Chapter 2: New Home
Gemma felt a bit overwhelmed. Flight was a privilege reserved for level five and above. While the there was one level five in White Stone—the Lord Protector of White Stone's ruling clan—the Black Thorn had not had even a level four in a hundred year. For Gemma, the sky had always been an unreachable frontier.
And yet, she was flying.
The interior of the creature that she had followed her son into was hollowed, like a chamber with soft wall. It was quite spacious, bigger than even the shack that they had lived in for the last decade and a half.
The interior of the creature was well-lit though she couldn't see where the light was coming from. The air was crisp, clean, and slightly cool. It was very pleasant. Despite its name, White Stone was quite dirty. Overpopulation and dirt roads made for a very unclean living environment.
As the creature ascended, large sections in the front, sides, above, and even in the floor became transparent. At first, Gemma had thought that the sections had seemly disappeared. Her heart nearly stopped when her son walked onto the transparent section in the floor.
"It's just optic projection, mother," Night explained. "Zerg Overlords can see in every direction and they can take what they see and project it onto the interior walls of their body."
Gemma couldn't really understand what he was saying. To her mind, he was a Gifted, and she was having some difficulty getting use to it. She was just a normal person. Normals and Gifted might share Luminous, but they lived in different worlds. Like many Normals, Gemma didn't really understand the world of the Gifted. Now that her son was one, it felt as though he was so far away, even as he was standing in front of her. She did not like that feeling at all.
Still, she couldn't deny how wondrous flying was. The city shrank away beneath them. From up high, all the problems didn't seemed to exist, and White Stone seemed like a paradise. This perception lingered even as they flew out of the city, and Gemma felt a touch of nostalgia despites the slew of terrible memories of the past decade.
They flew beyond the wall of White Stone and the sight of the horizon out of the front of the creature captivated her. As they streaked through the sky, Gemma felt a sense of freedom she had never felt before. Her life in White Stone had been a constant grind of backbreaking labor, day in and day out.
In the past, she had kept her head down and pushed on because she didn't know what she would do if she left the clan. More than that, she was afraid that she wouldn't be able to feed her children.
Now, they were leaving behind their old time. She would be lying if she said that she wasn't scared, but she also felt a hint of excitement. Where was Night taking them? What awaited them beyond that horizon?
After awhile, a forest appeared on the horizon. Gemma's heart stopped when the Overlords headed straight for the tree line.
"We can't go in there," she said, gripping her son's arm in panic.
"Don't worry, mother," he said. "My Swarm had carved out a bit of territory in the forest. The Hellites there are pretty much cattle. There's nothing to be afraid of."
Gemma gaped at her son. Hellites existed in tens of thousands in the outer forest. Such a force was enough to challenge the royal army. To take over an area of the forest and keep the Hellites there as cattle, she couldn't even imagine the kind of power that would take.
Though she was still worried, she decided to trust her son. Even so, she held her breath as the Overlords entered the sky above the forest. She nearly panicked when she saw a few flying Hellites pursuing them. Fortunately, the Hellites could not match the speed of the Overlords. After chasing them for a short distance, the Hellites suddenly veered away and fled.
"Hellites aren't as stupid as we would like to think," Night said, seeing the confusion on Gemma's face. "My Swarm allowed Hellites into their area of the forest but the sky is off-limit."
Gemma turned to her son. She couldn't understand the reason for the different. Night and his 'Swarm' obviously did not fear the Hellites. If they let them into their territory, why not the sky?
"It's the Overlords," Night explained. "Despite their giant arms, they are more or less defenseless in battle. Within the echelon of the Swarm, the Overlords are reasonably high-rank, so the Zerg guarded the airspace populated by the Overlords to keep them safe."
Night indicated out the front opening. Amid the green trees, there suddenly emerged a patch of forest where all the trees were pinkish-purple. The odd-colored trees were taller than the green ones, their canopy of leaves much thicker. In the sky above the canopy, she saw hundred of creatures, identical to the one they were in, just floating in the air.
As they drew close, the entire purple canopy trembled as a swarm of hound-like creatures rose out of the leaves.
Gemma stopped breathing. It wasn't because the creatures were frightening in appearance, and they were. They were more vicious looking than any Hellites she had ever seen. She wasn't afraid because she had seen these creatures before, among those that her son commanded.
What stunned her was their number. They all but filled the sky. Hundreds of thousands of them swirled like a dark cloud over the forest.
"Did you know that the original version of the Zergling can't fly?" Night said. "I could never understand why. I mean, they had wings." His voiced lower and he seemed to be speaking to himself. "I suppose it is necessary for the balance of the game and the wings do look good."
Gemma barely heard him. "They are all yours?" she breathed.
"How powerful are they?" Gemma asked.
"That's tricky to gauge. One on one, they could hold their own against a mid level three, though I have seen a pack of about eighty tear apart a mid level four," Night said.
It was a bit of an aberration. Normally, it would take fifty mid level three to take down a high level three, and it would take a hundred high level three to challenge a low level four. The gap between a mid level three and a mid level four was akin to the Grand Canyon.
Gemma sucked in a breath. Level three and there were thousands of them, all her son's to command. She honestly doubted even the might of the Royal Family could challenge such a force.
The Overlord carried them forward. The swarm of Zerglings parted to allow them passage, moving with a fluid synchronicity like water around a rock. A great mountain could be seen beyond the Zerglings. All over the surface of the mountain were thousands of elevated gardens, either situated upon great outcrops of rocks or within enormous alcoves carved into the mountain.
The Overlord carried them to a garden in a massive alcove carved into a wall of stone wall so large that it seemed the gods themselves had cleaved away a section of the mountain with a great sword. The creature touched down, and its side opened. Gemma, holding her daughter close, followed her son out of the creature, stepping onto a lush carpet of grass. The ground seemed a bit odd beneath her feet. It was very soft, almost spongy. All around them, in the trees, dark shapes moved through the brushes. She could see eyes peering out at them from between the leaves.
Bewildered, overwhelmed, nervous, and a bit scared, Gemma followed her son through the garden. They came upon a great pair of doors etched into the wall. The doors were a hundred paces across and so tall that, standing at its base, she could barely see the top.
On Luminous, metal was the primary form of currency. Hellite cores, energy crystals that formed inside the brains of Hellites, were use for bigger denominations but ninety percents of all economic exchange were made with steel and various other metals.
The gate parted on its own and swung inward. The thickness of the doors stunned Gemma. The barrier was a good ten paces deep. One door alone was more wealth than all of White Stone and there were two of them.
Beyond the gate was a great hall with rows of polished pillars. Etched into the walls and the pillars were enormous crystals that bathed the entire hall in gentle light.
Two rows female servants were waiting for them, one on either side of the doorway, hands clasped in front of them. They were all inhumanly beautiful in matching light purple dresses. They all had long hair woven into a neat tail that hung down their backs, some more golden than sunshine, some darker than midnight, and other still redder than an open flames.
"Bath first, and then dinner," Night said to one of the women before turning to Gemma and Dawn. "You two are filthy," he looked down at himself, "and for that matter, so am I. So baths for everyone."
As he made to walk away, Dawn broke away from Gemma, ran to him and gripped the fabric of his pants with her little fingers.
Gemma sighed softly. Living with the Black Thorn, she had to spend most of her time trying to complete the workload assigned to them so it had fallen to Night to take care of his sister most of the time. Dawn became very attached to her big brother, more so since Night was very protective of her.
When they were living with the Black Thorn, even the servants treated them badly, but they never went out of their way to mistreat Dawn like they did Gemma and Night. The primary reason was Night. Whatever the servants did or said to him, he would keep his head down and drudged on, but if they touched his sister, he would lash out and damn the consequences.
When she was three, one of the servants had struck Dawn. That afternoon, Night had attacked the servant and gouged out one of his eyes. In the Black Thorn, servants were punished by a public whipping. For what he did, Night's grandfather had ordered fifty strokes. That Night had received a punishment reserved for servants, and all because he defended his sister, was a testament to their position in the clan.
Through it all, Night didn't make a sound; he didn't even flinch. Afterward, his back in bloody ribbons, he had turned to the watching servant and said, "Do not think that this beating means anything. If any of you lay a hand on my sister again, even if it cost me my life, I will kill you." He had walked away, dripping droplets of blood in his wake. He didn't pass out until they got to their cottage. Dawn had cried that entire day, and Gemma had shed more than a few tears. She knew that bloody back was burned into her daughter's mind; it had burned itself into hers. Because of Night, the servants had give Dawn a relatively large berth, until yesterday, when Dawn was struck again. Honestly, part of Gemma wasn't even surprised when she heard that her son had killed the servant who hit his sister.
Night knelt down and patted his sister's head. "It's alright, Dawnie. Go with them. It's just one bath."
Dawn stubbornly shook her head, her fingers refused to let him go. Gemma could understand her feeling, as beautiful and glorious as place was, it was also very intimidating. Even she was a bit scared of this place; she couldn't only imagine what her five-year-old was feeling.
Night sighed. "Fine. Communal bath then. You need to change into something more appropriate for a pool." He turned to Gemma. "Oh yes, before I forget."
Night stood up and took his sister's hand. He walked toward Gemma and place Dawn next to her. Reaching out, he touched both of them on the forehead with the tips of his fingers.
In the next moment, Gemma gasped, and in her ears, she could hear her daughter making the same sound. From the tips of her son's fingers, she felt a stream of warmth. Within a heartbeat, the warmth flowed into every corner of her body. The sensation was blissful, a thousand times better than taking a hot bath in the middle of winter.
More than a physical sensation, in her mind, Gemma saw the vague shadow of an endless space, fill with glimmering clouds of every color of the rainbow. High above, there were million motes of lights like stars in the night sky, slowly swirling around an enormous crystalline orb. From the orbs, thousands more dots of light continuously streamed out to join their brethrens in their celestial dance. If she concentrated, she could hear music and laughter softly echoing from the lights.
It was mesmerizing. Just watching them, she felt the slightest hint of a serenity unlike anything she had ever known. It was just a touch, but it instilled a hunger in the very depth of very being. She wanted that serenity. She would sell her soul for it.
Unfortunately, she wasn't allowed to stay there for long. Night's fingers left her forehead and that hint of a spiritual paradise vanished like smoke in the wind. It took a moment before Gemma realized that she was in tears. To have experienced that, if only for a moment, was the greatest of blessing. At the same time, to have it wrench away, was akin to be hurled into damnation.
She wasn't sure if her tears were one of joy or sorrow.
Next to her, Dawn grabbed her brother's hand and held it to her head. "More," she half-pleaded, half-demanded.
Her reaction seemed to take him by surprised, and worry creased his forehead.
"What was that?" Gemma breathed.
"Transfusion," Night answered. "It's an ability that the Queens and I can use. It is using a wave of Bio energy to heal, rejuvenate, and/or purge all the pollution from the body of a biological entity." He seemed to be answering reflexively, but a hint of pride entered his voice. "Through it I can grant health and longevity, virtual immortality," he frowned, turning his gaze to Eve, "though it seemed to have had some unforeseen effect."
Eve gazed at Gemma for a moment. "You saw it, didn't you?"
Gemma nodded weakly. Her head was still swimming a little and Eve seemed different. She seemed more regal, almost divine. With that thought, her son drew her attention. Whereas the Queen was 'almost' divine, her son definitely was. It was just an inkling in her mind, but it was enough to fuel a drive to protect him as any cost, to sacrifice herself for him without hesitation. Normally, she would die for either of her children without a second thought, but this was different. The desire to protect him was overwhelming, almost to the point that Dawn became an acceptable casualty if it was to keep him safe. The thought horrified her.
"Eve?" Night said, oblivious to her conflict.
"It is possible that through you, they had been allowed a faint connection to the Swarm. They may have seen the very essence of the Zerg, if only for a moment," Eve said.
"That could be problematic," Night said.
Eve nodded. "Unity with the Swarm brings with it a euphoria of the mind and contentment of the soul beyond the description of mortal words. A mere hint could be enough to drive humans mad." She glanced at Gemma and Dawn before returning her gaze to Night. "We are fortunate. Your mother and sister still have their sanity, though a hunger had already gripped them."
"You could have warned me," Night breathed.
"I could not have foreseen this, Overmind. We have little experience in dealing with humans, and there is no telling what effects the blood bond between you would have when coupled with your power."
"What do you advise? I cannot give offer them a true seat among the Zerg…"
Gemma's heart froze. She had hoped and prayed to be allowed into that great place of light once more, but her son's words brought despair. Next to her, she felt Dawn trembling, she knew for the same reason. She let out a sigh of relief when her son added.
"We could put them in stasis."
"No," Night said immediately. "I'll not let the world passed them by."
"Then there is no choice is to chance it."
Sighing, Night turned and walked toward Gemma and Dawn. He knelt down before his sister and gently stroke her head. "Have patience. There is a place for you among the lights. I promise." He turned his gaze to Gemma and she knew that Night's promise was not for his sister alone.
"Until then," he continued, "you both stink to high heaven."
Gemma looked down at herself and startled. Her entire body was all but covered by a layer of black, oily sludge, and there was an all-but-visible stench aura around her. She didn't even notice.
"It's the toxin and pollution in your body," Night explained. "The Transfusion process had forced all the harmful substance in your body out through the pores in your skin."
"Ew," Dawn said.
"Right, bath," Night said.
He led them through the chamber into a large network of hallways of polished stone that led deeper into the mountain, passing servants and Zerg creatures everywhere. All the servants were women, and all were extraordinary beautiful. Gemma briefly wondered where they had all come from, but the question was a minor one compared all the ones already occupying her mind. They turn left, right, down a flight of stair, left again, and two more rights before they arrived at a large chamber.
In the middle of the chamber was a large pool of flowing water that exuded a thin layer of steam into the air. On each corner of the pool stood a stone woman in a flowing gown, holding a pitcher. From the pitcher, a stream of water plunged into the pool, slightly churning the water.
At Night's behest, Gemma took her daughter and followed two servant women into a side room. The servants helped her changed into two a white outfit consisted of a pair of pants that terminated just above the knees and a loose-fitting shirt with short sleeves. Dawn was given an identical, albeit more diminutive, outfit. Both sets of clothes were made of some type of fabric lighter than air and smoother than the most expensive fabric Gemma had ever known. The outfits were so pristine and beautiful that she felt bad putting it on over her mucky skin.
When they left the side room, Night was already in the water, wearing only a pair of short. The floor of the pool sloped downward toward the middle, and Night was lying upon one of the slopes, his head above the water. Eve knelt by the side of the pool, near his head, a soft smile and a look of absolute serenity upon her face.
Her son was perfect, which surprised her. Their time at the Black Thorn left more than a few marks on their bodies. Countless beating had created a network of scars on her son's body, of that she knew, but those scars were gone. Her son was pristine, flawless skin covering perfectly sculpted muscle. She had noticed that her son had gotten stronger, but it looked as though he had gotten a brand new body. It worried her. There were too many changes to her son. He was still her son, she could feel it, but what if he keeps changing?
They walked to him and, after a moment of hesitation, entered the pool. The water was warm, flowing gently around them. It felt like regular water, but the grimes on her body simply melted away without her needed to scrub her skin. She watched as the oily sludge flowed away from the river and simply disappeared.
What struck her most were her clothes. Gemma felt as though he clothes had disappeared. If not for the fact that she could still see her clothes, she was certain that it had dissolved.
Gemma wanted to dissolve into the water herself. It had been a difficult couple of days, and the water soothed the stress from her body. The flowing water seemed to wash away even the nervousness of her daughter.
After a bit, Dawn began to find an amount of joy in the pool that only a child could. She splashed about to the water for a while before wandering toward the stone woman and played in the cascading stream. Watching her, Gemma was stunned. The water washed away the oily muck on her body to reveal a diminutive goddess. All the wears and tears on her little face and limbs were gone, and she looked as though she was carved from a block of rosy gemstone.
Startled, Gemma looked down at her arms to find that her skin had changed. Gone was the dullness and marks of hard labor; her skin was perfect, almost translucent, fairly glowing with vitality. She looked down at the water. Though the surface of the water was not serene and she could not completely see her reflection, what little she could make out hinted at a beauty that she had never possessed before.
By the end, they had to all but drag Dawn out of the pool. The servants had fresh clothes waiting for them. Gemma took her daughter into the side room to change into a pair of soft pink dresses more beautiful than anything either of them had ever seen.
When they came out, Night was already dressed. He was wearing a dark red outfit, a robe that was opened in the front over a vest made out of some thin hide-like material and a pair of long pants. Standing before them, he looked divinely beautiful and there was a sense of power to him. All of it melded into an aura of transcendency about his person. Looking at him, she felt a sense of pride. He was her son, and he was destined for greatness.
Dawn seemed oblivious to her brother's new presence. She was pouting when they ushered her out of the room.
"The pool will always be there, little sister," Night said. "It's time to eat."
He led them down two more levels and through eight turns to a grand dining chamber. There were dozens of servants in the room, moving about. Upon an extensive, white marble table, a grand feast had been laid out. There were near a hundred color dishes of various Hellite meats and vegetables. Large, steamy bowls of soup were place next to loaf after loaf of hot breads and block after blocks of cheese.
"Behold the wonder of the Zerg," Night said. "They build; they sew. They cook; they clean. They're freaking magical."
Tentatively, they followed him into the room and sat down to his left while Eve took a seat to his right. Though it was a spacious table, Gemma and Dawn wanted to stick very close to Night. Their nervousness, however, only lasted until the very first bite.
Gemma started with the bread. Because of the Hellites, farmland of any scale was nonexistence, at least, in the Kingdom of Green Hill. Grains were very rare. Bread was considered a sign of great wealth and exalted status. Gemma herself had only eaten it once before when she was younger. Her father had taken her to a feast the White Wolf, the ruling noble clan of city, was holding in honor of a group of dignitaries from the royal family of the kingdom, and she had had her first taste of bread back then. Now, it reminded her of a time before she was abandoned.
Dawn had no such nostalgia. She grabbed for everything within the reach of her little arms and stuffed it in her mouth. When she was growing up, despite her brother's protection, she had been toyed with more than once. Some of the Black Thorn would give her food and then took it away, taunting her with it. She had learned to learn to eat fast, to take one more bite and make it the biggest bite she could because, more likely than not, it could be the last.
Watching her, Gemma felt her heart twisted in pain and no small amount of anger toward the Black Thorn. For the first time, she considered that it might have been a mistake to continue to live with the clan for all these years.
"Slow down, little sister," Night said, placing a hand on his sister's shoulder. "All of this is ours. No one will take it away. I promise."
Dawn swallowed and did slow down. Night rarely made promises, but the ones he made, he kept.
Night held up two silver utensils to Dawn. "Fork. Spoon. Stop using your hands; it's unsanitary. For heaven's sake, you're princess now; stop eating like a street urchin."
Dawn looked at her brother. "I'm not a princess."
"I am the Overmind of the Zerg. You are my sister, which make you the High Princess of the Swarm. It's a big deal. All things considered, the emperor of the most powerful empire on this world isn't good enough to wash your shoes."
Being called a princess by her brother seemed to make Dawn happy but considering her age, it was doubtful that she understood the import of Night's words. As for Gemma, she didn't give much weight to Night's claim, believing that he was simply trying to make his sister happy.
The meal took an hour. While Dawn might have slowed down, old habit did die hard and she fairly stuffed herself. Watching her, Night's forehead creased ever so slightly in worry but didn't stop her. Occasionally, a Zerg creature would wander into the chamber and Night would throw it a morsel of food from the table. The creature would chirp and click at him, lingering for a few moment before leaving the chamber.
"They prefer raw meats and vegetables," Night explained, "but cooked food is somewhat of a novelty for them."
After an hour, Dawn began to droop at the table. Gemma was feeling a little sleepy herself. They had all had a long day.
Night led them to a spacious bedroom with a luxurious bed beneath an elegant canopy. From middle of the ceiling hung a crystal chandelier that fill the room with soft light. They barely got Dawn into the bed before she fell asleep. Gemma crawled into bed next to her daughter and fell asleep before she even realized it.
Gemma didn't know how long she slept. Her slumber was interrupted by her daughter's little hand, pushing her shoulder.
"Momma, momma," Dawn was calling. Her voice was close to tears.
Gemma opened her eyes. The light from the chandelier had dimmed significantly, immersing the room in shadow. "Dawn? What is it, sweetheart?"
"Big brother's gone," Dawn sniffled.
Gemma startled and sat up. She looked around; she and Dawn were alone in the room. A thread of terror constricted around her heart. Without her son here, she felt trap. They were inside a mountain, and she could remember how to leave this place. They had taken too many turns getting here. Intellectually, she knew that her terror was irrational, that her son would never abandon them in this place. Still, she couldn't stop herself.
She got out of bed. The moment her feet touch the floor, the chandelier brightened slightly, enough to push back the shadows but not enough to hurt her eyes. With her daughter clinging to her, Gemma went to the door and eased it opened.
Stand outside the door were two servant women, one blond, one redhead. They turned to her as soon as the door opened.
"How may we help you, my lady?" the one with red hair said.
Gemma hesitated for a moment. "Do you know where my son is?"
"The Overmind is deeper in the nest, my lady."
Gemma didn't know what to do. Even if she could remember all the turns to leave the mountain, she couldn't go if Night was deeper in the nest, and she was terrified of wandering deeper into this place.
"Don't worry, my lady," the blond woman said. "The Overmind is aware that you have awakened. He is coming."
Gemma felt a touch of relief, but the irrational fear didn't fade. After a bit of time, Night appeared at the end of the hallway and walked toward them, shadowed by Eve. When he got close, Dawn broke away and ran to him. She latched onto his leg and started crying softly into his pants.
Night bent down, picked up his sister, and tried to sooth her. He carried Dawn back into the room, and Gemma followed. He slid her back into bed, coming in with her when she refused to let go.
"What were you doing?" Gemma said, scowling slightly at him.
"Nothing," he said. "I was just taking a walk through some of the underground gardens the Zerg had built."
They fell silent. With Night here, the fear was gone and Gemma became curious about these underground gardens he was talking about.
After a while, Night spoke, "You know, these rooms are comfy and all, but they are a little confining, aren't they?"
At his words, the light from the chandelier faded completely. Pitch darkness filled the room for a moment before the ceiling and wall seemed to fade away. Both Gemma and Dawn's eyes widened in wonder. They suddenly found themselves upon a stone plateau, hovering in mid air. Above them was a clear night sky filled with stars and a gently glowing moon. Below them was the endless canopy of leaves that was the forest, and it was glowing softly, radiating a purplish-pink glow into the night.
"The Zerg generates a gel call 'creep' that gathers sunlight and marks their territory," Night explained. "Any plant that the creep touches is assimilated and becomes luminescence. It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Gemma nodded in wonder.
Night lied down and looked up at the night sky. "You know, I've never looked at the stars before I became the Overmind. You think I would, living the lives we lived. You think I would look up at the stars and dream of a better world, a better life, but I never had the time. When is the last time you looked up at the stars, mother?"
"I don't remember," Gemma said.
"Up there is our destiny, mother." He turned onto his side and stroked his sister hair. "One day, the stars are going to be your playground, little sister."
In silence, they gazed upward in awe as the stars twinkled down at them.