The Great One slept.
Wrapped around her neck, were fevered dreams. Pitched and fragmented memories: flickers of impossible secrets. Dreams and echoes: screens of light, towers of glass, flames that reached past the sky. Perhaps, these came from the world of Gods. Perhaps not.
It mattered little, for Imra did not try to understand. Instead, she chose to remain still and silent.
As the chosen guardian to a bringer of miracles, it was her duty to defend in times like these. She would not let harm fall to the Great One in this moment of weakness. Hidden among the shadows, they might well be, but all around them, enemies lurked.
In the streets behind the canal Imra now crouched, humans marched in great numbers. Her ears twitched at the clamor of armor. Flesh encased behind twisted earth, there were warriors afoot. Men armed with spears and swords of the same. Cloaked ones, as well, shouting out their stolen gifts, bringing to life pitiful excuses for fire- but death all the same.
Overhead, massive entities lurked, bringing about their own clouds of smoke and magic. Heavy impacts and false sunlight, blasting at a constant drum. Thunder and lightning, of a different kind.
On a divine epiphany, the Great One had commanded their entrance to this city. Despite its fill of cursed blood and stolen gifts, he had brought them here for a reason. Regardless of the threat, they had come on a most sacred of missions. Though it was not her place to question why, but if Imra understood correctly, the Great One was in search of something. Even now, in his dreams.
Seeking out a sign.
“Check the alley! Orders from high: we’re sweeping every alley, every canal!”
The voices grew closer, and Imra began to move once more. Passing beneath the cover of a canal’s tunnel, Imra’s eyes adjusted to the darkness ahead. Step by step, she felt her way along the cool stone, mindful of every crack and crevice beneath her skin. Much as she wished to run, as she did before, her body could only move slowly.
Still, this was a small price to pay.
The pain in her side had faded, and the wound sealed. Remaining so, no matter how many times she found herself checking the grove of silver scar tissue. Perfectly smooth, it could almost catch the dim light where she now stood. Just the faintest trace of metal, where death had marked her.
Marked her, only to fail.
One life-debt, alone, was a uniquely heavy responsibility- but now? How did someone go about paying two: much less to a being of divinity?
That was something Imra pondered. Even in the legends she knew of, there were no examples.
Wulaca of the Misted Glade, Qolatu of the Golden Pine... those were the closest.
One had slain an entire army on the fields of sorrow, spilling their own blood for a ritual to bring vengeance. The other had traveled across the oceans, braved the deserts and the depths themselves to seek out the People of Stone and forge an alliance. Tales and legends which traced back to an era when the world had only just begun to howl its hatred. When her people still fought, and warriors would still strike back at the coming tides of cursed blood. Majestic figures wearing gold, bonded to the World’s chosen Gods.
Imra could not see herself accomplishing such feats.
She would lead no armies. Even before their foolish ritual, people had dwindled to the last. Their tribes were fragmented and faded. Their riches had been pilfered, and their blood had already been spilled. Oceans of it, more than any ritual could ever hope to control. Some even abandoned the forests of their ancestors, foolishly choosing to turn toward the depths and be corrupted.
In this current day, it seemed Imra's only offering could be loyalty.
Well and good, but would that be enough? Even if she were to be loyal an entire life time, that still left another life to be owed…
There will be a sign...
Interrupting her thoughts, Imra heard the Great One’s voice.
Seek a sign…
Rising like a leviathan from the oceans of the far north, before retreating beneath the crashing waves of thought. Passing instruction, or perhaps just idle thought. Still, the impression this left was hardly a match for the faint hiss, as blue scales shifted beneath the hood of her cloak.
All at once, the visions of his dreamscape had changed. No longer of cities cutting the sky, but of heat. Blood, death, and mocking laughter it could not escape.
Forcing her legs into motion took great effort, but it was not impossible. Imra found her resolve, continuing along the tunnel. If anything, it was not the loyalty she felt, but the guilt which drove her now.
This was her fault.
She’d been too confident. Too arrogant, in fact: so certain that her first strike would bring the fight to an end early. That the Great One had been reduced to such a condition, that he now fought nightmares for which there could be no refuge: Imra knew the blame lay with her.
When it came to cursed blood, a warrior must always listen for the beating of their chests. Hidden beneath weak bone, laughable as the opponent might seem: if there is nothing to hear, a warrior is always to flee.
With all the noise, all the confusion, she forgotten her tribe’s teachings. Beyond a doubt, this had been a grave error. Or, it should have.
“You! Get down there, check the tunnel!”
Unfamiliar to Imra’s ears, in many respects. Vowels and harsh sounding cuts. Words that ended too quickly or seemed to mean far too many things. Yet, the Great One understood. As a result, Imra did as well.
The sound of boots impacting stone, followed by steps which echoed along the tunnel walls. Far off as they were, someone was approaching.
Imra felt for her makeshift knife.
In her current state, she had her doubts that such a crude weapon would be enough. It would be far better to avoid conflict. Keeping to the edge of the tunnel walls, Imra felt along in the darkness, searching. There were cracks, here and there. Old things, broken from long ago. Some were small, barely a hair wide, but some…
She found purchase.
There was a gap, split along the foundation.
Carefully, Imra slipped her foot inside. Crouching down: her leg, her torso, she slipped by until her entire body was within the recess of stone. The break in this wall went on for quite a ways, it seemed. Though Imra could not see into the pitch black behind her farther than a few paces, the opening seemed to widen towards the ground.
Feeling along the surface, Imra confirmed that the texture quickly changed from a natural break, to something that was scratched and chipped away. Not quite of natural making, then. It had been dug out with purpose.
Distantly, she could hear the skittering of noises down the narrowing passageway.
“Anyone down here?”
Imra focused back on the tunnel she’d left.
The light of torches: Human voices, again. They were loud- too loud, for they boomed through the enclosed space. Even in the side passage Imra had found, the noise made her ears ring.
More noise, behind her.
Perhaps in response, the skittering sounds seemed to draw closer. No longer a single source, but several.
Around her neck, the Great One stirred.
Closer still, the noises became more distinct, as Imra managed to turn. Scratches of claws on stone. The clicking of teeth, with glowing red eyes. First one, then a handful, then dozens: all staring at the invader on their doorstep.
Imra knew of the creatures, remotely. She had seen them in the forest she once called home. Cowardly creatures when lived in hiding among the warrens and ruins. Existing on the threshold of what was and was not within the depths.
Yet, she had never seen them so huge.
In the widened space, only a handful dared approach her, but those that did were excessively large. Five- six times the size of the rodents she remembered. Each with teeth that gleamed milky white in the darkness of the tunnel.
They seemed hungry. Imra felt for her weapon, once more.
You foolish creatures… you do not flee?
In her mind, the voice was no longer patient.
Slipping out form the cover of Imra’s hood, the Great One emerged to face the inky blackness behind her. Smoke began to stream from tiny jaws. Heavy and thick, it billowed in a deep glowing green: halting the more aggressive of the rat numbers in their tracks. Chattering, they froze, staring at the serpent.
The smoke increased, glowing like a trapped cloud of green lightning. Heat rising in the cramped space, until Imra believed her skin might blister.
No one steals from me…
At the sight, Imra’s aggressors backed away. Then, turned tail, and swiftly disappeared into the winding burrows they’d originally emerged. Gone, into the shadows, perhaps down to the depths themselves. Imra was not sure.
Outside, in the canal tunnel itself, Imra heard shouts grow more distant.
“Nothing here! Anything on your side?”
“No ghouls! Looks like this one’s clear!”
Only a moment later, and the sound of footsteps had faded. Peering out from the edge, Imra watched the torchlights disappear.
Once more, the passage was clear.
“Great One?” She whispered. “Have you awoken?”
No further instructions issued from the blue coil around her neck. Only the visions, once again. Shifting like vapor, impossible to hold, distorted images and unfamiliar landscapes passed along the edges of her mind: The Great One had returned to his slumber.
What she already knew, would have to suffice.
Imra pulled herself free of the crevice in the tunnel wall, moving once more. Step by step, she found her pace, working back to a soft jog as she left the tunnel. Hood pulled down over her head, a dusty grey, Imra knew she would be hidden in the shadows of the canal, so long as she was cautious.
“Seek a sign.” Imra repeated the command. “Seek a sign…”
In her mind, the images formed and swayed.
Then, they settled.
“I understand, Great One.” Imra confirmed. "I will find it."
This time, she would not fail him.