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Chapter 11. THE CRUX


More worlds and chambers. Pretty much all of the planets have fallen. They feel old and cold. Art says these were some of the earliest settled worlds, the first planets that the Old Creatures populated.

"You're like gods," I mutter. "You spread life across the universe."

"We nurture life," Art corrects me. "We don't create it. We don't know where the living things of this universe came from, how life was born out of fire and chaos. There are forces at work beyond even our knowledge."

"Then gods-or God-might be real?" I press.

"Perhaps."

"What about an afterlife?" I ask. "Do you know what happens to our souls when we die?"

"No," Art says. "We will talk more about that later, but first..."

We're approaching a small window. We've been moving at a constant speed, but now Art slows.

"We are almost at the Crux," he says, and there's a nervous edge to his voice. I feel the ball of light tighten around me.

"What are you doing?" I ask suspiciously.

"The Crux is a place of great danger," he replies. "We cannot stay long, and I must cling tightly to you while we're there, or you will be disintegrated."

"Hold on!" I yelp. "You never said anything about disintegration!"

"I didn't want to frighten you," Art chuckles.

I stare anxiously at the window, wondering if there's anything I can do to stop this.

"Don't be afraid," Art says. "I know what I'm doing."

"Wait!" I cry as we draw close. "Have you ever taken anyone like me into the Crux before?"

Art hesitates, then says sheepishly, "No."

"Then how do you know-"

Before I can finish, we smash through the window and I scream at the top of my lungs, as if riding the wildest roller coaster in the universe.

As soon as we slip through the window, the temperature skyrockets. We're gliding towards a massive orb of seething fire. This must be what the sun is like close up. The space around us throbs with magical energy. I sense Art tapping into that magic, using it to shield us from the unbelievable heat, glare, and radiation. I can't imagine anything non-magical surviving here.

We zip closer to the ball of fire. It shimmers savagely as I stare at it, awestruck and horrified. It doesn't have a constant shape. The edges buckle and warp, bulge out, then twist back in on themselves. Pillars of flame shoot from the surface, spiral around the face of the orb, and are absorbed by it again. Sometimes it turns a blinding white shade. Other times it goes black and becomes almost invisible against the expanse of space around it. Most of the time it flickers between the two colors, waves of fire lashing across the surface and bubbling over without pause.

The sun-like ball terrifies me. It's not just the heat. Being here is wrong. I feel like I'm breaking a sacred law by looking at this wild globe of wondrous fire.

"We've broken more laws than you could imagine by bringing you here," Art says. "But we cannot always be prisoners of the laws we live by. Sometimes we have to transcend them."

We press closer to the orb. We're almost upon it. My mouth is dry. My skin feels like it's burning. My eyes seem to be roasting in their sockets. I want to turn and get as far away from here as possible. But before I can beg Art to stop, we hit the outer rim and are swallowed by a billion licks of ravenous flame.

It takes several minutes to cut through the outer ring. I've fought demons made of fire, so a realm of flames is nothing new. But this fire is hotter than any I've experienced. It roars about us like a living, furious sea. But Art holds firm and guides me through the billowing walls of the furnace.

Finally we break through the flames and enter a realm of bewitching marvels. It's a vast, oval, grey space, illuminated by constant bolts of lightning. There's debris everywhere, asteroids, pebbles, and dust swirling around. The lightning regularly splits rocks and splinters them, but the pieces join with other shards to form new, larger rocks, which in turn are split again.

The space is dominated by a series of enormous square panels. Half are black, half white. The panels revolve slowly around the sphere, never meeting. Anything that hits the panels-lightning forks, rocks, flickers of flame-is absorbed, then spat out moments later.

Balls of multicolored light-Old Creatures-float around the black panels. Hundreds of demons cluster around the white squares. My insides tense when I spot the Demonata, but Art speaks quickly to calm me.

"They Will Not Harm Us," he says. "This Place Is Sacred To Both Sides. We Do Not Kill Here."

"You could have warned me earlier," I growl, then frown. "What happened to your voice? It's deeper than before, and echoey."

"We Are All Speaking To You Now," Art says stiffly. "We Do Not Experience Individuality When We Are Together."

I glance around at the various balls of light. They were pulsing in unison as Art spoke. It's too confusing to think of them all speaking at the same time, so I focus on Art and pretend I'm talking to a single entity.

"What's the story?" I ask, shivering as a bolt of lightning strikes the film of light around me and is deflected. "Why are we here? What are the big secrets?"

"The Panels Are The Key," Art says. "You Remember The Chessboard We Saw On The Earlier World?"

"Yes, but what does..." I stop and cast an eye over the panels again, doing a quick count. There are thirty-two black squares and an equal number of white.

"The Original Universe Was Shaped Like A Chessboard," Art explains. "There Were Sixty-Four Zones, Half Black, Half White. Each Zone Was Limitless In Size. Time Did Not Exist. The Universe Had Existed And Would Exist Forever. It Was The Same For Us And The Demonata."

"I don't understand," I interrupt. "Everything has to begin somewhere."

"Only If Time Exists," Art corrects me.

"How can time not exist?" I huff.

"Time As You Know It Began With The Big Bang."

"I told you I don't know what that means."

"Peace," Art calms me. "We Will Come To That. First, Accept That This Was The State Of The Universe. Sixty-Four Zones, Equal In All Respects, Black Separated From White By A Force We Called The Kah-Gash."

I focus intently when he mentions the Kah-Gash, ignoring the things I don't understand. I can try to make sense of the bewildering bits later.

"Demons Existed In The White Zones," Art continues. "Vile, Violent Monsters, Who Could Reproduce. We Inhabited The Black Zones, And Were Sterile. That Did Not Trouble Us. Since There Was No Time, We Were Immortal. Death Did Exist-We Could Be Killed-But It Rarely Bothered Us. We Roamed The Endless Depths Of Our Zones, Peaceful And Content.

"Demons And Old Creatures Were Never Meant To Mix. The Kah-Gash Kept Us Separate."

I spot a disturbance among a group of demons clustered around one of the white panels. Until a few seconds ago, they swarmed around the panel like ants, but now they part, forming two neat ranks. One of the beasts glides between the others, angles for the panel, then brushes against it and is absorbed. I wait for it to emerge but nothing happens.

"The Demon Is Dead," Art says. "It Was Ancient, One Of Those Who Existed In The Original Universe. No Living Creature Can Touch The Panels And Survive. Most Of The Original Demonata And Old Creatures Choose To Perish Here When It Is Their Time."

"One down, just a few trillion to go," I chuckle humorlessly. Then I pause. "Is that why the other demons are here, to bid farewell to the dead one?"

"Yes."

"I didn't think demons worked that way. Those I've known don't care about any of the others."

"The Original Demons Are Different," Art says. "They Have Known Each Other For So Long That They Have Formed Bonds. We Would Normally Stay Away At A Time Like This, As They Do When We Gather Here For A Funeral. But It Was Important To Protect You."

"I thought you said you don't kill here."

"We Don't," Art says. "But If They See A Human, They Might Attack. We Will Distract Them If They Grow Curious, And Defend You If Necessary."

We watch the end of the ceremony. Nothing much happens. The demons hold their ranks for a while, then break apart and drift towards the ring of fire that encircles the Crux.

"Initially We Were Not Aware Of The Demonata, And They Knew Nothing Of Us," Art resumes. "But The Demonata Were Curious. They Tested The Barriers Where White Met Black, And Found A Way To Cross. They Discovered Us."

"And they attacked," I guess. "They set out to kill you all."

Art sighs. "We Knew Nothing Of War. We Fled For The Furthest Reaches Of Our Zones, Hoping The Demonata Would Lose Interest And Let Us Be."

"Some hope!" I snort.

"It Was Brutal," Art says softly. "We Learned About Pain, Suffering, And Loss For The First Time. We Were Innocent, But We Matured Fast. We Had To Or They Would Have Slain Us All.

"We Fought Back. Your People Know Much Of Warfare, But They Have Never Seen It On Such A Scale. Universal, Timeless, A War Of Magic. The Universe Burned. The Kah-Gash Buckled. Ultimately It Could Stand The Strain No Longer."

We've been drifting closer to one of the black squares. It's bigger than I assumed, several miles high. I feel tiny as we pass within its shadow.

"We Knew We Should Stop," Art whispers. "The Laws Were Shattering. The Universe Was Crumbling. The Kah-Gash Could Not Hold. But Still We Fought. We Had Become Slaves To War.

"In The End The Kah-Gash Fractured. In A Blinding, Destructive Flash, All Sixty-Four Zones Shrank To The Size Of A Speck. A Split Second Later, The Ball Of The Universe Exploded. Everything Was Destroyed And Reborn. Life As You Know It Began."

"And that's when the universe was created?" I ask.

"Universes," Art corrects me. "There Are Two. Although There Were Sixty-Four Zones Before The Big Bang, There Was Only One Universe. The Laws Of The White Zones Differed To Those Of The Black, But They Were Held In Place By The Kah-Gash. Now The Two Universes Are Separate."

"I don't understand why they exist at all," I mutter. "Why wasn't everything wiped out in the explosion?"

"The Kah-Gash Protected Us. Its Last Act Was To Create Two Individual Universes, Dividing The Warring Races. It Hoped The New Structures Would Keep Us Apart. As You Have Seen, They Did Not."

"OK," I say slowly. "Our universe and the Demonata's were born out of the ashes of the old one, like a phoenix rising from the flames after it dies. So what's this place?"

"This Is The Crux, The One Point Common To Both Universes. The Explosion Happened Here. The New Universes Spread Out In All Directions From This Area. The Universes Overlap Each Other. They Share The Same Space But Never Touch. Except Here. The Crux Exists In Both Universes At Once."

"And those black and white panels are the remains of the Kah-Gash?"

"Yes, But Only Of Its Body. All Conscious Beings Have A Body And A Soul. What You See Here Are The Kah-Gash's Physical Remains. The Segments Of Its Soul Flew Off Along With Everything Else."

"Does that mean there are sixty-four pieces?" I ask.

"No. There Are Only Three. You, Bec, And..." Art falls silent, then says, "Something Is Happening."

"What do you-" I start to ask.

"Quiet!" Art snaps.

I look around, trying to determine the source of Art's unease. My first thought is that the demons are mounting an attack, but they don't seem to be paying any attention to us. And the panels are revolving the same as before. So why...

Wait. I'm wrong. The panels aren't the same. They're not circling any longer. They're gliding forward now. Towards us. Towards me.

"Art?" I mumble. "What are they doing?"

"Gravitating Towards You. Possibly Trying To Reunite."

"Is that bad?" I ask.

Art doesn't answer. Instead he reverses direction and suddenly we're flying towards the ring of fire as fast as we can.

"What's going on?" I shout.

"We Do Not Know," Art says. "We Had Not Expected Such A Reaction."

"What will happen if they join?"

"We Are Not Sure. Maybe Nothing. Maybe The End Of All We Know."

"The end of the universes?" I gasp.

"Perhaps."

I stare with horror at the giant squares. They're coming together slowly, but not slowly enough for my liking.

"Will they stop if we get out of here?" I ask.

"We Think So," Art says. There's a brief pause. "We Hope So."

I watch helplessly as we draw away from the panels. It looks like we'll make it out of here before they join. After that we'll just have to pray that-

A blast of magic strikes us and Art makes a high-pitched shrieking noise. We're knocked sideways. I glance to my left, the direction the shot came from. I spot a pack of demons streaking towards us. They unleash more bolts of magic, but the Old Creatures intercept them and blast them aside or absorb the shots themselves.

"Art?" I whisper, fearing the worst.

"I Am Not Dead," he says. "You Will Perish Too If I Die."

We pick up speed again.

"Why are they doing this?" I pant, keeping a close eye on the fighting. The Old Creatures and demons aren't engaging at close quarters-they hover apart and take long-range shots at one another-but it looks ugly. A few of the balls of light are shattered while I watch, and several of the demons are ripped apart.

"The Demonata Wish For The End Of The Universes," Art says. "They Must Have Seen The Panels Move, Spotted You, And Guessed You Were The Source Of The Disturbance. Like Us, They Cannot Know What Will Happen If The Panels Join, But They Clearly Wish To Keep You Here And-"

Art is struck again. He doesn't slow this time, but his scream lasts even longer than before. We're almost at the ring of fire, but a demon has broken through the ranks of Old Creatures and is narrowing the gap, moving faster than we are.

We hit the wall of fire and plow through. It feels even hotter than it did the last time. Areas of my skin start to smolder.


"You Must Use Magic," Art says calmly. "I Cannot Protect You As I Did Before. I Am Wounded And Must Focus On Opening A Window."

"If we make it through the fire, we'll be safe, right?" I yell, doing what I can to counter the burns breaking out across my flesh. "They can't follow us into the human universe, can they?"

"No," Art says. "But We Will Not Make It. The Demon Will Catch Us. We Have To Open The Window From Here."

"Can you do that?" I ask.

"In Theory," he says, doing nothing to calm my frayed nerves.

Art is struck again but pushes on, concentrating on the small patches of light that I glimpse through the flicker of the flames. I try to create a barrier to help but there isn't a strong supply of magic here, at least not the sort I can tap into. The best I can do is cool my skin and quench the worst of the flames.

The demon looks nothing like those I've fought in the past. It's huge, a mass of bulges, not shaped like any animal I've ever seen. I'm not even sure where its face is. All I know is that it's utterly evil, determined to kill us, and closing quickly.

"Art..." I mutter.

"We Know," he replies. "I Have Almost..."

A window of red light forms in the distance, almost impossible to see against the fiery backdrop. I give a shout of triumph, but it's drowned out when another blast of magic hits us. Art screeches. The bolt of energy drives us closer towards the window, but Art's scream cuts out midway and the lights around me shatter.

I realize with horror that Art has been killed, but there's no time to mourn. My flesh erupts, fire exploding from every pore. I scream silently, consumed by flames. In a mad fury I try to slap them out. It's a hopeless task, but before the fire can finish the job, I hit the window and plunge into the sub-universe of multicolored lights without anyone to protect or guide me.

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