carrie could feel the heat from it on her face. After a long moment it began to fade, leaving behind a huge, ominous cloud. The ground shuddered and groaned. Carrie fell on her backside and sat, staring dumbly at the cloud. The guard captain knelt beside her waiting for instructions, but she could not force herself to think. Some time after the tremors subsided, the wind came. Anyone who was still on their feet was blown off them. Leaves and branches were stripped from trees and a horrible roar left people nearly deafened.
  200.  
  201. Through it all, Carrie stared at the cloud in the distance with a face frozen in horror. "The capital..." she mumbled.
  202.  
  203. Once things finally calmed down, people began to move about and see to the wounded. The guard captain whispered to the Anubis, "What do we do now?"
  204.  
  205. She sat in silence for a long time before replying quietly, "I don't know."
  206.  
  207.  
  208.  
  209.  
  210. Morgan slowly opened his eyes. Shai was on his chest, clinging to him, and they were both wrapped in a mass of her flesh. "Are we alive?"
  211.  
  212. Shai lifted her face off his chest and peeked from side to side. "I think so." She withdrew her protective cocoon and stood uneasily. "We're out of the wormhole. I think it collapsed and forced us out. Oh, and I didn't blow my head off," she laughed in relief.
  213.  
  214. "How?" Morgan reached out to her senses and saw the devastation they had wrought. The pleasant image from before was gone, replaced by a smouldering inferno. The few patches of land he could see through the smoke were glowing red.
  215.  
  216. "It worked. I got it into my mouth before it went off and I managed to push the space in there away from me with my scales. Everything went out the front." She winced at the scene outside and said remorsefully, "Awww, and it was so pretty before, too."
  217.  
  218. "Shai," Morgan said quietly. "I think there was a city down there."
  219.  
  220. She was silent for a long time before asking, "What?"
  221.  
  222. Morgan sighed and looked at her regretfully. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was hanging open. "I didn't realize what I was looking at earlier but it must have been a city — a couple of them actually."
  223.  
  224. "You mean like a city with people?"
  225.  
  226. He nodded reluctantly and she stared at him. Eventually she started crying. He pulled her into a hug and sat her down on his lap. "Maybe we can help. There might be something left." He didn't believe it, but it might make her feel better if nothing else.
  227.  
  228. She just nodded and sobbed into his chest.
  229.  
  230.  
  231.  
  232.  
  233.  
  234.  
  235.  
  236.  
  237. Scout Leader Sehkan drained the last of his waterskin. That left him with two remaining. He considered leaving the empty skin to the sands — it was dead weight now, with nowhere in the wastes to refill it — but changed his mind and carefully packed it away. He would need it for the return journey. Besides, it was a resource and those had become too few to be wasteful with them. Things hadn't gotten bad yet when his party set out, but that was weeks ago and Sehkan knew enough of supplies and foraging to recognize how grim his people's prospects were. By the time he returned they would be boiling their leather for soup.
  238.      
  239. "Let's move," he said. "We've wasted enough time." His men packed away their own skins and silently fell into place behind him. None spoke.
  240.      
  241. He could not fault them for their dour mood; this journey had been a series of horrifying discoveries.
  242.      
  243. It started out well enough. Their mission, to discover the condition of the capital and check the grain stores, was an important one. All of the scout units knew this was coming, and to be the unit chosen was a great honor. Their prideful boasts and good cheer lasted a week.
  244.      
  245. On the eighth day of their journey — the second day in the wastes — they reached the cloud. They had hoped the ominous form that had clung to the eastern horizon since the incident would dissipate before they reached it. They hadn't expected to encounter it so soon, and they certainly hadn't considered it might extend all the way to the ground. Entering it unnerved all of them. The air within stunk of ashes and brimstone, and stung their eyes and lungs. The hazy greyness blocked the sun and left them in a perpetual gloom, but did little to lessen the desert heat.
  246.      
  247. The deeper into the cloud they marched, the stronger its effects became. By the time the reached the first of the dunes, the wastes' ever-present heat had been replaced with an unnatural mugginess, broken occasionally by gusts of blisteringly hot wind carrying an alien scent.
  248.      
  249. The dunes themselves also presented a problem. Their shifting and haphazard nature necessitated navigation by sun and star, but the gloom made that impossible. They were forced to march in as straight a line as they could manage to keep from being sent off-course. This meant climbing over every obstacle in their path.
  250.      
  251. The western slopes of the dunes were exhausting but as expected. The eastern slopes presented a different and very troubling challenge. Sehkan first realized something was wrong when he neared the summit of the first large dune. It was topped with a serrated ridge of coarse black stone. Streaks and small boulders decorating the sand beneath the ridge made it seem as if the stone was dripping down the western slope.
  252.      
  253. After climbing the ridge, Sehkan found himself on a wide, smooth surface of rock that ran along the crest of the dune. Below, the eastern slope looked like it had been boiled in tar then fired in a kiln. Climbing down that ruined surface had left them all with cuts and bruises.
  254.      
  255. A odd sighing rumble brought Sehkan out of his memories. He paused in his march to watch a dune a quarter of a mile away writhe and collapse. The surrounding peaks shifted and slid.
  256.      
  257. Sehkan's second sidled up to him and whispered, "I think it has been getting closer lately."
  258.      
  259. 'It' referred to the unknown force that had followed the scouts since their third day in the dunes. "It has." Sehkan replied.
  260.      
  261. "What should we do?"
  262.      
  263. "Continue on as we have been." Sehkan suited his own words and started forward again.
  264.      
  265. His second caught up to him a moment later and asked, "What do you intend for us to do if it attacks?"
  266.      
  267. "Die," Sehkan responded casually. He sighed at the stricken look on his subordinate's face. The man was a good scout but had no sense of humor. "Look on the bright side, Mannin; the thing seems content to leave us be for the moment. We could not stop it, so I doubt it is waiting for us to lower our guard. Perhaps it is just curious."
  268.      
  269. "Do you think it is the serpent, then?"
  270.      
  271. Sehkan suppressed a shudder at the thought of the behemoth. He would not have been surprised if Mannin was one of the handful of fools that had started worshiping the thing. "Whatever that was, it was in the sky. This is in the ground."
  272.      
  273. Mannin shook his head. "I cannot think of anything else big enough to..." He cut off in consternation as he noticed the line of dunes the party was making for. "Bloody hell," he muttered, "look at that! Are we going to try climbing it?"
  274.      
  275. "Not much choice," Sehkan said, examining the wall of sand. It stretched away beyond sight in both directions. He had never seen anything like it.
  276.      
  277. The party spread out into a staggered line and began their ascent. It was slow going as they had to pick their way through a confused warren of boulders and rubble. The top of the dune was lined with a large rocky overhang — bigger than anything they had encountered so far. Mercifully, there was a small break in it which allowed them to pass through.
  278.      
  279. When they finally crested the ridge they frozen in shock. Before them lay perhaps ten miles of blasted, undulating rock sloping gently down to an endless expanse of unquiet grey water. Numerous ravines clove into the rock and released columns of steam lit from beneath by a dull red glare.
  280.      
  281. Sehkan stood gaping at the water, mind reeling. The others spoke up, trying to make sense of the situation.
  282.      
  283. "Is that the sea? How could we have come so far off course?"
  284.      
  285. "Impossible. We're still in the dunes, they don't come within a hundred miles of the sea."
  286.      
  287. "Maybe they shifted?"
  288.      
  289. "No, even if that was so, we couldn't have reached it so fast — not at the speed we've been going."
  290.      
  291. "Quiet, all of you," Sehkan commanded.
  292.      
  293. Mannin, who had been looking back the way they came instead of taking part in the discussion, approached his commander. "Sir, you need to see this."
  294.      
  295. Sehkan followed him back through the breach in the ridge.
  296.      
  297. Mannin pointed away to the north, towards a dim shape in the gloom. "Do you see that mountain? I didn't notice it before because the land has changed so much, but look at the shape of it. Look at the foothills on the near side of it. It looks different but I'm certain that's-"
  298.      
  299. "Mount Sannit." Sehkan finished. He had grown up in the shadow of that mountain. "So we HAVE come off course. We're too far south. But that makes no sense, if it's behind us then the river..." he trailed off. He walked slowly back through the breach to stare at the grey water. "So much for checking the grain stores," he muttered.
  300.      
  301. The other scouts had listened to the conversation and overheard his mutters. "How?" One of them asked, after putting two and two together.
  302.      
  303. "I don't know," Sehkan answered. "The land is gone. I smell salt in the air, the river must have back-flowed."
  304.      
  305. "Should we try to go around it?"
  306.      
  307. "Around to what?" one of the others replied. "Look at the shape and size of it. You know maps well enough to do the math. There's nothing left."
  308.      
  309. Sehkan left them to their argument. He walked away from the water and stood looking out over the dunes. Every city and large town in the kingdom was clustered along a small stretch of the river. They were gone along with the grain stores. A few of the small border towns — such as his own hometown — may have survived, but by the state of the wastes he guessed there would not be much left of them.
  310.      
  311. Mannin stepped to Sehkan's side and spoke quietly. "We were counting on fresh water from the river for the return trip, if it has back-flowed and gone to salt..."
  312.      
  313. Sehkan nodded. "We'll draw lots. We have enough left between us for three to return."
  314.      
  315. Mannin sighed. "Less mouths to feed, I suppose. It doesn't really matter whether we starve here or back in the encampment."
  316.      
  317. The two settled in to a grim silence as the debate behind them continued. Just as the fools were finally beginning to exhaust themselves the ground shifted. The western slope of the dune heaved and a small avalanche of sand and rubble fell away from them.
  318.      
  319. "It's beneath us," Mannin commented.
  320.      
  321. "Maybe next time you lot can keep your nonsense a bit quieter." Sehkan added, speaking over his shoulder dryly.
  322.      
  323. "What should we do?" one of them asked nervously.
  324.      
  325. "Spread out," Sehkan commanded. "Be ready to run."
  326.      
  327. The ground between the officers and the other scouts suddenly erupted in a fountain of sand. Some of the scouts cried out but their fear quickly turned to confusion. A small white figure sprouted from the ground. It stood no more than four feet high and was roughly the shape of a man, but its form was crude as if drawn by a child. Its arms were chubby little stumps and it had no legs, rising from the ground on a thick column of white flesh.
  328.      
  329. Sehkan ordered his scouts to do nothing, then he and Mannin circled around the creature to get a look at its face. When they saw it Mannin's visage twisted with a mixture of distaste and amusement. The thing looked...well, happy but not particularly attractive.
  330.      
  331. "What in the name of the gods is this hideous thing?" Mannin asked.
  332.      
  333. Sehkan silenced him with a glare. "Do not anger it; it may be a djinn."
  334.      
  335.      
  336.      
  337.      
  338. "He said it was ugly!" Shai cried.
  339.      
  340. "I know, I heard," Morgan replied. "I'm glad you figured out their language but why can I understand it now too?"
  341.      
  342. Shai's face went blank and her eyes wandered away from Morgan's face. "Um, I taught you?"
  343.      
  344. "How exactly do...No, you know what? Never-mind. I don't want to know."
  345.      
  346. "Do you think it's ugly, Morgan?" she asked with a pout. "I tried to make it cute."
  347.      
  348. It looks like a white Gumby with Down's syndrome, he thought to himself. "Of course not, it's adorable." Lying with a straight face was one of the first skills Morgan learned in officer training. "It's just that different people have a different sense of aesthetics." He silently thanked God that Shai based her appearance on human male aesthetics instead of her own.
  349.      
  350. She stuck out her lip. "Really?"
  351.      
  352. "Really."
  353.      
  354. "What about, uh..." she pointed down to his feet. "You haven't said anything about it."
  355.      
  356. Morgan looked down in confusion and sighed when he saw what she was talking about. "Shai, why does my toe-tentacle have eyes?"
  357.      
  358. "I figured it would make it look more friendly," she said with a blush. "Doesn't it kind of look like a little happy-face nibbling on your toe now?" She glanced between him and the little monstrosity eating his foot, hesitantly waiting for his reaction.
  359.      
  360. Morgan hugged her shoulders and lightly kissed her forehead. "That's exactly what it looks like," he said with a carefully blanked face. "I like it. Thank you."
  361.      
  362. "Ehe," she giggled and toyed with his chest as he hugged her.
  363.      
  364. "Don't you think you should say something to those guys now? I think they're starting to freak out."
  365.      
  366. "Oh! Right. What should I say?"
  367.      
  368. "Something along the lines of 'We come in peace'?"
  369.      
  370. "Ok, that sounds good. I-" she cut off and her face turned a deeper shade of red.
  371.      
  372. "What?" Morgan asked. "What's wrong?"
  373.      
  374. "I forgot to give it lungs."
  375.      
  376. "Lungs?" he asked. "It's a puppet, what does it need lungs for?"
  377.      
  378. "I gave it all the parts it needs to talk but without lungs it can't push air over them...so..."
  379.      
  380. "So it's useless."
  381.      
  382. She looked away in embarrassment and nodded.
  383.      
  384. "I guess you'll just have to talk to them directly," he told her.
  385.      
  386. "No way! I can't!"
  387.      
  388. "Look, I know you're shy," he stopped to laugh at his own pun, "but there's nothing to be afraid of."
  389.      
  390. "That was lame. And I can't go out there, they'll see me! Naked!"
  391.      
  392. Morgan paused and looked her body up and down. He had gotten use to it from spending so much time around her, but when he thought about it her condition was absolutely indecent. Maybe even more so than a human woman would have been since she had no body hair to hide behind. Her slick, damp skin made her feminine parts glisten slightly. As Morgan observed her a light blush crept into his face and he felt a tugging from his loins.
  393.      
  394. He cleared his throat. "You're right, I didn't think about that." He wasn't thrilled about the idea of other men seeing her present state either. "Can I survive out there?"
  395.      
  396. "It's about equivalent to Earth so yes, but you aren't going — it's dangerous."
  397.      
  398. He ignored her and began digging through his clothing. "Come on, help me find something to wear that isn't stained with sex juice."
  399.      
  400.      
  401.      
  402.      
  403. Carrie balanced uncomfortably on her impromptu chair. She sat in a circle with the other leaders — all priests except her — beneath the outstretched limbs of a massive tree. She tried to distract herself from her unpleasant circumstances by studying it. She had never seen it's like. Being a city girl the only trees she encountered were the palms that grew in and around the capital. Those could get quite tall, but they never had the girth of this strange thing.
  404.      
  405. Holly, seated beside Carrie, cleared her throat. Carrie looked at her then followed her nod to see Amonet, the High Priestess of Ra, approaching.
  406.      
  407. "Are we all here?" the gryphon asked. "Let's not waste any time then. Holly, will you start?"
  408.      
  409. Carrie stifled her rising indignation. Starting the meeting was her job; she was the council's leader and the overall leader of the refugees.
  410.      
  411. That didn't matter much to this group of course. Religious leaders had always held the real power in the kingdom, with Pharaoh and the other gods foremost among them. None of the priests were happy about a political official being chosen as their leader, and more than one had expressed doubts about the appointment. It was Carrie's great misfortune to have been the only one present to hear Pharaoh's last words.
  412.      
  413. The situation was made worse by Lady Amonet's sudden rise to prominence. She had always been antagonistic towards Carrie, and being the only high priest to successfully make contact with her goddess after the disaster gave Amonet great clout with the other leaders.
  414.      
  415. Holly did not begin to speak. She sat watching Carrie with a wry expression, waiting for the inevitable objection.
  416.      
  417. Carrie gave her a frown then spoke. "Before that, how goes the search for the Demon? Is there still nothing?"
  418.      
  419. Amonet smirked and asked, "So eager to find your lover, Advisor?"
  420.      
  421. Carrie stiffened. The rumors about her and Amon had begun as soon as the dust settled after the incident. Denials had done nothing to quell them but this time Carrie had a different tactic to try. "I'm not the only one who worked with him, priestess. Our relationship was professional. If suspicion must be cast, I would direct it to those who met him without any obvious reason to do so."
  422.      
  423. Amonet snorted. "That was years ago, Advisor. My name is rare, especially in its masculine form. I was curious."
  424.      
  425. "Curious enough to arrange to meet privately with him on several occasions? If I remember correctly, you even invited him to your residence."
  426.      
  427. The gryphon's eyes tightened angrily and she prepared to speak but Holly interrupted. "We have many issues to discuss. Perhaps we should get to them? Before I begin I would like to know if anyone other than Amonet has managed to contact her goddess since we last spoke."
  428.      
  429. The other priests quickly spoke up, eager to move the meeting forward before it could be derailed by another argument. As before, none of them had good news.
  430.      
  431. After the last of them finished Amonet gave over glowering at Carrie and spoke up. "I spoke with Lady Ra about the problems. She said the path to the Land of the Gods was broken in the incident. I am only able to communicate with her because she was trapped on our side. She has been attempting to reestablish the connection but without luck so far — she believes she will need help from the other side." She paused and gave Carrie a guarded look. "She also said she can do nothing for Pharaoh. Pharaoh must be returned to the Land of the Gods to recover."
  432.      
  433. "Once the scouts return we will know the condition of the gate," Holly offered.
  434.      
  435. Amonet shook her head. "With the path broken the gate is useless. We must lay our hopes on Ra's attempts to contact the other goddesses. What of your sect's work, Holly?"
  436.      
  437. Every head turned to Holly and the curvy woman squirmed. The other sects each had their own issues to deal with but the Hathorites' efforts had the most immediate importance.
  438.      
  439. Holly glanced at the surrounding faces sheepishly before speaking. "Not well. The land here is fertile, but the grass is deeply rooted and stubborn and the soil is rocky. Preparing the fields is very difficult. With the amount of seed we have it will be the year after next at the earliest before we can plant a full crop. The first harvest will be in a month and a half but it will not be much."
  440.      
  441. "Even with your blessings?" Carrie asked, surprised.
  442.      
  443. "We don't have enough to work with. We would need direct intervention by Hathor to produce a decent harvest before the end of the year."
  444.      
  445. "How many can we feed with what we'll get?" Amonet asked.
  446.      
  447. Holly's face took on a sickly hue and she remained silent.
  448.      
  449. "We had our first starving death last night," the High Priestess of Osiris put in. "I came here from preforming the ceremony."
  450.      
  451. "We have to start revoking rations," Carrie said. Holly gave her a profoundly sad look but she pushed on. "We cannot afford to keep feeding people who can't work. I'm giving the order tonight."
  452.      
  453. That brought the conversation to an end. The other priests should have reported on their own business but none of them started and Carrie had no desire to prompt them to — not even to prevent Amonet from doing so.
  454.      
  455. In the silence they all heard a messenger approaching. The guards had orders to keep everyone away until the meeting was finished but Carrie waved the man in.
  456.      
  457. He bowed politely to the circle before whispering his message to Carrie. When she heard it her face twisted in frustration.
  458.      
  459. "What is it?" Amonet demanded.
  460.      
  461. "The scouts have returned. They must have turned back." She stood and followed the messenger out of the circle. "If we aren't going to continue I will see to this now."
  462.      
  463. To her surprise nearly half of the priests fell in beside her, including Amonet and Holly. The messenger led them to the edge of the encampment where a small guard post had been set up. Carrie winced when she saw the scouts — they looked like they had been set on fire and beaten with sticks.
  464.      
  465. Their leader saw the group approaching and stood with a weary salute. "Advisor."
  466.      
  467. Amonet cut in, "Sit down before you fall down, and tell us what happened. You look like you've been rolling in a hearth."
  468.      
  469. The man nodded to the gryphon but addressed his response to Carrie. "There's a lot to tell. I don't know where to begin."
  470.      
  471. "Start with why you turned back," she replied gently. "What happened?"
  472.      
  473. "Didn't turn back. We made it as far as there was to go. Reason we're back so early is we had help on the return trip." He squinted and shook his head to clear it. "First, the capital is gone, along with the other cities and the fields and the river and...the kingdom is gone. No stores to recover and nothing worth salvaging. There's a new sea where the valley was."
  474.      
  475. The man didn't seem to be lying but his news was difficult to believe. Holly had a hand over her mouth in shock and Amonet was wearing an odd, thoughtful expression.
  476.      
  477. The scout leader continued. "Some of the wastes is gone too, and most of what's left is worse than before. That cloud goes all the way to the ground and it smells and feels like the pits of hell. Maybe the most important thing though is..." he stopped and took a deep breath. He was battling confusion or disbelief. "The important thing is the way we got back. We ran into the serpent — the big one."
  478.      
  479. "Did you, now?" Amonet asked with an uncharacteristic curiosity in her voice. "What did it do?"
  480.      
  481. "A man came out of it. He spoke to us, said he spoke for the serpent. He said the destruction it caused was unintended and unavoidable, and offered to help us."
  482.      
  483. "Scout Leader..." Carrie began but he held up a hand forestalling her.
  484.      
  485. "I know, I know. It sounds like I'm making up stories, but it's true. We're supposed to arrange for it to meet our leaders."
  486.      
  487. Carrie turned to the priests. Most looked conflicted or disbelieving but Amonet spoke for them emphatically. "We must. This is a great opportunity and might be our only chance to save ourselves. Give me a day to commune with Ra. We will want her here with us for this if possible."
  488.      
  489. Carrie sighed and turned back to the Scout Leader. "Can you set something up for noon, the day after tomorrow?"
  490.  
  491.  
  492.  
  493.  
  494. Morgan gave up on the locker he was searching and moved on to the next. The master key he found in the captain's quarters allowed him to bypass the combination lock.
  495.  
  496. "Morgan!" Shai called from out of sight. "Are you still not done yet? I'm lonely!"
  497.  
  498. She had followed Morgan as deep into the cruiser as she could manage, but her support column thickened a few feet from her body and the ship's corridors were narrow. She was forced to remain in the main hallway as Morgan raided the crew's lockers. That complicated Morgan's plans to explore the rest of the ship — his own tether to Shai could not extend very far.
  499.  
  500. "I'm right here, Shai," Morgan shouted through the open door. "There's no reason to be lonely."
  501.  
  502. Morgan felt a tug on his toe and looked down. 'Nibbles', the umbilical that bound him to Shai, was giving him puppy dog eyes. He sighed and went back to his search.
  503.  
  504. Four lockers and several minutes later Morgan found what he was looking for. He carefully picked out the needed items before returning to Shai with a triumphant smile.
  505.  
  506. She looked over the bundle in his arms with curiosity. "Are you going to wear that tomorrow?"
  507.  
  508. Morgan shook his head. "No, I have a dress uniform of my own, and that will fit better than anything I could find in here. This one is for you."
  509.  
  510. "It...what?"
  511.  
  512. "It's for you," he said with a grin. "I was starting to think I wouldn't find anything usable. Not many women on Navy ships, and none with your figure. This should be pretty close though." He checked the name on the uniform. "Lieutenant Allen must have been popular."
  513.  
  514. Shai frowned at the uniform. "I've never worn clothes before. That looks uncomfortable."
  515.  
  516. "Shai, this is a Navy dress uniform," Morgan laughed. "Uncomfortable is an understatement. It's one of the most uncomfortable uniforms known to man. It looks really good though, and it's waterproof so your leaking thing won't be a problem."
  517.  
  518. "I don't leak!"
  519.  
  520. "Drool then."
  521.  
  522. "I don't drool, either! Let's just call it sweat, Ok? I sweat."
  523.  
  524. "Fine," Morgan said flatly. "You sweat. Profusely. Now lift your hands so I can help you dress."
  525.  
  526. "I'm not a kid," she pouted.
  527.  
  528. Morgan smiled. "Alright, here." He gave her the stack of clothing. "Show me you can put it on yourself."
  529.  
  530. Shai tossed out the hanger and tried to wiggle her way into the uniform without using the buttons and clasps. In a matter of minutes she was on the floor in a hopelessly tangled ball of soft flesh and stiff fabric. Eventually she gave up her struggles and silently peeked over her shoulder at Morgan.
  531.  
  532. He walked over to her with a chuckle and began the work of freeing her.
  533.  
  534. As he worked he asked the question that had been nagging at him since he first saw the ship. "I'm not sure I want to know the answer to this, but how did you end up with an abandoned Heavy Cruiser in your gut? I half expected this thing to be full of skeletons when I got inside."
  535.  
  536. Shai gave a helpless laugh. "It's kind of embarrassing. I ran into it a few years ago. They saw me before I saw them so I couldn't hide. I figured I might as well try to talk to them, but they didn't respond to any of the communications I sent. When I tried to get closer to them they would move away so I ended up grabbing on to the ship to hold it still, but when I did a bunch of little things popped out of it and shot off in every direction."
  537.  
  538. "They abandoned ship?" Realization dawned on Morgan and he busted into laughter. "This is the Fletcher! I thought the captain's name looked familiar — it was in the news for weeks. The whole crew said they were attacked by a space monster or something. Investigators blamed it on tainted food."
  539.  
  540. Shai sighed sadly. "I just wanted to say 'hi'."
  541.  
  542. "So once the ship was empty you ate it?"
  543.  
  544. She nodded. "I could tell there were a lot of rare elements in it, plus all the neat human stuff. Besides, I needed something to cheer me up after that."
  545.  
  546. "Depressed eating is a good way to end up fat," Morgan laughed. He leaned Shai forward to pull a sleeve free and ended up with her bare bottom inches from his face. Amused at the situation, he leaned forward and gave her smooth cheek a gentle bite. She jerked.
  547.  
  548. "Hey!" came her startled shout. She twisted to look over her own back at Morgan, who laughed at the expression on her face.
  549.  
  550. Morgan was about to go back to untangling her, but something caught his eye. "Shai? Is it OK if I ask you something intimate?"
  551.  
  552. "Alright..." she said with worry in her voice.
  553.  
  554. "Why do you have an asshole?"
  555.  
  556. Her face went crimson and she shouted, "What do you mean 'why'!? That's normal! And stop staring at it!"
  557.  
  558. "But you don't have a digestive system in this part of your body, right?" he mused thoughtfully. "I can't see why you would need an anus." He casually rested his hands on her plump backside and leaned closer, examining the small pink circle.
  559.  
  560. "W-Well that's normal, right? The guy putting his thing in there, I mean. It's in porn a lot. I figured you might want to...you know."
  561.  
  562. "So it's just a hole then?" Morgan asked curiously. "Doesn't go anywhere?"
  563.  
  564. "No, it leads to the same stuff my lady parts lead to," she replied.
  565.  
  566. Morgan nodded. "So it's basically a vagina, just shaped like an anus instead."
  567.  
  568. "I guess," she said uncomfortably. "Would you stop looking at it like that?"
  569.  
  570. "I see, I see," Morgan responded cheerfully. "That's very interesting." He slowly reached out and poked the pucker. Shai yelped in surprise and it clenched down around his finger tip, sucking it in. Morgan pulled his finger out, leaving the hole quivering. There was a small bead of clear liquid forming at its center.
  571.  
  572. Morgan faced a great moral dilemma. On one hand he did not like the idea of taking advantage of his lover while she was bound and helpless. On the other hand — that ass. After spending a moment pondering his quandary he came to a decision. With his path clear and his heart full of conviction he dropped his pants.
  573.  
  574.  
  575.  
  576.  
  577. Scout Leader Sehkan pointed to a dark mass in the distance. "There is the...meeting spot, High Ones," he finished awkwardly and stepped aside.
  578.  
  579. Carrie felt foolish for insisting he lead them to the location. The creature sat unmoving on the plains, visible from miles away.
  580.  
  581. One of the priests behind Carrie spoke. "The beast makes us come to it like supplicants. This is insulting."
  582.  
  583. 'Are we not supplicants?' Carrie thought to herself.
  584.  
  585. Amonet studied the serpent while making notes in a small book. She absently responded to the other priest, "You are mistaken, I think. It waits in clear view to allow us to approach at our own pace without becoming frightened. It is something I have heard trappers will do when catching animals for a menagerie."
  586.  
  587. "That is not a comforting thought," Carrie muttered.
  588.  
  589. "We should start walking," Ra said, silencing everyone else. She continued in her stoic voice, "The land is very flat here. The serpent is farther than it appears to be."
  590.  
  591. Some of the scouts nodded, glancing at the creature. With no further discussion the party set out.
  592.  
  593. Carrie was grateful for Ra's presence, even if it did relegate her to a secondary role. The statuesque woman was one of the most powerful goddesses and was known for being level-headed.
  594.  
  595. Time wore on as the party advanced through the tall grass of the plains. Carrie began to struggle with her sense of scale. When she saw the serpent for the first time it was suspended in an empty sky with nothing near it. The plains provided a better reference but not by much. They walked for what seemed to be hours with the creature drawing nearer at a glacial pace.
  596.  
  597. The behemoth towered over them when they finally came to a halt in its shadow. Carrie tried to think of something to compare its size to but she could only come up with geographical features.
  598.  
  599. Ra stepped forward hesitantly before pausing and turning to the Scout Leader. He saluted and ran toward the creature's wicked maw.
  600.  
  601. Carrie surprised herself by letting out a short burst of nervous laughter. Fortunately Amonet didn't take the opportunity to mock her — she was too busy staring at the monster and scribbling notes into her silly book.
  602.  
  603. "What do we do now?" Holly asked uneasily. She looked close to fainting but took her duty too seriously to let fear overwhelm her. Usually.
  604.  
  605. Ra did not respond. She watched the serpent passively, without any sign of fear — but she was sweating.
  606.  
  607. "We wait," Carrie said. "The scouts communicated with the thing before. They know what they are doing. They will get its attention for us."
  608.  
  609. She cautiously looked up at the creature's massive head. She could see sunlight glinting off a large black circle with a yellow streak in its center.
  610.  
  611. As Carrie watched, the yellow streak swelled into a narrow oval. It swiveled downwards and contracted, and began emitting a dull glow. Carrie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. It was an eye. An eye the size of a small plaza. And it was looking at them.
  612.  
  613. Suddenly the side of the beast's head lit up as dozens of other eyes opened and focused on the party.
  614.  
  615. "I think they got its attention," Holly quipped with a queasy voice.
  616.  
  617.  
  618.  
  619.  
  620. Morgan pulled Nibbles off his toe and slipped on his dress shoes. He took a deep breath of fresh air and clapped his hands together.
  621.  
  622. "Alright, lets do this. Are you ready, Shai?"
  623.  
  624. Morgan looked at his companion. She was standing — well, hanging — stiffly in her dress uniform. The original overcoat for it was too tight around her chest so Morgan gave her one of his own. It fit nicely and matched the rest of the uniform well enough, but the sleeves were a bit too long. Her hands often disappeared into them.
  625.  
  626. "Shai? Are you ready to go?"
  627.  
  628. She peeked over one of her larger body's massive teeth at the group of people waiting to meet them. Without taking her eyes off them she said, "Maybe I should wait here. That way I can watch to make sure they don't try anything funny."
  629.  
  630. "I didn't spend an hour squeezing you into that uniform for you to not show it to anybody. Come on, what's wrong? You don't want to meet them now? Didn't you say you wanted to make friends?"
  631.  
  632. She took one last look before turning to Morgan to whisper, "What if they pick on me?"
  633.  
  634. "Why would they do that?"
  635.  
  636. "Because I blew up their stuff, and I'm weird and squishy."
  637.  
  638. Morgan put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You aren't weird, you're unique."
  639.  
  640. "That's what moms say to their kids when they're retarded or deformed or something!" she cried. "I watched those bully movies on the Family Channel, I know how this stuff works!"
  641.  
  642. "Daytime TV is full of shit. More importantly, they won't pick on you, I promise. What are you even worried about? You've probably got blood vessels bigger than them."
  643.  
  644. "They'll make fun of me and say mean things. Size doesn't matter for that."
  645.  
  646. "Sticks and stones-" Morgan began but Shai interrupted.
  647.  
  648. "No way, José," she said. "I know better. Sticks and stones are harmless — words hurt like a bitch! That's the first thing I learned on the internet."
  649.  
  650. "I'll protect you," Morgan replied. "If they say anything mean I'll beat them up."
  651.  
  652. Shai puffed out her cheeks and asked, "Promise?"
  653.  
  654. "I promise," Morgan confirmed. "Everything will be fine."
  655.  
  656. She thought for a moment before agreeing. "Alright. But I'm bringing a few arms with me. J-just in case something happens."
  657.  
  658. "Arms?"
  659.  
  660.  
  661.  
  662.  
  663. When the creature moved, the earth groaned beneath it. It brought its head uncomfortably close to the party and its huge jaws parted. A twisted mass of pale flesh slowly extended out from within the darkness. It slithered along the grass like a snake.
  664.  
  665. Carrie noticed a man walking at its side unconcerned. He was tall and fair-haired, with vibrant green eyes and short, well-groomed facial hair. He wore a simple but pristine white garment that had a ceremonial look to it. It was decorated with golden buttons and several small symbols.
  666.  
  667. The man was speaking to the tangle of flesh beside him. His words were almost too soft to make out but Carrie could tell they were foreign. She hadn't thought to bring interpreters — how would they communicate?
  668.  
  669. Her answer came when the man stopped — about ten yards away — and spoke to them in their language. "My name is Morgan Wright." He had an accent but was understandable. "My friend," he said with a nod to the creature, "is Shai. As I told your scouts, the damage we caused was unintentional and unavoidable. We would like to help you recover if we can."
  670.  
  671. "I think he is human," Amonet whispered, "but I have never seen a human with that coloring before. And the way he interacts with the creature is curious. Is he its master or its servant?"
  672.  
  673. "Could he be a god?" Carrie asked in the same quiet tone. She glanced at Ra. "His clothing is strange. It looks like something a god might wear."
  674.  
  675. Ra listened to the exchange silently before addressing the man. "'Shai' is it?" She asked. "Shai is your friend?"
  676.  
  677. "She's actually my lover, if you want to get technical." He said dryly.
  678.  
  679. A wave of shuffling and startled glances passed among the priests. Carrie found herself gaping at the man. Her gaze moved from him to the massive serpent, then to the disgusting bundle of flesh next to him.
  680.  
  681. "He's getting it on with that thing!?" Holly squeaked. Her voice was just a little too loud. Everyone turned to look at her and an awkward silence descended.
  682.  
  683.  
  684.  
  685.  
  686. "Shai, I'm begging you," Morgan whispered in English to the Shai sandwich next to him. "Please come out of there. They're looking at me like my mom did when she found my incest porn."
  687.  
  688. He could see just enough of her face through the space between her tentacles to know she was silently, vehemently shaking her head.
  689.  
  690.  
  691.  
  692.  
  693. Ra cleared her throat to break the silence. "We did not mean any offense, uh..." she trailed off, clearly struggling with how to address him.
  694.  
  695. "Morgan," he said. "Or Lieutenant Wright if you prefer. And no offense taken. Honestly, it isn't as weird as it sounds, she's actually very pretty."
  696.  
  697. "Of course she is," Ra replied smoothly. "Quite beautiful."
  698.  
  699. Holly gave the colossus a dubious frown and Carrie stepped on her foot. The cow pulled her eyes away with a stifled yelp.
  700.  
  701. "If you don't mind my asking," Ra continued, "what exactly happened at the capital? Our scouts report the land is completely devastated."
  702.  
  703. Carrie glanced at Ra in confusion. She and the other priests had agreed it would be wise to avoid this subject.
  704.  
  705. Morgan hesitated before speaking. "That is complicated. I don't know your language well enough to be sure of my explanation, so I'll try to put it in the simplest terms I can manage.
  706.  
  707. "I was traveling with Shai. Inside her, actually. We were traveling between the stars and we encountered something we had never seen before. It pulled us into the sky above your world and sort of trapped us there. By chance, a device we had with us — something my people made to power our ships — decided to break at that moment."
  708.  
  709. He paused and seemed to think something over quickly. "The results are what your scouts saw," he finished simply.
  710.  
  711. "Your people made something so powerful?" Amonet asked with a strange eagerness in her voice. "How?"
  712.  
  713. Carrie waited for Ra to rebuke her priestess for speaking out of turn. When no rebuke came, she decided to ask a question of her own. "You can travel the stars? Could you carry our leader to the Land of the Gods?"
  714.  
  715. Amonet gave the Anubis an annoyed look but Carrie ignored it. Ra watched the exchange without comment.
  716.  
  717. Morgan said something inaudible to the mass of flesh next to him then waited a moment before answering. "We don't know a place by that name."
  718.  
  719. "I can point the star out to you tonight," Carrie replied. "It will be visible on the northern horizon. I know the constellation well. I also have two of the gate guidestones. They are powerful artifacts that record the positions and movements of the important worlds. We use them to provide coordinates for gate travel. They aren't useful to us with the gate gone, but if I teach you how to read them you should be able to use them as maps."
  720.  
  721. Morgan went back to speaking to the fleshy thing. Carrie waited impatiently for his response.
  722.  
  723. "You have surviving guidestones?" Amonet asked quietly. "How?"
  724.  
  725. "One of the archivists had them on his person when the disaster took place," Carrie answered. "They are in my tent."
  726.  
  727. Ra and Amonet exchanged glances.
  728.  
  729. "If he accepts, I will accompany Pharaoh," Ra said, addressing Carrie. "Amonet and I will go to reestablish the link between our world and the Land of the Gods."
  730.  
  731. "I must go as well," Carrie insisted.
  732.  
  733. Ra watched her with an unreadable expression. "Your duty is to lead the people until Pharaoh recovers."
  734.  
  735. "The council leads the people in all but name. I'm a figurehead." Saying so hurt Carrie's pride but she pressed on. "Pharaoh's High Priest must accompany her when she travels to the Land of the Gods. With the High Priest dead that duty falls on me."
  736.  
  737. "Actually," Holly interjected uncomfortably. "It falls on me. The law dictates that in the event of the unexpected death of Pharaoh's High Priest the High Priestess of Hathor takes on the duties of both until a replacement is found, and vice versa. I haven't had to do much in that capacity because of the mess everything has been in, but I've been holding services."
  738.  
  739. "You can bring me as your assistant," Carrie whispered. "Please, Holly. I cannot leave her side like this."
  740.  
  741. The curvy woman looked dissatisfied but she sighed and gave a nod. Ra still did not look convinced but surprisingly Amonet interceded on their behalf.
  742.  
  743. "Surely it will cause no harm, High One. Why not allow it?" She said.
  744.  
  745. Ra gave her a look but agreed without any further discussion.
  746.  
  747.  
  748.  
  749.  
  750. "It sounds like they're talking about a planet, not something spiritual," Morgan noted.
  751.  
  752. "This gate thing might explain how they were able to move so many people so quickly," Shai said. "I don't know how useful their map will be if it was made for something like that, but if they can point us to the system I can find the planet. There's something weird with their bodies though. With three of them anyways. They aren't actually human, they just look human."
  753.  
  754. Morgan ran his eyes over the assortment of horns, paws, and feathers. "If you say so."
  755.  
  756. "I don't think the interface I used for you will work with them. I'll need to take a good look at them and adjust it. That could take a few months. It took years to get it ready for you in the first place."
  757.  
  758. Morgan thought for a moment. "We can put them in the Fletcher."
  759.  
  760. "The ship?"
  761.  
  762. He nodded. "Life support is fine and the hull is intact, we just need to close it up and turn everything on. I was planning on doing that to finish exploring it anyways. Some of the food in storage is still good too."
  763.  
  764. "Gross."
  765.  
  766. Morgan smiled. "The problem is getting them down there. We can't ask them to hold their breath for the hike. I guess you could manhandle them to speed it up."
  767.  
  768. "I'll just let some fresh air into my throat," Shai suggested. "It takes a few hours for the oxygen to work its way through the lining inside my body. As long as I flush the passages out with other gasses as soon as they get inside the ship I should be fine."
  769.  
  770. "Then why didn't we do that yesterday? Exploring would have been a lot easier if we could have disconnected."
  771.  
  772. "You don't like Nibbles?" Shai asked sadly.
  773.  
  774. "No, it's not that — I just meant for the sake of convenience."
  775.  
  776. "But then you would be really far away," she complained. "I wouldn't be able to talk to you or touch you. What if something happened?"
  777.  
  778. "You can see through my senses, right? So even if I'm far away I'm still within reach in a way, and you would know if something happened to me."
  779.  
  780. She looked away and mumbled, "That's not the same."
  781.  
  782. One of her human hands drifted out of her tentacle cocoon to Morgan. When she remembered that they weren't alone she pulled it back with a worried look toward the party of plush toys.
  783.  
  784. Morgan sighed and reached in to rub the top of her head. "So we're doing this, right?"
  785.  
  786. She nodded. "Yeah. I want to help them, and now that I really think about it something like this is the only way I can do that."
  787.  
  788. "Maybe you can even introduce yourself to them at some point."
  789.  
  790. "O-Of course. I can do that. I just need to prepare myself first."
  791.  
  792. Morgan drew back with a grin and called out to the delegation, "Alright, we're in!"
  793.  
  794. "English," Shai reminded him.
  795.  
  796. He cursed then tried again in their language. "We'll do it. When do you want to leave?"
  797.  
  798.  
  799.  
  800.  
  801. That night, Holly watched Pharaoh's hastily constructed sarcophagus disappear into an abyss lined with teeth the size of riverboats.
  802.  
  803. "This is the stupidest thing we've ever done," she said to her companion.
  804.  
  805. The golden Anubis responded with exaggerated patience. "Holly, we've been over this a dozen times."
  806.  
  807. "We're about to stroll willingly into the open mouth of a giant monster!" Amonet and Ra had already gone in, following the man from before. Just walked right in. Not a care in the world.
  808.  
  809. "I don't stroll. I have never strolled. And if it wanted to eat us it could do so easily enough without our cooperation. The only logical conclusion I can come to in this situation is that their offer is genuine. It's worth the risk."
  810.  
  811. "You just don't care if you get eaten now that everybody knows you were getting freaky with the abomination's pet."
  812.  
  813. Carrie's brows drew down in anger. "I never slept with him and you know it!" She responded quietly, conscious of the surrounding guardsmen.
  814.  
  815. "All I know is you liked staring at his butt."
  816.  
  817. "That doesn't have anything to do with anything! And don't make me sound like a pervert, I didn't-"
  818.  
  819. "Advisor," one of the guardsmen interrupted. He pointed to a glowing protrusion inside the mouth. The way it moved made it seem like it was beckoning them.
  820.  
  821. "Come on," Carrie growled. "If you don't go I can't either." She grabbed Holly's arm and pulled her into the mouth.
  822.  
  823. Holly resisted for a moment but quickly gave up with a huff. She would not disgrace herself and her order by getting into a shoving match with Pharaoh's Advisor in front of half the Royal Guard.
  824.  
  825. When she stepped into the mouth and the floor moved beneath her. She nearly headbutted Carrie and ran, dignity be damned.
  826.  
  827.  
  828.  
  829.  
  830. Holly opened her eyes in a huge, dimly lit cavern. Carrie was standing over her with a faint grin.
  831.  
  832. "What happened?" Holly asked.
  833.  
  834. "You fainted," the Anubis said with amusement.
  835.  
  836. "Are you alright?" asked a masculine voice.
  837.  
  838. Holly jumped and shied back from the tall blond man.
  839.  
  840. "You should thank him," Carrie said sternly. "Our host and his companion are the ones who carried you here. You were too heavy for me."
  841.  
  842. Holly flushed and stammered an apology while glaring daggers at Carrie. The woman should have known better than to mention another girl's weight, especially in front of a man.
  843.  
  844. The man laughed. "You weren't heavy. Don't worry about the fainting either, I know Shai can take some getting used to. Holly, right? I said it before, but call me Morgan." He shook her hand and helped her to her feet.
  845.  
  846. "Your friends are already inside," Morgan continued, pointing to a small gap in an unusual wall of grey. "I showed Carrie how to work the air-lock so she can take you in to join them. I'll come in in a minute myself to show you all around — Shai wants me for something first."
  847.  
  848. Holly squinted at the grey shape, trying to make sense of it. "Inside that? What is it?"
  849.  
  850. "It's a ship my people made. It's like any other ship, only for the sky instead of water. You'll have to stay inside it until we get to our destination. You won't be able to breathe out here pretty soon."
  851.  
  852. He led them to the doorway. They stepped through into a small room and Carrie pushed something on the wall. The door slammed shut. Holly watched through a window of very thick glass as Morgan walked off into the shadows.
  853.  
  854. Carrie jabbed a finger into Holly's side and scolded, "Stop drooling."
  855.  
  856. Holly turned with a frown but Carrie's ill-humored expression made her swallow her come-back. The Anubis tapped the wall again and the room let out a loud hiss. Once the noise abated Holly said sheepishly, "Well, he is very handsome."
  857.  
  858. "He is also apparently the mate of the celestial horror that has kindly offered to carry us across the stars. Please do nothing to offend it."
  859.  
  860. Another door on the opposite end of the room opened. Carrie strode through and turned to the right, down a narrow corridor. Holly rushed to catch up with her.
  861.  
  862. "I'm not a complete idiot, you know," Holly objected. At that moment her feet slipped out from under her. She fell backwards instantly. Her pack cushioned her fall but she still landed hard. Her bottom was sore and she could feel dampness seeping into her clothes.
  863.  
  864. "Why is the ground wet?" She whined.
  865.  
  866. She slipped again while trying to stand up.
  867.  
  868. "Ugh, it's so slimy."
  869.  
  870. She noticed Carrie staring at her with a blank face. "Oh, just laugh — I'm already bruised and wet, I might as well be humiliated too."
  871.  
  872. "Holly, where did you put the guidestone I gave you? And what was the cracking noise I heard when you fell?"
  873.  
  874. Holly paused her attempts to straighten herself and gave Carrie a weak smile. "I think those two questions have the same answer."
  875.  
  876. A twitch in Carrie's face made Holly put her hands up defensively. "There's no need to get mad. We still have the guidestone you gave Amonet."
  877.  
  878. A loud crash caused Holly and Carrie to look to the end of the corridor. Amonet was there, standing over the shattered remains of the other guidestone.
  879.  
  880. The gryphon put her hands to her cheeks in mock alarm. "Oh no, what-ever shall we do? How can we revive the spoiled princess now?"
  881.  
  882. Ra stood at Amonet's side. The goddess gave a sigh and said, "There's no need for theatrics, Mistress."
  883.  
  884. Too late, Carrie and Holly both realized why Ra's stoic mannerisms seemed so familiar.
  885.  
  886.  
  887.  
  888.  
  889. "What's up?" Morgan asked once Shai finally came out of hiding. "I don't want to leave them alone in there for too long, they might touch something dangerous."
  890.  
  891. "I figured out what was wrong with the star the doggie lady showed you."
  892.  
  893. "There's something wrong with it?"
  894.  
  895. "Well, not wrong with it exactly. That's not what I mean. I just thought there was something weird about it when she pointed it out. Once I started moving I figured it out. It's not a star, it's Andromeda."
  896.  
  897. "The galaxy?" Morgan asked with surprise. "Wait, we're already moving?"
  898.  
  899. Shai nodded to both questions.
  900.  
  901. "Is that a problem? A galaxy will be a lot farther away than a local star. Can we take them that far?"
  902.  
  903. "The distance isn't a problem but finding the right planet is. I was thinking I would only have to look through a single system before. A whole galaxy is a little..."
  904.  
  905. Morgan grunted in understanding. "Right. It's a good thing they have those maps. I guess we'll have to learn to use them after all."
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