hi, readers! It’s been pretty quiet here with most of my energy devoted to resting from finishing, then to line-editing, Sword of the Outsider. Now that that’s done, I’ve started turning out smaller fiction as the mood takes me.
Here’s another that started as a Twitter thread. I’ve made a few additions–you’ll know where when you reach the meatier dialogue–but for the most part kept the brevity and more poem-like structure Twitter encourages. I’ve quite come to like how the platform pushes me to approach my writing differently.
Shame about all the other parts of Twitter, no?
This story makes references to the Morphic Korps setting created by @SixArmedSweater on Twitter. We highly recommend looking into more of her work if you like anthro characters, deeply-written TF, and healing vibes!
As to Ex Nihilo itself? An experienced Harrower of the Cobalt Immortals emerges from one battle to find others waiting: in future missions, and in her own self-doubt.
Content Warnings: bloodlust, Cobalt Immortals, cosmic horror, dissociation, eldritch cognition, PTSD, violence and gore, discussions of cognitohazards & reality breakdown
We are silver-armored specters on fields where cinders flow.
The glint on a pauldron’s ridgeline, the fangs outlined against the fire of a spectral maw. We are the rustle of a blue coat, the clatter of a heavy mirror-sheen barrel finding its line of fire. We are thunder. The sweet redemption of its rhythm at a braced shoulder.
A hundred bellowing pressures in a web of lightning inside the skin under a bulbous helm and two glowing ovals. Impulses call from a pinpoint in the ever-rushing web. Past the pinnacle of a ruptured reactor that bleeds irradiant fire upon the ember-laden air: a precipice.
We are the stamp of armored boots through wasted ash, and the final reverberation of a three-toed foot in the grey between the husks of char-black fronds.
Below are the enemy. Their name does not matter. Their strength does matter.
We are the anvil. They will break upon us.
Hooks and oily smears of fractal flesh. This snarling swath that streams past the overlook fringed by boulders like the crown of a forgotten monarch. What do they seek?
A light to quench. A dream to strangle.
But we have made our vow. They will not break it.
The glory-hymn of gleaming metal. The bloom of blue-fire from a barrel turning swiftly red. We are in every silver bullet. We are the whistle of wind and the shriek of impact.
Red flesh tears.
We are damnation calling.
A thousand maws scream their rage.
We are the peak afire.
An irising fan of blades.
We are the sunflare flicker shattering them.
Iridescent eyes. Fangs of nova.
We are the abyssal shadow of their unmaking.
Forms unnumbered boil to bury us.
We are the sacred fire of expurgation. We are shell-cases falling.
Splatters of fungal blood, steaming clouds of riven purple sinew and the gush of pus and ichor from sundered eyes in hills of amber skin.
We are the revelation of death. Drink of us, and you will never know need again.
Into the drumbeat of ruin.
Into the diminutive figure of an upright gecko veiled behind silvery plate and a long blue surcoat, with an immense bayonet-capped rifle still leaping at her shoulder.
“Radmila, that one’s dead,” Taarzlichadi said. The demon-Harrower sheathed her longsword. “They’re all dead.”
It took Radmila Schäfer, Harrower of the Cobalt Immortals, another two seconds to process that and ease off the trigger of her still-thundering rail-rifle. “Oh,” she said. She looked down from the smoky knoll on a field of eldritch carcasses. “Uh…”
Taarz was a sleek metal maw and ten crescent eyes of fire beneath a cage of nine antlers. Right now she was the memory of those things beneath a tapering, hook-jawed helm of crystalline blue.
Radmila remembered this now.
“It’s alright,” Taarzlichadi said. “It–“
“It happens to all of us sometimes?” Radmila echoed, pushing more wryness into her words than she felt. “I know. Um…” she swept the six-foot rifle–Radmila was four-foot eight–back and up, then settled it against her shoulder. “Anyone wounded?”
“Nothing they need help to heal,” Taarz said, triplet tails weaving around each other with lightning arcs behind them. “It’s okay, Radmila. It’s over. We won, and no one died.”
Too-steady fingers ejected a near-empty magazine. It fell on flickering flames atop the ashen hill.
“It’s never over,” Radmila said. “Sometimes the quiet just lasts longer.”
Visions of monoliths perforated by sickly pale fire. The echoes of a voice screaming the same deluded refrain, ever more ragged.
Then Taarz’ hand clamped on her shoulder. “That voice lies,” the demon said. “It did not break me. It will not break you.” Her claws rasped, squeezing on Radmila’s armor.
“Thanks, Taarz,” Radmila said. “I’ll believe that. One day.”
“I know, comrade,” the outer devil answered. Her head snapped up and aside. “You’ll be wanted at the CP in five minutes.”
Radmila nodded. Taarz had pretty reliable foresight. Outer demons often did. You learned to roll with these things in the Immortals. “Guess I’ll get on my way, then,” she said, slinging her rifle’s strap over her shoulder.
“Alright, ‘mila,” Taarz said. “Rest your soul, okay?”
Radmila nodded. She didn’t trust her words to answer for her.
She took a high leap off the knoll where her squad had made their stand. Otherworld things pulped under her boots. The nasal sawing of strange matter’s decay. Corridors of ruptured meat and mineral bones paved a way.
When she passed beneath the doorless gate–the moss clinging to it was long since burned away by the collision of some off-angle fireburst against the arch–she approached the thin-trestle tables where a human scratched a wound in his deep-brown jaw.
“Hey,” Radmila said, raising her voice. “Stop clawing at it, you idiot.”
“What?” Vtal Kunar asked, sounding, well, wounded. “It’ll heal either way.”
“Yeah, but you’re still wasting energy by making it a little harder on yourself,” she said. “Every little bit counts.”
She cleared her throat and drew her feet together. “Fine work today, comrade knandrizhag.”
“Was it?” Vtal asked, knuckling his chin. “They breached the weakness created between 1st and 2nd platoons when I ordered the shift northward. What if–”
“Vtal,” Radmila said, “it was. Anyway,” she continued, “Taarz said you wanted me? Or you’re about to?”
“Right, yes,” Vtal said. “That’s correct. We have an assignment for you from Central.” He sifted the silver tablets beneath the hardlight command-awning and passed a rack of them to her. Each one’s surface shifted in waves of unfolding, more blooming from its single glittering sheet than a hundred should be able to hold.
But there was no hope of wonder in it.
“I’m being reassigned?” Radmila asked. Her traitor voice wavered.
“No, no!” Vtal said. “It’s a Vagary. Nothing’s set in stone, and even if Central does confirm it… well, read for yourself.” He waved a hand, then cleared his throat. “You’re cleared past Blue Meridian, right?”
“I already have the file, Vtal,” Radmila said. A finger’s press. A helm’s release: hissing air and faint vapors from the jawline-seam. Lifted away, its bowl revealed glossy black skin with orange stripes running over the cheeks, and enormous azure eyes. The face she saw in the mirror, sometimes. “But, yeah. I’d have to be, wouldn’t I?”
Sickly fires. Deluded wailing.
Vtal’s eyes crinkled. “Yes. That’s true. Well… it’s not about the file. It’s about the source.”
“What, Central?” Radmila asked. “Well, I guess one of our Zealots…”
“Not Kargaev,” Vtal interrupted. “This one’s straight out of Machrae Diir.”
Radmila’s stomach dropped. “What?”
Flashes of a throne veiled in ever-shifting shadow before the enraptured nova, where a six-horned figure brooded in nocturne undying. The flare of cobalt inferno behind diamond-slicing jaws. The smile in blue viper eyes.
“The First?” Radmila asked.
“Yeah,” Vtal said, “I was shocked too.”
Radmila read with the speed of a mind untrammeled by flesh and time. “Okay,” she said, “okay, I’m starting to see the reasoning. Exouniversal… reinforcement may not be feasible…” she set her rifle down against the nearest table and put her hands on it, leaning over the tablet. “Ah. Mhm. So I’d be inserting near some of these Korps folks. KDARC? Interesting. Always loved the Black Forest. Cosmic horrors, total expurgation, threat level estimates…”
Her eyes narrowed. Ah. And there was the catch.
She sighed and added, “Strong likelihood they’ll keep me in containment until I earn their trust… which the First notes might never happen. So that’s why she wants a Harrower. Condemnator’s a waste if they’re the one being investigated. Zealot would cause more problems than they’d solve…”
She licked her teeth. “What about a Crucible Sage?”
“I admit, I’m not sure either,” Vtal said. “Your best guess?”
“Well, it’s outside Axiom,” she said. “A lot of Sage methods depend on the way the Labyrinth merges with the core material, or tries to. That might not work so well in the spatial structure of another universe. Or it might work too well, which could be worse.” Several lines gouged in the silvery substance. Her eyes came to rest on them. “What’s this about the Fires? Hell, Lucifer? Um, Vtal… any guesses as to why Old Fury isn’t asking one our demons to talk with theirs?”
“Well,” Vtal said, “it sounds like our demons and theirs–“
“SISTERS!” interrupted one such demon, with a strident cry emerging in ten forgotten tongues at once. “See what I have found!”
She drove her clawed hands through a sudden tear in the fabric of reality, aurorae of chromatic aberration, and drew forth… a damn big buttress.
A flying buttress, in fact, like a seamless separation from some enormous cathedral of golden stone. It was covered in engravings, and also, a second later, all thirteen of their company’s outer devils–Taarz included.
They scampered, clambered, and clawed their way along its faces with keen eyes.
“What do the runes sing?” one asked.
“Whence does it come, why its forlorn hues?” another asked.
Vtal exchanged a look with Radmila. “Our demons are a lot. It might be a cultural misfit.”
“Point taken,” Radmila said. “Which means sending a handmaiden is definitely out. So… this is a version of Earth. This is exouniversal. Out of Axiom.”
“Yup,” Vtal said. Radmila waited a moment in hopes that he would offer some insight to shrink the weight in her skull. He did not.
“Let’s see… probability of catalytic revelation? Unknown… possibility of universal collapse? Unknown…” she read further. Her eyes widened. “Our entry team. It might just be me, if… if she commits?” Reinforcement might not be feasible. Those words ignited her mind in a mazework blaze of awful new meanings.
“You can deny the mission,” Vtal said. “No mandates in the Immortals.”
“No, fuck that,” Radmila said. “I didn’t join to run away when it got hard.”
But this… the whole weight of what the Immortals might be able to do if she succeeded, of first contact with this Earth’s people… everything lost if she…
“What’s, uh…” Such dry scraping in her throat. “What’s my entry condition?”
“The usual,” Vtal said. “If they call, you go in.”
“But they don’t know we exist,” Radmila said. “How…” Her eyes settled on an etching that read simply, “The way will make itself if the need is true.”
“Am I reading this right?” she asked. “Is the Lady of Machrae Diir telling me to read all this, train for a mission I might never go on, and… hope it all works out?”
“Well,” Vtal said, “if you’re reading that wrong, then so was I.”
“Right,” Radmila said. “I guess we’ll see.”
“Comrade Vtal,” Taarz called. She leapt suddenly out of her playful clambering on the buttress. She marched closer with rigid steps, all frolics forgotten. “We will need to redeploy in ten minutes! A crisis in the Tiridag Sprawl!”
Hasty feet. Rapid voices. Resurgent zeal.
This time when the vote was called for the next mission’s knandrizhag, the choice was unanimous: “Will you stand, comrade Radmila?”
She sighed, unslinging her rifle. “Well,” she said, “I guess we’ll see.”
She settled the silver helm back atop her head. A mission to another universe? Maybe. But for now, Axiom promised another battle. She took a deep breath.
“Alright, Immortals!” she shouted. “We move out in five! Consolidate weapons and ammo! Burn every corpse, send every relic where no one will find it. I want all remaining cognitohazards purged YESTERDAY. Once that ship gets underway, we are not turning it around! Be back before we leave, or you’ll have to find your own way back to Kargaev!”
They answered her in a single voice and a flair of cobalt radiance.