Strangled in Gaia's Crib
rating: +13+x

It all started one sunny day near the tail end of summer, around harvest time. That was about the time one last subtle shift finally pushed things over the brink. Of course, it didn't see it this way, but that's how most creation goes.

On this one day, when the leaves were plunging from the trees, when the air started to have a bite to it, and when the people started donning heavier clothing, it awakened. The awakening would have been terribly ominous if it were some sort of horrible beast or unpleasant sentiment, but as it was, the precedent it set was only mildly ominous.

It wasn't all at once, you have to understand. For a while now, it had been dimly aware of certain things. Autumn leaves making their almost imperceptible pitter-patter as they fluttered in the wind and fell to the ground. Countless footsteps light and heavy, driving wheels and stomping hooves, mainly from within. Every boot, every horseshoe made its own impression, and from that point of view such a place felt much more like an ant nest than some freethinkers would admit it to be.

Off to one side - it wasn't entirely sure which side for a period of time - were the constant sensations of something wet, flowing and mighty. Mighty with a capital M. Over 20,000 cubes of water thundered past every second. Four hundred billion drops of water, and that was on pleasant days. It felt every single one.

Up to now, however, this was akin to the incurious observations of an insect. On that august day, it started to think. A sorcerer or diviner would have only slightly more success in saying how or why it would begin to do this than a biologist or engineer. Certainly there was some magical infusion involved from local mages' experimental runoff, but nothing too ostentatious. The important thing here is that it thought and it was.

One would think that the so-called birth of a being effectively several square zemetres in size and unable to move would be quite distressing for the being in question. Fortunately, it was able to continue its streak of good luck thus far and avoid total insanity. The lack of discrete sensory organs probably helped as well.

Nevertheless, it had curiosity, and almost immediately started to gorge itself on every stray thought, every snippet of conversation it could find, stretching its senses as far as they would go. For a little while, this was almost overwhelming. Country-dwellers often state that they cannot stand having so many neighbors in close proximity; this being sensed every neighbor. Every usage of every tobacco bowl, every creaking bed and slammed door, every laugh and moan and cry. It even noticed a cycle of these events, and on one particular occasion would observe droves flocking to venerate, of all things, an exalted cabbage.

Every once in a while these sensory boundaries would shift, usually outward, for while it was not directly connected to every being within it, it was still connected enough to find thoughts and feel what they felt, as a whole. It would be difficult to describe those who attempted to understand - and how they attempted to understand - knowing what so many were thinking at any given point of time, give or take. It would be exponentially harder to describe how it felt.

Indeed, despite lacking sensory organs, it was able to feel. The rushing of the great river was almost overpowering to behold, and that was without every raindrop, every other chamber pot drop hitting its arteries, every pang from every would-be warlock's experiments. The smell from the horses alone was intense, and that was only a vicarious experience. It came to appreciate rainstorms: they were cleansing and all-consuming in every sense of the word.

What interested it the most were the arteries themselves. Like great stems, it started feeling the paths leading out, and as far as it could surmise, they led somewhere infinitely larger. Here beyond the walls, at least, it found actual animals and actual ant nests.

Imagine its surprise when it encountered another like itself, then. When its feeler ran up across the other one's, just down the river it now knew was called the Elra.

Imagine its disappointment when its neighbor, and all the others it found, were little more than unthinking animals in comparison. The most it could get out of them amounted to the braying or grunting of a draft animal.

Still, once it found out there were in fact limits to its senses, it eventually came to terms with this state of affairs. Every so often it would try to prod them into some form of higher thinking, sending pulses of feeling their direction, but if it had fingers it wouldn't have crossed them.

It drank from the well of thoughts and general sentiment, growing its fragmented wisdom, and for a short period its sense of optimism blossomed. A place as cheery as that would make anyone optimistic, and surely some day the others would wake as well. Clanging, sawing, a bit of shouting and a sense of planning would give way to more slamming doors, more weary (or excited) creaking of beds; more contented sighs emanating from windowsills, or exasperated ones from desks in the dead of night.

Sentinels kept tireless yet tiring watch on the wall that ringed it. A foundry near the edge clanged and clunked with abandon. Countless coins exchanged hands in the market, gold and silver discs tumbling and clinking from buyer to merchant to strongbox.

And strangely, while it figured out what death was, it didn't quite know whether it would ever die, or how every time something died within itself, it seemed to grow a bit more…observant, was it? Maybe it was simply growing and gathering strength naturally.

Pleasure, pain, toil, and everything in between played themselves out again, and again, and again. Sure, the wider realm existed and would make itself known every now and again, and travelers would come & go with importance both haughty and self-assured, but by and large things went on.

Until all of a sudden they weren't. Suddenly, a feeling of concern, then fear grew as news came in of something unprecedented. Something horrible had happened, from another realm to theirs.

At one end, the great feeler web started to grow cold. The other being it knew lay in that direction didn't seem to respond anymore. At the other end, panicked feet and hooves started streaming out and never coming back.

In due course, it felt exactly why.

From the cold came more feet, more hooves, and even some heavy wheels…but not only was there a distinctly foreign feeling to them, it was a distinctly malveolent feeling as well. Armor clanged. Contraptions rattled.

Some of the footsteps elsewhere were still trying to flee in the other direction, but it also felt a number within itself, seemingly preparing themselves within and without to face whatever was coming. It felt their fear and determination as surely as they felt quivering sword arms.

It started to feel the seething hatred roiling from those who were without, like burning brimstone in the freezing night. There was something else, buried beneath the anger, and were the situation not so concerning it would have tried to figure out exactly what.

In almost no time at all the contraptions were set up, and through the whole time there was some grim, horrible satisfaction underlying their construction.

And then, all at once, they stormed like a flood from Hell. The machines fired their baleful payload. Everything exploded in pain.

So much pain.

Agonizing, searing, terrifying pain. If ever someone would have started an accidental blaze, it would still have considered this worse. It wanted so very much to plead and beg for mercy.

The defenders - it realized what they were now at least - were in great pain as well. And it felt every iota. Hot stone crashed and broke the walls, sending them crumbling and crushing a select unlucky few. Blood flew and splashed on the cobblestones. Heads followed. The din really was overwhelming this time.

The pain was almost to match the rage now boiling over and into itself. Imagine being a dog tied to a chain in the yard while laughing kids throw stones at you, and you will have some idea of how it felt. Something occurred to it as pain flooded what senses it possessed: was this revenge? There was that other thing again, the thing that not only underlied this wave of hate, but…

There was no time to reflect on this, for it knew the feeling of death, and what was happening to the thoughts inside its walls would surely kill it, too. This was its death, wasn't it? The thought filled it with even more panicked rage and despair and pain, although it could scarcely tell what it was feeling at this point.

So much pain. So much hatred. Everything hurt. Everything was dying. Flashes of thoughts white hot, then cold as ice. Even the spreading of what was surely actual flame felt cold and detached; crumbling brick and woodwork barely registered. Everything…

It finally remembered how to scream just before every dead citizen died a second death.

And that's how, during the first battle of the war that would destroy an entire world, the Elra river boiled in its banks.

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