It was only a few minutes after their first encounter with the Lost that Haradeth and Lorathor reached where the Tarnished One dwelled. Along the walk they’d encountered a few other of the Lost. One had simply sat with his multiple arms wrapped around himself, muttering Ancient Alohym. Another had seen them and started screaming, a scream that didn’t stop until they were out of sight. So it had gone, every encounter with the Lost something that left Haradeth wanting to weep for what happened to these people. This isn’t right.
That much, Haradeth was certain of. Whatever the natural life cycle of the Sylvani was supposed to be, it wasn’t supposed to end in madness and screams. Every one of the individuals they’d encountered – even the first one, although Haradeth had been too distracted to notice at the time – had a sickness to their aura, like an animal that had been infected with frothmouth. I wish my mother was here. She’d been able to cure even that rabid illness with a brush of her fingers. Haradeth did not yet have any talent for the healing arts, unless they were caused by parasites. Then he could command the creatures to leave the body. Beyond that…beyond that, he could do nothing for these people.
Whatever else happened, Haradeth resolved to drag his mother back here as soon as she was recovered. If she recovers a traitorous thought rose in his mind, one he squashed as quickly as he could.
Instead, he focused on the Tarnished One’s dwelling. It was built out of pieces of the dome city, torn from walls and floors and assembled into its own, smaller, dome that was a ramshackle imitation of the splendor above. A few buzzing things floated in the air around it, shining tiny spotlights. Each one was as large as Haradeth’s fingers and no more alive than the dome itself.
For that matter, he could sense no life coming from the dome. Whatever the Tarnished One was, she wasn’t alive.
Lorathor approached the door and reached into his pouch, pulling out a dagger. “O Tarnished One, She Who Guards the Tomb, Keeper of our Twilight. I bring you a gift from Outside, a gift of Iron wrought by the hands of Men.”
An apparatus folded out of the top of the dome, a multisegmented arm made of the Sylvani’s green flowing metal. At the end of the apparatus was a glass eye, like the ones built into spy glasses. Slips of metal around the edge of the apparatus dilated as it focused on the dagger, then it retreated into the dome.
“Did she-” Haradeth started to say after thirty seconds of waiting, but Lorathor shook his head.
“Just wait. It can take a bit.”
It was at least a full minute that felt like ten before a hole in the side of the dome creaked open. A brilliant light shone from those depths. A lumwell, Haradeth realized with a start. Lorathor motioned for him to enter.
The interior of the dome was easily a dozen sizes larger than the Exterior. It made Haradeth’s head hurt to look at. What he had taken for a lumwell was actually something different, a box of steel with dozens of glass lenses on it that floated in the center of the room, spinning erratically. The rest of the room was full of an assortment of knick-knacks, random scraps from the world outside. Haradeth saw a child’s doll, a treatise on the Golmiran Federation, and a shield that was dented beyond use.
Then the Tarnished One stepped from behind the box of light. “Oh! Hello!” she said, her voice bright and chipper and undeniably mechanical. The Tarnished One was a mass of woven tendrils of what looked like solid gold that had dark spots of tarnish. Haradeth assumed that’s where she got her name. She was shaped broadly like the small monkeys that dwelled in the jungle to the south, although in place of a prehensile tail she had three additional arms, each one nearly twice as long as she was. Most surprising to Haradeth was her size – she was small, barely coming up to Haradeth’s waist. “Lorathor! You brought a friend. And a present. I like your present. I’ve never seen a stabby-slicey with that shape before.”
Stabby-slicey? Haradeth thought as Lorathor presented the dagger. The Tarnished One took it and made a gentle cooing sound as she cradled it like a newborn. “I’m going to call it Murderface.”
“Why that name, O Tarnished one?” Lorathor asked.
“Because it’s been used to murder someone. In the face.” Her mechanical lips spread in a wide grin. “Can I stab you in the face?” she asked, her tone one of a child asking if she could have an extra helping of sweets.
“I would prefer if you didn’t, Tarnished One.”
“Bah,” she said, crossing her arms across. “No one ever lets me stab them.” She turned those glass eyes on Haradeth. “How about you? Can I stab you?”
Haradeth frowned. “What about a tiny stab, on the tip of my finger?” He extended the digit towards her.
Lorathor gasped in horror as The Tarnished One squealed with glee and thrust the dagger towards Haradeth’s outstretched hand. For a moment he thought he’d made a grave mistake, and that she was about to split his finger in two. Inches from his finger, the strike slowed down, until it pricked the tip and drew a tiny bead of blood. “Huzzah!” she cheered, bouncing up and down. “I got to stab someone!” She repeated the chant in a singsong voice a few times, before putting the tip of the dagger in her mouth. “Ooooh, your blood is tasty. This is a special blend. You’re three fourths mortal-and one quarter Alohym.”
Haradeth’s blood ran cold. “I’m…I’m not a quarter Alohym.”
“Well, of course not,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. Haradeth sighed with relief, before she continued. “Genetics are never that precise. You’re technically nineteen percent Alohym.”
“That’s impossible!” Haradeth fought the urge to shout, but his voice came out sharp and hard. “I was born before the Alohym invaded.”
“No, silly.” The Tarnished One giggled, holding a hand to her mouth. “Not those imposters. They’re not real Alohym. Real Alohym were awesome. Which makes you nineteen percent awesome. That’s a better percent than most people.”
Haradeth stared at her. “You mean…my mother was half Ancient Alohym?”
The Tarnished One giggled again. “Of course, stabby man. Man who got stabbed. I stabbed you.” She grinned up at him. “I mean, where do you think your Little Gods come from?”
Haradeth gaped at her. Less than three minutes into the conversation with this murderous child made of gold and glass, and he’d already learned something about the way the universe worked. Something he’d never imagined.
For the first time since being rejected by Anoritia, Haradeth began to feel something akin to hope.