Prologue - Rupture Day
This was the day Lis would go to heaven.
The gods had chosen her for a greater purpose. And the time had finally arrived — the big day of her life. A new beginning.
At least, that was what the scientists discussed among themselves over the last few weeks. They spoke in hushed tones from the other side of the glass when they thought she was unconscious, lying on the cold floor after their excruciating experiments.
She was back in her cell, and dinner came late. That was a rare occurrence — the Ark functioned with clockwork precision on most days. The usually comforting metal walls felt suffocating as she paced in the enclosed space, six steps forward, a turn, six back. The fluorescent light hung above like a wrathful god, and the embedded clock over the door ticked the rhythm of her apprehension.
The time was getting closer. She felt it as much in her guts as in the pulsating mark below her shoulder blade. The Ascent, they called it.
It wanted to happen, and it wanted it today.
She rested her shaved head against the small cupboard, the only furniture in her cell besides the thin mattress on the floor. The smell of disinfectant stung her nose.
Everything felt out of her control, but that was nothing new in her life. She had made peace with her captivity years back. Even so, the waiting hurt, the pointless delay of destiny. The scientist talked about stopping it, even using it for their own twisted ends.
Lis didn’t think they knew what they were playing with.
The door slid open and stopped with an agonizing thud in the wall. One of the Ark’s technicians staggered inside, covered in his usual long lab coat and the strange mask that made their breathing sound heavy and distant. Lis noticed the lack of dinner in his gloved hands with resentment.
He took two more shaky steps before collapsing, a wickedly curved knife protruding from his back. His blood smudged the sterile floor tiles with a deep, vibrant red.
Stumbling back, Lis fell and slithered away in shock from the horrid apparition.
A man in stained robes stood in the doorframe — tall, bald, and terrifying. He walked in serenely and took his knife back before turning to the girl curled up in the corner.
“Be not afraid, my child,” he said, his voice a low thunder, deeper than the old machinery rumbling in the sub-basement levels.
Lis pressed against the wall’s cold metal and wished she could crawl into it.
“Who are you?” she asked as the first tears started down her cheeks.
“I’m Brother Vrases. I came to rescue you.” He looked at her, eyes sunken with sadness that didn’t fit his intimidating figure. “And I’m sorry for that.”
Nothing made sense to Lis. With one of her captors dead on the floor and her entire world turned upside down, she clung to the one thing that held promise. “You’ll take me away from here? Outside of the Ark?”
“Yes, we don’t have much time,” he said, glancing at the door. “But first I have to be sure. Show it to me.”
As in a trance, Lis understood immediately what the man wanted — her day was already heavy with it before he came. This was all part of the plan, just bloodier than she had anticipated. Lowering her jumpsuit, she turned toward the wall. On her back — below her shoulder blade — was the mark of the Trickster, five suns orbiting each other in peculiar geometry, crawling below her skin.
It blazed with neon.
The priest’s fingers felt cold as he gently caressed the symbol, and she winced at the unexpected touch. It had been a long time since anybody touched her without pain.
“Let’s go. And don’t look around too much,” Vrases said. They left the corpse in the middle of the cell.
The corridors were emptier than she had ever seen them — no technician hurrying on their way or pushing equipment carts. Lis ran along underneath the cold lights, the priest dictating a hard tempo. She felt hot from the sudden exertion. After a few turns, they entered a laboratory on the far end that she had only ever seen from behind thick glass.
The floor was littered with bodies. At least half a dozen technicians, left where they were slain, collapsed over monitors or crawling toward the doors — their lifeless eyes gleaming behind their strange masks. Spilled blood spread over the linoleum, and Lis covered her eyes, wailing in terror.
This is wrong, all wrong! This was to be a day of wonder and glory, not carnage!
“Be not afraid, my child,” the priest repeated, clutching her wrist. “We are all part of their plan, serving in different ways.”
He glanced at the clock. “We only have three minutes till the evac. And we have to reach the beam station before the other floors notice.”
She tried to back away, but he flung Lis over his shoulder without trouble. She pounded his back with little effect, her fists bruising like she was beating on steel. Her effort died down as they bolted forward with inhuman speed, beating echoes into the deadly silence.
They raced across a side room, hundreds of tubes protruding from the floors and disappearing into the ceiling, filled with at least a dozen different dimmed lights. It smelled of stale oil and rotten eggs.
One of them seemed wrong, separate from the light of the gods, and Lis felt a sense of disconnect just by looking at it. It was not only empty, but full of emptiness. Void and deep, it drew in her gaze like no light she had ever seen.
It was all behind in a blur. They arrived at a shattered door at the end of a long corridor, dangling from broken hinges. A strange glow emerged from it, and as they stepped out Lis saw something she thought she had long forgotten.
So full of color, open and endless, it struck her heart with awe and fear after many years confined in her cell.
The four gods who ruled the sky were glorious. They were suns, flaming spheres in different colors, and their light showered the great city below like an endless stream of descending mist. A waterfall of light. It prickled her skin with a long forgotten warmness.
“The gods bless us with their united presence on this crucial day,” the priest said with pride as he stepped out.
Three of them were enormous. The Crimson Father, the Azure Mother, and the Golden Son — they occupied most of the heavens.
She still searched the sky. The fourth one was hard to find, but not for Lis. Her mark flared up and filled her mind with sweet agony, pulling her toward the west. Close to the horizon, barely noticeable in the flood of light, hung her destiny, a small orb of ominousness. It had many names, the Changing One, Ome, the Neon Sun. The people in her village called it Unumugmi, the Trickster. That was a long time ago.
She was suddenly drenched with cold sweat, and her heart fluttered with such strength it threatened to break out of her ribcage. The god called for her, and her body answered to the call.
She mustered her courage and walked toward the railing. The beam station was a balcony on the side of the Ark, reinforced with thick steel beams, barely big enough for half a dozen people. Looking up, Lis could count at least thirty more floors on the enormous metal tower with a few more stations like this one scattered on its exterior.
A stone ring hovered in the air with a control panel below it, covered in strange symbols. The two dead guards on the stone told the story of where the priest had broken into the facility. She found that her tears had run out already.
He put her down and pushed a hooked metal rod with a strong leather strap into her hand. “Tie this to your arm and cling to it as if your life depends on it.”
The air brought the scent of blooming redwood, and as Lis peeked down she saw the rippling mass of the lush green and red jungle. Humid air struck her face, a welcome change after the Ark’s controlled environment. The fall from here to the ground would be at least one hundred feet. With shaking knees, she obeyed without words and fastened the rod tight on her arm while the priest fiddled with the symbols of the panel. Somewhere deep in the building, the first alarm horns shrieked.
A beam of concentrated radiance emerged from far away and hit the ring in the air faster than the fall of a hawk. It hung there, solid light, unbroken and fierce, connecting them to some distant place. The heat of it bathed Lis’s cheeks.
The man shoved her up, and as soon as the metal hook caught the beam she shot out with neck-breaking speed. The hot, rushing wind drowned out her screams, and she clung to the strap with all the might she could muster.
The great city sprawled below her as she flew. They were traveling by this strange means, zipping high in the air from the lonely Ark on the northern hillside toward one of the many skyscrapers in the south. All the mansions and homes below seemed like children’s toys, and the other smaller metal towers were like fingers reaching to grab her.
Lis stole a glance backward — the priest was close behind. She hoped he knew what he was doing.
In the distance to the east, great masses of people shifted through the trampled cornfields near the city. Two armies clashed, one glowing with primary colors and another shrouded by a dark mist, painting the meadows in a mosaic of lights and shadows. The wind carried the faint whispers of faraway explosions and the ferric smell of blood. They were distant, inconsequential. Her mark pulsed. It was not her concern on this important day.
They soared over a mighty river that branched into two before meeting the ocean and a majestic palace of marble and steel, with a lightfall so bright it hurt her eyes. Their destination was one of the upper floors of another enormous skyscraper. Despite its size, it was still dwarfed by the blasphemous height of the Ark that stood on the hillside behind them like a threatening finger raised toward the heavens.
An open window with another hovering ring awaited them, and it drew closer with alarming speed. She closed her eyes.
Her heart missed a beat when her flight broke, and the rod disengaged from the beam. She fell, but strong arms grabbed her before she hit the floor. When she finally dared to look, she stared at a dull gray robe. Her savior, another priest, standing tall and bald, wasn’t as imposing as her rescuer. He was younger with kind features, even spared her a thin smile. Probably still an acolyte.
The priest burst into the beam station behind them and didn’t even miss a step in his stride. The arms let her go, and the acolyte turned with a great bow toward him, thumbs pressing against his forehead.
“Giver of Demise. The others await your arrival. They are in the offering chamber.”
The priest nodded in approval. “Have the girl change into the ceremonial attire and lead her in. I will tend to the final details myself.”
The acolyte shifted nervously. “The armies of the Caged One are getting closer. They clash on the city’s corn.”
“Not our concern. Be not perturbed by the affairs of foolish mortals. We have our orders. We only serve the gods.”
The acolyte bowed again. Without another word, her rescuer left her. She was tired and overwhelmed after the day but still felt hurt. Not even a word said to her.
The other man gently but firmly shepherded her into one of the many rooms in the skyscraper’s belly. Inside, an opulent and royal dress awaited her. The finest jaguar skin, blood-red parrot feathers, and matching ruby jewelry. She looked, puzzled, to the acolyte.
“Please change, miss. The ritual is upon us, and all the details matter. I can’t leave you alone but will turn away,” he assured her.
Lis got dressed. The ruffled feathers tickled her fingertips. Any other day she would feel excited by the chance to wear something other than her usual jumpsuit, especially something this vibrant. However, today her motions were stiff, almost mechanical, and she barely felt anything besides apathy. Her mark burned her skin, but it was more comforting than painful by this point.
When finished, she folded her jumpsuit neatly, as she always did, with her name on the top. “S.17” read the label sewn above the breast. The scientists pronounced it “subject seventeen,” but by looking at it upside down every day she knew the true meaning of the characters. Lis. Her name.
The young man turned and moved to her side, somehow perceiving that she was done. “We have to go.”
He led her through lushly carpeted corridors, illuminated by crystal lamps or the occasional light-line running in the walls. They hurried by oil paintings of foreign lands, and from the floors below laughter reached them. The air was heavy with the mouth-watering smell of freshly baked corn. She was starving. The skyscrapers looked similar from the outside, but this one couldn’t be more different from the sterile metals of the Ark.
They went up a flight of stairs and out onto the roof. Next to a pool of glistering water stood a small sunstone structure. They entered the chamber, where lavishly decorated walls welcomed them — a haphazard collection of ancient relics. Strange wooden masks with jet-black gems. Totem poles that snared with the faces of a hundred jaguars. Two spheres, suspended from strings, orbiting each other. The ceiling of the chamber was an open hole to the sky.
In the middle of it all lay a marble slab, tainted by old blood marks, and a dozen priests in robes as white as the light of the Four. In front of them stood her rescuer and, by the looks of the sacrificial dagger in his hands, her executioner as well.
Lis searched her emotions and found with surprise that she felt no fear. This was all part of the Trickster’s plan, and she would join him on his side soon. The burning of her mark eased as she lay upon the slab, and the priests’ chanting reminded her of a strange lullaby.
Her body flared with neon, rising a few inches from the stone. The peculiar light embraced the other colors, brightening them to the extreme. The priest raised the dagger above his head, ready to strike.
She was at peace, floating over the marble, bathing in the light’s warmth, her destiny finally fulfilled. Lis hadn’t known, but she was ready for this all along. She closed her eyes and waited for her fate.
A terrible roar emerged in the distance, and the heavens convulsed above. The light became wrong, a faded shadow of itself, as all the warmth and life were sucked from it. A terrible pillar of pure emptiness rose in the city, up to the sky, reaching toward the west.
The ground trembled with such force that it buckled even the steel structure of the skyscraper, and the chamber walls to the north and east collapsed. The priests lost their balance and slid toward the edge with panicked screams. A wide rift opened across the jungle, reaching into the city, devouring armies, buildings, and the river in its wake.
“We are already late!” a priest bellowed, clutching a pillar as the building sank deeper, tilting dangerously to one side.
The room grew darker — the only light was the fanatic glow in the eyes of the Giver of Demise as he clung to the altar. The dagger struck, and the luster of neon vanished. Lis dropped back onto the stone slab.
She felt the life leaving her as her blood soaked into the delicate dress. There was no pain in her, just stillness and the cold of the metal. They sank, and the first priest plunged to his death. Her eyes wandered aimlessly over the collapsing room, settling on the sky. Flashes of light moved across it, and she focused on them with her last fleeting effort.
Under the blackened canvas above, between dimmed gods, the stars rained down from the heavens.