Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
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Shield of Korval by Angela Gradillas.
PINWHEELED across the aetherium, painting the void with bright strokes of energy. Rapt, she moved closer to the barrier—and closer still, until the weaving of the containment forces flared.
She retreated until the barrier faded from her awareness, and once again only the
were visible. Power and grace. Unimaginable power, for these were
at the height of their considerable abilities, captured, contained, and exploited by the Iloheen—and no concern of hers.
Despite this—and the fact that it was... theoretically... impossible for those who wore flawed and fallible flesh to behold the sacred servants without the intermediary sight of an instructor, she came as often as she might to the aetherium, the folded space at the edge of what was, to watch the play and the power of the wild ones, the rebels; those who had contended as equals against the Iloheen—
Of course, they had lost. No one and nothing could stand against the Iloheen. So she had been taught, and so she believed. But knowing that each
contained within the aetherium had striven, flame to ice, against one of the Iloheen—that knowledge excited a brilliant emotion in her, as the beauty of their gyrations dazzled her senses, leaving her—
There it was—her favorite of the wild dancers: Not so large as some, but densely structured, the pattern of its emanations controlled, it colors deep and cunning, resonating through every spectrum she was able to sense, and surely well beyond. It suited her fancy to style this one
—Lord of Chance—in all ways fit to serve the Masters of Unmaking. Indeed, when she had not seen it at once, she had supposed that its master had required it elsewhere. That it was free and dancing—pleased her.
Not that her puny pleasure was to be set against the necessities of the Iloheen. Surely not. The whole purpose of her existence was to serve the Iloheen as they instructed her, for while they were invincible, their numbers were not limitless, and so they required servants to perform certain of the lesser tasks of conquest.
She was herself scarcely trained, and, according to her teachers, barely trainable. Yet she had passed living through the first two Dooms, while others of her cohort had not, and even now a vessel formed from her DNA and shaped by her skill grew in the birthing room. Soon, it would be ready to receive a download. And, oh, she thought, her eyes on the
as it tumbled and shone in its dance through the clusters of its fellows, if only—
But such was not for her.
Putting away longing and regret alike, she watched the
dance, taking comfort from the intricate, subtle patterns that emerged—and suddenly came to full attention, all her senses a-tingle, as she sought to analyze those so-subtle movements.
was feigning random action, but close analysis revealed that it was passing near each and every one of the dancers in the aetherium, mingling its energies with those others in the way of
communication. There was nothing overtly wrong in this—if the Iloheen had not wished their servants to communicate, they would simply have forbidden it. But the attempt to conceal the communication engaged her interest—as did the fact that the others were becoming ...agitated, condensing their essences until they were nearly as dense as the
, their auras held close and studious.
Engrossed in her study, she again came too near the containment field, and for an instant the dancers were hidden from her. When her senses cleared, she saw that the seven strongest of the captives now danced in pattern near the center of the aetherium, while the rest kept orbit about them, tumbling with abandon, energies bright and zealous.
Rapt, she observed them, her entire attention on the double dances—the inner pattern formal, laden—laden with
; the outer heedless and dazzling. She ached; her senses so tightly engaged that she did not perceive the approach of the Iloheen until its very Shadow fell across the aetherium.
Poor student she might be, but she had not survived two Dooms because she was a fool—nor because she lacked resources or awareness. She had once come to the attention of the Iloheen; twice was more than any student might survive.
Immediately, she damped her output, coalesced, and plummeted through the levels to the physical plane, gritting her teeth to keep the cry locked in her mouth as the dancers, the aetherium, the Shadow itself—vanished from her perceptions.
She breathed, deep and deliberate, and slowly increased her heartbeat, keeping herself centered on the physical plane. Her envelope had become chilled; she warmed it, uncurled and sat up. At the last, she opened her eyes upon the stone-walled dormitory, the ceiling black and secret. Curled naked on the rocky floor were five identical sleepers, which was all that was left of her cohort.
Carefully, she allowed her senses to expand, reading emanations left upon the air by the immediate past—and found nothing but the sleeping auras of her sisters.
Satisfied that her absence had not been noted, she curled down on the cold, sharp rock, closed her eyes and willed her body into slumber—and found resistance, though not from her pliant vessel. Memory it was that would keep her wakeful, and different, and thus subject to scrutiny.
She exerted her will, and sleep she did, though the memory lingered.
SHE WAS CONTEMPLATING ley lines, their shapes and patterns, attempting to gauge the magnitude of force required to effect a branching off a main avenue of event. She was, of herself, powerless to shift the lines, or to cross them, or to affect a branching. However, it was necessary that she understand the art and the consequences of its use. If she survived the Three Dooms, thereby proving herself worthy to engender life. If the life she engendered was fit. If she enforced her dominion. If—
The order rang inside her head, bright orange and tasting of manganese—the thought signature of the Anjo Valee dominant, their biology tutor. Obedient, she withdrew her attention from the glittering, seductive lines of possibility and power, rose from her crouch and, with the eleven of her cohort who had survived the First Doom, walked—naked, silent, and identical—down the rough stone hall to the biology lab.
Their tutor awaited them on the raised platform at the center of the room, the dominant standing with thin arms crossed over her breast, her face bearing its usual expression of impatient irritation. The submissive towered behind her, his face round and blank, eyes staring deep into the vasty mysteries of time and space.
The twelve of them knelt in a half-ring before the dias, their faces tipped up to their tutor, eyes open and focused on her face. As one, they neutralized their protections, and composed themselves to learn.
When they were all equally calm and receptive, the dominant smiled, showing small pointed teeth, closed her eyes and broadcast the lesson.
As usual, it struck the mind hard, its many angles and tiny sharp details seeming to cut the brain tissue itself. Kneeling, she received the thing, taking care to keep her eyes open and steady, and to allow no shadow of pain to disturb her aura as the knowledge sank into the depths of her mind, flowered with a thousand daggered points—and was gone.
You will now practice the technique
, the dominant projected.
On the tile floor before each appeared a lab dish bearing a quiescent portion of protolife.
Animate your subject
, the order came.
That was easy enough; engendering a nervous system was elementary biology. She extended her thought and probed the clay, teasing out filaments, weaving them into a network. When the weaving was done, she subjected the whole to a deep scrutiny, being certain there were no missed synapses, before releasing a carefully gauged jolt of energy. The protolife twitched, the network of nerves glowed, and she withdrew into her envelope, her hands laying loose on her thighs.
She must have been slower than the rest at her work, for no sooner had she re-entered the physical plane than the order rang inside her head:
Render your subject aware
Once again, she brought her attention to the protolife and the steady glow of the nervous system she had created. Awareness—that was more difficult. They had been given the theory in philosophy, but this would be the first opportunity to bring theory into practice.
Carefully, she made her adjustments, and when she was satisfied, she withdrew to her envelope.
Kneeling, she waited, long enough for the sweat to dry on her face; long enough to begin to wonder if she had made some foolish error, which had allowed her to finish so far ahead of the—
Render your subject self-aware
Self-aware? Almost, she allowed the thought to take form, but wisdom won out. One did not question the Anjo Valee dominant lightly. Nor was one stupid or slow in completing one's lesson.
She returned to the second plane, where she contemplated the pulsing protolife with puzzlement.
. This went beyond what theory the philosophy tutor had granted them. However, if it were but a simple progression—animation, awareness, self-awareness...
Gingerly, and not at all certain that her instinct was good, she exerted her will once more, fashioning a chamber of pure energy, which enclosed and oversaw the central autonomous system. When it was fully formed and integrated, glowing in her perceptions like an impossibly tiny
she breathed upon it, and projected a single thought.
The energy construct twitched, glowed, dimmed—and flared. Rudimentary thought reached her, barely more than an inarticulate mumble. The mumble grew as it accepted data from the central nervous system and began assessing its situation. Its unique situation.
Shaken in spirit, she returned to her sweat-drenched envelope. It took all of her will to leave her shields down; and every erg of her strength to keep her eyes open, modestly contemplating the lab dish and the creature which was beginning to cast about for data regarding its environment and itself.
Her envelope was beginning to shiver. Irritated, she encouraged certain molecules to increase their dance briefly and dried her sweat-slicked dermis. She did not smile, nor avert her eyes from the lab dish. It was too much to hope that her action had escaped the notice of their tutor, the submissive unit of whom was attuned to the ebb and flow of power, from small flares of warmth to the death and birth of star systems.
In the lab dish, the self-aware protolife continued to gather data, its mutter limping toward coherence. The facts of its existence were simple and straightforward, and because they were the facts of its existence, unalarming. It did not miss the limbs it had never had, it did not repine for sight or for the ability to shape living things from quiescent clay. It—
. Their tutor's thought signature was shot with yellow, signaling that she was more than usually impatient.
You will now access the technique you have been given and use it to physically alter your subject. Be certain that it remains conscious and aware during the change. This is the shape you will bestow
—a quick mind-picture of a bulbous body from which three equal tentacles protruded.
The technique was deceptively simple, and her first attempt produced two greater tentacles and a lesser. She accessed the technique again in order to make the adjustment, and the creature in the lab dish screamed.
She watched it closely as it quivered, then rallied and began to collect the data on its new form, stretching out its tentacles and exploring far more of the lab dish than it had known existed. Its terror faded into excitement, into curiosity, into—
, the order came, and the shape this time included an ear.
Her creature's horror sublimated quickly into the eagerness of discovery. From somewhere—likely from the Anjo Valee submissive—came sound, patternless and far into the range that she herself could perceive only through her other senses. The creature tracked the noise, building processing space on its own initiative, its muttering intelligible now as it formed theories regarding the sound, its purpose and its possible meaning for itself.
An eye and a fine gripper were added. The creature scarcely felt horror at these newest developments; and the pain of acquiring the alterations bled almost instantly away into greedy wonder. It created additional processing space as it began to creep about the dish, testing the information brought to it through its eye. It looked up, and she received a weird visual feedback—a smooth, lopsided blotch of gold, topped by a second and smaller blotch...
The image this time was sharply different—a bony carapace, six multi-jointed legs—three to a side—eyes fore and aft, on flexible stalks. The creature marched forward, learning its strength and its range. The muttering now took into account this state of constant change and accepted it as natural, for it knew nothing else.
She withdrew ...mostly... into her envelope, while keeping the marching, measuring creature in one small portion of her attention. It was doing well, taking stock, forming theories, testing and adjusting them to accommodate new data. She was proud of it, the child born of her thought and desire.
As she watched, it discovered the dome over the dish, studied it with front eyes and back, stood on a pair of back legs and used the front ones to gain a sensory impression, exerted pressure—pressure!—and learned that it did not give.
The muttering was comprehensible now, the thought processes cogent and accessible. It considered the dome in light of its earlier explorations of the floor of the dish, formed the hypothesis that the material was one and the same. Settling back, it stamped its feet against the floor, verifying that the material was unbreakable by the force it might bring to bear. The question of whether it was desirable to break the dome arose and was put aside, pending further data.
The creature's eyes extended, and this time she recognized her face in the feedback, her eyes as round and as clear as the dish itself.
So, we have given
, her tutor's thought intruded upon her observations.
Now, we shall take away
The image flashed—the very creature in her lab dish, minus the endmost set of legs.
This was fine work and took a good deal of concentration; she narrowed her perceptions to one, single foci, and did what was required.
In the lab dish, the creature teetered and staggered, as the now unevenly distributed weight of its carapace pulled it first to one side and then the other. Just as it achieved equilibrium, the tutor broadcast the next template.
Biting her lip, she removed the foremost pair of legs.
Her creature wailed, staggered—fell, eye stalks whipping, then focusing. Focusing on the dome. Beyond the dome.
This time it was a front eye and a back; then, the order barely discernible in the din of the creature's horror, pain and fear, another leg, then the ear.
Bit by bit, the creature was rendered back, until it was yet again a formless blot of protolife.
protolife, its once promising mental acuity crushed beneath the weight of its multiple losses. Its awareness screamed continually, pain eroding the ability to reason, to form a theory, a response.
Even withdrawn entirely into her body, she could hear it; feel it. There was no word from the tutor, no query from any of her cohort. In the dish, the creature's anguish spiked, the last of its reason spiraled into chaos—and surely, she thought, that was the end of the lesson.
She extended her though, stilled the turmoil, blotted out the shredded
, unwove the nervous system, and withdrew again to the quiet of her own mind.
Orange and yellow flames exploded across her perceptions.
You will stand!
The tutor's thought slashed at her.
Explain what you have just done and your reasons for doing so
! The order rang in her head, and no sooner had it formed than she was yanked upward and released. She staggered, got her feet under her, and bowed to the tutor, where they stood on the dais, the dominant allowing her anger to be seen; the submissive staring over her head, to the farthest corner of the room—and beyond.
Speak against the air
, the dominant snapped, and her thought burned.
She cooled the burn site, bowed once more, and straightened, her hands flat against her thighs.
"I returned the protolife to its quiescent state," she said, her voice thin and one dimensional. They seldom communicated so, amongst themselves. Lower forms spoke against the air, and by placing this demand upon her the tutor illustrated that she—a student and unpaired—was lower—weaker—than a full
As if that point required illustration.
Upon what order did you undertake this action?
Her tutor's thought fairly crackled, throwing out sparks of yellow and orange.
She bowed. "Upon my own initiative," she said steadily.
It is your LEARNED opinion that the remainder of the lesson was of no benefit to you?
The rest of the lesson?
The thought took shape before she could prevent it. She bent forward in a bow—and found herself gripped in a vise of energy, unable to straighten, unable to continue the bow, unable to move her legs, or her arms, scarcely able to breathe.
So, you were unaware that there was more?
the dominant purred, her thought now showing gleams and glimmers of pleased violet.
"I was," she whispered against the air, staring perforce at the tile floor.
Then you will stand in place of your construct, and finish the lesson out,
the dominant stated.
Abruptly, she was released. She gasped in a great lungful of air as she collapsed, tile gritting against her cheek, her limbs weak and tingling unpleasantly with the renewed flow of blood.
She set her hands against the tile, pushed herself up—and fell flat on her face as her left arm dissolved in a blare of pain so encompassing she scarcely felt it.
Panting, she rocked back to her knees, to her feet—and down again, cracking her head against the floor, the place where her right leg had been an agony beyond belief.
Grimly, she got up onto her remaining knee and hand, pain warring with horror as she understood that the tutor meant to—
One eye was gone, its empty socket a cup of fire burning into her skull. She screamed, then, the sound high and wild—and cut off abruptly as her ears were taken.
, the tutor was addressing the rest of her cohort, the pattern of her thought weaving like a violet ribbon through the pain.
Lesser beings may be governed by a system of punishment and reward
Acid ate her right arm.
Judicious reward and implacable punishment
Her left leg evaporated in a sheet of fire.
...will win unfailing service
The biology lab vanished as her remaining eye was plucked out.
...and will enforce both your dominion and your superiority.
The pain increased as the tutor exerted her will on nerve endings and receptors. She could feel the pressure of that terrible regard, as her thoughts skittered and scrambled. She tried to hide from the pain, all her perceptions obscured by it, so that she was blind in truth, and the pain, the pain...
We have taken away much, as is our right, according to our ability.
She was ablaze; the skin crisping on her bones; her reason spiraling toward chaos. Just like—
We shall now bestow a small reward.
Just like her poor creature, which had done so well, for a lower order, built to be dominated, manipulated and—
Monitor the flux of the emotion 'gratitude.
She was not a base construct. She was
. She would fight. She would—
She would dominate.
Atom by atom, she scraped together her shattered will and focused on the roaring source of energy obscuring her perceptions. Pain. Pain could be used.
Beyond the inferno, she felt the weight of her tutor's regard increase.
She thrust her will into the howling depth of the pain—
The tutor's regard altered, sparked—
Using raw power and no finesse whatsoever, she created shields and threw them into place.
There was an orange and yellow detonation as the tutor's will slammed into her barriers—but she had no time for that, now.
The tutor launched another assault, but her protections held. Of course they held. Had she not survived the First Doom? Her shields had withstood the stare of one of the Iloheen; they would hold against a mere
For a time.
Working with rapid care, she bled off the pain, sublimating it into working energy, using it to rebuild her depleted strength.
As she dominated the pain, her focus returned and she was able to survey the wreckage of her envelope.
Tentatively at first, then more swiftly as she began to integrate the fine points of the interrupted lesson, she rebuilt her body.
Arms, legs, eyes, ears, nerves, dermis... As she worked, she considered making alterations—and regretfully decided not to do so. Alterations made in haste and in unstable conditions might later be revealed as errors. Best to wait.
She did, however, strengthen her shields.
Then, she opened her eyes.
Carefully, cocooned in total silence on all perceptual levels, she came to her feet, and raised her eyes to the instructor's dias.
Lower your protections
. The characteristic bright orange thought was shading toward a dangerously bland beige, and the taste of manganese was very strong.
With all respect
, she answered—
You may lower them or Anjo will destroy them
She looked to the submissive, and found his pale eyes open and focused on her face, with ...interest...
I will not
, she made answer to the dominant.
And Anjo shall not.
Upon what order do you undertake this action
Upon my own initiative.
The dominant extended her will to the submissive—and froze in time and space as a long Shadow fell across the room and the perceptions of all within.
The air grew chill and the tile took on a glaze of ice before the Iloheen deigned to speak.
Discipline has been meted and met. It goes no further.
, the Anjo Valee dominant answered, her thought warm against the Shadow's chill. On the dais, the
bowed low. Those who yet knelt before their lab dishes threw themselves upon their faces on the ice-slicked floor.
She—she bowed until her head touched her knees, and held it, as the Shadow fell full upon her—
And was gone.
Abruptly, the room warmed. Behind her, she heard small noises as her cohort straightened and stilled. She unbent slowly, and looked up to the dais. The dominant did not meet her eyes.
You will return the specimen to its original state
, the tutor ordered the class entire.
When that is done, you will wait upon the philosophy tutor.
THE DOWNLOAD WAS about to take place.
She, with those of her cohort who had survived the Second Doom, watched from a distance, thought stilled and vital energies shielded, to insure that the
would not perceive, and thus seek to attach, their essences.
In the birthing room, the vessel was readied. Its arms were spread, held thus by chains woven of alternating links of metal and force, the ends melded with the smooth tile floor. Similar chains around each ankle pulled the legs wide. Its head was gripped in a metal claw; a metal staple over its waist held it firm and flat.
On the plane from which they observed, the vessel was nothing more than a smear of pink, which was the glow of the autonomous systems. The hopeful dominant showed not even as much as that, so closely did she hold herself.
Within the lesser aetherium, the
pursued their small, simple dances, which were so much less than the intricate movements of rebellion and abandon performed by their wild kin, the
. Those such as she—and the cadet preparing herself below—they were fit only to exercise dominion over
and so forge a working
unit, to thereby accomplish the will of the Iloheen as it was expressed to them.
They were, after all, nothing more than embodiment of the vast wills of the Iloheen, without which they would have no existence. So the philosophy tutor taught.
In the birthing room, all was ready.
The cadet knelt beside the vessel and took the autonomous system under her control. This was necessary to prevent the
from sabotaging the vessel, or, as was more likely, damaging it through terror and ignorance.
Control established, the cadet entered the lesser aetherium, cloaked and dim against the brilliant broil of the
Cloaked and dim, the cadet drifted, while the heedless
frolicked, melding their energies and dashing off at angles that seemed random until one considered the ley lines that passed through the lesser aetherium. The
followed the ley lines, feeding on them—perhaps. Seeking to influence them, certainly. But the Iloheen had constructed the aetheriums in such a way that the ley lines which intersected there were rendered sluggish. They could, so said the engineering tutor, be manipulated, though not by a mere
. Once downloaded, dominated, and fully integrated into a
might have access to sufficient power and focus to manipulate the ley lines from within the aetherium.
But, by then, it would no longer wish to do so.
The cadet had, by stealth and by craft, managed to separate one particular
from the rest. She had not yet fully revealed herself, though she was now shedding a small—and unavoidable—amount of energy.
was large, its energies brilliant. Its cohesion was perhaps not all that could be desired, and it showed a tendency to flare in an unappealing manner. But it was well enough. For a
The chosen abruptly rolled, as if suddenly realizing its vulnerable position on the outer edge of the tumbling pod. It flared and changed trajectory, seeking to rejoin the others—
And spun hard as the cadet revealed herself in a blaze of complex energies, cutting it off from the group, crowding it toward the containment field.
It was a bold move, for
rightly feared the field, and the danger was that it would bolt and break through the cadet's wall of energy, with catastrophic results for both.
The creature hesitated, confusion dulling its output. The cadet pushed her advantage, herding it, pushing closer to the containment field and the egress port. The
took its decision, feinted and reversed, diving for the fiery fringe of the cadet's wall, gambling, so it seemed to those observing, that it could survive the passage through the lesser energies.
It was over quickly, then.
The cadet allowed the
to approach quite near, allowed it to believe its gamble was about to succeed. At the penultimate instant, the
gaining momentum, its emanations coalesced to an astonishing degree—the cadet released the greater portion of her energies.
tumbled into an oblique trajectory, now running parallel to the cadet's weaving of power. She contracted the field, as if she meant to embrace the fleeing creature in her energies.
Again, it changed trajectory, hurtling back toward the containment field with undiminished momentum. Perhaps it had some thought of immolating itself. It was of no matter. The cadet extended a tendril of energy, slipping it between the
and the containment field, at the same instant contracting the field.
The force of the contraction threw the
into the egress port. In one smooth maneuver, the cadet triggered the port and withdrew the tendril separating the
from the containment field. Emanations sparking in terror, the
tumbled into the port, bracketed and contained now only by the funnel of the cadet's energies, guiding it, forcing it—
The port closed.
In the birthing room, the readied vessel flared, the glow lingering as the nervous system accepted and imprisoned the
energies. The cadet's envelope flared less brightly as it accepted her return. She raised her head, and a small tremor of satisfaction escaped her.
On the floor beside her, the vessel spasmed against its restraints. The chest heaved, mouth gaping, and the birth scream echoed against the air. Quickly, the cadet straddled the vessel and lowered herself onto its erection, bonding herself with it on the biologic plane. Beneath her, the vessel screamed again—and again.
"Nalitob Orn," the cadet crooned against the air. She extended her will and plucked at the
captured essence, weaving the syllables into the fabric of its frenzied consciousness. The vessel would already have been seeded at the cellular level with those same syllables, which would now and henceforth be its—his—name, binding it to the body and to his dominant.
The submissive drew breath for another scream; his dominant extended her will and disallowed it. Carefully, caressingly, she relaxed the straining, fear-poisoned muscles, and released sleep endorphins.
Only when Nalitob Orn was entirely and deeply asleep did she rise. With a thought, she cleaned herself, and with another clad herself in the blue robe of a
-under-training. For of course the work just completed had been only the first and the simplest of the bondings required before this nascent pair become a functioning unit.
The new-made dominant turned toward her sleeping and receptive submissive—and turned back, bowing low as the Shadow fell over the birthing room, excluding the observers from whatever passed between the Iloheen and the daughter of its intent, the Nalitob Orn dominant.
ATTEND ME IN the testing chamber
Their philosophy tutor's thought was a steady silken mauve, lightly flavored with copper.
With the five others of her cohort she rose and walked down the stone hallway—naked, silent, but no longer identical. They had some time since been instructed to adjust their physical seemings. This was—so the philosophy tutor explained—to allow them to grow more easily apart, to sluff off the small ties that bound sister-students, and to make themselves ready for that bond which would define their futures and their service to the Iloheen.
As it was also necessary to seem to be one of those who continued to defy the Iloheen, among whom she would of necessity walk, she considered it well to appear both harmless and unable to defend herself. Thus, her stature was small, her bones delicate, her breasts petite. She sharpened her facial features and added amber pigment to her eyes. Her hair was red, short and silky; her ears shell-like and close to her head. She would appear, to one of those enemies of the Iloheen, to be young, her skin unlined and tinged with gold.
With these changes she was content, though she was the least altered of her cohort. Neither their tutors nor any of the Iloheen who increasingly oversaw their progress instructed her to make further alterations, so she accepted it as her full and final physical form.
, the philosophy tutor sent again.
The thought was no less serene, the tang of copper no more pronounced than ever it had been. There was nothing to differentiate this from countless thousands of previous summons.
Saving that the philosophy tutor never summoned them twice to the same lesson.
It was then that she knew they were being summoned, not for a mere philosophy test, but to the Third Doom, the last they would face as students.
The others must have also perceived the warning in that second summons and drawn their conclusions. Indeed, the two boldest quickened their steps, eager to meet the challenge, while the three most thoughtful dared to slow somewhat.
Being neither bold nor thoughtful, she kept to her own pace, and withdrew slightly from her envelope, centering herself and unfurling what she might of her protections. It was, of course, beyond her ability to know what test the Iloheen would bring to them this time. Experience of two previous Dooms, however, indicated that it was well-done to hold oneself both aloof and prepared upon all planes.
Behind two sisters and leading three, she turned the corner into the hall. The stones were slick and frigid beneath her bare feet, the air thick with ice. Ahead, the entrance to the testing chamber was black; empty, to her perceptions, of all energy.
A state of no-energy was impossible, so her tutors had taught, each in their own way. To which the philosophy tutor had added,
With the Iloheen, all things are possible
The two at the lead faltered; one recovered in the next instant and strode ahead, energies blazing, entered the void, and was gone—- whether unmade or merely passed beyond the senses was not for such as they to know.
The second of the bold approached the void, her energies furled close and secret, and was in her turn swallowed, vanishing as if she had never been.
She, the third, neither quick nor slow, continued onward, protections in place, her essence at a slight remove, tethered by the slenderest of thoughts. The iced stones tore at the soles of her feet, her lungs labored in the thick air. She thought, within her most private and protected self, of the Iloheen-bailel, beautiful and subjugated, transforming the void with its dance.
Then, she passed into Shadow, and all her perception ended.
She obeyed, opening her perceptions across all planes. On the dais before her stood the philosophy tutor, the dominant with her hands folded into the sleeves of her gray gown, the submissive kneeling at her side, head bowed, eyes closed.
There was no one else in the Hall of Testing.
The Blessed Iloheen, Lords of Unmaking, are pleased that you have passed through this door
. The philosophy tutor's thought was serene.
You are to immediately remove to the birthing room and prepare the vessel which you have nurtured.
THE VESSEL WAS ready. She had fashioned it neat and supple, with long, curling red hair, and a smooth, gold-toned dermis. Its hands were long, its feet small, its form slender. Standing, it would overtop her only slightly.
That, of course, was for later.
Now, it lay where she had placed it on the tile floor. She settled the head carefully into the restraint before giving her attention to the other fetters, binding first the right wrist, then the left, melding the chain with the floor. She bound the ankles in the same manner, and made the staple snug across the slim waist. Extending her will, she touched each restraint in turn, making certain of her work, then knelt.
The tile was warm under her knees; in other perceptions, it was slickly reflective, deliberately crafted to foil any attempt by an enterprising
to anchor a portion of itself outside of its prepared dwelling place.
Withdrawing slightly from her envelope, she looked deeply into the vessel, searching anxiously for any flaw. The binding phrase had been imprinted at the cellular level; the biologics primed to accept the physical bonding. The autonomous system functioned sweetly, fairly humming as she took it under her dominion.
It was time.
Energies furled, she triggered the access port, changed phase and entered the lesser aetherium.
Dark and secret she floated, the
frolicking heedlessly about her. As part of her preparations, she had studied the inhabitants of the lesser aetherium and had settled upon one as suitable. To be sure, it was no glorious wild
, but well enough, for a
. It was a bit less heedless than the others of its cohort; its emanations pleasingly regular and its cohesion firm. A suitable tool for one such as herself.
She was patient; she was cunning as a
is not. And at last her intended danced near.
Swiftly, she unfurled her energies, sweeping out and around, imperative and firm. She did not toy with the
, nor permit it to build false hopes of escape; she did not allow it to flirt with annihilation against the containment field. Rather, she displayed her superiority, and offered no choice other than to acquiesce to her will.
twisted, dodging close to the trailing edge of her field, testing. This show of boldness pleased her even as she contracted the field, edging the captive inexorably toward the—
There was a disruption of the energies within the aetherium; the sluggish ley lines heaved.
Within the vibrant strands of her net, the
twirled, energies flaring. Her perceptions slid, and she felt the ley lines heat. She focused fiercely and flung her will out, forcing the
into the egress field. The lines, she thought, were reacting to the attunement of her energies. It was best to be gone—and quickly.
There! Her chosen was within the egress field. She triggered the port; there was a flare and a confusion of energies as the
seemed almost to hurl itself into the opening, so that she must needs extend her field, thinner than she liked, scarcely guiding it, while the momentum pulled her out—and down.
Gasping a thought, she sealed the port behind her, plummeting into her envelope so quickly pain flared. She batted it aside, clearing her senses.
Before her, the vessel showed the lingering glow of the
essence. The autonomous system went briefly ragged; she smoothed it absently as the vessel contorted, arching against the restraints. Its chest expanded, its mouth formed a rictus—
But the birth scream did not come forth.
Hastily, she checked the autonomous system; looked deep within the vessel and ascertained that the time was now, scream or none. She swung over the slim hips, looking down into the sealed, austere face—
The eyes snapped open—cobalt blue and
, the gaze met hers and did not waver, though the body was panting now; trembling with the force of that unuttered cry. She could feel the
confusion increase to damaging levels as it failed to find its accustomed perceptions available, supplanted by alien input from unfamiliar senses.
She smoothed the vessel's breathing, slowed the racing heart, and lowered herself onto its erection.
"Rool Tiazan," she whispered against the air.
As foretold by the biology tutor, pleasure flooded her, and she moaned with satisfaction as the biologic link formed. And all the while, the cobalt eyes stared into hers, narrowing as the bonding triggered pleasure responses, then suddenly widening, as if the
had in some way
Beneath her, the hips tensed, twisting, as if to unseat her—and panic flared once more.
She extended her will, smoothed away the panic and triggered sleep; massaged the tight muscles into relaxation, and bled off the fear toxins.
When she was certain the
, now Rool Tiazan, was at rest and in no danger of damaging himself, she rose, cleaned herself, and donned the blue robe of a
That done, she turned back toward the sleeper, intending to transfer the language and motor modules, so that the sleeping intelligence might—
A Shadow fell across the birthing room. Immediately, she abased herself.