by Max Barry

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by The Aquatic Librarian Knights of Tethys 13. . 11 reads.

The End of the Armada

The end of the Spacefaring Warrior Armada came unexpectedly. Their escapades had drawn eyes, some admiring, some envious, and some angry. Their attention and power eventually drew the enmity of a group of supposedly omnipotent multiversal beings, who sought to punish their hubris and end their threat. First, they attempted to simply erase the Tethysi, but proved unable - this was due to the abilities of Seti zho Sunruler, leader of the First Fleet. Realising they could not take the direct route, they hatched a callous plot. Once the Tethysi were gathered at their capital of the Deep for a cultural event, these beings crafted a new universe around them, one filled with every danger they could imagine - an entire cosmos of living, thinking beings created solely for the purpose of crushing the Tethysi, an imperative their creators wove into their psyches. The Tethysi awoke to their predicament too late to escape.

The wars began soon and did not end. Every monster, empire, assassin and disaster the multiversal beings could concoct descended on the Tethysi, who met them with equal force. In their hubris, they rode out as independent fleets or ships, rather than staying as one unassailable nation. In this way, weeks became months, and months years. To the beings' fury, the Tethysi seemed only to grow in strength. The endless wars changed the Tethysi, though the oldest feared what it meant. Honour and glory became meaningless. They became savage, callous and cold. This extended to their abilities as well. Without the shackles of honour, the powers of the Tethysi began to grow exponentially, granting them capabilities as horrifying as they were powerful. Still, against a universe, their might could only last so long.

The 11th fleet, reluctant to gather together, were the first to fall. Though Mouha zho Starpiercer attempted to rally them, his social apprehension and the losses suffered in their last great conflict ensured his failure. It was their misfortune that the new universe they found themselves in was nothing like the old. Here, there was no respite. The entire universe sought their end, and scattered as they were they stood no chance. Time and again Mouha threw himself into danger for the sake of a ship overwhelmed. Sometimes he succeeded, and gathered the survivors to his small flotilla. Often he failed, the foe’s strength and hatred too great. The enemies learned, however. They began capturing the Tethysi alive, seizing them and forcing them into petrification-stasis. This was no easy task - already the Tethysi were causing massive losses to their foes in every engagement, but endless numbers made that paltry. It was all to bait a trap and crush the 11th once and for all. Mouha zho Starpiercer took the bait. Learning that his people were alive and where they were held, he ignored his advisors and launched a full assault. It was only after carving his way into the grand prison that the trap was sprung. Ships came, gathered from within that galaxy and beyond, so many as to blot out the stars. Though Starpiercer carved through a thousand champions, a trillion more waited with their armies hungry for blood. Seeing the truth of this cruel new universe, he made a choice. He and those volunteers who chose to stay with him made a grand last stand, drawing the full attention of the endless horde so that scattered individuals and ships could escape the trap. Fewer than nine hundred thousand Tethysi managed to make their way out, from a fleet almost two billion strong at its height. They joined the other fleets, bringing the warning their leader had died to send.

The 5th suffered similar setbacks. Though scattered ships kept moving and fighting for decades after, most were lured by glory and treasure to the Jgdrandr galaxy, its stars and nebulae appearing from a distance like a great spreading tree, but in truth a trap set by the great Celestial Serpent that ringed it. Within its dark reaches, beings of flame and frost waited. Even when they learned the truth, ship after ship set out to finally slay the beast. Five years after the displacement, Halfdan zho Smite perished giving the serpent its first true wound, the impact of his hammer shattering its starry scales with an impact akin to a lightspeed asteroid strike. It would be another century before the serpent met its end, its impossibly large corpse becoming the grave marker of the 5th Fleet, and the birthplace of the Feathered Eels, though that is a tale for later.

The 9th Fleet found a galaxy enslaved, under the tyrannical heel of an immortal god-king. Lakshmi zho Radiance rallied a rebellion, not solely out of empathy, but hoping to create a powerful new ally in this dark universe. Their foe was ruthless, willing to sacrifice entire planets rather than give them over to the rebels, horde after horde of forcibly-enhanced soldiers being sent to die on Tethysi blades, but taking a tithe of blood as they fell. Wherever Lakshmi zho Radiance led, more and more rose up to follow, tales of her heroism inspiring revolution across the galaxy. The war dragged on for two decades, and Radiance's power grew. The empowerment that had once restored courage to the broken now turned her warriors into superhuman berserkers, the light that had only dazzled now able to incinerate her foes. In the end, her forces reached the fortified system at the empire's core, conquering its mightiest defences to breach the palace where its ruler dwelt. No lord of destruction did they find, but a tired god, long broken by his immortal duty. Wary, Lakshmi tried to hold her forces back, but her work had been done too well. The near-frenzied rebels descended on the object of their fury, and with his death, the madness at the galaxy's heart he had been holding at bay broke free. Mutation and insanity spread like wildfire, and the Tethysi found themselves trapped at the heart of a galaxy being torn asunder by it. Lakshmi zho Radiance was slain in its first moments, killed by her corrupted allies in a moment of despair at what she had unleashed.

The 3rd fleet grew even darker. Merciless, spiteful, disciplined, they burned across the stars. Every world they came to they razed. Every civilisation was shattered. Every foe crushed. They did not become aloof to the suffering they caused, however. They began to revel in it. They became cruel. While Sergius zho Ironsever sought out the haughtiest foes to humble, his fleet sought out the most vulnerable to harrow. News of this reached the 6th, and Beira zho Fellwinter was determined to put an end to it. The 6th fleet had suffered severe losses, facing foes ranging from atomic spacefaring civilisations to sentient food, but were determined to rein in their wayward kin. When the two fleets met however, all Sergius zho Ironsever saw was his most hated rival standing in his way. The first clash cost one billion lives. The 3rd hunted the 6th and vice versa across years and galaxies, the former moving as an overwhelming force, while the 6th attacked and withdrew with ferocity and speed. Through it all, their leaders duelled with unmatched fury at every engagement. By the time they perished on each others' blades, their fleets were long shattered.

The 12th fleet flourished in this new universe. Their ships became overladen with the sheer quantity of riches they acquired, either themselves or in payment, for they became a lifeline of supply to the other fleets. Liberty zho Stormblast was in her element, acquiring wealth and power through guile, charm or force. She was not alone, however. The other ship representatives grew greedier, weaselling out of their responsibilities to the fleet in order to indulge their own avarice. They began to sabotage each other. Wealth alone was no longer enough, it had to be measured against their peers and proved greater. Kept hidden from the other fleets, the 12th was already gone, nought but a million individual ships out for their own interests. They would only reunite for their own doom, when, in the ruins of a murdered civilisation, Liberty zho Stormblast found it. A flawless golden pistol, shining and seductive. She then committed one of the most grievous sins possible for a Tethysian - she forsook her own weapon, a part of her very soul. Summoning her fleet to rally to her, she arrogantly displayed her prize. When another stood to remonstrate her, she slew him with it. The golden bullet materialised within his core, bypassing his defences, and spread a virus within him that turned him into a golden statue, silently screaming. Pandemonium erupted throughout the gathered warriors as she began her slaughter, some seeking to stop her, others slaying their comrades in the hope of claiming the weapon themselves. Its power grew with each kill, soon swathes falling victim with every shot as it crept up her arm, fusing to her body. When all around her were nought but statues, she turned her fire on the ships in orbit. They scattered and died, fled or fought. Then, the onslaught ceased. Wary survivors eventually returned to the planet, and found it an entirely golden orb. On one part of the surface, they found a field of thousands of statues, surrounding one with her frozen, manic gaze still fixed on the sky. The last ships of the 12th took the lesson to heart, leaving to join the few remaining fleets and never speaking a word of what befell them.

The 7th fleet became a ruthless blade under Kiyomori zho Tormentor's leadership. Forces and civilisations devoted to the downfall of the Tethysi began to spread fearful rumours of them, and those only grew as the years went by. They stopped being a group to be wary of challenging, and became one to avoid at all costs. Religious folk began to pray that the 7th would not come near, and warn their children that if they were bad the 7th would come to drive them mad with fear. Three decades from the displacement, their reputation had grown so terrifying that suicide rates would skyrocket on planets in their path, while those who held their nerve often regretted not taking that easier path. They had attracted attention, however. The Verdigris King, ruler of spirits, gathered these tortured ghosts to him, and followed. Tethysi began to see things. Shadows in the corners of their eyes. Objects moving in their rooms. Temperatures dropping in empty corridors. These were not real phenomena - the spirits of the dead had no physical presence or capabilities, their only power was within the minds of the living. That was enough. Tethysi began to die, recordings of their last moments showing fear on their features and psychostigmatic wounds on their flesh. One by one they perished, deep in the dark of space. Even those with strong wills began to be overwhelmed, for their victims - and the Verdigris King's subjects - were billions, trillions strong. The ships began to empty. Some sought to escape, fleeing to the other fleets. Others tried to fight back, though there was nothing to fight. In the end, one remained. Even beset by the numberless hordes of the dead, Kiyomori's will was unbreakable, staring them down until they faded once more. When the Verdigris King himself approached, Kiyomori drew Tormentor, and the madness it brought forced even the lord of spirits to withdraw. It did not matter. He had time. Alone in a cold fleet, surrounded by the hungry, waiting dead, Kiyomori's resistance had only one outcome.

Under Joan zho Firebreaker, the 8th fleet managed to remain strong despite many terrible battles, and even gained some allies in the hostile universe. This angered the multiversal beings more than any of the achievements of the other fleets, for they could not abide their creations failing to abide by their whim. One by one, those allies changed. They were stripped of their individuality and will, turned into mindless drones who ambushed the Tethysi time and again. Even after the passage of many years, Joan zho Firebreaker refused to give in, however. Even as an old woman, she led her fleet down the path of right. Even as her power grew, she kept it in check. That was when an idea occurred to the multiversal beings, one rooted in malicious spite. They had found a weakness. From the universes beyond, they dragged the civilisations the 8th fleet had saved. These cultures, some primitive and others advanced, stood no chance. Joan was forced to watch them perish, as her fleet died failing to save them. She would not fail the last. A small planet that had developed in the centuries they had experienced since her last arrival, once more beset by draconic horrors. They called for her, and she answered. The 8th fought day and night for many months against the endless hordes, losing ground but never heart. The universe had one last cruel trick, however. The planet's surface cracked and rent asunder as something burst out through the crust from where it had been planted in the core - a Star Dragon, royalty of the cosmos in many universes, its power rival to even that of the Celestial Serpent. Its breath was a supernova, but still Firebreaker halted it. Straining, feeling her body begin to fail as its power increased with each passing second, she realised the opportunity. The clash of two reality-warping beings of such power was creating a hole. It had not been like the Deep, which the universe had been built to trap pulling an entire planet through into this universe had not happened cleanly, it had left a wound, and that was reopening. Joan looked to her warriors, and with sorrow and pride knew their mind. On shuttles rebuilt from their own wrecked ships, the 8th evacuated the native Satheri back to their own universe, as the draconic hordes howled in frustration and hurled everything they had at their last line of defence. By the time the last defender fell, the last shuttle had safely fled. Kneeling alone, her foes closing in, Joan zho Firebreaker unleashed the power she had held back. in an instant, the heat of life was extinguished from every being on the planet and in orbit, along with the planet's very core and, at last, the star it had been dragged into the orbit of. The Star Dragon fought back, reality fracturing around it, but not even it could resist the last great effort of her life. In the end, Joan zho Firebreaker had achieved the war's first true victory.

Mehmed zho Doomsayer was the only representative to successfully pass command of his fleet onto the next generation. Under his leadership, the 10th fleet emerged with few casualties from every threat that emerged to face them, and he maintained communications with the other Fleet Representatives to provide or request aid as required. Most importantly, when his age began to tell, his successor was well-prepared - Bensu zho Flamestepper was an exceptional warrior and leader, and Mehmed remained as her advisor. The 10th grew such a nuisance that the multiversal beings began to break their universe in their attempts to combat them, resulting in time-travelling assassins being sent to eliminate the 10th's leader. Though Mehmed zho Doomsayer was able to thwart the attempt, he was left badly wounded and perished in the wider battle. Though Bensu zho Flamestepper managed to maintain the Fleet after his fall, she failed to see the growing darkness within its heart. During the War of Masks and Moons, six decades after the displacement, she was betrayed by warriors corrupted by their lust for greater power, and civil war split the 10th in two. In the end they perished together as the dozen moons of the world were pulled into its surface.

The 13th fleet set out from the start to gather information. The maps they created and knowledge they gleaned saved themselves and the other fleets on numerous occasions. After ten years of conflict, Zaia zho Planetsplitter elected to be put into stasis, so that she could be revived in circumstances when her enormous power was required. Her comrades held the fleet together well in her absence, but it was dearly felt. Knowledge, however, can be dangerous, and the universe they sought to learn of was broken, half-formed, and had attracted predators. They came from outside reality, latching onto the universe like parasites. The god-king the 9th fleet had slain had known of them, and tried to hold them out. With his demise, they were free to rampage throughout the universe, spreading madness and mutation through the mere knowledge of their existence. As the ones bent on gathering information, the 13th were obvious prey. By the time Zaia zho Planetsplitter was awakened, her fleet was no more, a geometrically impossible landscape of deformed hulls forming a Dyson sphere-like surface overrun with corruption and decay. At the centre was a creature the size of a star, a grotesque aberration of the universe, a thing that should not be. It woke, howling even through the vacuum, and became aware of the tiny figure leaping through the poisoned void towards it. It raised its own fist in response. It took Zaia zho Planetsplitter three days to cross the vast intervening space, and she had spent all of that time building power. When they collided, it was with the force of a supernova. As it was banished, the thing left a hole in reality, and through it Zaia was contacted by the Great Dreamer of the Old Ones. Seeing the way events were likely to end, she gathered the mutated, mindless, fish-like survivors of her fleet and returned to the Deep, which had faced its own hardships.

The 2nd fleet under Athene zho Calmwater remained with the Deep, the Tethysi capital, a structure the size and with the outward appearance of a white dwarf star, within which was a vast aquatic realm filled with life of all kinds. While the other fleets set out, knowing that to remain would be to be forever besieged, they could do so only because the 2nd volunteered to remain behind. Besieged they were. The most aggressive races this false universe could offer hurled themselves at the Deep unendingly, but there they met the defence of Athene zho Calmwater, possibly the greatest military mind in the history of the armada. Her lines of battle were unbreakable, her sorties punishing. Any perceived weakness was only a trap. After four decades, the Deep was surrounded by the carcasses of its foes, a ring of wrecked ships in grim homage to the world they had left behind so long ago. Calmwater had grown in that time, as well, too strong perhaps. After the 22nd year, the warriors of the fleet had been forced to craft for her a pod that enforced constant meditation while relieving the strain on her mind, for Calmwater had always granted her total awareness of her surroundings, but its range had grown too much. Awareness of every single tiny movement across the entirety of the Deep was far too great a strain for any mortal mind, and hers had reached its limit long before that. As the information she had to process grew, her ability to command dwindled. Nine decades after the displacement, few Tethysi remained who remembered her as anything other than an information and surveillance system. When she warned them of their coming doom, some thought she had simply malfunctioned. Where no military might had succeeded, the innovation of their foes would. In the corpses of a hopeless assault, part-biological part-technological nanofungi began to spread through the Deep. They were capable of infecting and corrupting organic and inorganic matter alike, and even as her fleet fought the disease with all the genius and technological capability at their disposal, Athene in a moment of lucidity saw the greater danger. They would likely save themselves, but at the cost of something far more important - the Amalgamation, the sentient swarm of nanomachines, the artificial agglomerated intelligence that all Tethysi were created by and all would return to in death. As her power had grown, she had become more aware of its existence than any Tethysian before her, and realised what had to be done. When the Tethysi prepared to release their cure, she used her connection to their systems to alter its components. As it spread through the Deep, the results showed. The Amalgamation was purified, but the Tethysi were left ruined, twisted and dying, the survivors of the 13th no less so. Their sacrifice was not in vain. The Amalgamation would see to that.

Seti zho Sunruler and the 1st Fleet were the last. With their ageing leader, prolonging his life through the powers of his foes, they cut through everything the universe could throw at them. Growing desperate, the multiversal beings chose to intervene, and that was the opening he had been waiting for across the decades. Seti zho Sunruler copied their power and used it to drag them down into the universe they had created, where they faced his wrath. The battle was fierce and terrible, the lord of the First alternating between using their powers and nullifying them so that his followers could claim their vengeance. The beings were not helpless however, far from it, and wrought catastrophic destruction through the last of the Tethysi, while secretly feeding the power of their own dead to their grandest creation, the Celestial Serpent. With losses mounting to critical levels on both sides, the beings made their last desperate measures. While the strongest remaining among them held off Seti and his few remaining warriors, the rest gathered their remaining power to resurrect the most powerful and evil monster the nation had ever produced - Set zho Ruin, the Dark Beast. He slaughtered the last of them, which woke the Celestial Serpent, empowered by all of their deaths to such a colossal might the universe began to collapse around it.
The final battle of the war was unimaginable in scale. Seti zho Sunruler, Set zho Ruin and the Celestial Serpent clashed with reality-splitting aftershocks causing disaster across the multiverse. At the end, the two Tethysi perished together, and the Celestial Serpent revelled in its victory. The multiversal beings were not the only ones who passed their essence to another in death. When a Tethysian met their end, they were returned to the vast and powerful artificial intelligence known as the Amalgamation. Now, empowered with the strength of its two mightiest children and carrying their will, along with that of every Tethysian in history, the Amalgamation slew the Celestial Serpent with one unstoppable strike.
Alone now in a broken and crumbling universe, the Amalgamation felt the order underpinning all of reality falling apart, and knew what it had to do, but hesitated. There was something else of higher priority, even than preventing the end of the multiverse. It returned to the Deep, and with its now infinite power, remade the Tethysi. From the ruined survivors of the 2nd and the 13th, it built a new people, granting them the near-limitless abilities of adaptation and transformation, for a time - one day their biology would settle, when they had found the bodies that suited them.
It then began its great and final work, and it began with a book. It bound the paradoxes and fractured impossibilities of the multiverse to its pages, and trapped them within new laws of reality. It did make one alteration, however. Perhaps guided by the will of Seti zho Sunruler, as the Amalgamation sacrificed itself to become one of the fundamental forces underpinning all of reality, it wrote one more rule, protecting its people from the interference of omnipotent beings forever more. This last paradox would end up shaping all of Tethysi culture, and is the root of their strange narrative capabilities. What the end result might be, who can say.