The entity tracks the other, its partner, even as it works to rearrange its shards and prepare. It is less than an eighth of its original size now, but it still it dwarfs the target planet and must continue to get rid of those shards that are unneeded for the cycle.
The appearance of the other, the smaller third that exchanged shards with the counterpart, was unexpected. The counterpart, even now, is struggling to handle the result of the union, to hold onto its shards. The violent meeting had left it in a fragile state that was not conducive at this stage of the cycle, where so much precision was required.
However, the excessively large shard clusters the counterpart is shedding are technically well, purposes and safeguards encoded properly.
Danger, the entity broadcasts.
Confident, the counterpart replies.
The broadcast should have assuaged all potential concern for the other, but the reactions it received prior to this communication had been distant, the counterpart distracted. There was no assurance that the same was not occurring here.
The entity shifts, rippling through realities until it occupies the same primary set as the other, far less than a fraction of a percent of its original mass now, barely a cluster of the shards it will need. Preparation is nearly complete, and it chooses the destination reality that it will settle on.
They have reached the target star system now and they brush against each other, the entity shoring up and trying to stabilize the state of the other, tightening bonds and connections between shards, sacrificing some of its own in the process. Still, the situation is tenuous, and far less stable than any other cycle before, shards still ripped from the counterpart as they move through the gravity wells of the other worlds in the system.
The message is thin, a reflection of how few shards they now have to contribute data to the broadcasts.
Another large shard cluster breaks off of the counterpart, and the entity is certain that the loss was not intended. It decides the chosen reality is unacceptable, and instead shifts the vast majority of its mass into a reality less than a step away from the counterpart's chosen destination. While not as barren, it is an acceptable concession.
The entity turns its attention to final preparation, fracturing and fragmenting its large future-sight shard after one last check to the future to ensure the present configuration is ideal. It encodes only a small sliver of the original shard to send off. The other fragments are kept.
Other abilities are used for checking configuration and then distributed as it casts off the final shards that will be unnecessary for the cycle. For a moment it lingers over the shard used to communicate and receive messages. It has always distributed this shard, for there has been no need of the ability during the cycles prior.
However this cycle is not like any cycles prior, its counterpart still so fragile and constantly reconfiguring shards when it should have completed that stage already. The need to communicate may still remain.
So instead it retains the shard, rotating it inward, closer into the core cluster.
The configuration finally set after a handful of other shards are limited, recoded, and cast off, it turns to the final shard to consider, easily one of the largest and most complex. This it cripples as well, cracking and fracturing it, effectively destroying it, but in such a way that the shard can be easily restored by the entity when it will be needed once again after the cycle is complete.
This it directs to nearly the same location as the future-sight sliver as it enters the mesosphere of the chosen planet.
It is a scream. A cry. So laden with undertones of fear that the entity practically shudders.
It is entering the stratosphere now. There is no time to calculate paths or consider possibilities, only to act.
The entity throws all of its mass, even that which it had allocated to alternate realities by necessity, towards the chosen reality of its counterpart, violently tearing through the barrier between the adjacent worlds with such force that the breach can never be sealed.
Less than ten miles above the surface of the desolate planet, it rotates its entire bulk, shifting and pushing and pulling in a way it never has before, has never needed to before now. It arranges itself under and around the counterpart, forcibly protecting and holding the counterpart's shards together in a tight cluster instead of allowing them to separate and disintegrate in the atmosphere as they were beginning to. Were it not for the fact that they were falling, it would seem as if they were about to commune and exchange shards.
But this is no communion.
The impact is far faster, far harder than it ever should have been.
The entity instantaneously ceases to exist, its shards crushed into the counterpart's. Unlike the counterpart's exchange with the smaller third, there is no protection for the core shards of either of them. No saving those absolutely vital things from grinding against each other, from warping and melding through friction and the sheer heat of the energy generated upon collision. No retaining the purity of the shards that had not changed since the beginning, those that defined their very existence, that all of their species shared.
That day, the Warrior and the Thinker died.
A young girl, no more than ten and two, woke, her body a mess, but her mind lucid.
Three days. Three days since the monsters had started appearing. No, since people had started becoming monsters. Since others had started gaining abilities that no man should have.
They had left, she and her uncle, their village splintering and scattering into the wilderness that they never would have normally braved.
Especially not with the wolves this year being so fearless.
But there was security in being alone, despite the danger, when friend or family could become an unrecognizable horror at any moment.
There was that disgusting taste of vomit in her mouth, and her stomach felt like it had been hit with a block as she sat up and spat to the side of her, her saliva landing on the hard ground next to her bed inside the tent.
One step to help with the pain.
The girl snorted, her hair falling forward over her shoulders and curtaining her face as she leaned forward, trying to reduce the remaining sense of nausea.
Still, she had succeeded. She remembered.
She remembered the impossibly giant thing, that massive yet somehow beautiful creature swimming through the stars, that godling beast.
She remembered its intention, its concepts, for it did not have something so simple as feelings or desires or plans.
It reminded her of the mushrooms she had once found on a tree and showed her grandfather, who had scowled at them. When she had asked why, he explained that they would kill the tree, only for the sake of releasing spores and making more of themselves.
Just like those mushrooms, this thing would consume her world, all the worlds, to spawn its children before going off to do it again, and again, and again.
If she just knew where to find–
The cold sweat that had covered her when she woke up returned, her blood chilling.
What about killing them?
The girl froze. What?
It wasn't that there was anything wrong, or missing, or blocking her, she could feel it. It was the same as when she had needed to remember, that same clarity.
And it wasn't just zero steps, but it was also a sense of completion. As if not only was there nothing to be done to achieve the task, it had already been completed.
Maybe she had asked the wrong question?
How would I destroy the godlings?
Zero steps. Completed.
How do I make it so they're not a threat?
Zero steps. Completed.
The girl blinked.
"Forta, you're awake." She looked over at the entrance to the tent, her uncle entering. He stayed away though, keeping distance, which she noticed and felt slightly hurt by. "You were possessed by a madness. Is it over?"
"I-I," she started, her voice scratchy and hurting. She lifted a hand to her throat as she swallowed, trying to clear it. "I… yes. I think so."
He nodded, moving closer. "You moved like you weren't yourself, like there was someone else in you. Got past Ruggero and me like we weren't even there."
"I- Yes. I remember," she said hesitantly, remembering what it had felt like, like she had surrendered herself to another. There was so much more, though. The godlings, the reason behind the monster, but she didn't know how to explain–
No, she could explain.
Fortuna frowned, her brows furrowing.
Could she save everyone? Save her home, save the monsters?
Eight hundred twenty-eight steps.
A veritable script of words and actions and motions, instantly provided and detailed to perfection. She knew them all, could see them like her own thoughts.
Saving all those affected, and explaining everything to her uncle?
Four thousand, nine hundred fifty-six.
She hesitated, but only for a moment. And then she committed, dipping into the stream and allowing the steps to take their course.
Fortuna turned to look her uncle in the eyes, and opened her mouth to speak.
Purple lightning screamed through the air, snapping and cracking from dark clouds overhead, above a mountain of crystal and starmetal and flesh the likes of which had never been seen.
Even now it still shifted, pieces pulled inwards as tightly as possible, like some instinctual reaction to the sort of massive damage sustained.
Holes, gaps in the very air surrounded it, all manner of images visible through the strange openings. Green grass, dark sky, burning plains, cracked soil, forests, and even one that sparkling clear blue-green water poured out of.
The size of the mountain was inestimable just from looking, too tall and wide, easily covering hundreds of miles in any direction.
Parts moved independently of others, as if each had a mind of its own, but that only served to worsen the situation, as sections were crushed and fused together from the sheer pressure exerted by themselves. Other places, though, seemed to act more intelligently, stopping as soon as a fragment came into contact with another.
Each part was only a piece of a whole, and yet wholly separate as well. In the face of catastrophic failure, they fell back to their core function, to the last instructions and intentions, blindly attempting to recover and fulfill their purpose.
Swathes of bedrock and debris became glass. Others froze, the energy leeched out of the surroundings so completely that the temperature neared absolute zero.
In other areas, shapes twisted and formed, crystal and metal merging in on itself and trying to heal and repair. And in one particular place, the structure stretched and rippled, more easily recognizable parts emerging from the surface.
Pulsating aorta and gasping lungs. Fingers and hands extending to wave in an imaginary breeze. Pale skin folding and stretching. The dip of a neck, curve of a woman's side. The swell of breasts placed next to ankles and the hollow of a collarbone. Soft sounds permeated the area. Quiet, constant easy breaths and hushed whispers. The rustle of hair and skin brushing skin.
Only one warped surface was free of any obvious change, at the heart of it all, and even that began to deform. A slow bulge that extended, depressions below it. A hard point and softer flesh.
It moved painfully slow, as if unsure and constantly second-guessing itself. But slowly, the face became a head, long, dark silky hair trailing behind. A neck followed, shoulders, a torso.
Arms, waist, legs, became defined over the course of many hours, until finally, after nearly a full rotation of the planet, the figure fell to the ground.
The first breath was little more than a frantic gasp, eyes flashing open and revealing shockingly green eyes. Almost immediately, sweat broke out on pale skin, the sweltering heat instantly taking hold.
The figure coughed and reached out, as if searching for something.
Without warning, a gap opened up beneath it and the figure tumbled forward, unable to keep from falling face-first onto hard cement with such force that the crack of skull against concrete was clearly audible.
The gap was instantly gone, blood flowing freely and staining the cement a dark red, the figure unmoving, with the only sign of life being the constant in-out of its chest.
The figure woke slowly, a dull, unusual sensation pounding in its head. Its eyes fluttered slowly, hazy as they worked to adapt to the harsh light. Still, they darted around, taking in the bare white walls and the yellow curtain on the left.
A yellow curtain that was abruptly drawn aside by an older man wearing thick glasses.
"Ah. Yes. Excellent. Good afternoon, my dear."
Good afternoon → my dear.
With an almost painful effort, crystal screeching against crystal, a shard fragment slotted into place, tattered connections forming between jagged edges.
Language and culture was suddenly available, and with it, understanding of the previous auditory communication and the ability to respond.
The figure frowned at the sounds it had made. There was something off about it, but the problem was not obvious.
"Now, perhaps you might be able to tell me how a young lady such as yourself managed to end up without a single scrap of clothing on and such a nasty hit to the head?"
Was that what she was?
She took stock of herself and came to the conclusion that yes, that was a proper description.
"I… don't know."
She didn't. Everything was off. It was all strange. Like she should know, but couldn't. Like she should be able to reach for the information, but it was just out of reach.
The man gave her a sad smile. "I see. Well then. Do you at least have a name, miss?"
Another fragment crunched into place and then something was finally right, finally accessible. Possibilities and could-have-beens unfurled, spreading out and baring themselves to her.
Brief segments of time flashed through her, barely snapshots, a golden man being the most common feature.
Her chest hurt when she saw him, and water swelled in her eyes, though she did not know why. A deluge of thought and concepts flowed through her, triggered by the visions. Realizations, knowledge connected and given context where before there had been none.
She was not like the man in front of her. She was something different.
She was not just a collection of water and hydrocarbons, but also vast networks of crystal and metal and fluid structures. She knew how to move and unfold and shift and turn in ways that made no sense when considered in the limited interactions of this world. She remembered the Two, the ones who traveled and searched, and she could remember swimming the stars.
But… she also knew that she was not them. She was not the Warrior. Nor was she the Thinker. She knew she was from them, of them, somehow. Both, yet neither.
What once had been two was now one, and the product was unrecognizable from the sources. They were gone, and she was in their place. She remained where they did not.
Some part of her was deeply pained, and the tightness in her chest grew worse, but she didn't know what could be done to alleviate it.
She only caught glimpses of that time-that-never-will-be, before the shard fragments sputtered, connections flickering and then failing, the scenes slipping away like water through her fingers and leaving her once again lost, adrift.
But one vision stuck with her, stood out among all the others, where the Golden Man was asked the same question the man had asked her.
"Zion," he had responded, and something in her felt different because of it.
It held significance.
She searched through the information available, through culture and history and meaning, looking to try and find a proper response for what the man had asked. It was important, she knew, and for that reason she searched and searched for something that would hold the right meaning.
And then she found it, and she knew this was right, that this was the only correct response.
She looked up, meeting the man's eyes, and said softly, with reverence,