Cace shivered all over, then slowly rose to his feet. Earlier that day he had stood with a foot in both the overworld and the Ether, not seeing either in perfect clarity, but semi-conscious of each. Now, though, with the help of the beast-warden’s submodule, each realm was fully flooding his senses. When he moved he was registering the shift in both worlds and it was overwhelming him. After staggering for a few moments he stopped, then released his grip on the Ether. That probably meant it would be hard to get back to it again, but for now it was better for him to just be here in the overworld. As his perspective on the Ether faded away, a sense of dizziness left him, and at last he was back to normal.
Well, mostly. Now that he was entirely attached to his overworld body, he couldn’t help but notice that there were a few things unfamiliar about it. For one thing he felt taller, and looking down saw that his arms and legs were unnaturally elongated and thin, appearing too feeble to bear him, yet surprisingly strong, as if they were made of steel. There was also something unusual about his face, too. His mouth was wrong, though he didn’t know how. It just didn’t feel like the sort of mouth he was used to.
Cace lifted those strangely elongated arms to feel the part of his face between nose and chin, and found that there was no mouth there at all! No lips, no teeth, no tongue…none of it. What was there was a metal grille, with four vertical lines that were constantly venting steam.
“Ohhhhh!” Cace cried, but the sound didn’t emanate from his throat. It came from the back of the grille, and made a sound like the whine of small gears spinning too fast.
Cace realized this must be the result of having attached the warden-beast submodule to him. Making that change on the Ether had altered things for him here, that was not too surprising, but why was it like this? The warden-beast hadn’t had any grille. It hadn’t been venting steam. Evidently when two submodules combined in the Ether they didn’t result in a simple sum. Their joined functions in the Ether were predictable…but not their outward representation in the overworld.
Cace’s hands twitched as he felt his grille over and over. He wanted to get back to the Ether, wanted to rip the warden-beast submodule out of him, wanted to find some way to get himself back to the way he was supposed to be!
But no. For now Cace forced himself not to linger on the moment. He had more important things to attend to. Rotating around he got his bearings, then marched off in the direction of their shelter. He did not have far to go, and he soon spied the form of a great, hulking creature leaning against a nearby tree.
The creature was nearly ten feet tall. It’s shape was warped and asymmetrical, with a back that curved sharply to the left. Upon its left shoulder there rested another shoulder, with a third arm extending down alongside of the first. The first left hand had only a thumb and the first two fingers. The second left hand had a thumb as well, and then five three-foot tentacles that drooped towards the ground. Over the creature’s right shoulder there were four rocks which were suspended in the air and lazily followed the creature as it moved, as if tethered by invisible strings. The left side of the face was Rolar’s: bright, blue eye, a long nose, and hair the color of straw, but the other side was entirely shrouded in a small, black cloud.
Hello, Rolar, Cace thought sadly.
The creature looked at him forlornly turned to face him. It was hard to do, though, as it had only one good leg and the other was a stump, broken off at half the length of the other.
So that was how Rolar had been escaped from the invader: he had had to sever its hold on his leg. But the stump was not bleeding or showing any exposed flesh, as the overclocked larva submodule was still actively rewriting Rolar’s body to seal off the wound.
Cace reached up and rested his hand on the outer of Rolar’s left arms.
I’m sorry, he thought, unable to actually make the sound due to the grille that had replaced his mouth. He wondered whether Rolar understood what he meant. If Rolar’s body had been changed so much, what about his mind? Did this half-creature even remember Cace?
The Rolar-beast gave a forlorn sigh, and raised its right hand to pat Cace’s forehead. At the very least it seemed to recognize that Cace was a friend.
What happened to Aylme? Cace thought, looking searchingly into Rolar’s eyes as he did so. Rolar squinted back, then slowly turned to the side and stared in the direction of their shelter. As Cace followed the gaze a low whine of shock reverberated from his grille.
The entire area beside the river’s edge had been overrun by the water tendrils. Its threads were spread out like a black web, piercing through every trunk and branch, slowly tightening their grip until it broke the wood into dust. The higher branches fell earthward as the lower ones shattered, and were caught by the tendrils to meet the same fate. Meanwhile unseen tendrils pressed on through the dirt, grabbing pushes and saplings by the root and forcefully sucking them downward to oblivion.
And as the tendrils continued their life-throttling advance, a single, massive bubble grew at the center of the river. A bubble where the water was congealed so tightly that the surface appeared black and Cace couldn’t see into it at all.
But then, as Cace slowly drew nearer, the bubble started to expand outwards, growing thinner at the edges, until Cace was able to make out the forms at its fringes. Around the sides and the bottom there were fishes and frogs, totally immobile, with rigid, unblinking eyes, suspended in the water’s pressure. And at the very top there was the head of a girl, face turned upwards, dark hair wreathed around pale skin, eyes fastened shut, and with arms extended out to either side.
It was Aylme.