This article is part of the The Reificant series.
I track the creatures to an upper level of the manufacturing space. Narrow hallways covered in sodden blue cloth, decorated with oxidized fixtures and hollowed lamps, rotten doors hanging open. I can hear their jaws working. Snapping. They hiss and grunt at one another. They have some feast and I suspect I will not like what it is.
Ducking to enter the doorway I arrive in their nest. Twice the number that attacked me among the machines gather around the bloodied body of a man. His dark hair is peeled back with his scalp. His face is disfigured, his limbs and abdomen torn open. They are feasting on him. Some tear out chunks of his flesh. Others lower snapping jaws and press their snouts against his bloodied flesh, stretching and pulling the muscle, tearing out his tendons.
I kill them all. It is not a long battle. I divide them into pieces with my claws and discover their anatomy in sudden, violent motions. Their nest is drowning in their sour lymph. My body is draped in their innards. I live, my breath misting through the ichor that drips from my many wounds. I will perhaps not survive these injuries. I have at least avenged the human and--
"Winged Hunter?" moans the human.
"That is what I was called," I quill, though it pains me to do so.
The faceless, dying man sits up. He touches where his nose should be with the stumps of his fingers. He lowers the hand and turns his lidless eyes to me.
"Where is this place?" he asks.
"I do not know," I reply.
"I saw them," he says. "Beside the sea of white. They know...its shape. They gather there and...come from within it."
"You know these things?" I ask.
He shakes his head. A gesture I know to mean a negative response.
"This is not their place either. They are like us, Winged Hunter. They are an urge...within the...from within her..."
He is dead. I feel terrible guilt. I have caused this man, perhaps River Stone, to meet this terrible fate. My actions have brought him here.
Aimless, dying, I wander the ruined streets of this place. The rain subsides and the roar of the ocean seems to grow to fill this relative quiet. I stumble closer and closer to the sea, recalling what the dying human said to me.
I find them in a great multitude, perhaps thousands, crawling over one another, climbing out onto a fallen strut over the ocean, like caterpillars upon the branch of a garden tree. There is some form of terminal below, bent towers and the draped fabric carcasses of aerostats, torn and flapping in the wind. The pale creatures clamber over this and each other, reaching out, reaching for a cruciform shape like those I discovered before, held upright, presented to the crashing waves.
They sway in unison and the terrible sound they make, the rising and falling of their bestial voices, reminds me of the sounds the humans would make as they circled their fire. They see me, stumbling closer, too weak to challenge many of them, but they do not stop in what they are doing.
A dark shape resolves beneath the water. Large, but not vast. I can feel it as well. An oppression. A magnetism like the charging engines of my people's old weapons. It is an idiot voice, as potent as my Queen's pheromones, but with no pleasure. No guile. It is pure, mindless, fathomless yearning. It is abhorrent birth, a living forge. A Mother.
I scream. Not of my quills, but in an animal cry from within my throat. I fall to my abdomen and writhe in helpless agony. Hundreds of pairs of blue eyes are fixated on me, and through them I can feel their hunger. Their urge to dominate and consume. Are they of the water or do they only fill it? What is this presence that dwells within the water?
These creatures will not furnish me with answers. They pour over me in a tide. They are inhospitable to my shell and soft, inner flesh. Though small, they are surprisingly strong, with powerful fingers that pry up segments. I am unable to fight them. They tear me open and scoop out my life.
I return once more to the darkness, not silent or alone at all, but luminous and tangled in the lives of countless others, with minds like and unlike my own, with their own stories and eternities spent within the water. I can feel the Mother pulling at me, a heaviness, a desire to keep me from finding new flesh. By my will I am strong, seeking the place it does not want me to travel, a place of secrets and long-ago enemies of the water's unspoken purpose.
I spill out, into a place with no roots, into the void itself, wandering within a spire with no more home. As sure as the pale savages were the desire for violence and flesh I am the desire for truth.
I will know the water and why it is. It cannot stop me.
After years of being misunderstood, I had hoped we finally had "our" story. I was wrong.
He had a yellow inflatable tube around his waist, the kind with a comical duck head. There was a tiny fish in one of his hands, and a trident in the other. In the background a squirrel wearing shades was water skiing.
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