SECRETS OF THE BIOLITHS
An unpleasant whining cut through the sound of the rushing wind, setting Tino’s teeth on edge. The Transporter Biolith was finally returning. As the noise grew steadily louder, he peered out past the Imperial Biolith Guards, searching the sky for any sign of the device. The guards kept their attention on him, ready to seal the Biolith Temple the instant he got any closer to the entrance. Keeping him in.
Tino ignored them as best he could. He craned to see if he could get even a glimpse of the outside world, but there was nothing to look at but empty air. Then the ugly metal wasp burst into view from below the Temple’s jutting walkway, legs dangling limply. It swung round above the walkway and dropped, slowing at the last instant to settle almost silently. The door in its belly popped open, and a green-cloaked figure stepped out of the device.
A second, similar figure followed the first down the ramp, looking skeletal besides its companion. The pair headed towards the Temple entrance. Two? Tino looked at them uncertainly, and then nodded to the guards. “Let them in.”
“Request accepted.” The guards spoke together in the Temple’s dead, polyphonic voice. Alone, each guard sounded like a choir hypnotized into perfect synchrony. Together, the effect was disorientating, confusing the ear.
The cloaked pair entered the Temple, their long fox-faced masks set in permanent snarls. Tino dragged a smile onto his face. “Inquisitor Koog, welcome. I hope you had a comfortable ride. Please, follow me.” The taller, stick-thin figure nodded curtly. Tino smothered a sigh, and led the pair inside.
Daylight streaming through the porthole windows gave the hall a warmer feel than most of the Temple. Tino heard a hum, and glanced up at the veined ceiling. Stingers patrolled the Temple ceaselessly, spiky metallic flies to the Transporter’s wasp. The Stinger scanned them as it passed, and suddenly stopped. A beam of light speared down from the machine, surrounding the shorter, stockier visitor.
“Identify,” said the Stinger, its voice the same chime as the guards.
The figure pulled its hood back and removed its fox mask. The elf glared up at the Biolith. “Malachos, Tolicore Zealot.”
The Stinger mulled this over for a moment. “Intruder identified.”
As Malachos started to protest, and Koog looked round in disbelief, there was a bright flash of ice-blue light, and Malachos vanished. Almost immediately, there was another flash outside the nearest window. Malachos re-appeared, seeming to hang in the air for an instant. Then he plummeted out of sight. His terrified scream faded slowly.
“Intruder neutralized,” said the Stinger. A moment later, it flew on.
“How dare you!” Koog ripped his mask off, revealing his mad, avian face. He was almost hopping with rage. He tilted his head to one side and fixed Tino with a vicious, black-eyed stare. “He was one of my best! Utterly faithful. Utterly reliable. I should…” The Inquisitor took a menacing step towards Tino, his sharp beak clacking unpleasantly.
“I’m sorry,” Tino said quickly. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe he wasn’t authorized.” He shrugged. “The cold will kill him long before he hits the ground.”
Koog stared at him. “You stupid, moronic little…” The Inquisitor swallowed his fury, lifting a thin metal hand to adjust his cowl. “Take me to Master Scion. At once.”
“But it wasn’t my fault,” said Tino plaintively. “I didn’t know the other one wasn’t authorized.”
“Silence.” Even across the length of the library, Scion’s furious glare felt like fire. He looked at Koog, before turning back to Tino. “The child is defective. His weakness defies even my arts. I have created a magnificent body for him, given him everything he needs to attain greatness, and still he refuses to learn.” Tino flinched back from his father’s stark judgment, and dropped his eyes. “He is a failure. Worse. He is a waste of parts.”
Koog bobbed his head in a quick nod, shooting Tino a vindictive look.
“Your minion’s soul is already feeding my plans – a more useful contribution than anything he could possibly have achieved in life.” Scion waved a hand dismissively. “You have done well in securing Tolicore, Koog. Now you need to carry the attack to the forest itself.”
Koog blinked. “The tribes are weak and divided. I don’t see…”
“The forest, Woodling. All that fecund growth is an affront. It impedes progress. I want it hacked down. The prime elements must be destabilized. All four of them. I hold you responsible for Wood. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master Scion.”
“Good.” Scion gestured at a strange device, a broad, curving dish bristling with antennae and controls. “I want you to bury this in the soil of Tolicore. It harnesses power from the lost and faithless dead, energy even the Gods cannot touch or see. Its presence will undermine the primes, and feed the power of undeath.”
“Undeath!” Koog’s eyes glowed.
“Yes, my disciple. It will nourish you and your eternal kin. You will find your strength increasing, too.”
“Thank you, Master Scion. Thank you.”
“Go now. Plant the device. The boy will carry it back to the Transporter for you. He’s just about capable of that.”
Tino escorted Inquisitor Koog back through the warren of corridors that led to the Temple entrance. The transmitter registered as heavy, but it was well within tolerance for his body’s arms. Carrying it somehow made him feel greasy though, like walking through a fresh battlefield. He tried to ignore it.
Koog glanced back at Tino. “The Noram church has a Venoan spy in it. We caught a communication to a known Venoan agent that referred to a monolith, and to ‘Argoan’. Your father should know.” Free of anger and deference, his voice was incisive.
“I’ll make sure to tell him, Inquisitor.”
Koog noticed his glance flickering to the dish. “Your hands could rip through stone, I’ll wager, but your face is that of a boy not even full-grown.” He tilted his masked face up towards Tino, apparently waiting for some sort of response.
“I’m grateful to my father for the gifts he has given me,” Tino said. “I am strong, and fast, and ageless, free of disease and decay.”
“You are alone, denied your natural development and nature, caged in your creator’s fortress.” Tino stared at the Inquisitor, shocked, but the mask’s fox’s face was giving nothing away. “I do not think it is gratitude you feel.”
“It would be disloyal to feel anger,” said Tino.
“Natural, however. Even here.” Koog’s huge eyes seemed to bore into him.
“My father is…”
“Disgusted by you. And he is right to be.” Koog’s words seemed to have sprouted claws and teeth, and Tino fought to hold back a sudden surge of tangled emotion. “He is absolutely correct about you. You are pathetic. Scrap metal and self-pity. You don’t even have the strength to be honest with yourself.”
Tino froze, hot shards of agony and shame blazing in his gut, his vision swimming. He barely registered Koog taking the transmitter away from him.
“You are a whipped mongrel, wretched and prancing. Your presence sickens me. Crawl back to your ‘father’. He should be the one who has to suffer your existence, not me.”
Tino whirled and stumbled away, fleeing the razor-sharp words and the pitiless iron gaze behind them. Koog’s shrill, mocking laughter followed him.
The Biolith Temple dungeons were Tino’s favorite place for escaping from the world. They were cool, dark and quiet. He sat in the peaceful shadows for a long time, letting his mind settle and his emotions calm, just enjoying the solitude. There was only one prisoner down here, and he didn’t want to leave his cell.
Tino usually left his unpleasant half-brother well alone, but a sudden belligerent urge carried him to Cell 5. He hesitated, and then pulled the view-panel control system apart delicately, removing the cover. It was barely a moment’s work to route the mana flow around the lock mechanism, reverse the polarity of the crystal core, and reset the sensors so the device thought all was well again.
There was a hiss, and the observation panel slid open. Wormak was flipping through one of their father’s books, the movements oddly delicate for his huge metallic pincers. The madman heard the hatch open, and looked up. Tino fought a moment of familiar disorientation – it was always strange to see his father’s face, youthful again, set in that expression.
“Lost boy.” Wormak grimaced horribly. It might have been an attempt at a smile. “Your Lord hasn’t killed you yet, ground your soul into milk and honey.”
“I’m still here,” said Tino grimly.
“Yes. Where else would you be? No way out for little tin man.”
Tino’s eyes narrowed. “At least I have the run of the Temple. You’re stuck in a small metal box, wormy.”
Wormak looked genuinely surprised. “All of creation sparkles in front of me.” He waved at the bare metal floor of his cell. “See? One nudge, and I can wash away all of Tritona, cast Val Na Vos into ruin. I see all, rule all, hold all.”
“Ghosts and shadows, Wormak. The kingdom of a lunatic.”
“My father-brother carved me out of his own pure flesh, lost boy. Pure, while you are dripping with the filth of corruption. Tell me, which of us is mad?”
Tino snarled. “You tell me, brother. Which of us is locked away?”
Wormak howled a feverish laugh. “My door keeps you out, not me in. I am as free as birds. Any time. Door, corridor, chamber, god, gateway, back to the mountain. Any time.”
“Gateway? What gateway? What are you raving about, Wormak?”
“Doesn’t the little tin man even know about the way in, the way out?” Wormak’s face lit up with a malicious, lop-sided grin. “You know nothing, Tin. Stupid stupid lost boy.”
“There’s a way out?”
“Shan’t tell.” Wormak giggled, and turned his back, a familiar gesture of dismissal.
Tino closed the panel and repaired the controls absent-mindedly. A gateway, to a mountain. He could actually see a mountain. If the gateway was real. But if it was… Maybe his father would realize his value if he wasn’t there any more. There had to be a way to find out. Mind whirring, Tino made his was out of the dungeons.
Scion slammed down his writing stick and glared balefully at Tino. “You again. I’m busy.”
Tino kept calm. “The Inquisitor asked me to pass a message to you, father.”
“He said they caught a note from a Venoan Spy inside the Noram Church. It talked about an obelisk, and used the word ‘Argoan’.”
Scion frowned. “Fools. I don’t have time to waste on such nonsense.”
“Is the work going well, father?”
“It is magnificent. Phaseus has nearly revealed His whole through me. With the mana I have gathered, with the millions of souls and billions of prayers I have harvested, He will be free to scour the world of the vermin that infests it. The forests will burn, the seas run dry, and the volcanoes choke and die. Together, we will replace the tyrannical, obsolete gods, and lead the people into a new, glorious age.”
Tino picked his words carefully. “That is very exciting, father. It would be a shame if anything deviated from your plans now, though. Let me help. I could research this ‘Argoan’ for you.”
“You?” Scion sounded incredulous.
“Well, I could check some books and scrolls, and see if the Archiver has any information.”
Scion shrugged, already getting bored with the topic. “Very well, if it amuses you. Temple, register Tino access permit Archiver, library two, library three, twenty-four hours. Mark.”
Tino fought down a sudden, wild urge to grin.
“Mark,” chimed the Temple’s dead chorus.
The Archiver was in a large room near the Temple’s heart. Something like a gigantic metal octopus, it kept track of facts and objects by storing notes, samples, books, specimens, records… anything that might yield some useful information. The walls of its towering chamber were lined with shelves and compartments of all sizes, all crammed to the point of bursting. The Bioloth looked up at Tino as he entered the room.
“I have two queries,” Tino told it. “One is ‘Argoan’, possibly linked to a monolith. The other is ‘gateway’, in association with transport to and from the Biolith Temple. Please bring me any references you have.”
The Archiver sprang into action, shooting out tentacles to grasp ledges and shelf brackets above, pulling itself up into the dizzy heights. Tino watched it spider up and down the stack, much higher than he had seen it go before, before it made its way back down again. Finally, it settled noiselessly onto the pedestal. A tentacle snaked forward and placed a few papers at his feet.
Tino picked up the documents, excitement slowly mounting. The first was one of his father’s design sheets for Phaseus. He scanned it slowly, scouring it for some hint that Wormak was right. The reference was clear, in the third paragraph: ‘A link into the Gravenoa Mountain gateway should allow Him to feed on the souls of the lost.’ It did exist! Finally, this would be a chance to make things right.
Tino smiled broadly, and looked at the other items. The second sheet was an activation log for the gateway. There were only a few entries, from dates corresponding to ancient times, eons ago. The last sheet was the Temple’s blueprint. To Tino’s amazement, his goal was clearly labeled. It was called the Sciondar Gateway, and it was in the great central chamber – Phaseus’s sanctum.
The central chamber doors were flanked by Guardian Watchtowers. Vicious streams of mana crackled between the two Biolith pillars, fierce enough to cut through Tino’s chassis like a wire through soft cheese. Scion trusted no-one with access permission. Still…
“My father needs me to fetch a tool for him from inside the chamber. May I enter?” Tino held his voice absolutely calm, and his breathing steady, as if he weren’t lying.
“Access denied,” the Watchtowers immediately chorused.
“It’s an urgent matter,” said Tino reasonably. “My father can’t leave his experiment unattended. He needs this tool right now.”
“I understand,” Tino said.
He held his hand out, channeling energy into its circuits. He willed a small mana-cutting blade to form, a soft burn above his fingertips. He moved his hand until the mana field was almost touching the towers’ streams, and then fed energy into it. The blade glowed and crackled. He reached his other hand to his chest, coaxed out an inhibitor wire, and severed it. The blade immediately flared wildly, overloading. There was a bright flash, and both blade and streams crashed out.
Ignoring the barrage of alarms, Tino darted between the Watchtowers and pushed into the chamber.
The Temple’s inner sanctum was circular. Dizzying banks of machinery lined the walls, but the room was lushly carpeted, and gorgeous red silk drapes hung from the ceiling.
Phaseus dominated everything. Even inactive, He was beautiful, His gold and chrome casing floating on suspensors. Six fists hovered around Him, clutching an arsenal of weaponry. Behind his dormant form, spinning bands rotated around a sphere of gray nothing. It had to be the gateway.
“I can see why father is so drawn to you,” Tino said.
A loud musical chime filled the room, and rings of power sprung up around Phaseus’s body. Tino took a step back.
There was a crackle and Scion’s voice rang out. “What is the meaning of this?” Even over the communicator, his words were ice-cold with rage.
“You!” Scion’s voice turned as hard as gravestones. “You should not have come here. Phaseus, my son has failed me. He is tainted.”
“The whole rejects tainted parts.” Phaseus’s voice was music, a perfect fusion of male and female in lovely harmony.
“Father?” Tino could hear his voice quaver.
“Kill the boy,” Scion said, and the crackling link shut down.
Gold fists flew across the room before Tino even had time to think. He threw himself desperately to the right, deflecting a savage mace blow with his hand. Weapons thudded into machinery behind him.
Tino rolled away and came up as the fists started hurtling towards him again. He grabbed a long steel desk and swung it round, scattering equipment. Phaseus’s fists crashed into it, staggering him back against the wall. A sword sliced through the desk like it was paper, plunging into Tino’s shoulder. Joints sheared, and his arm died.
Unable to hold the table, Tino pushed it towards the fists and leaped away. A mana beam surged from Phaseus’s chassis, tearing through Tino’s body. Agony blazed in him as he burned. Acting as one, the fists smashed into him, throwing him across the room.
He skidded up against the gateway device. Phaseus spun to face him, fists poised to end it. Only one arm still worked. Every moment was agony. He would never see mountains. The betrayal was total.
Fury suddenly blazed through Tino. A gateway link… He plunged his hand into the circuitry by his head, and overrode his own safety switches. Energy vented in a wild stream, shorting through the damaged knife mechanism. The gateway shields spasmed, and a vast pulse of mana flooded through them, up the link, and into the Biolith God.
Phaseus’s energy rings flared like starbursts, and then He was obliterated in a colossal energy burst that seared Tino’s eyes to darkness. As its force crushed him, he dimly felt its power raging back through the gateway. For an instant, in the blackness, he thought he could see a small group of white-robed figures watching him sadly.
Then he was gone.