All the Dust of Yesterday
rating: +14+x

The gauge on my ekter tank reads three hours, nine minutes. Then I will die.

I adjust the straps and spit into the dust and withered grass, the feeder needles in my arms shifting as I walk. This place was a pasture. Once. I can see the farmhouse, four stone walls open to the sky, the thatched roof reduced to ash. Around me are the scattered piles of sinew and skin that may have been cows. They look more like dead bushes, the flesh withered to dust, the hide reduced to paper-thin strips of wrinkled nothing, the bones shells held together by the still, dead air. I kick one as I pass. My foot passes through the spine, snapping it like a blade of grass and coursing through the rest of the blackened mass back into the tired rhythm of my gait. Useless, I think. Normally I’d look through them for sinew strong enough to use but the ones I scavenged before turned brittle and snapped until all that was left was more dust. And besides, I don’t have time. I need ekter.

The farmhouse is empty. In a corner there is a larger pile of ragged, blackened remains than can come from just one person, buttons shining in the darker charcoal grey I’ve come to know means corpse. Maybe they died in each other’s arms, two people, a family- I don’t have time to care. I walk past them, grabbing the folk ward against the evil eye off the hook on the back of the door. My gauntlet clenches and it crumbles to dust, the collector in the palm siphoning the aetherous ekter and a pipe pumping it into my tank. I check the gauge. Three minutes. That’s all it gave. I keep moving, into a bedroom. One has a little sleep charm above a faux-wood cot. It is empty. The charm gives eight minutes. Despite everything I’ve seen I wonder about the cot. Maybe the child was too young to leave much residue. Maybe it died with its family. I think of the little pile of ash in an alley in the last town I passed through, before I stripped that place of everything that could hold ekter. At least this one didn’t die alone. I check my tank. Three hours, thirteen minutes. It has been seven minutes since I last checked. I need to keep moving. This house holds nothing more for me.

Three miles down the road and I feel the ekter sniffer on my left shoulder start fluttering. I squint at the tiny device, the delicate brass petals half-closed and vibrating as the articulated arm points the bud somewhere before me to my left. Ekter. And this far from a town? Potentially a lot of it. I gently shut the bud of the sniffer with my fingertips with a click of delicate clockwork. No use wasting ekter powering it. I know where to go now.

Soon enough even I can smell it. Ekter. A buzz in the hindbrain. Life-force. Magic. Aether. Vis. It doesn’t matter what I call it. It was everywhere, ubiquitous, animating, extracted, examined, transferred, channelled, quantified and utilised, and now it is gone.

I meet another dirt path, follow it down a hill as it grows muddy, my hurried steps splashing spots of mud onto my clothing (all inorganic material, of course, rough alchemical fabrics meant for sacking) and I only slow when my foot slides and I almost fall, the weight of my tank shifting and almost unbalancing me. I right myself and click the sniffer, the flower opening immediately and the petals fluttering hummingbird-fast, ambient ekter spinning the clockwork so fast it purrs. I go to click it closed again but the petals spasm against my fingers so hard I fear I might break it. I have never seen one do that, not even at the reservoir at Eddenhaven. This much ekter… here, now… Impossible. But I can smell it. And it’s only getting stronger.

I reach flat ground, pass into a high street boxed by old stone walls, a singular iron gallows standing sentry with an ash-black stain at the base and around the inside of the noose. The sniffer makes a high-pitched whining noise and I give in and grasp it, forcing it closed. It makes a grinding noise as it pushes against my fingers and then goes silent. I hope I have not broken it. I only have one.

I pass through the town and then walk left, my feet carrying themselves forward on impulse. There, standing alone in a field, is a small stone hut. Faintly, like a heat-haze, I see tendrils of ekter rising from its narrow windows. I know I must go in, though I know not why. Something is in my head. I consider fighting it. I do not. Survival is not the victory it once was.

The hut is small and empty but for the remains of some tools but I know what to do. I reach down, place my gauntlet palm against the floor. A complex thaumic sigil appears, glowing in wheeling lines like a mesh of gears. I know where to place my fingers and do not question why. They spin and a circular section sinks in and slides to the side, revealing a ladder leading down into darkness. A wave of concentrated ekter hits me, rising from below, leaking out from… something.

I go down.

The passages below are built strong, brass ribbed under smooth stone that echoes as I walk. The tunnel slopes down and the ekter pulses out, out, out, swirling around me and through me. My heart beats fast and I fumble, jittering, for my rebreather, hoping that it can cope with concentrated magic when it can barely keep the dust out of my lungs on windy days. I feel my pulse slow. Not enough. For the first time in a long time, I close the valves from the tank to the lines in my arm. I breathe in, slowly. And then I continue on.

At the end of the tunnel, I see something. Light. The deep, treacle-dark blue of vis. I walk closer, the ekter so intense I can feel it. I open the valve in my gauntlet, watching ekter being drawn from the air itself, the gauge on my backtank notching up, faster and faster as I get closer. Twelve hours. A day. Two days. Four. A week. A month. I clamp the valve shut, run ekter into the offensive discharger and clamp the gauntlet into a fist, fingers locking into place. I feel the ekter push through me in a thrumming rhythm that grows stronger as I walk until it pounds like a pulse. And then I reach the end of the tunnel. I reach out, tentatively, graze a bronze support. A discharge of energy flicks out and stings me and I step back. Ekter pools around my feet like a low mist, as I have only seen it behave in a lab. This much power- this much ekter- impossible. Impossible. The light silhouettes a heavy door standing ajar.

I step through.

It is… hard to describe what I see.

I was not aware that such a place- could exist. It is huge, filigree and concrete on the walls, a walkway running around the rim of a huge, deep pit, once lit by searing floodlights though now only the glow of ekter illuminates this place in flat, shadowless light. Huge pipes thrum as they pump the violent purple of ekter to storage who knows where, those that have not fallen into disrepair, hanging empty and jagged-ended. And in this basin, knees worn bloody against the floor, shackles and chains rubbing their joins raw, trapped kneeling upright, head sunk over, is God. And she is like me. Dying, slowly.

Ekter pours out of wounds torn open as if from within, as if whatever force broke the world opened her up to extract her motive force, huge pipes hanging loose around her, some still connected, still pulsing as they extract vis. I look at the tubes in my own arms. The needles that push vis into me. Dramatic irony, I suppose. Her eyes are closed, lips tight. Pained? Not quite. But there is a weariness there, a comfortless tiredness. I take a step closer to the guardrail, rest my hand on it, opening the gauntlet back up. It clangs, quiet in this huge, vacuous space.

One eye cracks open and looks at me sidelong, gummed with sleep. She doesn’t speak. But I understand.

How long did they know that her abuse would end like this? With everything falling apart for a few decades of cheap power?

I vault the railing and drop, my gauntlet scraping against the wall to slow my fall. I land with a heavy thud, tired legs just about taking the impact. The basin is huge, and it takes me a while to reach her. Then I start on the glyph.

It is massive, working all the way around her colossal form. I barely recognise most of what I etch in glowing energy, sigils that only bear faint resemblances to the ones I know. But many I do. Release, deconstruct… Hours and hours and hours I crawl on the floor, until my knees are as bloody and torn as hers. But I do not tire. Many would have fought and died to have what I have. The blessing of a god. But it won’t matter soon. Line after curving line and detail after intricate detail… the work goes on beyond my ability to count the hours. But it is no easy task, to kill a god.

And then it is done and she opens both her eyes. Looks at me. And I look back. I reflect that she is beautiful, even gaunt as she is, wracked with tears spurting dark ekter. She bids me sit, and I do at last, not realising just how tired I am. I pull the needles out of my arms, feeling the euphoric, stinging tug in my veins. I will not need them soon. I will not need anything, soon.

She lets me sit, for a while. She doesn’t want this to end either.

Then she breathes out a slow, shuddering breath. I understand. There can be another chance, but not for us. All the dice must be rerolled. Seeds thrown to the wind, the tree ablaze to provide an updraft. Ending a broken reality to start another.

Then she blinks a long, slow blink, and a singular teardrop falls from her left eye. It hits the ground between her knees, a little jolt of vis running into the activator glyph I have drawn there and it ignites, glowing pure, blinding, feverish white, the symbols rising and flipping and connecting and then they turn on her. I struggle to my feet. I want to be standing, at the end of time.

And I am, when she explodes, and for the smallest measure of time chunks of godflesh flying outwards are silhouetted black against the light. And then there is nothing for gods, ekter, space, time, birdsong on cold mornings, pain, awkward smiles across a room, fumaroles and stars and tears and gears and gauntlets and greed or me to exist in.

And then it all starts again.

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