And not only could Cace perceive the monster’s presence in the Ether, he was able to understand its parallel purpose in both worlds. He saw that it was a multiplicative. Its first purpose was to reproduce itself in other beings. To that end it had a special ability: to take other living matter and transform it into a copy of itself. It wasn’t simply that the larva consumed the host it was planted in, it was that it became a kernel within, rewriting the living thing to grow and harden and reshape until it was the same as that beast.
And this was why the beast retained a special connection to each of its larva, they were each a continuation of the original. They might appear as separate entities, but they were clones of one another, separate branches that had grown from the same trunk.
All of which was fascinating, but Aylme was running out of time and Cace still didn’t know how to help! So he pivoted on the spot, surveying the rest of the world, looking for some other element in the Ether that could help.
He traced the connections from the beast, saw that it had threads to all the other components in the Ether. This was because of its second purpose: to be a regulator. It multiplied itself in order to scour the entire system and restrain or purge anything that was amiss. Any foreign entity or corrupted module were eradicated instantly. Because, as Cace now realized, all of these modules were parts of a whole, they were separate functions to one higher purpose. They were a machine, a great and massive machine, and that machine had to be preserved from corruption.
Cace turned his attention to the heart of the machine, looking for some way to sever its connection to the beast or to change its functions. But the heart of the machine was cold and inactive. Its periphery systems still ran, but the core did not. It required fuel to function, and at some point it must have run out of that.
Cace saw the furnace of the machine…a great sprawling mass, which twisted in every direction around the other parts of the machine, trying to feel out some entity to burn. It was careful not to touch any of the other parts of the machine, though, because it had no way to differentiate between machine module and foreign element. It would just consume anything that it came in contact with.
And suddenly Cace realized he knew what the sprawling engine’s counterpart was in the overworld. It was the black powder at the foot of the almnut tree.
Without waiting another moment Cace turned on the spot and dashed from the field! He heard Aylme’s cries as the boulder above her fractured. She was trying to prop it up with her hands, but it was starting to crumble into rubble. One more hit and the monster would be through!
Cace’s foot caught on a root and tripped him, but he turned his fall into a roll, returned to his feet, and kept going. He leapt over the next root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. He had come to the base of the almnut tree and saw the powder sprawled out before him like a black ocean.
Back in the clearing, the creature lifted itself and thrust its body down once more. Aylme screamed as it impacted on the loose rock. The stone shattered into pieces and fell between her arms. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact of the creature’s hard underbelly…but it didn’t come! Instead the creature sharply recoiled, legs falling over one another as it writhed in agony.
Aylme slowly opened her eyes. Incredulous, she pushed away the loose rock and sat up, watching as the beast trampled its way into the center of the clearing, convulsing horribly. It opened its clam-like mouth and it was filled with that same black powder that had tried to suffocate Rolar. It was as if that powder was flowing into the creature from an unseen fountain!
Back at the almnut tree, the last of the white larva sunk into the black soil, twisting as it went. The powder had hungrily eaten the thing up, then gone through it—as if it were a portal—to where the great beast now twitched in the clearing. The powder crawled out of the monster’s mouth and across its surface, flowing over every detail, consuming as it went! Two of the creature’s legs disintegrated and it collapsed onto the ground. A few more moments and there wasn’t any creature left, only a large pile of black powder where it had stood!
Then came the sound of ruptures all around the clearing, buried beneath the surface. It was the thousands of the creature’s larva being invaded all at the same moment. The whole earth rumbled and plumes of black powder erupted like small volcanoes.
Aylme felt the pocket of ground next to her start to tremble and she quickly rolled away before the fountain of powder could get on her! She scrambled over to Rolar’s unconscious form, eyes frantically darting in every direction, making sure that none of the powder plumes were going to fall on him.
And then, just like that, it all stopped. The earth gave a loud groan, like a pained sigh, and there was no more shaking, no more rupturing, and no more creature or larva. Everything turned still.
“Aylme?” Cace called, dashing across the clearing towards the other two. He was pale, sweaty, and disoriented.
“Cace, Rolar’s seriously hurt!” Aylme sobbed, looking the older boy over. She turned his head so that she could see his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. “We’ve got to get him back home. Though I’m not–I’m not sure how we can fix this.”
There was dread in her voice. Rolar’s arm was bent at an odd angle, clearly broken, but even worse damage had been down in the next blow, which had hit him squarely on the back and head. No doubt he had a concussion, and perhaps a fractured spine. Maybe even damage to his internal organs.
Had they saved his life, just to watch him slowly succumb to his wounds?