The giant landed on the Storm Light’s deck with a crash that reverberated throughout the entire ship, arcing bands of viridian lightning radiating from the crater like shockwaves from the epicenter of an earthquake. It lifted its eyes, burning pits of purest hellfire behind a maggot-white oni mask, and that cold, dread gaze bored deep into Somei’s soul.

With a howl filled with animal rage, it bounded toward him, one meaty backhand sending Darius tumbling end-over-end off the side of the ship. Somei tried to rush toward the rail, hoping he could catch his friend, but he moved like he was trapped in tar.

Volla leapt between the brute and its victim, but it smashed her aside without a second thought, sending her careening into the mast. The spar and Volla both made sickening cracks, and the captain slumped to the deck, blood pooling under her.

Somei instinctively fell into a defensive posture, calling the Essence of the Solar Hero Form into his limbs, but though his form was flawless, nothing happened. Panicking, he tried again, but it was like dipping into an empty well. No Essence responded to his call.

And then the thing was on top of him, one meaty fist clenched around his throat. He punched and kicked, but it was like kicking iron. Laughing, the horrible beast lifted him up and up, until his boots flailed futilely in the air. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move.

The slobbering monster wrapped its other hand around Somei’s wrist, cackling. Somei screamed as it began to pull, screamed and kicked and screamed again. The pain was all-consuming. It lasted the briefest of moments, and then he was tumbling, tumbling forever, the beast looming over him with his own ragged arm clutched in a thick claw. As Somei fell, fell, fell, the thing tore off the oni mask, and Iyun’s face leered from beneath it, laughing and laughing.

Then it turned, driving Somei’s severed hand through Neve’s chest, and the last thing he saw was his blood on her lips.

He woke kicking and shouting, suddenly weightless as he knocked his chair backward. Instinctively, he threw out his hand to catch himself, but that hand wasn’t there any longer. His head hit the floor with a crack that clicked his teeth together, and the pain… the real pain, not the phantom pain from his dream… brought him sharply to his senses.

Tharion and Neve were there instantly, their eyes brimming with unspoken concern. Tharion, Somei knew, fought the doubt in his chest, the shattered faith that comes from seeing one’s messiah so brutally and definitively rendered mortal. And Neve… Somei hoped it was more than pity, more than some ephemeral duty that bound her empathy.

He swallowed his sudden anger and self-pity and waved them both away gently, curtailing the sharp rebuke that lurked behind his teeth. “I’m all right… I must have fallen asleep again.”

“Of course you did,” Tharion said as they helped Somei to his feet. “You’ve been working non-stop for two weeks. You barely eat, you only sleep when you fall unconscious…”

Somei bent to pick up his chair, ignoring the sudden wave of vertigo that assailed him. “I’m fine, Tharion. Thank you for your concern. Where is Forever’s Promise?”

Neve’s eyes darkened slightly. “He is sleeping, as you should be.”

“I’ve slept enough.” He scratched absently at the coarse hair growing along his jaw. “Tharion, please fetch him for me. We need to continue working.”

Tharion nodded stiffly and turned, his wings snapping tightly against his body as he departed the laboratory. The Stormspire Citadel had proven itself well-suited for this manner of artifice, much to Somei’s delight. With a fully-stocked workshop and schematics for the Artifact Somei labored to create, it had become something of a haven to the crippled sorcerer since he and his companions had returned from Gethamane.

“Tharion’s right.”

Somei looked up at Neve, through eyes blurred with exhaustion. Once again, he thought he saw a strange aura around her, a hazy form overlaid on hers, wrought in luminous argent. He blinked away the hallucination.

“I need to finish this work.”

Her lips thinned. “You need to rest.”

“I can’t.” He clenched his remaining hand, closing his eyes. “I can’t sleep.”

“You have nightmares.”

He nodded. “I see it… every time I close my eyes, I see that thing again. I hear the way it laughed, remember the way my blood ran down its chin.” His hand closed on the pinned cloth of his tunic, where it had been wrapped around the stump of his left arm. “I feel it.”

“I understand.”

He nearly snapped at her, but again he bit it back. She probably did know; she’d told him about how her people had been hunted. “Then you understand why I have to finish this.”

“No, I don’t.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, turning him to face her. “Building this… thing… isn’t going to change what happened.”

“It’s better than doing nothing.” He took a deep breath, lifting his remaining arm to rest his fingers lightly on her back. “I can’t just lie here helplessly.”

They both turned as Forever’s Promise cleared his throat, and Somei blushed, stepping away from Neve. She simply seemed annoyed at the intrusion.

“You demanded I come, Somei. I’m here.”

“It was a mistake.” Neve spoke for Somei, stepping between the two. “Go back to your quarters and get some sleep.”

Forever’s Promise looked to Somei, who seemed torn, but finally nodded. After he left, grumbling, Neve turned back to Somei.

“I have sworn no oaths of obedience to you. I am not your servant. You have no power over me.” There was a slight tremble in her voice when she spoke, but Somei attributed it to fatigue. “You will sleep now, and when you wake up, you will eat. You will shave, and for the love of Luna, you will bathe. Then, and only then, will I allow anyone else into this room. We will work on your device, all of us, once you have rested. I will help you in any way I can, then. But if I am to be your Steward, I will protect you, even from yourself if I have to.”

Somei felt the sudden weariness crash down on his frame, abetted by a swell of gratitude toward Neve that threatened to overwhelm him. A throat thick with emotion and a stifled yawn refused to speak, even if he could have formed a coherent frame for his thoughts. He settled for a smile and a defeated nod, and let Neve half-guide and half-shove him to his chambers. He hoped he would not dream of the beast again, but he knew, even as he acceded, that he would.


Exalted: Northern Skies Octopoid