Ryan spent the next couple hours following Crystal through the ruins of Cipher Nullity. She talked almost incessantly about it as she did – “This was the Palace of Lost Souls, where children who didn’t outlive their parents were cared for until the parents arrived and got to be reunited. Heartbreaking every time they got a new arrival, but just melted your heart every time we got a reunion. I remember this one time…” and later “So this was Reliquary of Squandered Dreams. One of the punishments the Lemurians had for those who sinned in life was a particularly nasty piece of work – you got to watch, over and over, what your life would have been like if you had actually followed your dreams. Never had anyone make it to the last bit – most people bloody begged for some other punishment after getting to early adulthood. I wouldn’t go in there, love, it might still work and we wouldn’t want you getting all depressed…”
It washed over Ryan like the tide, but it was also calming. Having an excitable British woman who was also a long lost goddess explain the ruins you were walking through wasn’t anything close to ‘normal’, but for Ryan, it was at least grounding. Sure, the buildings were weird and empty and kind of sad, and that impossible sky made his head spin, but the more she talked, the more things made sense, and the more he felt like maybe he’d be able to eventually make sense of all of this.
For the most part, she ignored his questions with a simple “Remember, love, roll with it?” The only ones she acknowledged were ones about their surroundings.
“What did those pillars do?”
“Oh! Those were amazing. They held a Soul Forge, churning out new ones. Some people elected to get reincarnated, so they could also just step in, get broken down into a new soul, and sent back up to get a second shot at life. Always a gamble, sure, but it paid off – especially if you went into the Reliquary of Squandered Dreams first. Souls that knew what you could do if you didn’t quit, they were hungry when they got topside, and their second go-around really produced some amazing art and science, yeah? Wish some of the afterlives of this era had kept the combo around. You could also…”
It was during her long explanation of the Soul Forge that Ryan noticed something, and clamped a hand over Crystal’s mouth. She let out a “mmmfh,” looking at him in angry confusion.
“I saw something move,” he half whispered, his heart pounding. She reached up and gently moved his hand away.
He pointed down a side street, “Over there, by the giant statue.” Nothing was moving there right now, just the statue. It was a strange sight, to be sure – the statue was of a man, legs were missing any connection above the knees, so the body hovered over where the thighs would be. His head was likewise not connected and the face was just a giant, open mouth. On either side of his body, three or four dozen hands floated – if they had been connected to arms, they would have overlapped terribly, but without those arms they were free to move about like they were attached to the shoulder. Ryan was wondering how they hung there when Crystal’s face went white.
“That’s not a statue. Ryan, bloody get behind me.”
A small, Neolithic part of Ryan balked at the idea of getting behind a woman for protection, but his rational brain and survival instinct teamed up to kick that thought in the gut and throw it down some stairs, and his feet carried him behind her. “What is it?” He asked, ducking his head slightly so her slight frame would cover more of his body.
“It’s a Hecatoncheires. And it’s probably getting ready to-“
Whatever Crystal thought it was getting ready to do didn’t matter, because it started to act – and that act was to charge. That open mouth was screaming now, and it was not the deep bellow of rage Ryan expected from such a giant, but a high wail of grief and sorrow. When it got near it swung with fifty fists at Crystal, and Ryan realized he was going to die.
Crystal, however, drew a sword out of the air, and her hand moved so fast it was just a pale blur. Every single one of the oncoming hands was blocked in less time than Ryan needed to blink, and the giant recoiled, letting out another one of those wails. Red lines erupted on the knuckles of every fist – she hadn’t just parried them, but cut them.
It moved again, bring both sets of hands to bear. The palms were open this time, and Ryan realized that it intended to clap her to death.
He turned his head away before he heard the impact. The sound was like a fatal applause, one of those group single claps they have you do at award ceremonies to prevent every single name from taking forever. It was not, however, the wet squish he would have expected.
Trembling, he looked. Crystal was standing atop the pile of hands, balanced on her toes like a ballerina. The hands began reaching for her, grasping and clutching, but she danced along them, leaping and bounding from hand to hand and then flicking away before they could close on her feet. Each step took her higher, and for a moment Ryan saw more than her movement. He saw equations going with them. He recognized force = mass x acceleration and a few others, but other equations were full of Greek letters and cos() and tan(). Ryan had never been a good math student, and in college had taken what they called Mickey Mouse Math (Math In the Real World) to escape the tyranny of algebra. But somehow, he knew what these equations were calculating – it was a mathematical map of her movements, and a graph of the likelihood the hands would catch her.
Probability collapsed, and the equations fled from his vision. She had, as the equations had predicted, danced her way up to where the Hecatoncheires was reaching straight up for her, and finally pushed off those tallest hands in a graceful arc. She did a lazy half-flip as she reached her leap’s apex, and then pushed off of solid air, a jump that flung her downwards far quicker than gravity would allow. It caught the Hecatoncheires off guard, and although it brought its hands together to grab her, it was too slow – she slipped through a gap in its grasp and brought the sword down straight into that open mouth.
Instead of gurgling or gasping or even visibly dying, it just exploded. Chunks of ink-black flesh were flung away from it – many of them headed right for Ryan – but when they hit him the passed through him like they were made of shadow.
Once the storm of insubstantial flesh subsided, Ryan looked to where it had been standing. Crystal was there, crouched in a perfect three-point landing, her sword arm parallel to the ground. She smiled at Ryan. “Oh, good!” She said, like she hadn’t just impaled a giant in the mouth. “You figured out how to phase, so we don’t need to clean the bloody goo off you.”
“Ah.” His head was pounding. “Uh…” His vision began to darken rapidly.
“Oh bloody hell you’re about to fa-“
Crystal likely finished the word, but Ryan didn’t know. His vision completed its darkening, and he fell to the ground. The last thing he saw as he did so was an incredibly complex equation that he knew governed how that stained glass sky stayed in place.