Prelude

I have wings, and yet I do not ever remember seeing the sky.

As far as I remember, I have always stood on my pedestal. Mine was the tallest in the Hall of Warriors, in the Temple of Masaya. I was the centrepiece; the most important statue. I saw only what happened in front of my eyes and heard only what was whispered in secret, down in the catacombs. I do not know how much time passed. Time was meaningless before I woke up. I was told that the only thing I needed to know was when to awaken; a time at which the Universe was under a threat so great that even stone needed to come to life to fight it. It must have been long aeons, because the many people who spoke to me told of different eras passing, of empires rising and falling, of stars appearing in the sky and then vanishing from it. At some point, the people stopped having wings. Only the statues have wings, now. So many events must have happened, to change the world so much that everyone's wings went away, and yet nothing came to pass that was urgent enough for me to be awakened. In the eyes of the vast, cold, primal neutrality of the Universe, it mattered not whether we flew or fell.

Then, quite suddenly, I was awake. A tall man in long brown robes walked up to me, unfurled a scroll and said something in the language of the Interplanetary Government, a Word of Power that I cannot repeat, lest my words have some kind of active effect on the Universe. I remember him well. He looked like one of the other set of statues in the Chamber next to mine; the Hall of Scribes.

"You will slay Iccus the Destroyer," he said.

I opened my mouth to protest that I had never heard of Iccus the Destroyer before, that I could not possibly even recognise such a creature if I saw it, never mind know how to defeat it in battle. It was difficult to remember how to move my lips, or any other part of my body, so he began speaking again before I could interrupt him.

"Your wings will work now, and your magic," he said, "I will give you one warning: be prepared to face all the terrors of the Universe. You will be driven mad by what you find, unless you go into battle expecting the worst."

The worst, I thought. Confusion and fear were the first waking thoughts I had that did not pass at the pace of a millennium.

"Do not attempt to leave through the front door. We are already under siege. Their entire fleet surrounds us. There is a hidden passageway under one of the tombs in the crypt. Fly north, across the sea, to their battle fortress. Destroy it, then lure out the Beast. It will lead you to Iccus."

I nodded, storing the instructions away in the warrior's part of my brain, the part that followed orders of men like the Scribe and reacted without thought in battle, to strike before the enemy.

"Do not trust anyone else you meet. They will all have been corrupted by the time you reach them. We are about to lose this battle, you see. Awakening you will be my last action."

My heart lurched. We're losing? The stark fact, told with the same authority that could proclaim something to the Universe and have it immediately be true, was more terrifying than any enemy in front of me. I tried to speak again, but with his final message, he vanished, willing himself to some other area of the Temple, maybe to the front gates, to rejoin a defensive line he knew would be broken, to die a death he had long foreseen.

"Don't even trust the floor and walls," he had whispered, "Don't stop flying. Ever."

Act 1

The cave was dark, dank and smelled of carrion. Its jagged walls were so close together, his instructions not to touch them was almost impossible. Their oppressive weight all around me spurred me to carry out his will. Those walls were my enemy, I knew, as was everything in this cave, living, dead or somewhere in-between.

Overheard conversations had told me that giant turtles lived in these caves. Their lifespans were incredibly long (compared to mortals, that is) and, while they did not hunt people, they would kill anyone who entered their lair, in order to protect their young. My first encounter with one of these beasts was not long in coming. Ten times my size, with snapping, cruelly sharp jaws and feral eyes, its hide was so thick and impenetrable that I had at first mistaken it for a boulder. I would not have tried to slay one if it were not blocking my path in the middle of such an urgent mission. I am ashamed to say I mostly stayed back from its fearsome teeth and threw magic at its weak underside.

Just as I was wondering if the cave would never end, and I would be trapped in the dark cramped tunnels for eternity, I saw the glow of a faint light. Picking up speed, I darted towards the illumination. This was when I discovered it was not sunlight cascading from an exit at all, but the headlights of an enormous locomotive. I believe there is an expression about this situation in the language of mortals. As I threw myself to one side to avoid being hit by it, somehow still managing not to touch the wall, I saw that it was not steam-powered, like the locomotives invented by the mortals, but its pistons were driven by a monstrous giant humanoid, somehow fused with the machine! Without a second thought, I fell from the skies, my magic raining down upon the abomination, and destroyed it. One less supply train would reach the invasion force, and I knew now that the enemy possessed a truly evil form of technology.

Act 2

The train's explosion caused a rockfall, almost burying me but at least giving me the chance to escape the cavern. Fresh air filled my lungs and I was relieved to finally see the light of day. Not that there was much of it; the skies were a dull grey, as if all the vitality had been drained from them, and overcast with a miasma of roiling clouds, some of which promptly attacked me. It sounds like lunacy (Masaya be my witness, insanity would be a merciful fate, but my mind refuses to deceive me, but instead recalls all that it sees in stark detail) but the bolts of lightning that surged from the clouds were directed precisely at me! Birds, too, had turned against me, despite our common heritage. Soon, unable to survive in a sky alive with electric death, I dove straight into the sea.

(No, I do not know how I fly underwater either, but I have always had the ability. Our flight is partly magical in nature, so there are many things we can do that other winged beings cannot. This is not the most unnatural of them.)

I was now beginning to spot the pattern, and was entirely prepared when the fish began to attack me. I was only mildly alarmed when a shoal of primeval shellfish swam towards me, their tentacles grasping at me, clearly intent on devouring me. The largest of them was greater in size than the turtle had been! Fortunately for me, their bulk made them too slow to evade my magical fire. Leaving its corpse to sink to the bottom of the sea, I continued on my way.

I spotted many wrecks as I flew through the water, their planks rotten and their sails in tatters, their crew long reduced to moss-covered bones. Idly, I wondered if they had been mortals who fought a naval battle with the enemy and lost. My mind was jolted straight back to the present when one of the great vessels began to slowly rise from the depths and open fire on me with its cannons! I was confused as to how the obviously dilapidated ship could still function, until I saw the face of another of the evil machine-beings fused to the underside, its face leering with bestial rage. Despite their foreboding appearance, the faces appeared to be the weak spots. After returning the great ship to its resting place, I saw that it was no accident that it had been reanimated in this particular spot. It had been guarding something; a hidden entrance to the Temple!

I had to go back on my word. If this passage had already been found by the enemy, defending the front gate was pointless. However, if the defenders were made aware that their secret tunnels were jeopardised, they could change their strategy and maybe have a new hope of victory. I sped into the tunnel.

Act 3

I realised as soon as I arrived that I was too late. The Temple had already fallen. Evil bred in the desecrated sanctuary and imp-like beings flapped through the corridors on crimson bat wings, while the very dead were rising from the crypts. A green rime covered the fonts of holy water. The remaining statues had been possessed, awakened early from their slumber, and they attacked me on sight. Fortunately for me, their animating force could not imbue them with the same life as they would have had they awakened naturally, and although they were as strong as me and knew my magic, they had no intelligence and could not actually move from their pedestals. Most alarming of all was the statue of the Great Serpent that shot out of nowhere straight towards me, jaws snapping. Not only did it put me off guard to see our symbol of Ultimate Evil uncurl from its pedestal, where it had been chained and given offerings to appease its hunger, and begin winding through the sky, it was also twenty times my size and moved faster than a high-speed train.

Finally driving back the infernal snake, I sped to the Inner Sanctum, desperate to find survivors. I had little luck. The entire west wing of the Temple was gone, destroyed by the cannons of the enormous armoured airship that now loomed above it. It was almost the same size as the Temple itself. Surely such a dreadnought must be the flagship of the Enemy, and therefore might contain the leader of their forces. I managed to sneak unseen through the blackness until I found myself on board the battleship, staring its furnace in the face, quite literally – the machine that fuelled the ship's engines had a stern face that spewed flames and ash, like some dark God of the Forge hungry for sacrifices. Avoiding the flames, I fired magical bolts into the furnace until it fell still. However, the airship itself did not drop from the sky. I surmised that it must have multiple backup furnaces. It would be too dangerous to try my luck fighting each of them in turn, especially as the ship's security systems had probably been notified by now, so I flew through the incinerator chamber, praying that it was completely deactivated, and invaded the ship proper.

Act 4

I soon discovered that the ship itself was entirely powered by the same foul technology that had animated the train and the wrecked ship. Living creatures were fused into the machinery, driving its cogs and pistons. As I quietly proceeded down the service tunnels, I almost flew straight into several gangs of these servitors. They threw themselves at me blindly, attacking what they knew only was a threat to the ship. As I watched their patterns, I realised that they were not security patrols, but were unfinished creatures not yet attached to any part of the machinery. They were often disembodied heads or arms whose independent movement sent chills up my spine. Obviously, that part of the machinery did not require fully assembled creatures, unless I had chosen a set of pipes used to transport parts to the assembly room. I had stumbled upon their servitor factory. If I shut this down, I mused, they would not be able to create more soldiers.

Moving through narrow corridors inside a ship that was itself moving was difficult enough, particularly when it was lethal to come into contact with the walls. I was relieved to finally emerge inside a larger room... until I realised that it was a security room! The creatures in this room were actually built for combat, and spewed magical fire at me while they hung from the walls in all directions. I heard a klaxon siren, then some kind of smaller craft with propellors appeared in the room from one of the larger pipes, surrounded by disembodied heads that gave it covering fire from their dull, unintelligent eyes and mouths. Although I destroyed it, I heard the low whirr of several more from the distance. The only thing I could do was dash through one of the pipes from which I could not hear the noise and pray.

The corridor was lined with security drones but contained none of the airships that had given me so much trouble. I breathed a sigh of relief as the presence of the drones began to recede. This section of the ship seemed to be in much greater disrepair, lined with broken machinery. I wondered if I could use this obviously abandoned place to sneak around into the control chamber of the ship. After a short period of flying through endless identical chambers, I became slightly lost. Only from the inside had I realised how truly enormous the ship was. Now that I was not being pursued and had time to think about where I was supposed to be going, I discovered that there was no way to navigate. The only sounds were the rumble of the engines and the occasional deranged animal noise of the servitors transmitting some kind of status update to each other, and now it was growing quieter. Through a corridor I selected at random, I flew into another larger chamber. It was then that, to my horror, I discovered the true nature of this place.

It was a garbage disposal tip, and I had met one of the larger rejected servitors. It had been a large creature but only its upper torso remained. It looked as if it had once slotted into some device through its spine, and steam-powered machinery mounted on its back also connected with wires. Perhaps through breaking down and being reanimated several times, its flesh was rotting and had the pallor of the living dead, its face frozen in a grimace of pain and remorse at its lost soul. As it drifted towards me using its spine as a tail, its heart, separately animated, floated around it. I had no time to wonder what sort of machine this abomination would operate or what it looked like when it was alive as, babbling incomprehensible blasphemies, it opened fire on me with magic and swung the evil heart at me. My own heart grim, I prepared to put it out of its misery.

The fiend let out on unearthly scream as I fired one more shot at its backpack, which exploded, immolating it. I darted away, trying to erase the memory of its gruesome appearance from my mind and vowing not to venture into the refuse disposal area again. I flew until the noise of the ship's internal workings grew louder again. Soon the noise was almost deafening and the security drones, which had picked up my scent again, started to retreat. I wondered why they had lost interest now I was close to the very centre of the ship, where it would make sense for its vital spots to be. Seconds after I breached the final door and was plunged into darkness, surrounded by warmth and an organic pulsing sound, I understood.

The central command of the airship was entirely biological, and had a habit of trying to eat anything that came too close to it. The beast had just swallowed me.

Act 5

I was now used to the idea that the terrain and everything in it hated me. However, this was nothing compared to literally fighting inside the body of a hostile entity. Antibodies flowed through pores in the walls that pulsed rhythmically. The atmosphere was oppressively humid and stank of the unnatural creature. I battled on, searching for vital organs that I could damage and trying not to accidentally end up inside a chamber full of digestive acid or, for that matter, think about what the beast might actually look like from the outside, considering what bizarre anatomy it seemed to have. Smaller creatures lived inside the creature's gut, presumably in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship. One of these creatures had an appearance that particularly unnerved me. I shall not write down what the Scribe told me it resembled, as it was not repeatable in polite company. Personally, I thought it looked like nothing of the sort, and anatomically it would have been an illogical place for it to be. What disturbed me about it was that it had a human face. Many of the creatures I had encountered had some semblance of humanity. There was a sense that some alien intelligence was trying to construct life forms that would be viable in the human world, or vice versa, and horribly failing. Revulsion filled me as I considered the possibility that they had once been human captives.

Its eyes full of savage hostility, it let out a scream like grating metal as it threw spinning bolts of magical energy at me. It surprised me with the raw power of its magic, considering that it looked entirely unintelligent. It had the same half-finished, Undead look about it as the creature I saw in the garbage tip, and was still bleeding from a previous wound as though it had been raised from a battlefield. Unlike the creature, it could not move. The main challenge was to look at the horrible thing for long enough to hit it in a vulnerable spot and not be hit by its wild flurries. As soon as I killed it, the beast itself began convulsing, its heart pounding faster than was probably healthy for it. I wondered if I had damaged a critical spot (I pray that the Scribe had not been correct in his observation) or if the overall trauma of a battle raging inside the beast had caused it too much pain. I was violently ejected from its body by a process that I do not wish to repeat, then emerged in a darkness so total I at first believed I was dead. Then a curtain of lightning lit up the sky, I saw what surrounded me and understood where I was.

Sensing the danger to it, the airship had retreated. It had taken me into the heart of enemy territory. I darted out of the way of the mechanical and not-so-mechanical debris that was flung from the airship as it exploded, then advanced into the chaotic skies. I could feel the malicious will of the Enemy itself, somewhere close by. I only had one chance to defeat it. Whatever 'it' was.

Act 6

The surprisingly accurate storm clouds that chased me through the skies were only pale shadows of the fury that raged in these skies. Fortunately, it was not attempting to hit me; if anything, it seemed to be forming corridors in the sky, forcing me to use the path it illuminated while blocking off all other directions. If the Enemy could channel so much lightning at once, why did it not simply annihilate me and the entire Temple in one blow? Either the Enemy did not have that much control over its actions (if the things I had encountered were its creations, and therefore spawned from its imagination, it was irretrievably insane) or another hand was at work, someone who watched even over I, who was created only as a Guardian Angel for the Universe.

Every now and then, something would suddenly drift into view to break up my flight through endless corridors of light that tore through deep, wild darkness. It was always one or other of the things I had already fought; the giant turtle, the animated Serpent statue, the Undead machine-thing and the creature that guarded the living core of the airship. They looked eerily out of place in this environment, a darkness outside of space that seemed on the verge of living madness itself, even compared to how much they unnerved me to see the first time around. It was like reliving my own memories of battle and I at first assumed my mind had finally snapped. Then, after the fourth battle, the skies cleared and became as still as the grave.

Coming into view suddenly, as though the world had been its dream and it had grown bored of trying to stay asleep, the Enemy was before me. It opened the one eye in the middle of its body and stared straight at me, its vision piercing my soul.

Its form reminded me of a foetus, or maybe the cocoon of an insect; something unborn. I understood now. It had been growing for the entire history of the Universe inside this womb, safely hidden behind a veil just outside space and time. Now that it had developed enough to have any kind of conscious thought, its immensely powerful mind was beginning to reach out and touch everything around it. It wanted to know about the Universe it would be born into. Curious and yet unable to grasp the ideas it had no words for, it didn't realise it was warping everything it saw with the ideas of its own insane realm.

It hadn't yet been born, and yet it was as powerful and dangerous as a God. It had already almost destroyed the Universe and it didn't even exist within it yet, other than as a vague concept.

It was exactly the sort of threat that I had been created to combat.

I stared right back into its one blinking eye and began firing.

Epilogue

I do not know what I shall do now that the battle is over.

At first I worked on repairing the Temple. Upon the death of Iccus, all the taint and corruption that had existed as a result of his invasion had quite suddenly vanished, as if the dream that had distorted the world had been replaced by the waking world, or at least a more pleasant dream. If reality can be melded by powerful minds, who knows what is influencing the world we live in right now? If this was the case, the mind that currently ran the Universe was calmer. Things had become peaceful, to the extent of anticlimax. I laboured every day to rebuild walls and clear up debris. I repaired the statues that could be saved, although none of the guardians such as myself could be given new life. I was the last of my race, unless those exist somewhere who first created me. After flying halfway around the world and finding no other forms of life, I suspect it will be billions of years before the fabric of reality will heal enough for life to be trusted to restart.

I sometimes wonder whether I should simply go back to sleep. I am sure there will be new life when I wake up, and the time will have passed in the blink of an eye to my sleeping mind. However, I worry about myself. Unlike the rest of the world, I cannot simply start again as a blank slate. I have not forgotten what I saw in the battle against Iccus. My mind is not well. I cannot reconcile what I have discovered to exist on the outer reaches of the Universe. Flashbacks come to me suddenly and forcefully. I worry I will go insane one day and maybe hurt someone. More importantly, I worry that the information in my mind is the seed that Iccus needs to exist again. Maybe it would be best if I left the Universe entirely.

On the other hand, if anything else is born to replace Iccus, the people will need protecting.

Maybe I should just hang on for a little longer.