By Douglas Seacat
Not all who walk the lands of Cohors Cthulhu are mortal. One of humanity’s greatest but most enigmatic allies against the Outer Gods is the priestess Maeren, an ageless Hyperborean mystic so ancient she had a hand in both the rise and the fall of Atlantis. This story features her rousing from a long slumber during the early reign of Rome’s emperor Marcus Aurelius, only to find both her memories scattered and her plans in disarray.
Rising to consciousness after these long slumbers felt akin to drowning in reverse. Her mind swam desperately to reach the surface while she labored to avoid taking a breath too early. Her lungs panicked and seized, fighting to draw air well before there was any to breathe. Part of her recognized it as an illusion, and she fought for self-control. She had done this before, many times. She knew that much. She did not actually need air in her lungs, yet. Her heart struggled, its beat ponderously slow, straining to push the resistant flow of her sluggish blood.
There was no sensation of movement as her body was pushed upward through the surface of the suspension tomb. It was as though she had been completely immersed in a fluid bath that was now draining beneath her, leaving her exposed. The air was shockingly cold, and she began to shiver uncontrollably, then gasped a deep breath for the first time.
As if in response, the cold stone beneath her softened and flowed, momentarily becoming liquid again as it deformed to match the shape of her body’s contours. It warmed like a living thing, radiating heat upward into her as she continued to shiver. Her throat and mouth were painfully dry, prompting her to cough. Water dripped into her mouth from somewhere above, and she swallowed gratefully. There was a tingling sensation along her spine and something that felt like needles pricking into multiple places on her back, behind her legs and arms, before withdrawing again. A tolling sound reached her as if from somewhere far away down long corridors, like a meditative mantra by a very low-pitched voice, together with a movement of air and a sound like an exhalation.
She opened her eyes to darkness, starting with dismay as she wondered if she were blind. Then golden motes of light began to appear one by one above her on the ceiling’s gleaming surface of polished black stone. The gold light was joined by glimmers of shifting orange and red that danced like fire. They brightened, as did the chamber around her. A simple octagonal room, its walls of similar black marble, with arched openings set into several. The only other noteworthy feature was the slab upon which she rested. Her eyes were drawn back to the ceiling, where the glimmers of light moved inward in spiral patterns, almost hypnotically.
While she was looking up at these patterns, within the marbled and strangely glossy texture of the stone above her, she became sufficiently distracted from the sensations of her body for her thoughts to begin to race.
Where am I? How long have I been sleeping?
Her heart beat at a stronger pace now, and the fog seemed to recede from her mind, only to be replaced by a stronger sensation of dissonance and confusion. When she reached into the past, she found nothing to latch onto. It was a dark and yawning void. She needed some frame of reference, and the empty room gave her none.
Who am I?
The stone thrummed beneath her, and glowing motes emerged to surround her head in tight orbits, like a swarm of bees. That thought called to mind an image of such insects in a field as she walked toward a lake, in her hand a blade from which blood dripped. She closed her eyes against the dizzy sensation and the pain of the brighter light, then gritted her teeth against the rising buzzing in her ears and a sudden, sharp headache that only grew in intensity.
Something was pressing into her mind. The awareness of certain words came to her, not precisely as a voice, but as an unbidden thought. “Mnemonic reconstruction initiated.”
The lights swirling around her head accelerated, shining strongly enough to penetrate even her closed eyelids, leaving streaks of afterimages. Scenes began to flood her mind, haphazard and startling, one after another, so swiftly she could not examine or consider them.
They evoked a tide of tumbling memories, thoughts, and feelings. Between one moment and the next she felt both triumph and despair, and a sickening well of grief that seemed bottomless. She watched the churning destruction of entire worlds, the exploding of suns, the blackening of continents. A tide of death engulfing lives beyond counting. She saw a vast and pulsating nebula of seething light, within which dwelled a darkness and malice that folded eternally inward while swallowing stars and hungering to consume galaxies. Fleets of vessels, once thought flawless and invincible as they crossed vast stellar distances, shearing apart and shattering as the very fabric of reality tore where they passed.
Lifetime upon lifetime of cycles of misery and conflict and inevitable destruction, of fleeing to other worlds, of seeking a place to make a stand. Knowing she was alone. The last of her kind. Hatred burned within her, attached to a single constant that had always endured—her conviction. A resolution to never turn aside, never surrender, to begin again even if it meant starting with nothing. She would build as many civilizations as she must to find one sufficient to wage her war of vengeance. Each defeat was a learning experience. Another piece in the puzzle. She would persist, endure, and begin again.
The pain in her head increased, a burning brand. More and more images, the weight of memories exceeding what her mind could hold. So many lifetimes—it was too much. She couldn’t take it all. Each new flickering sensation and emotion that invaded her mind annihilated something else that had been there before.
“Stop,” she tried to say, the sound only existing in her mind. That should have sufficed, but the images and knowledge continued, unceasing. There appeared the gleaming floating gardens of Kortorhur, the heavy moonlit slabs of Plondu, the golden crystals and orichalchum of Atlantis. She saw the prideful faces of the doomed isle’s enlightened inhabitants, before turmoil seized them and they, too, divided and fell upon one another, murdering their loved ones, their eyes glowing with inner corruption.
With a wrench she was elsewhere, amid simple villages of mud and daub, of farmers and goatherds; she walked among them, teaching. They bowed to her, afraid and reverent. She was reduced once again to relying on primitives. Then eventually she stood amid marble halls where philosophers argued and debated the nature of a reality far vaster than they could ever imagine. She sought to elevate them without revealing her nature. At other times she feigned godhood. She chose their heroes and empowered them. But was this a lie? Was she not, in some respect, the equivalent of divine? There were triumphs, ones that would be immortalized in legend, but never enough. She recalled why she had chosen this place, with its mortals who knew so little but held within them such vast potential.
The images came to her out of order, sometimes backward, sometimes with no particular chronology. She felt a connection to some of them, especially those that seemed the most ancient, untied to anything recent. Other sequences were utterly baffling and did not move her, as though she were witnessing lives connected to a stranger, not her own. Among those lives were ones in bodies and forms alien and different, perplexing in their multilimbed proliferation, evincing an array of colors she could no longer comprehend or properly imagine. Her form had not always been like it was now, though in her oldest memories she did not feel so different. She sought to knit threads together to connect what she saw and felt, and she succeeded in a few, but more often failed. Her mind was splitting. It was too much. She could sense herself unraveling, and madness beckoned.
“STOP!” she said, this time more forcefully, both in her mind and aloud.
From the intrusive presence in her mind she felt a sense of recognition and obedience. The process slowed and halted. “Reconstruction incomplete.” Again the words had emerged unbidden in her mind, this time attached to something that resembled a voice, deep and sonorous, yet not unfamiliar. The language was not the one she had used; it was far older. She understood the tongue without difficulty but had not chosen to speak it for many lifetimes. She did not remember why, but it was connected to her deepest grief and rage.
She forced herself to sit up, sending the motes orbiting her head scattering. Her muscles felt weak, and it required significant effort. Looking down at her slender legs dangling over the side of the low black slab, she realized she was unclothed. The air was warm enough now that the temperature no longer troubled her, but the realization had an effect.
There was a tickling sensation along the back of her legs, one that made her skin crawl and raised goosebumps, but she remained still and endured it. Before her eyes, what appeared to be cloth wove itself seemingly from thin air and spread like accelerated moss growing on a stone, flowing down her legs, up her torso, over her shoulders. The simple long-sleeved vestment nearly reached the floor when she stood. Golden bracelets set with gleaming stones ringed her wrists, and a coiled metal band clasped her right upper arm. All of this felt familiar and comfortable.
Who am I? The question arose again, but this time she felt less uncertain. Dozens of names flickered through her mind, including one that might have been the first. She chose one that had a more recent flavor on her tongue as she spoke it aloud. “Maeren. I am Maeren.”
Golden light pulsed within the black walls ahead of her, and she heard the voice again in her mind: “Acknowledged.” The awareness of her name seemed as important to this place as it was to her.
Her legs’ strength had already begun to return by the time Maeren strode toward one of the chamber’s exits. Simple sandals now enclosed her feet, insulating her from the cold tiles. The lights on the walls had pulsed in this direction, and she’d chosen to heed them. Extending ahead, the hallway curved gently to the right. Motes of light continued to emerge from the black stone as Maeren passed, providing dim illumination only in her vicinity; beyond, it was pitch black. It was disconcerting to walk through what seemed a yawning void, only her immediate surroundings transformed into solid, tangible reality.
This made planning a route all but impossible, for she had no idea what lay ahead, and her shattered memories provided little assistance. Fortunately she had no real choices: no branching tunnels, no split stairways heading both up and down. She sensed vast mechanisms at work around her. The place seemed alive in some way that defied conventional understanding. She could hear it breathing through the movement of air, as if vast bellows were alternating their flow inward and out. The place’s scrutiny revealed itself through a slight pressure in her mind.
A short stretch down the corridor, she could not help but look back, toward the thick and featureless slab that had seemingly birthed her. She saw instead a blank stone only a few feet away, far closer than the archway through which she had passed. She reached out and touched it, finding it solid and unyielding. When she turned back again, thwarted by the inexplicable geography of the place, she found the route had changed. What had been a downward slope was now level, veering sharply to the left instead of gently to the right. A grinding noise emanated from some distance away, and her feet vibrated as though the entire place was shifting. She fought down mild nausea and realized she was hungry. But she put that aside and walked on.
At last she entered a wide and spacious chamber, one several times larger than the suspension tomb’s cell. It was so large that from its elevated center it was impossible to see the far walls, giving the broad dais at its heart the illusion of being alone in the universe. The light focused on the dais enticed Maeren to approach, and as she stepped onto the platform’s low stairs, the gleaming motes circling her arranged themselves in the familiar configuration of the world’s stars. She fought against the emergence of another memory: of staring up at the night sky from the deck of a rolling ship.
Atop the dais was a stone cube much smaller than, but not unlike, the one where she had been sleeping. A slender, disconnected pillar descending from the ceiling hovered above it, its underside perfectly smooth and flat. She knew at once the slab would respond to her touch. This was the center of the facility, its interface and heart. Aspects of this place had awaited her, or another like her, for eons, and would wait longer if need be.
She approached the slab, the light following her. As she paused to take in her surroundings, the light obediently brightened. Enough to see, she noted with a frown, that nearby the perfectly smooth floor had been badly marred. It felt profoundly wrong. Fifteen feet from the dais the tiles had been shattered, cracked by a weighty irregular stone torn loose from the ceiling above. Now that she was looking for them, she saw other signs of damage. Other places where the smooth and simple perfection had been broken, or strewn with debris. The marble’s gleaming motes of light were missing in places. In other spots they drifted slowly, spinning off in random directions, as though confused. Aspects of the mechanism had been compromised, clearly in ways it could not repair on its own, as it was supposed to do.
This knowledge came to Maeren from an unknown place, disconnected from but related to the scattered memories that had returned to her. It was akin to knowing that one’s arm is broken by feeling the sharp pain of moving it. She reached toward the surface before her, and the motes that had gathered in anticipation reacted, but in a delayed fashion. It suggested to her that this place’s power was nearly depleted, nowhere near the level it should have been after a long rest.
The slab rose to a height nearly reaching her waist. She extended both hands and pressed down upon its smooth surface, feeling it indent at her touch, becoming soft like flesh for a moment, retaining impressions in the shape of her fingers. Silver and gold outlines flickered across the flat surface, then took on the shape of ancient runes that shifted and changed as she watched, joining to become words and phrases. The deep tolling tone she had heard upon her awakening sounded again from somewhere below. Once more she felt an intrusive presence in her mind; it stirred in harmony with the shifting runic text. But even here there was evidence of something wrong. The runes were not forming properly in the far left quadrant, instead dimming and fading. The incoming thoughts tied to the voice in her head also faltered and stammered periodically, as if struggling with a limited vocabulary.
She proceeded to interrogate the machine as best she could. She pressed down with her hands to maintain contact, reading the runes as they appeared amid the golden veins of its marbled surface, speaking in her mind. She sought a summary of how long it had been since the mechanism had last been roused, and of what had transpired in the world around her since.
The bodiless and ephemeral custodian of this place sought to obey, but it was like a child, or perhaps more akin to a being of venerable age whose mind had begun to wander, giving way to confusion. Its perspective was limited, and it had been forced to surrender most of its connections to the network of others like it elsewhere in the world. It reassured her that should any of those connections be restored, it could serve her better. Its determination to do so might have been endearing to another mind, but Maeren filled with cold anger at its diminished state. It was supposed to have spent decades, centuries, slowly accumulating power from its surroundings, readying against the time of her eventual restoration. Perhaps it had done so, to the best of its abilities, but it was severely flawed and its power weak.
It became clear to her that far less time had passed than she had hoped. A scant two centuries had elapsed since she had left the world. It took longer than that for a great empire to rise and ready itself for her. Though it did appear as though her preparations had borne some fruit. The empire she had birthed existed and had thrived.
She saw images in her mind of ranks of soldiers in a long column, marching in disciplined rows, holding their standards high, committing to battles abroad. She saw the streets of their gleaming capital city, with its gladiatorial arena and the hall where their senate met and debated. But she also observed evidence of failures and setbacks. Delays that should not have been. Disunity and schemes that were not hers. There had been interference from both outside and within. The fact that she had been roused now rather than later suggested something had gone severely wrong. Her distant greater enemies, who should not have even suspected her presence—who should not have any ties to this world, remote and isolated as it was—had also stirred.
The information she could gather was maddeningly incomplete. The cause for her awakening had been decided elsewhere, at some other facility that was no longer directly connected. Her best-laid plans had nearly been undone while she lay insensate and dead to the world. Had one more tendril been severed in what should have been a vast interconnected web, the conditions to rouse her would not have been met.
Her own memories were incomplete to a degree that was vexing. There was an extent to which it was unavoidable, a result of her suspension. And she had lived far too long to preserve all she had seen and done. But the procedure was to prune some memories and nourish others, giving her a clear path forward. Clearly recent damage to the facility had compromised these preparations and prevented reconstruction from duplicate iterations elsewhere.
Some of her previous knowledge would return to her naturally when she reached the surface, given time and a chance to explore. She would see what she could do to clean her webs and repair their strands. The government she had set in motion still existed. There would be those who had been taught to be loyal to her, even though she had never met them. She felt certain that sufficient redundancy had ensured her cults persisted, and perhaps thrived. They would be adrift, directionless, but she would take charge of them and redress their faltering course.
First, though, she must discover who was working against her, and how. How many false immortals had endured to become thorns in her side?
And to what unholy powers had they been bound?