Starless Imperium

Morgan Argor Strange, Science Fiction Horror Author

A Deal Between Bats

Sepulcher of Strange Illustration by artist Kristian Strange for author Morgan Strange
A Deal Between Bats Illustration by artist Kristian Argor Strange for author Morgan Argor Strange

A Deal Between Bats

By Morgan Argor Strange

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

Thirty years ago, I fell in love with the star-kissed, static echoes of a time long dead. These tears running from the corner of my eyes in the dead of night are the only proof it ever existed at all—but somehow, those visions of living in another skin, another world, another life are more real than anything I’ve ever tasted in all my years of riding the starwinds on the Hierophant: And the children of Earth stole them from me.

This is the story of how I got them back.

I. The Gift

When the vagabond race of men finally came crawling to the heart of the Alpha Persei Cluster, I knew the future of the Insavatu and all races of light would be warped forever. A seed of bleak and ancient evil such as them knows nothing but underhanded desperation—but as the Arch-Navigator for the Hierophant, the pride of the Uvari Pirates, I knew I had no choice but to welcome the refuse of Earth with open wings. After all, our troupe was known for its unquestioning acceptance of all miscreants and thieves—so these human refugees from their doomed, dead hellscape at the edge of the galaxy were no different, right?

Until the entire Cluster was ripped in half, I almost believed it.

But before entire Insavatu cities devolved into little more than mass graves, before half of Alpha Persei choked on their own tongues and the the rest fell to their knees for a death god from beyond time, I called one of them a friend.

Astafer couldn’t have been more different from the usual tramps I sent off on salvage jobs and bounty missions. While the other humans cringed back from me each time we passed in the corridors of the ship, smiling with their flat and broken fangs only when it came time to collect my coin, Astafer and I discussed the meaning of existence.

We were an unlikely pair, since I towered over him at three times his height. I had more horns than he had fingers, and if I wanted to, I could have squished his pallid flesh to to pulp beneath the slightest twitch of my scaled violet exoskeleton. But there was trust in his sad green eyes when he stared into my three pairs of blackened pits, and against all odds, we understood each other.

He had no family or friends to speak of, and more often than not, the other humans acted as if he wasn’t there at all. He was no Insavatu, to be sure—but I considered him a natural-born Uvari Pirate, even though he came from across the stars and a million furions away: And I knew our respect was mutual when one night he gave me a gift.

We met on the Farside Viewing Deck of the Hierophant as we always did when the night was growing old. We’d chosen this spot because the rest of the crew avoided it at any cost, swearing that it was haunted—but these days, Astafer and I were the only ghosts who lingered there.

That night, however, something far more sinister than baseless old legends hung over that starlit gunmetal grey sanctuary at the back of the ship.  I suspected something was bothering my friend since the moment we arrived, but it isn’t the Insavatu way to pry. So we stared out the window for many hours and left each other alone, lost in our own thoughts.

We always sat together on a bench that overlooked the splendors of Valfar’s Nebula and all that lied beyond. The first time I drank in those ethereal pillars of vapor that seemed to penetrate the bounds of infinity itself, a wonder that I’d never known stirred within my core—a deep and primal awe that I dreamed would haunt me forever. But now, after traveling the galaxy for more years than I’d been alive back then, the blood-crimson swirls screaming out across the stars seemed vapid and dull.

“There’s something I’ve wanted to show you since the first day we met,” Astafer finally confessed. To this day I still don’t know if it was my imagination, but I swore Valfar’s Nebula flickered the slightest bit when he reached into the folds of his cloak to procure my gift. And since that night, it’s always been dimmer.

His frail, fleshy hands suddenly seemed formidable enough to crush my own as he clutched an egg carved from blackest crystal. Each glimmer of the stars revealed a bizarre new protrusion along its surface that seemed to rebel against the bounds of reality itself. Crimson veins as real as the ones pulsing within the hand that clutched it boiled along the orb’s glassy obsidian surface. It bore a thick and terrible density that made the entire room around us feel airless and unreal, and before I knew its name I felt like I’d known it all my life.

“Long ago, men called it the Shining Trapezohedron,” Astafer revealed, seemingly immune to its charms as he studied my reaction. “But now, there are only a few in all the cosmos who remember its name. Old Earthen legends claim the master of this orb once held the form of a long-extinct creature known as a bat—you always reminded me of one, with your webbed wings and penchant for eternal night . . . So perhaps you’ll find what I couldn’t in its depths.”

I had no idea what to say as I reached out to cradle the object in my own palm. It was nearly impossible to support its shocking weight without resting my arm on my thigh. The longer I stared into its stygian recesses, the easier it became to imagine the faintest stirrings of sentience beneath the glass. I reassured myself that my eyes were playing tricks on me as the veins beneath its surface began to flicker and dance.

“Thank you, Astafer,” I muttered, unable to pry my gaze away from the Trapezohedron to look him in the eye. There was something more I wanted to say, but my words soon slipped away into the aether as if they were never there at all, along with the rest of the Hierophant.

Suddenly, Valfar’s Nebula was alight with the fires of hope and wonder once more, just as it was in the halcyon days of youth. Then, the corporeal world melted entirely, and I lost all concept of time, and fear, and anything aside from pure astonishment. I drifted through a vacuum of absolute silence populated by darkly gleaming crystals larger than entire worlds. I stirred through the dreamless oceans where dark and light have been one since before the first particles of life were formed, and will be long after the universe dies. From the peak of the highest mountain in any reality or dream, I looked down over a thousand interwoven cities cast from shivering holograms, each gleaming a million times brighter than any star I’d ever seen.

I felt Astafer tugging on my arm, and by some involuntary instinct, I yanked my gaze away from the orb. The splendors of the otherworld faded, and I was back on the Hierophant, far emptier than I had been mere moments ago when I’d left.  

“Stare not into its wonders for too long—for they may stare back. And each time, it will become harder to look away.”

A wave of dizziness washed over me as I slowly grew re-acquainted with the realms of the living, coming to terms with the deep sense of loss that now gnawed at me from between every cell.

“All I ask is that you guard it with your life.” Astafer’s smirk was mischievous, almost childish. It was as if that he knew he was asking far too much without caring in the slightest. “Carry it with you always, and if you ever meet another living creature who knows what it is or where it came from, kill them on sight.”

I nodded weakly, agreeing to his terms. Before I slid it into the pocket of my coat, I couldn’t resist the urge to stare into it one final time. I glimpsed the rifling of night-black wings whose sharpened points were eerily similar to my own, and for a fleeting second I swore I could sense the faintest stirrings of curiosity from the orb’s abominable master, far beyond the bounds of time or death.

The assassination attempts began soon after. I never saw Astafer again.

II. The Yearning

They called themselves the Order of Starry Wisdom, just as they had ten thousand years ago back on Earth. Their goal was to kill every last Insavatu in the cosmos until they found the Shining Trapezohedron in the ashes of our decimated worlds.

They started by dropping Vorstygian Dismantlers down on our cities, and then they moved on to Terrorboric Incinerator Mines left over from a nameless war that was lost by either side, countless aeons ago. After all they had to show for it was a few shattered ecosystems and a hundred billion deaths, they moved on to the plague.

For thirty years, it slowly wormed through even the most remote corners of the galaxy, sterilizing our settlements, annihilating our armies, and driving the Insavatu towards a rapid, untimely extinction. Its true name was YORIX-9, but most people called it “The Creeping Silence” because of its unusually-long incubation period: By the time you knew you had it, you’d already infected your entire family and everyone you’d come into contact with over the past two weeks. Humans, of course, were completely immune.

The first discernable sign of the disease was the blackening of the wing tissue due to sudden, localized internal necrosis. This triggered a catastrophic immune response which caused the body to rapidly overheat, essentially cooking the host within their own exoskeleton. It was nearly 90% fatal, and most who caught it were dead before the metal in their bones began to soften: But for those unlucky outliers, it’s difficult to imagine a more painful death in reality or nightmare.

But strangely, a very small percentage of the Insavatu population found themselves completely immune to it. And by some bizarre and mocking twist of fate, I, the one who the plague was designed to find, was one of those few.

I knew this because fifteen years ago, I watched every Insavatu on the Hierophant boil from the inside out without ever developing as much as a tickle in the back of my throat. After I suspected foul play and began to pick off and torture the human crew members for information, one was foolish enough to let it slip that they had access to some kind of spectra-neural network that let them know any time someone gazed into the orb—and they’d traced it back to me.

I was responsible for the death of every man, woman, and child of my own kind on the Hierophant, and I desperately wished I could have died along with them. But I knew that if I had, I wouldn’t be able to stare into the Trapezohedron anymore. My only reprieve was those snow-kissed cities of gold and lush groves of silent firs taller than mountains in the heart of Astafer’s gift—and I needed to return to that realm of boundless freedom outside time at any cost, even my own constant turmoil.

Strangely, by then the orb had begun to show me glimpses of our own galaxy’s future as well as visions of other worlds that would never come to pass: Visions that proved integral to my own survival and made me wonder if it was reluctant to leave my grasp.

By its infinite, otherworldly mercy, I knew that the human crew members would soon rebel against me and demand the Trapezohedron in exchange for my life. So I engaged the ship’s self-destruct sequence and keyed in an ultima override to bolt all the hatches from the outside in thirty seconds—it gave me just enough time to flee in an escape pod.

Everything I ever owned except for the Shining Trapezohedron went down with the ship. So for the past fifteen years, I’ve lived on the streets of Orcalium VI where no bastard of Earthen blood could ever find me. But I never forgot what the humans stole from me. Even though I carried the relic in my pocket the entire time, it may as well have been a thousand worlds away: For the greatest pleasure I’d ever known was now as forbidden to me as cannibalism or blood magic.

 Life on the streets of Orcalium VI was dull and fruitless without the Trapezohedron’s wisdom, but not as gruesome as you might expect—for the sleepy city on the edge of the galaxy was known far and wide as “the Last Insavatu Stronghold” for being one of the few that hadn’t been completely ravaged by the Silence.

I passed the years carrying out odd jobs for food, most of which consisted of collecting debts from unlucky peasants and making others disappear. Sometimes, I even had time to throw scraps to the birds that perched atop the city’s countless castles, or to lay on the banks of the River Quarvith in the dead of night and stare off into Valfar’s Nebula. But above all else, I dreamed of losing my troubles in the glassy depths of the Shining Trapezohedron once more—and I began to edge slowly towards a point where I no longer cared whether or not it would be the final time.

There was a sick, strange irony to gambling paltry coin with the alley urchins of Orcalium VI with a relic from a dead world worth more than entire galaxies buried deep within my pocket. But I held true to the promise I made to Astafer all those years ago, and I never let anyone know the orb was always at my side. I hadn’t had a single assassination attempt since I sent the Hierophant off to its death, and I intended to keep it that way.

But I was about to learn the hard way once again that things rarely turn out as they’re intended to.

I fell asleep beneath the eaves of the abandoned poultice shop, as I had every night since its owner died in a robbery over two years ago. It was a deep and impenetrable slumber that marked the first night in ages I didn’t wake up in the throes of delirium to stare at the pink clouds painted on the sign overhead.

Instead, I found myself at the gates to the holographic kingdom outside time, beneath purple seas crashing through a sky of nameless constellations mystifying and bright. Vortices of nebulous black shadow swirled with the contents of entire galaxies on a horizon bleeding with every color known to Insavatu or man. I drifted far beyond all these wonders to walk through hollow, empty castles formed entirely from unrecognizable bones—undoubtedly the remnants of some civilization that had died off long before the first stirrings of my own. In those lightless halls of dust and eternal death I was free again, and I finally remembered what it felt like to want for nothing at all.

Only when I stood before a mirror formed of pure ethereal energy and beheld the reflection of a monstrous, winged fiend whose countless black eyes were chillingly similar to my own did I awake in a puddle of sweat, staring down at my hand.

Even then, I could feel the eyes of Starry Wisdom burning into me from across the ages with elated, blood-drenched victory. I knew at once they would arrive by the time the night was through.

In truth, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. My longing for those secrets I should never have known, my craving for that which made even the brightest suns seem dark in comparison, had finally written my demise in stone.

Frantically, I gathered my sack of belongings, as if I would need them while I was rotting in the back of some forgotten cell or worse. I took off on my usual route through the run-down back alleys of Orcalium VI, kicking up sand with my wings and rousing the other street-dwellers huddled up on the doorsteps of the sleeping city.

When I reached the the River Quarvith weaving between the dunes, I wondered if it was the last time I’d ever see it.  Something about the reflection of the stars off those hypnotic purple waters was so blissfully vivid, so intoxicatingly sharp that it didn’t seem real. It was the first time since I stared into the Shining Trapezohedron all those years ago that the beauty of the real world surpassed that of the wonders within. The way the reeds swayed in perfect unison on the warm summer breeze was somehow too perfect to be anything more than a dream, and the moonlight on the water reminded me of the longing I felt when I stared off into the night when I was a child at my mother’s side.

That was when I realized I’d never woken up.

III. The Absolution

Somehow, before the first depraved effervescence stirred beneath the surface of the Quarvith, before the water turned black and necrotic and drained into the planet’s depths, I knew he was coming: The master of the orb that Astafer warned me about all those years ago.

He towered over me at such an imposing height that now I knew how the humans must have felt when they stood in my own shadow. His wore the skin of a man, but there was a jarring, unnatural blackness to it that made it painfully clear the similarities ended there. The golden bands which covered his muscular black arms still bore the pride of the original artisan who forged them aeons ago in some long-dead kingdom, filling me with an all-consuming nostalgia for a time I never knew.

A deep and gnawing sadness brought me to my knees when my eyes fell upon the shimmering headdress he wore over his tentacled skull—for it seemed to have sucked the light of every sun in this universe and all others. His face was an amalgam of flesh and chitin suspended somewhere between Insavatu and man. The three pairs of night-black wings lashing out from his back made me wonder whether him and I were carved by the same hands at the dawn of time, or if he himself had done the carving in his own image.

“You dare to call me here, Apteryx Eg? After abandoning my call for half your life?” His whisper stimulated sublime electric synapses deep within my brain that had never fired before and would never fire again—while simultaneously filling every cell of my body with a raw and inescapable sense of defeat.

“I-I didn’t mean to summon you, I assure you,” I stammered, partially out of sheer reverence, and also because it had been fifteen years since I heard another living creature speak my name.

“Why not?” He demanded, his tone sinking to such dangerous depths of calmness that I half-expected it to extinguish the stars themselves. “Is the favor of Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, not worthy of dying a thousand slow and painful deaths?”

“Yes, a thousand-and-one . . .” I rasped by some deeply-buried instinct, knowing it was the only right answer. For although I’d never heard his name in the waking world, something deep within my core remembered him more clearly than I recalled my mother’s face or my childhood dreams.

“What could I ever have done to deserve to stand in the shadow of the Crawling Chaos?” I finally asked, desperate for a distraction, sensing that if his eyes bore into me for even a moment longer I would never be the same.

“This realm is a manifestation of everything you thought you’d lost as your youth faded away,” he swept his arm up towards Valfar’s Nebula with a chilling “crunch” that sounded suspiciously like the cracking of a thousand bones. When I looked back over my shoulder, the entire city was gone, replaced by a snow-covered hill drenched in blood from which spindly black trees grew. “My Trapezohedron has stolen the dreams of all living creatures who once possessed it, and these are what you glimpse when you look inside. You have only yourself to blame for my arrival: For if you had no dreams to steal, I would not be here.”

I nodded slowly, painfully, daring to turn away from him so I could drink in the morbid delights the black god had summoned. I could no longer tell if those crimson-stained hills were a product of the orb’s twisted memories of my own mind.

“So tell me, Apteryx Eg: What is it that you sought above all else when you stared into my Shining Trapezohedron so many countless times?

My entire reality dissolved yet again, and I found myself floating next to the dead god above a roiling crimson ocean which drowned entire civilizations beneath its starving, planet-sized waves. I contemplated his question for a long time, and at long last I realized that all those decimated worlds beneath the water were a representation of one thing to me, and one thing alone: The doomed Earth, and the wellspring of all human life forever dried up.

It felt like I was possessed by a resolve I’d never known until that moment, born again in the inextinguishable black flame behind the Pharaoh’s lurid gaze as I finally rasped, “I dream that no Insavatu will ever again fall from the Silence: And for the slow and painful death of every man, woman, and child spawned from the ashes of the dead world known as Earth.”

“For a moment, I feared you were going to stop at asking for an end to the plague.” His laugh was so cold that the entire ocean below us turned to ice in the eternity of an instant. “Your request is bolder than most, and twice as wicked. But since I’m the Father of All Bats—and since you’ve proven yourself far more deserving of my gift than the children of Earth—I’ll bring your dreams to life: Under one condition.”

“Tell me,” I implored, as new meaning was brought to my dear friend Astafer’s mention of the extinct Earthen creature so many lifetimes ago on the Hierophant.

“The Order of Starry Wisdom lives on,” he rasped, each word sharp enough to cut the stars from the sky. “You will share the visions of the Shining Trapezohedron with all the Insavatu of Alpha Persei and beyond, as the children of Earth did with their own kind ten thousand years ago. You will spread the dominion of the God of a Thousand Forms across the stars, now and for all eternity.”

“How?” I implored him, stepping out of his shadow at last and staring up at the innumerable moons that had now flickered to life in the night, each at a different stage of decay, each reflecting the fallen hopes of another dead world.

With the Hierophant at your command once more it would be fairly straightforward, wouldn’t you say?” Nyarlathotep gurgled, performing a curious sign with his right hand and summoning a blanket of deep and gnawing blackness to smother the entire world. Just as I began to wonder if all light was snuffed forever, everything faded to a muted sanctuary of grey metal illuminated by the starlight.

At first, I had no reason to believe that it was anything more than another delusion of the orb. But when I stared down and found that the Trapezohedron was no longer resting in my palm, but within my pocket, I could manage nothing but a visceral gulp of disbelief.

The Crawling Chaos laughed again, but this time his voice was much more distant, like a faraway crash of thunder from a fading storm. I spun around wildly searching for any trace of his infinite glory, but there was nothing but the pulsing shadows in the silent corners of the Hierophant to remind me that Nyarlathotep had ever been there at all.

“Where did you go?” I begged in a small and desperate murmur, suddenly longing for one last glimpse of him with a ferocity that burned a thousand times deeper than any craving I’d ever had to stare into the orb. I sank down onto the cold metal bench of the Farside Viewing Deck, just as I had a thousand times before with Astafer at my side. Everything was exactly as it was when I destroyed the ship fifteen years ago, from Valfar’s Nebula gleaming through the impossibly-smooth glass to the eerie hum of the ventilation shafts.

“Nowhere: Have I not told you that I am the God of a Thousand Forms and the Father of All Bats? I am at your back every time you walk through an empty corridor alone in the dark—I am behind your eyes every time you gaze into the mirror.”

As his words trailed off into the aether, my wish was answered, and my own reflection flickered into a faint bastardization of his visage in the viewing glass. Even the distorted echo of his world-ending eyes was more beautiful than anything I’d ever glimpsed in reality or the Shining Trapezohedron.

“Remember our promise, Apteryx Eg: Remember that every time a child of Earth chokes on their own tongue, another Insavatu has been spared. And when the last drop of human blood evaporates into the starwinds, I’ll be back to make sure you’ve upheld your end of the deal. . .”

With that, the last traces of him dissolved with a shivering hum that bore the ghastly screams of a thousand dead civilizations.

IV. The Rebirth

From that day forth, I returned to the stars on the wings of the Hierophant, the pride of the Uvari Pirates—and now the Harbinger of Starry Wisdom as well. Every Insavatu from Arcturus to Algol celebrated for thirty days and thirty nights when the Silence’s infection rate dropped to zero: And after that, it took me no time at all to put together a new crew and pick up where I’d left off fifteen years ago.

Now, we handle everything from routine salvage jobs to high-profile bounty missions, just like we used to in the old days—the only difference is that wayward humans no longer come knocking on our doors looking for work every time we dock. But with their numbers dwindling by the hour with no end in sight, who could blame them for not wanting to venture outside?

For the first time since long before I was born, Insavatu philosophers and politicians both agree that we’re at the start of an unprecedented Golden Age. Our numbers are increasing rapidly and our morale has never been higher—and while the human influence in Alpha Persei rapidly fades by the hour, we’re well on our way to retaking our rightful throne as the masters of the galaxy and all that lies beyond.

The human Order of Starry Wisdom was a force to be reckoned with back in its glory days: But our research team has hypothesized that we’ve already surpassed their numbers three-fold. Of course, due to the lack of reliable human contacts, it’s impossible to confirm their data.

Insavatu from every side of the Nebula have arrived in droves to gaze into the wonders of the Shining Trapezohedron even once. It no longer rests in my pocket, but in an obsidian pedestal at the heart of the ship, where Nyarlathotep’s chosen can gather freely to drink in the amorphous wonders of the void.

A far greater tragedy than the billions of Insavatu lives lost to the plague, or to the countless human souls who are next in line, is how the orb had to be muzzled for all those years. But the age of Silence is over at last, and ten thousand children of the Crawling Chaos are staring into the Shining Trapezohedron night after night to usher in the glorious return of its master.

Past frozen lakes so deep and black that no light has ever grazed their surface, far beyond the crystalline pyramids of pure energy never glimpsed by any creature of flesh or bone, he waits for us at the heart of all shadows. I no longer have to gaze into the Trapezohedron to bask in his glory: For he is with me always, lurking in the quiet spaces between my darkest thoughts. After I resolved to spend every waking moment spreading the glory of his ascendance to the seekers of Starry Wisdom, I began to see his visions every time I closed my eyes.

But as much as it delights me to spread his word to every corner of the cosmos, there’s one veiled truth the Crawling Chaos shared with me that I’ll carry to my grave.

It wouldn’t mean much to the rest of the galaxy, and most of my followers would undoubtedly dismiss my secret without a second thought. But to me it invokes the same raw and blood-chilling fear as it did when his gaze burned into me for the very first time. No matter how deeply I crave his eternal reign, no matter how many souls I’d sacrifice for his swift return, I keep this single grain of knowledge buried in the last corner of my mind that is mine and mine alone.

That night, when he spared me from the humans and reformed the Hierophant from dust, you may recall how I caught Nyarlathotep’s reflection one last time before he faded away.

His three-lobed eyes, one with mine in the glass, were the same sad, contemplative green as Astafer’s.

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

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