Anima Ex Machina
Twenty-Six: In the mist of a memory, you wander back to me.

Purple eyes.

Bill couldn't look away. They hovered in his field of vision, staring deep into him. Their pupils contracted, narrowing into slits as the violet of the irises flashed. The creature's mouth tensed until it formed a straight line. At the same time, the skin of the rest of the face -- the oval, hairless face -- pulled back until it looked like someone was grasping the creature's flesh from the back of her head.

He wasn't sure how he could tell this was a female; something inside him simply knew. More importantly, he felt as if he had seen this being before, but he couldn't place his finger on where.

That was not a good sort of déjà vu. In fact, as she floated in front of him, he had never felt as terrified in his life as he was right then. He tried desperately to move, to squirm away from her, but his body felt distant, like he was floating inside it.

Because of that, he could do nothing but watch as the creature extended her willowy arms towards him. Her long, thin fingers brushed his face. Each fingertip felt ice cold.

Then, all of a sudden, it felt as if every part of Bill's body burst into flames all at once. He tried to scream, tried to move, tried to do something to cope with the pain, but all he could do was float inside himself and feel every last part of him burn. The purple eyes continued to burn into his skull as if in search of something while the ice-cold hands drifted to his chest.

He could feel cold fingers stabbing into burning flesh and curl around his heart.

His hand rose without his consent to grasp the creature's head. But it didn't look like his hand. The fingers were too long. The arm was too spindly.

As his claws dug into the other being's skull -- bone cracking beneath each finger -- he could hear a woman's voice whisper from everywhere all at once.

Ereshkigal.

Then, the last thing he saw was a flash of blue, human eyes, and the last thing he heard was a long, piercing wail.

---

Bill jolted awake. Much to his relief, instead of purple eyes, the first thing he saw was a blue sky and the branches of trees moving above him. His body no longer burned, but it ached. It wasn't with the lingering sensations of his dream; rather, it was because he was crammed in an uncomfortable position between boxes of supplies in the bed of the truck. He stiffly pushed himself to sit up as his tail unwound itself from the tight, tense coils it created around one of his legs. His hands reached down to grasp it, rubbing feeling back into it as his shoulders pulled back in a half-stretch.

"Hey! Look who's awake!" Thom called.

Bill looked up to see the young man sitting on the edge of the truck bed. Between Thom's knees was a plastic bag, from which he drew out a strip of jerky. As Thom bit into it, Bill caught the smoky, salty scent of meat, and involuntarily, the tip of his tail began smacking against his hand in an attempt to wag. Realizing what he was doing, Bill quickly shoved his tail under his feet, but by then, it was too late to keep Thom from noticing. With a loud guffaw, Thom tossed the bag at Bill, letting it fall awkwardly in his lap.

"Saved the rest for you," he said. "You haven't eaten anything today, right?"

Bill shook his head and reached into the bag. "Not really, but I'm not sure if I can eat this."

"Why not? It's meat, isn't it?"

At that, Bill threw his companion a startled glance. Noticing his expression, Thom frowned.

"What? Something I said?"

"No, it's just..." Bill laughed and slapped a hand to his forehead. "It's all too simple! I should have thought of it ages ago!"

Thom leaned forward, letting his hands droop between his knees. "Okay, now you're creepin' me out. What are you talking about?"

"Cooked meat!" Bill drew a strip from the bag and held it up. "All this time, I've been trying to force myself to kill Pokémon for food, but it never occurred to me that meat is meat! I could eat the same things you can, just not plant matter!" As if to punctuate his point, he bit off a piece of the jerky and relaxed. "Assuming, anyway, that we're right about this."

"Well, yeah, I figured you already knew that," Thom said. "When the ixodida invaded Mauville City, they ate any kind of meat. Didn't even matter where it came from. I thought it was really stupid that Lanette's making you go hunt for food, honestly. Everyone knows ixodida can eat all kinds of meat. They just like Pokémon meat more for some reason. And she probably wants you to train, but that's stupid because we said we'd help you with that."

As soon as Thom said that, Bill's face dropped from excited to annoyed. "Everyone... already knew that?"

"Yeah, but hey!" Thom leaned over to punch Bill lightly in the shoulder. "Now you know, right?"

"Oh yes," Bill replied with a light hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Now I know."

Ripping off another bite, he watched the trees of the forest pass by as the truck continued ambling down the road. He wondered idly if the Caravan was nearing Fortree City, if somewhere close by, Brigette's grave lay. His mouth slowed as he thought about last night -- Lanette trembling in his arms for the first time in months, sobbing into the dirt. They must have spent hours in the forest without a word passed between them, with the only sound coming from Lanette's soft whimpering. She wouldn't look at him at any moment after that. Even when she had stopped, wiped the last of the tears from her face, and pulled herself away from him, she had refused to let him see her expression.

She had been avoiding him ever since. When dawn came, she had busied herself with breaking down camp, packing up the supplies, and arranging the passengers and drivers of both vehicles. No matter how many times Bill had come to help, she turned her head away and gave him orders while diverting her attention to some other task. Eventually, she had stopped addressing him altogether, opting instead on sending Thom to tell him what to do and where to go. Then, when the Caravan started moving, she had given up her usual space in the bed of the truck, taking Thom's in the cabin next to Vito. Looking over his shoulder, Bill could see the back of her head and the occasional sliver of her face as she spoke to her human partner. She was so close, yet she was separated from him by glass and metal and an expanse of awkward silence.

That, Bill decided, was far more aggravating than having her hate him. He couldn't figure out why.

"Hey, you okay?"

Bill turned back to Thom. "Sorry, what?"

"You've been acting a little weird," Thom said. "Spending all night out in the woods with Lanette, only to have her look all fussy when she gets back." He cracked a grin. "Be honest with me. Did you...?"

The ixodida's expression instantly turned horrified. "I beg your pardon?!"

"You know. Did you..." Thom bobbed his head. "Go at it like rabbits. Know each other biblically. Dance the horizontal tango. Make love."

"I..." Bill furrowed his eyebrows. "I honestly don't know how to respond to that."

"Simple yes or no question, Bill. I mean, it's not like there's anything wrong with that. You guys are just picking up where you left off, right?"

Bill coughed, choking on his own words in surprise. "W-what?! What on Earth are you talking about?!"

Thom leaned back and made a small, circular motion with one of his hands in the air. "Y'know. You guys were awfully close, right?"

"You... you think Lanette and I were in a relationship?!" Bill squeaked. "An intimate relationship?!"

"Well, weren't you?"

"No!" Bill sighed. "We were partners, Thom. Colleagues! Didn't I mention that before?!"

"No."

Pausing, Bill took another bite of jerky. Hadn't he mentioned it? Everything from the time Lanette appeared in Mauville onwards had happened so fast. Bill couldn't remember how much information he had shared and with whom, and all of a sudden, he realized that despite the fact that Thom was probably the closest thing he could call a friend in the Caravan besides Ellen, there was a lot they didn't know about each other. Swallowing, Bill straightened in his seat and tried to explain.

"Lanette and I are both researchers, Thom," he said. "We worked on a number of projects together, and before the quarantine and my transformation, yes, we were close. But we were close as friends, not as... good gods, do you normally think that two people who fight...?!"

Thom shrugged. "Why not? It's pretty classic. Girl violently denies that she even likes guy. Guy acts all protective and caring and soft towards girl. You see it all the time."

"In fiction!"

"So?" Thom shook his head. "Anyway, point is, a bunch of us got worried about you."

Bill couldn't help but crack a smile. "A bunch of you?"

"Okay, only me and Nurse Joy. But still, the way you were following around Lanette like a puppy and how bad you looked when she just blew you off... I might not be the smartest guy around, but I know how heartbreak is sometimes."

At that, Bill looked at his lap as his smile faltered. "Thom--"

"'Sides, you didn't look like you were having a good sleep."

The ixodida looked up. "What?"

"Yeah." Thom slid into the truck. "You were shaking. Tossing. Turning. Your tail looked like it was wrapping around your leg pretty tightly. You just looked like you were in pain. I would've woken you up ages ago, but Lanette told me to let you sleep."

"She did?"

Bill forced himself to smile, but his throat felt dry. He had spent the past few minutes trying to forget the dream, but now that Thom brought it up, he could almost see the burning, purple eyes again. One of his hands drifted to his chest. He tried to make it seem as if he was simply wiping it on the front of his shirt, but his fingers grasped the jewel over his heart.

"It was... it was just a nightmare," he said. "That's all."

Yes, Bill, Adam responded. Do not concern yourself with it now, but we will need to talk about it eventually.

"Adam," Bill murmured.

When the human cannot hear you. It has been far too long since we have last spoken, anyway.

"Bill?" Thom leaned forward. "You okay?"

"Huh?"

Shoving the rest of the jerky strip in his mouth, Bill shakily stood. His arms flailed against the movement of the truck, but he managed to remain on his feet. Swallowing, he looked up at the sky, narrowing his eyes in thought.

"H-hey, Bill? You're gonna fall over or something, and Nurse Joy's gonna be pissed," Thom said. "Why don't you sit back down, and we can talk about it?"

Bill frowned. "I'm fine. I just need some time to think."

"Well, okay, but you can think--"

"Magnet Rise!"

Quickly, Bill surrounded himself with a golden aura, and his translucent wings burst from his back. Thom reached out to grab him, but without another word, the ixodida crouched and sprang off the truck bed, pushing himself into the air.

"...By sitting down," Thom muttered as he watched his companion rise several feet into the sky.

Above the treetops, Bill drifted forward, following the convoy down the road. In his mind, he searched for any sign of Adam's presence.

"Indeed we do need to talk," he snapped.

Upset, are we? Adam purred.

"I'm not upset. I'm just... disoriented." Bill exhaled. "Adam, were you in my mind while I was asleep?"

Yes.

"Then you know about that vision. About that-that creature with the purple eyes."

Yes.

The conversation lulled briefly. Bill huffed and pushed himself higher, rising into the air until the Caravan looked more like toys racing along a thin, brown line.

"What was that?" Bill asked softly. "What did I see?"

A memory.

The answer came so suddenly and so nonchalantly that Bill halted in mid air, righted himself, and glanced down at the parasite.

"A memory?" he repeated. "What, yours?"

You are falling behind, Bill. Pay attention and follow the Caravan, Adam snapped. Yes, mine. This is only one consequence I was afraid of when you asked me to teach you how to use Mirror Shot. Forcing parts of my knowledge onto you and opening up your mind that wide requires more direct contact with you than simply reading your memories or speaking to you telepathically. Parts of my subconscious entered yours. I apologize.

"Only one consequence?" Bill swooped down, speeding after the Caravan in an attempt to catch up with them. "What about the others?"

There is only one other consequence. You know how the move works, but you have not mastered it. There are no guarantees that you will be able to use that move successfully the next time you attempt it.

Bill smirked. "That doesn't sound too bad. I can learn. It's not like it'll take my arm off the first time I use it or anything, right?"

That is actually a distinct possibility.

For a second time, Bill abruptly stopped. "What?!"

But that is hardly relevant.

"How can that not be relevant?!"

In any case, I feel that there are quite a few things that we need to discuss.

"No, really!" He threw up his hands in frantic gestures in front of him. "Are we talking about a 75% chance that I will severely injure myself in my next attempt to use it, or is it more like a 5% chance?"

Bill, concentrate. We must talk. There are many things I have never told you that you must know now.

"And that's the other thing," Bill growled. "It seems you're very fond of keeping me in the dark. Wouldn't it be easier for me to keep us alive if you answered my questions in the simplest and most straightforward manner possible?"

It would if you knew what to ask, which you do not. Your first question, for example. "Who is that creature with the purple eyes? Is she dangerous?" One of these is irrelevant, and the other is obvious. But I cannot blame you. Humans think too simply.

"If humans think too simply," Bill answered impatiently, "then what should I be asking?"

The parasite didn't respond. It simply left Bill to hang in the air in complete, utter silence.

"Adam?" Bill asked, his voice slightly softer.

When the silence only lingered onward, Bill huffed and swooped towards the Caravan for a second time. It was all strange to him. When he was a human, he couldn't recall ever feeling this frustrated, this confused, this spectrum of extreme emotions, but now -- now that Lanette began avoiding him, that Adam refused to speak to him, and that everything else in the universe dictated his life to him, all he could think about was how there were walls all around him that he wanted so badly to tear down. It wasn't the first time he felt trapped, caged by things outside him, and he never did like the feeling. Yet, these moments were different. In the past, he knew he could overcome a mental wall by thinking through them or avoiding them altogether, but the walls that blocked him now from the truth or happiness or whatever else he was trying to seek were going to be there for the unforeseeable future.

That and he didn't like the fact that those walls were being purposefully erected. He wouldn't mind if he had any sort of clues to go on in order to piece together answers, but Lanette and Adam, at the very least, left him with absolutely nothing. It wasn't a game anymore. Bill couldn't remotely call the numbers of times he was left to figure things out fun. He wasn't sure what he could call his relationship with both his parasite and his former partner, but all he knew for certain was he didn't like a piece of it.

That was probably the reason why, when Adam finally spoke again, Bill wasn't entirely willing to listen until he caught the echo of the last syllable.

--Gal.

"Excuse me?" he said tonelessly.

"Who is Ereshkigal?" Adam repeated. That is a question you may ask, but I am afraid you would not understand the answer unless you asked a better one.

"And what question might that be?"

That is obvious. "Where are you from?" Naturally.

Bill scoffed. "Naturally."

Sarcasm. Your sense of humor is growing. That is a good thing. Humor allows one to survive the most horrific of challenges.

By then, Bill caught up with the convoy, but he skirted the treetops above its tail end. He trained his eyes on the metagross bringing up the rear; the last thing he wanted was to draw the attentions of either of the champions riding it. So far, they kept their gazes on the van ahead of them. Even though he knew it was unlikely that they could hear him, Bill's voice dropped in volume, lowering to a near mumble.

"Is this another conversation where I end up more confused than I was when we started talking?" he asked Adam.

Of course not. I am only making idle conversation so that you may be in the best mood to handle what I have to tell you.

It was roughly at that point that Bill decided he just didn't care anymore. For a third time, he paused mid-flight, but this time, it wasn't out of surprise. Instead, he closed his eyes in exasperation briefly as he carefully constructed an appropriate response.

"Adam," he said slowly -- deliberately. "Please."

Right then, Bill got the distinct feeling that Adam was amused. A light, warm sensation tickled his chest, as if his nervous system was laughing while the rest of him wasn't. Behind his closed eyelids, he could see a flash of a smile that wasn't his. Instinctively, he snapped open his eyes and pulled himself backwards.

Of course, Adam answered. And I will, as you say, answer them in the simplest and most straightforward manner as possible, but I must warn you, it is a long story. Close your eyes.

"Close my eyes?" Bill glanced all around himself, scanning the area carefully. "Now?"

Now. I would suggest landing as well. You are far behind as it is, but the Caravan will stop soon. You will be able to catch up soon enough.

Bill hesitated. In his silence, he drifted forward and downward slowly as he watched the metagross grow further and further away from him.

Do you not trust me? Adam asked. Or do you simply not want to know the truth after all?

That was all it took. Bill's boots hit the dirt path, his aura faded, and his wings burst into crackles of golden energy that fizzled in the air behind him. Exhaling, he shut his eyes and relaxed.

"Okay," he said. "Tell me."

A blue flash flooded his field of vision. With a shocked cry, he doubled over and clutched the sides of his head with both hands. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the harder he did it, the more he began to see stars.

It eventually dawned on him that he was seeing literal ones.

Taking a step back, Bill craned his neck but didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to. In the darkness behind his eyelids, stars appeared before him: first one by one and then flooding the void as if it was the night sky. At the center of it all, a blue and gray spot appeared. Bill focused on it until it resolved from a haze to form four perfect spheres: a small, azure-and-brown one with white streaks floating across its surface and a massive silver one with purple flashes of lightning illuminating the clouds rolling across its atmosphere. Beyond the first two were the last objects, a faint red dwarf just barely noticeable next to its brilliant, blue sister star.

"What is this place?" Bill asked breathlessly.

My home, Adam replied with uncharacteristic patience. This is Nila, the blue moon, orbiting the storm-ridden planet Avani. My kind made their homes in the jungles of Nila. It was far different from Earth, Bill. You would have liked it.

The scene before him became consumed by a white flash, and when it cleared, Bill found himself floating far above the surface of the blue moon. Lush, green forests spread out beneath him, with vast, blue oceans skirting the edges of the sprawling continent. As Adam guided his vision close to the jungle, Bill slowly realized that many of the plants he was looking at weren't trees. Most of the forest was a vast sea of floating, bulbous, green balloons huddled in swaying bunches that shadowed the earth beneath them. The rest of the forest consisted of tall, thick-trunked trees with broad, waxy pads branching from them instead of leaves. Wherever thick trunks of the pad-leafed trees didn't grow, the long, thick vines anchoring each balloon plant to the continent sprang from the soft, black earth.

Beneath the canopy, the ground was dark and shadowy, with a few beams of light filtering through the balloon plants and the thick, waxy pad leaves. Every so often a shadow -- a broad-winged, stingray-like creature with glowing, red eyes and two long tails -- swooped between the vines and trees and sang softly with a high-pitched cry. Bill followed one with his gaze until he spotted a dark puff of fur with six, long arms propel itself from pad-leaf to pad-leaf just before the skate snatched it from mid-air. As the creature gracefully soared back towards the balloon plants, Bill stood beneath it, trembling in wonder.

"It's beautiful," he whispered.

The ixodida came from forests like these. Not this particular one, however. I am making you see this place because it is where the original hosts made their greatest city.

"The original hosts?" Bill's voice tumbled across his lips almost inaudibly. His concentration wasn't on speaking at all, and he almost didn't realize he said a word.

Another flash of light brought him to someplace new. In the heart of the forest, massive, violet crystals rose high into the air, parting the balloon plants just enough to reach the sunlight above them. Light filtered down their shafts, illuminating the clearing enough to reveal the mouth of a stone tunnel. The vision guided Bill into the earth, following the twisting corridor for several yards until, finally, he came to a massive underground chamber illuminated by countless glowing crystals of all colors embedded in the smooth, rock walls. Terraces were carved out of the walls of the cave, and on each terrace was a cluster of stone buildings. Tiled roads twisted throughout the cave, connecting terrace to terrace in an intricate web. Silver machines shaped like the flying creatures outside of the cave darted over and under each bridge to smoothly land on terraces throughout the cave.

And on every road and on the backs of every silver skate, Bill saw the exact creature from his dream.

The ones on the roads didn't so much walk as glide while the hems of their long, colorful robes brushed the tiled road and concealed each creature's feet. Every last one of them was tall and willowy, with the smallest being only a head shorter than him. They held their pale, hairless heads high as they moved, and no matter which facial expression their long, oval-shaped faces made, their white skin seemed to pull towards a point on the back of their skulls. Their eyes glittered each time they turned their heads; each face possessed a different, vivid color of the rainbow. When they spoke, their hands and long, thin fingers made sweeping gestures with each word, and their voices echoed throughout the chamber in tongues Bill couldn't begin to decipher.

These, Bill, were the original hosts, Adam explained. The Relians.

"The Relians?" Bill repeated in a soft voice.

Those of the Empire of Relia.

Bill's vision moved rapidly through the sea of Relians. All around him, he heard the rolling syllables of their language, saw the bright colors of ornately embroidered robes and sparkling eyes, even smelled the smoky scent of incense and spices wafting in the air. Yet, his brain felt like it was on pause, like it was overloaded with the massive loads of information assaulting three of his basic senses. He floated, allowing Adam to pull him through a memory until the vision ascended to an entranceway at the very top of the cave. The lights there were dimmer, with the crystals embedded in the walls emitting a soft, violet light.

The Relian Empire, Adam continued. It is difficult to find words to describe it. The Relians were the only kingdom on the entire moon of Nila, and that is not without good reason. For eons leading up to the final days of their world, they were a peaceful race, united under one crown. They knew no war, no famine, no disease, and no poverty, and their technology was the envy of the galaxy. By the time your planet was young, the Empire had already developed instantaneous space travel and had already mapped much of the known universe. By the time you were born, they had assisted in the civilization of hundreds of planets. Never Earth, however. They wished to reach you, but alas, tragedy befell the Relian Empire.

Upon Adam's last word, the vision passed through a flash of bright, purple light, and the next image Bill saw was a smaller chamber. The walls of this place were made of pale violet crystal, and the floors were made of smooth, white stone. Silks of various colors were hung from the ceiling, stretching across the room to create a rainbow canopy. In the center was a bed covered with shimmering, white sheets and golden pillows. Relians in plain, white robes darted back and forth across the room carrying trays piled with bowls and cups. The only place where they stopped was by the edge of the bed to speak in their rolling language.

On the other side stood a figure that made Bill's blood freeze. The female, the same one from his dreams, stared down at the bed with her deep, purple eyes. She stretched one of her long hands towards the center, fanning the sleeves of her colorful robes out beneath her arm. Her fingertips caressed the forehead of the bed's occupant, a sickly, gray Relian with dull, blue eyes.

Beneath her touch, the Relian trembled and turned its head with a long, deep moan. Other Relians -- nurses, Bill realized -- immediately stopped what they were doing to gather by the bedside.

Relians once had extraordinarily long lives, Adam said. They had no disease on their moon, and their medical technology was far more advanced than you could imagine. But they were not immortal by any means, and the last emperor's reign lasted for many, many years.

The Relian's -- the emperor's -- head lolled to the side to stare at the female. One of his hands shook as he raised it to touch her face. A single fingertip grazed her cheek before the hand fell to the bed with a thump.

So it should be natural to say that he died.

Another flash of purple flooded Bill's vision, and in the next instant, he saw a large, familiar chamber: the one from his dreams. This place was largely bare. It was only a hall with violet crystal walls and the same smooth floors of the emperor's bedchambers. The only decoration was the red carpet running from the massive arch serving as a doorway at one end of the room to the elevated platform at the other. On the platform was a stone bench with red cushions covering its surface. Otherwise, the only color came from the rainbow of robes worn by the crowds gathered on both sides of the room. The female from the bedchamber stood at the foot of the platform, dressed in the flowing, white robes Bill had seen in his dream. Before her was an older Relian flanked by two younger ones, all of whom were in gold robes embroidered with red trim. The elder held a bowl in one wide hand as the other reached into it and wet itself on the rose-scented oils inside.

While the emperor had been widowed for years before his death, he did not leave this world without a successor, Adam told its host. Shortly after his funeral, his eldest daughter ascended the throne.

The female bowed before the elder, who placed his oil-slicked hand on her head. All around them, the crowd erupted in cheers as the female straightened her back. Without looking at her subjects or changing her neutral expression, she climbed the stairs, turned, and took her seat on the bench.

But while the last emperor was a kind and wise man, his daughter was not.

Another flash erupted across the vision. This time, Bill could only see a dark room, and in the dark room, he saw the red glow of molten metal and heard the deafening roar of machines and hammers on steel.

It was during her reign that the Relians began to experience war.

There were no flashes this time. The scene simply changed to the silhouette of the empress and several Relians in armor standing at the mouth of a cave entrance similar to the one Bill had seen earlier. Only this one was massive -- a giant chasm gouged into the earth. The empress stood at the edge of stone with her gaze on the sky, on the gray planet Nila orbited. A buzz filled the air, and the glow of green lights filled the mouth of the cave. Within seconds, hundreds of silver skates burst from underground with armored riders, flanking a giant skate-shaped ship. All of them quickly filled the sky, the smaller skates cutting down treetops to make way for the larger one's ascent.

I cannot say who the Relians fought or why. I never cared, and it is irrelevant. The fact, though, is that the Relians would never know victory with their technology alone.

The vision cut to another forest, one full of pad trees but no balloon plants. Here, the air was still and quiet, without so much as the shriek of one of the six-legged monkeys. But more importantly, the main difference between this forest and the one at the mouth of the Relian city, was that the trees and the forest floor were covered with glowing, red creatures.

Ixodida parasites.

So they found the ixodida.

A hum signaled the approach of silver skates. Through the trees, Bill could see their green lights descending until they landed gracefully. Their riders dismounted and walked into the red-lit clearing. There, they stood in thick boots in a sea of parasites. Armored tails swept behind them, brushing parasites off their thick, bird-like feet. It was then that Bill realized that when in full-bodied, plated armor and helmets, the Relians looked uncannily like ixodida. He was about to say something about it when one of them strode forward and stooped down to spread a spindly hand on the ground. One of the parasites crawled onto one of the long fingers, and as it stood, the Relian tilted its head and examined the creature. Then, its other hand rose to take off its helmet, revealing deep, purple eyes that resembled those of the woman in Bill's dreams. Yet, there was something different about this pair. They looked weary and angry.

Without speaking to its companions, the Relian soldier placed the parasite on its head and closed her violet eyes.

The clearing filled with the sound of its ensuing scream.

That was the first host, Adam said. My kind had victims in the past -- attempts to invade other creatures and escape our isolated jungle -- but the Relians were the first intelligent hosts, the first to truly allow us to escape our home. It was the first time I had tasted power.

"That was you?" Bill breathed, watching the female collapse in writhing pain.

The soldier's companions stood silently. Then, the largest among them took off its helmet and stooped down to pick a parasite of its own. The others followed in unison.

Yes, Adam replied. We were one from that point onward, and I felt the pain of the Relians. I knew that for the good of the people -- our kind -- I had to fight the Relian throne, to help usher in a new era.

Abruptly, the vision returned to the Relian city, but this time, it wasn't peaceful. Relians in colorful robes dashed across bridges in a panic, chased by soldiers. Ixodida soared across the chamber, occasionally diving and blasting through masses of soldiers. Bridges fell, and the sounds of Relian screams and falling rock roared through the air.

So I did.

The vision entered the throne room. Bodies of soldiers and ixodida lay in piles along the edges of the room, and green smears of parasite innards streaked across the crystal walls. At the opposite end of the chamber, the empress rose from her stone bench and glided down the steps towards Bill. Her hands reached for him, and her purple eyes glittered. All around him, he could hear the voice of a woman whisper.

"Ereshkigal."

Bill snapped his eyes open. As he panted, he looked around himself frantically. Earth trees. Earth sky. The soft cry of Earth wingull in the distance. He placed a hand over his heart and doubled over. A lingering, uncomfortable feeling crawled across his chest.

You must understand, Bill, I did only what was necessary.

"What... what happened?" he murmured. "What happened after that?"

The empress was overthrown. Nila was destroyed.

Bill bowed his head. "How?"

How what?

"How?" he asked, a little louder this time. "How was Nila destroyed? What happened? Why are you here? Why are you telling me this?"

After a long pause, Adam answered, The empress was overthrown but not killed. She escaped, and I sense that the ixodida empress of this planet is connected to her.

As Bill straightened, he stared in the distance, struggling to process this information. The uncomfortable feeling in his chest grew, but he was too preoccupied to grasp it. Still, he was vaguely aware of the fact that the air seemed to grow heavier and hotter.

Ereshkigal, Adam finished, was the last empress on Nila, Bill. And she is here.

"She's... here." Bill swallowed. "Ereshkigal."

"You must be quite a brave creature to have the audacity to speak that name."

Bill whirled around, only to find the fire-typed ixodida hovering behind him. Prometheus smirked and held out his hands, allowing a flame to arc between them.

"I would address you as the Lord of Iron, but the truth is that I am surprised you exist at all," he said. "Her Majesty is quite intrigued by this and requests your audience. Accept and come with me."

His body burst into flames. Bill, startled by the sudden show, tried to back away but tripped over his tail and went sprawling into the dirt.

Smiling at this display, Prometheus added, "As you can see, denying this request would be far from your best interests."

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