“To the ourselves of the uneditable past: pay attention to your words.”-Etched on the side of Drämostigth’s Monument to Ideals, at the Kinsmen College of Information Integrity Preservation
The young man came out of the exaltation clinic where they were doing things to people. He looked to be in a bit of a daze, and in that sense he was no different from a ceaseless but measured procession of other residents – regardless of who they could claim as relations.
Congratulations, you’re pretty much immortal – now go figure out what you want to do.
He caught sight of the people he’d been hoping to find, and slowly meandered in their direction, feeling as heavy as a feather and as weightless as a moon.
Turning around for a second, he caught sight of an interaction which had been commonplace that extrafacetary morning, but which was no longer such a frequent scene. A forithka pair, one of whom was obviously conjugated, chinned each other. The nearer of the two wore the colors of the estate of Œlthlant; a last-minute immigrant. Lots of those had been arriving from all around Yrdky right up until Pennat Gate’s platforms started moving farther afield into the territory, and setting up for simplex connections into the gem proper. There’d also been a couple thin waves of emigrants, obviously less than thrilled at the prospect of getting pretty much blacklisted from Rhaagm and Bequast and every other place of consequence.
Now? They were a hermetically sealed environment. Nobody in and nobody out for a good while. But that was something to bring one worry at a different time.
The diminishing flow of parties and people meeting up with new arrivals to the estate, and the soon-to-be-pursuing authorities who’d gotten wind of Pennat Gate’s unwarranted presence on the facet, and those people that desired Lord Tuoamas Pennat’s return from the dead, and a score of other things were utterly inconsequential to the young man walking down pleasant Eighth Step suburbia.
From the depths of the clinic behind him, the slow sentient trickle forked into a hundred or more directions. Each freshly blessed person contemplated the world through new and more powerful senses, and basked in the newborn notion that they no longer had to worry themselves with many of the troubles of their old frail bodies. These attracted a few glances from the citizenry who chose to abstain from the exaltation process; there were many refusers, but very few ridiculed for their refusal.
No, the greatest ridicule was aimed at those Republic Lords and other police-minded powers who would try to apprehend the rogue estate. Not because they were foolish to do so (or at least not only for that reason), but because by the time Yrdky got its act together and assembled a force to give chase, the people they were chasing would be long gone to elsewhere in the gem. Eventually, when things calmed down, Pennat Gate might extend carefully-managed feelers back to the rest of the extrafacetary community. For the time being, they would have to flee and stay gone.
Louis sat himself down beside a vehicular-road sidewalk, not really paying attention to the sparse traffic passing some five meters away. He turned his hand over, looking at the pale dermal sheath that kept most of his important bits on the inside, and marveled at the way something so outwardly familiar could have become so alien in the course of one day.
Redmetal bones, dextral-woven unflesh, a knitted network of gestalt-anchoring points sown throughout the meat of his new self. A metaphorical castle walking, immune to not only the wear and tear of time, but also the caprices of most deity-like beings, the destructive effects of nearly any malice turned material. Virtually invulnerable to anything the gem was likely to throw at him. He was, in any conceivable measure of the term, as safe as one could possibly be and still claim some tenuous link to the once-life of a mortal creature.
And he felt like he had, without even meaning to do so, stumbled into learning everything there was to learn about all of existence, grown to the highest extreme of potential attainable by thinking man. A peak with only trough running into forever on all sides.
So this is the feeling that drove ages and ages of people to surrender their nigh-omnipotence.
Louis flexed his fingers, directing his will toward their tips, and the scrimthus that inhabited their structure responded by lengthening them into skinny handrails. He watched the ends of the digits, and cocked his head.
Then, he did what any sufficiently mature person would do with the gift of almost-limitlessly manipulable form, and directed his ring finger at the person who was trotting up just behind him to the little gathering.
“Poke,” he said, and the already impressively lengthy sausage became a pale spaghetti strand as it shot outward.
It stabbed Penowa’s chest slightly under the speed of sound, causing the mmnmomnæ to stumble back a step. The fuzzy little guy’s newly improved outer flesh flexed and rebounded, and his current lipid layer stand-in converted the kinetic waste into useful potential.
He fell over backward.
“Hey,” said Al. Her Rhaagmini had tilted in the direction of accentless sterile perfection since her personal improvement regimen. “Be nice. You have all night to stay up and abuse your roommate if you want.”
She leaned over, past where Celnn and eGarra were busy trying to design something either asinine or ingenious on a tiny holojector between them. Directing her face straight toward Penowa, her nose abruptly shot out to almost two hundred times its normal length.
The mmnmomnæ’s head went down with a sudden wrench as it got pushed until its owner rocked on the fulcrum of his pelvis, smacking into the marble sidewalk hard enough to leave cracks. A few people who had also received the desserts promised them by Pennat Gate’s administration glanced in their direction, saw Penowa laughing softly on the ground, and went back to discussing whatever consumed their attention.
“Here!” he shouted as he leapt back to his feet, and abruptly conjured up a freezerburn with either hand. The Hiek machines of both workings shot forward. One hit Louis’s head and encased his face in a clouded layer of ice. He was laughing, and started to laugh much, MUCH harder when he heard how his voice was muffled by the cryogenic gag. The application of a small poet-fire nodule melted the magical ice quite quickly.
Alarusx, meanwhile, moved to one side and evaded the other magical projectile. The freezerburn intended for her instead bounded off of the road, a tree, another tree, and almost smacked an oncoming disk. A furious disgorgement of gradually-increasing invective came from the indignant driver as she passed them.
“Hey, now, be careful,” said Al. “Don’t go causing accidents. Even if it doesn’t hurt someone, it’s rude.”
“Yes, indeed,” said another voice from almost directly behind Louis. He swung about on his posterior, saw the person he’d somehow known would be arriving shortly, and rose with a slight solemnity.
“Good afternoon,” greeted Louis’s brother as he approached. He, the estate’s Lady, the increasingly familiar sight of Seven, and an accompanying collection of armsmen all seemed to gleam in the light of the nearby sun. One of the first preparations the nobility had taken for their flight from Yrdky was the punching out of a few stars their home could use as convenient light and heat sources. Not that they needed it, of course. The ambient starshine of the facet’s cosmos provided all the illumination the improved residents might require on each platform’s topmost layer. Even if almost every creature with electromagnetic radiation perception hadn’t gotten upgraded, the atmospherics of each Step’s environmental systems could deal with simple stellar emulation.
When you already had a nearby natural sun, though, why not use it?
“Lord Artaxerxes,” said Celnn. The zselétael’s dark sinewy length flowed up into a sort of standing rest from his coiled repose, and he forehead-thumbed at his Lord with careful correctness.
“Lord Artaxerxes,” said Al and eGarra almost simultaneously. Both looked somewhat nervously at the armsmen. Louis might have laughed that they worried about the guards, considering what Sebastio could do with absolutely no difficulty, but as the French-born youth knew all too well, the capability and willingness for violence often ran nearly counter to each other.
“Lord,” said Penowa, regaining his feet from his own half-prostrate repose. He looked nervous, and guiltily stole a glance to one side at the damaged sidewalk (of little consequence), then another at the several icy markings left by his freezerburns (of at least potentially greater consequence). His ears and tail anxiously twitched, and he stood as straight and tall as his human friend had ever seen.
Come to think of it, Louis didn’t know of more than two other occasions where his housemate had actually met Sebastio in person, and on both of those he wasn’t exactly front and center in the Lord’s attentions.
The Lord of Pennat Gate gestured idly at the little gathering.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “But also, please behave yourselves. There ARE people who still haven’t gone and gotten themselves ‘upgraded’ yet, and who never intend to take that plunge.”
A small grin, smaller fangs poking out on its right side.
“Like me!” he half-snorted.
Casual Rhaagmini sounded a bit weird in his mouth after the glut of official and painfully proper legalese he’d been speaking for the last day, to the near exclusion of all else.
It takes an awful lot of talking to walk an entire self-contained societal pocket through the essential steps of moving to another categorically disjoint place to continue their existence. Who’d have thought.
“My apologies-” started Penowa. The poor guy sounded like he was facing down none other than Crippled False itself.
Sebastio’s injection almost came across as stern.
“I said don’t worry about it and meant what I said,” he threw in. “If you avoid doing anybody substantial harm then I see no reason to not conduct oneself with a bit of silliness now and then. In moderation.”
The mmnmomnæ replied with a respectful up-sign. At least he wasn’t trying to bow anymore; that was a problem Louis remembered having difficulty overcoming. But cultural sensitivity and whatnot, and when a fair portion of intelligent life interpreted the lowering of one’s head as less of a respectful or submissive gesture, and more of a belligerent “I am going to charge and attempt to gore you with my horns or teeth now” gesture, you had to adapt or die or get culturally embarrassed.
“We were hoping that you might come along with us to a little event,” said Adz. The Lady stood far taller than any of the others assembled there, and had a bit of a constructive effect on the gang of five’s outward ease. Louis felt uncomfortable (a tad) but he was confident that stemmed from other causes. Some kind of weird subliminal effect arose, for those of human-like mentality, whenever one saw a tall thing not too close yet not too far. The knowledge of it being consistently visible and easily tracked had a reassurance of sorts to it – a type of control imbued by the surety of knowing where the udod aodod was with absolutely no effort.
He glanced over one shoulder, at the nearby platform which bore the estate’s Lordly citadel. Yep, that same feeling, so that seemed to serve as evidence in favor of his theory. No need to research it.
Then he felt a pang in his chest, as he considered that the people of Pennat Gate now only possessed a small pale reflection of the glory of the extrafacetary Monolith at their disposal. Oh, he surely had access to the majority of everything he’d probably ever want to learn, and a very very great number of things he wouldn’t, but it was still like unexpectedly waking up one morning without teeth.
And to think, just a short while ago in the span of even a natural human lifespan, Louis Artaxerxes had had no idea that the place called Yrdky even existed.
“It is no trouble if you would prefer to not involve yourselves,” Adz continued, and Louis was thankful for getting startled from his reverie. “But there are some people who we would enjoy having as company, and yourselves are among the upper echelon of desirables.”
Louis glanced at Penowa again, and caught his eye.
Penowa peered at Al.
Al wasn’t watching much of anything, though she was also watched by eGarra and Celnn both.
“Does any…” began Louis.
“Sure,” said Al. She turned and grinned a bit at Louis, her slightly frizzy hair waving in the breeze.
“Yeah, why not?” agreed Celnn.
“Come along, then!” said Sebastio. “There are a couple of loose ends to tie. A subject or two that require addressing.”
He gave the youths spread out before him an almost lazy carefree once-over, and Louis faintly marveled at how much his brother had changed. There wasn’t a restrained bone evident in his body.
“I’d like to take care of business in the company of some people I have reason to hold dear,” he added, grin turning impish. “My brother. Those whom he cherishes.”
A sideways and upward daggering of eyes at the tall scaled figure beside him.
“A cat of an udod aodod.”
Beside him, Louis heard a strangled noise from Celnn P’mulkes; both his biological depths and his cerv-mesh speakers gave off little grunty whirrings. If a zselétael possessed a mouth, and a discretely divided digestive system, his friend’s squirming appallment probably would have caused the upchucking of his stomach then and there.
“Anything else you need sorted out before we depart?” Sebastio asked. He wasn’t looking at Celnn, but a bit more of his orange fangs showed than normal as he rested chin upon fist, scanning the scene.
“I don’t think so,” Al said, turning to eGarra. The once-oleethf gave a noncommittal expression to her, then Louis.
“Yeah, we’re just screwing around,” Louis affirmed with a faintly serious twist in his lips.
“Screwing around is detrimental to life.”
For just a moment, absolutely everyone stared at Seven as it spoke up for the first time. Then, Sebastio gave a little head-toss, and beckoned in welcome.
“Very well – let’s go, then!”
Before they departed, Louis noticed the crack in the sidewalk getting automatically patched up. At the same time, he observed a Sledgecrafter eidolon crawling onto the naked-eye layer of their “diet Monolith,” surveying the frosty residue of his friend’s misguided magic from the road’s edge. The eidolon started erecting a thin tuning field to prevent other misguided magics from doing similarly stupid things.
The implications that the estate now allowed for such dangers, on a vastly broader scale than the previous expectations of Yrdkish life – and thinking on how ugly feuds might become when a significant fraction of people figured violence was an inconsequential spicy adornment to their argumentation – made Louis frown a bit on the inside.
It wasn’t clear where they were heading (though Louis had a suspicion), until several minutes later. After they folded to a Fifth Step platform – setting up a little nonrelative context for Seven to use – the nearby sun glanced from the rim of a tall familiar shape: a maypoling arena about which the younger Artaxerxes had thought quite a great deal in recent times. The top of the building had ramparts and holojectors scattered with careless abandon and no three dimensional symmetry whatsoever. A large banner-blossom trail ran around its periphery, a bus for the other greenware throughout the venue.
It lay mostly empty now, but Louis remembered the crowds cheering for him, and others – amongst whom numbered a white naufer named Heggad – during the heady swoop and spine-tingling joy of flight.
Oh, how unsuspecting he’d been back then; sure that life would get more complicated, but it couldn’t really go too far bad for people like himself… especially not in comparison to his youth.
Their little troupe walked a short distance from the clean flat field where they’d landed. After a minute or two of an easy pace, they were tramping through a brief but broad entry tunnel whose roof was festooned with gilt leaves. The leaves pointed rearward, arrowing in the direction from which the company had entered.
Following the foliant river into the arena, as though walking down the length of a fat tree branch, Louis had an odd inkling swim up from deep below, wreathing his newly-invincible heart. It was the subaudible sound of walking toward some source, some conclusion of a major chapter in his life and the beginning of another.
Or perhaps, the ending of a traditional sensory, and the beginning of a play.
Then the bunch crept from the other end of the tunnel, and emerged into a concourse in the arena’s belly.
The concourse united the openings of some twenty other methods of ingress. Elevator arrays accommodating pretty much any size of person under eight meters of height grew in quartets near the rear of the chamber. A couple of indwelling spirits solicited notice at various kiosks and stations scattered everywhere. Temperatures averaged a significant amount higher inside than out.
“Ah,” said Sebastio, loudly enough to be heard without trouble, as they skirted around a large depiction of Lord Tuoamas’s face set into the floor tiles.
Louis checked his brother’s expression to see what that exhalation might mean, and found a very pointed stare. Following the stare, he noticed a certain kind of obstruction; a wall formed by a single person’s presence.
A familiar figure stood in the middle of their path. The man had a neatly-placed hat and a singularly deplorable mustache. Standing there, the man reached one hand into a shirt pocket, and retrieved a fist-sized cylindrical shape. The object winked with stippled striped light across its surface, rotating waves that ran the continuity from radio to red.
Louis was almost certain that he was looking at a causality sabotage, in the grip of Mr. Hereld Upswitch.
“Mr. Hereld Upswitch.”
Almost a greater surprise than the man’s appearance was how the Lord of Yrdky showed no surprise at finding the unwelcome visitor. Loathing, but no surprise.
“Delightful to see you again, my poor Sebastio,” replied Upswitch after a short moment of extremely satisfyingly flatfooted hesitation.
At the same instant, Argyva folded behind the man, and slapped a cuff around his arm.
There came a very unsettling vision of his head suddenly detonating, but that part of the last confrontation with the hateful scheming man didn’t repeat itself.
Just as Argyva’s other hand clamped down on his shoulder, Upswitch gave a small jerk, and his eyes crept around above a jagged sneer.
“I hope you don’t try to do me in,” he said to the woman. “Or else things will end quite badly. I have a dead man’s switch rigged into-”
His hope was met, when she pulverized his left leg below the knee with an n-minus-one collapse. He let loose a howl, then a gasp, and leaned to his side opposite from the patch of diffuse gory remnants.
“Please don’t try to run, Mr. Upswitch. It would be such a shame, especially after going through the difficulty of locking down this building so thoroughly.”
Sebastio jerked his head at Argyva, and she folded to a slightly greater distance from her prey.
“Now, you see, I was expecting this,” he said to the one-legged man. Upswitch took a second from glaring at his newly acquired infirmity, and glared at Sebastio instead.
“Were you?” came the not-quite question. The ease of the exclamation suggested Upswitch’s pain dampeners were in full effect. Louis was surprised at first that his cuff permitted their function, then entertained the thought again. A cuff was meant to prevent conflict in the name of preserving order; keeping the recipient in working condition was often implicit in that goal.
“My now-deceased co-ruler had a gift for prophecy. He foresaw that you would be here, intent on a little rendezvous. With his last breaths he warned of encountering a certain mustached provocateur armed with lethal intent. We came prepared-”
The Lord’s orange hand pointed out Seven. The schlrikt’s behavior could be described as “antsy” and “singularly antagonistically focused.”
“-with the means to put you down permanently.”
A short throat-clearing, slightly resonant, as Sebastio took a couple of steps circling the man.
“Your little present was part of his predictions – or at least the use of a causality sabotage was hypothesized – since he claimed to see a large number of potential futures terminating at this confrontation. The apparent magnitude of your weapon is surprising; many points awarded for scope. Zero points for originality, trying to follow in Leanshe Etruphana’s footsteps.”
The few nearby pedestrians were taking notice of the spectacle. One very brave or very stupid naufer slowly moved around the scene, his eyes getting larger and ears standing taller, as he seemed to gauge whether he should help by jumping in or not. Wisely enough, all other would-be comers obviously didn’t much care for the thought of getting involved in something so obviously the business of their Lord.
“That woman had the right idea at first, the right sort of spirit in her… but too much reason.”
Hereld spat to one side, almost on top of the smeared leftovers of himself.
“Very willing to do you a disservice. I respect that. I respect it almost as much as I wish she’d have left well enough alone for the time. I respect her and Lord O’Casey both for dedication, no matter that they have been operating at cross purposes to my own plans. To be honest, had they thwarted the intended goal to let your philosophy and example sprout and flourish… Well, I would’ve been annoyed. Still, it wouldn’t have broken my heart; that, I suppose, is the difficulty of an institute like yours – so many enemies they can’t help but inconvenience each other at times. At other times, they can’t help but assist each other, no matter how much you wish them to step out of your business.”
His voice dropped gradually into a subterranean register as he waxed eloquent.
Sebastio continued his slow progression, head cocked and circlet catching the indoor witchlight. An orange hand fisted and relaxed, more and more rapidly as the human plague rat shuddered to a smoking halt. The Lord’s own voice dripped something far more corrosive than lye.
“Such a terrible problem you’ve got there, trying to destroy what others have made. I can’t imagine how hard you’ve found all this work.”
The stepping stopped.
“Argyva. Attend the – wait.”
His head cocked as his Caladhbolg-hand rose partway, stopped, and turned sideways. When he spoke to Upswitch again, it was with something almost in the realm of respect.
“The equivalent of nine million research hexadecades on the part of our brightest eidolons, sunk into countermeasures and foils for just such a tool – and all of them wasted. That is no ordinary weapon, even for a causality sabotage.”
A single bellows-breath burst of laughter escaped the lamed man.
“No, it isn’t. My dealings in the webs of the Olds brought me into a position to obtain a few luxuries. For one, I’d call this thing’s execution mechanism practically untamperable. Or rather, there’s little to no chance that someone trying to spoof the armed-and-waiting signal will achieve anything besides premature activation. A fine thing does Technician West create, when he’s up to the job.”
A feral smile writhed across his face, before curdling as the bone in his leg slid from under him just a bit. An eyebrow raised as he brandished the tool with quiet intense purpose.
“For another… This little treasure’s effective range means it’ll rupture everything to pass through here – yourselves included – since the creation of this particular platform some hundred and forty billion years ago. So very many people to cut from the face of history.”
“You shall be ended as well,” remarked Adz, eyefibers dancing in little rings.
Hereld gave a fatalistic gesture.
“If that is my lot then so be it. You will have a poor impact on history, and that is the greatest gift I can im- ah! No!”
Hereld paused to wave a hand at Seven, who had begun to make movements of an aggressive and murderous nature.
“None of that!” the man said. “Don’t tempt me!”
The Beast paused, schlrikt fangs shuttling back and forth as its eyes fluttered over its target.
Louis watched Seven, whipping short glances between it, Upswitch, the Lady, the herd of armsmen, his friends, and his brother. Very few of them, besides Sebastio, maintained the air of expecting anything other than inexorable doom.
Louis met Al’s eyes, and crossed gazes with Penowa, and saw in both the same frustration and helplessness he felt. He’d been thinking what, less than an hour ago? That he was like unto a little god? That he and his nearest friends no longer had to worry themselves over concerns of mortality?
When you were dealing with a weapon whose active mechanism involved wrenching existence out of alignment on multiple dimensions, and which could easily reach back far enough to access a point in time when you were most certainly still mortal, it made the battlefield much more equal than was comfortable.
Upswitch threw around a nasty thin little glare, the ocular equivalent of concertina wire.
“Even if you somehow survive the coming attraction, I can rest easy knowing someone else will grind you to dust in due time, and everything you’ve built. Didn’t you notice how few people are interested in bringing in a most wanted man like myself? One would wonder why nobody bothered reporting such a personage, standing in the open.”
A wide welcoming spread of arms encompassed the little band, and implicated the rest of Pennat Gate, in a single jerky extension.
“But it’s hard to overcome a big brother attack, wouldn’t you know? Change a person’s perceptions ever so slightly through augmentation spoofing, convince them that you simply have a resemblance to a person of interest rather than actually being said person, and it’s even better than being not-there. Endear yourself to them and, well… the superintendent of a certain Fourth Step revivification clinic let me resurrect without worry of legal repercussions. And I’m not the only chisel working against your walls, young Artaxerxes. Even if I were interrupted this very instant, even if my little present were removed from the equation without being triggered, the infrastructure for carrying out similar operations will still exist, or be easy enough to rebuild, in due time.”
Louis frowned as his eyes widened and his hands became fists.
“A big brother attack on its own forfeits any hope that you’d receive lenience for-”
Louis flinched as Upswitch guffawed at him.
“I have many avenues of data interchange at my disposal,” he said, one hand rolling on its wrist. “Contacting people eager to put the screws even to someone as influential as Lord Artaxerxes? Child’s play! The Sifters… well, their violent and extreme numbers thought anybody heathen enough to defile the Maker’s works with his fleshly person obviously needed to be dealt with. They didn’t exactly take kindly to Tuoamas’s ‘apostasy,’ which is what they apparently consider anything that is less-than-perfect veneration.”
A spine-creaking neck swing aligned Upswitch’s painted eyes with Sebastio’s.
“The fact that you were in violation of Rhaagm’s Caladhbolg Contingencies made the cult consider you both a heretic and a man with dangerous worldly ambitions. Oh, what I would’ve given to have them possess a greater sense of moderation; so much fanaticism lends itself very poorly to observing overarching strategic purpose. But keeping them out of the equation was never going to happen, and negotiating a truce with their more fringe lodges was an occasion which gave me immense satisfaction. Lenience? Lenience, you say?”
Hereld gave a small sideways thumb-swipe across his face, the hand holding the causality sabotage bobbing like a nodding head.
“Oh, my. That’s a hilarious, utterly lost, and completely unattractive cause. Certainly, it’s desirous that the Artaxerxes dynasty inherits nothing but the wind in due time, yet that was something I would have preferred to occur later. Keeping you around long enough to upset the entrenched uncharitable order of things was the primary directive, after all. Upending your administration too early is just a recipe for extending the designs of those who want you dead or gone or both.”
He sighed, lamentable and lamenting.
“It would have been equally good, at least in the short term, if my… flamboyant demise portrayed you as the sort of snap-decision murderers who no sane Yrdkish would trust. Kudos to you, I must say, in wrestling down the spin on that particular event. It highly inconvenienced me that you managed such a feat, but I bear no grudge under the circumstances.”
A slightly hysterical smile cracked his face.
“Have you ever considered,” Sebastio pondered aloud, “that with the scope of their influence, you’ll be serving the ends of one of the Olds or another no matter how you choose to act, so long as you actually do something in some tangible way?”
Hereld gave a little mustache-quivering sniff. His Ilsabal Square accent became deliberately pronounced; gears working to move in the same direction and throwing off smoke and sparks.
“If you think such a painfully transparent thought never occurred to me, then you have a great deal to learn. I’ve been plotting away for a very, very long time. Longer than you could guess. What I’m doing is simply the best possible job of getting the Olds’ knives to the necks of each others’ more important plans to which I’m privy.”
“You are a small-souled, terribly upset man,” said Adz. It leered down at the human, as though he were a child trying to masquerade as his father by wearing his father’s bootpants and his father’s hat. “Do you think you will have any lasting ability to disable or even meaningfully slow the machinations of creatures like the Maker or Comedian East?”
“Don’t try to educate me!” the behatted man snarled. “I’ve no illusion that anyone besides another Old can really throw an illegal packet into their datastreams, but with some small fortune they can be convinced to turn upon one another. I WILL be the best thorn in their sanctified sides that I can manage.”
His expression turned genuinely humorous for a short moment.
“That’s what we all aspire to do in one way or another, isn’t it?”
He looked up at Adz.
He looked down at Penowa.
He looked across to Louis, and stopped.
“Young Artaxerxes,” he said, in a profoundly different tone of voice. “Would you be, perhaps, interested in helping me? In becoming an agitator and opponent of those titans, those in whose shadows we are more disposable than pawns and less impactful than insults hurled into the void?”
Louis’s eyes closed. When he opened them, he stared at the man who wore hate as a second skin far more effectively than Louis had ever managed to wear anything. He felt his lips draw back.
“You want me to jump up and throttle the designs of other people like my brother?”
Hereld must have seen something in his face, because his own eyes lit up, zealous and deep. His head almost vibrated as he smiled.
“Incidentally. Your brother constitutes collateral damage, being a minion of the Beings of Old.”
Louis was silent for a moment, ruminating on the shapes of Lord Artaxerxes, of Lady Adz, and their companion called Seven.
“So it’s not actually doing anything to the Olds themselves, just their agents.”
“Yes!” Upswitch answered, a little boisterous and a lot eager.
Louis looked down at the shoes on his feet; shoes that would never have been worn in the French countryside where people fell dead from bubonic mercies on a clockwork basis during his childhood. He turned aside to the people who he now called friends and family. He flicked a glance in the direction of his thumb, and with a thought extended the little scrimthus blade lying hidden in its depths. After three seconds of gazing, he retracted it, shivering a little at the sensation of material sliding into part of the human anatomy never designed to feature a sheath.
“I’m afraid you’ll have better luck curling over, and sucking your own larynx out through your sphincter,” Louis said, and the slight rhombus of a smile deformed his face.
Hereld gazed at him, face lit with a faint glow from the hardware in his palm, frowning in something approaching fatherly disappointment.
“You have so much potential, my boy. I’d have to spare your nears and dears to spare you, but someone with as much hate in him as yourself… I’d call that a net benefit. Please do reconsider.”
Louis’s smile left. He suddenly felt tired, like he’d been carrying a second Louis on his back all his life and he’d only just noticed the strain.
“Did I stutter?” he asked. “If you’re going to kill us or unmake us or however you want to couch it, then do it now and finish this farce.”
To one side, Adz told Sebastio, “I love you.” The statement got a quick faintly-smiling reaction from its husband.
“I love you as well, my Lady.”
He gave a deflating snort and stared knives at the man who’d tried to convince him not to marry according to his own preference, who’d indirectly supplied the framework to make good on a literal assassination, and nearly succeeded in performing several mission-critical assassinations of character.
“Mr. Upswitch. I have but a single rebuttal for you, and it’s something that I unfortunately can only ever do once. Now, as much ire as you deserve for depriving me of my counsel and diarchical companion…”
A little shiver ran from Sebastio’s feet to the mixed hair-and-chains crawling from his scalp.
“… you stir only sadness in me. I hope you listen when I urge you to depart, and never look back.”
“Hah!” Hereld replied, balancing with surprising temporary grace on his demolished leg. “I hope you won’t feel too disappointed when-”
The small red Caladhbolg gemstones placed in Lord Artaxerxes’s flesh flashed.
People began moving very quickly for about two seconds as the lights strobed with wild abandon, but pulled up short with the arrival of a new contender.
Just as Sebastio lifted his hand that was not a hand, a voice parted the air like a destabilizer construct going through cast iron. A voice that many recognized, and very very few ever heard in person. A voice belonging to one of the best-known enigmas of existence, which most (though actually not all) respected as a near-absolute in creation’s breadth. A voice of danger. A voice of curiosity. A voice belonging to a thing whose creator was one of the better-known Beings of Old.
<This happenstance proves to be of moderate interest,> said a recreation of the voice of Gilbert Gottfried, in perfect Rhaagmini.
Every suite of perceptive sensors turned outward to the Northwest and slightly upward. Those who did so were rewarded with the sight of a flat-sided outline hovering without a care for gravity or air pressure or the like. It was an outline Louis recognized, and whose owner he’d never before actually met, but a clammy feeling ran over his new and conventionally imperishable flesh at the sight. It was, in short, one thing with which you do not screw around unless you dearly want to be destroyed like very few other things ever get destroyed.
The entity called Crippled False was, at least in practical terms, outwardly indistinguishable from a very strange, very broad, legless Rhaagm mannequin. From the bottom-most edges of the checkered cubes emanating from the even-colored globe forming the core of its chassis to the highest part of the hemisphere atop the hexagonal geometry of its head, the entity spanned some three vertical meters. From the extreme of its dangling left arm to the ragged section where a right arm once graced its form, it spanned a little more than four vertical meters. These arbitrary measurements reflected the size and shape which the being chose to adopt in this instance, having no power to place strictures on its characteristics. Its shell, vaguely reminiscent of a humanoid torso, tilted just a bit forward. Shining vibrant tethers of light, binding a sphere-shaped arm termination to four clock-hand digits, flickered and danced. The spilled sparks of its cuboid eyes did not direct their attentive care toward any of the gathering.
Fear, or lack thereof, had very little to do with the perfect stillness that descended; it was something almost akin to a highly abstract magical enthrallment. Not one of those watching twitched. Louis wasn’t even sure any of the respiratorily-persuaded ones were breathing, and not because of the physiological changes they had recently received.
Crippled False removed itself. Its transition bore a surface similarity to a folding, but without any sign of disturbance at the borders of a fold-delimited space. The other end of the transport put it hovering directly above Hereld.
One only had to look at the way the light bent around its chassis – mass amorously clinging to proximate photons, and yet not collapsing the room and citadel and estate into a gravitational singularity – to get a small nervous sense of its potency.
In its new position, the creation of the Maker slowly and soundlessly rotated, allotting a narrow salvo of its notice to the watchers.
<You have placed overweening purpose atop the tower of tuneful impetus,> it said, suddenly directing its focus in parabolic lines toward Pennat Gate’s Lord. <My greetings, my condolences, my attention, brother.>
The last, aimed at Caladhbolg’s integrated form, was said in that kind-of-playful voice which might have made the statement funny under almost any other circumstances, and that made it not funny at all.
<Will you continue to make a mantle for yourself of your aspirations, wielder of Caladhbolg?> it asked.
It was suddenly the size of one of Sebastio’s fists, hovering directly in front of him, its coiling digits whipping from place to place with no respect for those laws which allow space to be fractionalized.
<Is your goal yet met?> it prodded.
“No,” replied Louis’s brother.
<Then you have my blessing. You shall not receive it a second time.>
Suddenly, Crippled False flipped around, watching Hereld Upswitch, and Louis wasn’t sure whether the fact that Upswitch’s face looked almost gaunt with its self-evident horror was reason for joy or for terror.
<You are Hereld Upswitch,> said that wide sawtoothed voice, now coming from an entity precisely matching its subject in height. <Son of Galais Lander and Dorotil Upswitch, enemy to the machinations of the departed Ms. Nightjar, enemy to the purposes of my creator, and enemy to yourself.>
The hissed – nearly whispered – imperative harmonized with Hereld pushing the causality sabotage in the alien being’s direction, as though it would do substantially more or less damage by gaining or losing half a meter of distance. His ruined leg slid with awful indignity across the floor, but coordination had taken a place of no importance in the man’s mind.
Judging from the contortions skewing across his face, Hereld was attempting to invoke or trip some manually-operable method of setting off his weapon… and failing.
The thought that this living oddity could simply dictate the kind of rule of law which a causality sabotage was by definition intended to break… that would have sufficed to etch the moment forever in Louis’s biological memory, let alone his eidetics. Yet it had come not merely to prevent action, but to perform a boon on behalf of a seeker.
<You are given rest,> said Crippled False. <You, and those which might have become you, and those reflections of you that are stored in reserve for future need. Perhaps Technician West has provided some exotic definition context in which you might hide; this is unlikely. Therefore: enjoy.>
For an instant its fingers stilled. Then, almost too fast to follow, the long strings connecting three of them to their rotund “hand” abruptly twisted and stretched out; a triangle of lucent sharpness. One didn’t have to be a genius of intuition to look at it and deduce that through it, Crippled False saw Hereld Upswitch framed by an equilateral glow.
The fourth digit flipped down, slicing the triangle apart.
<Rest, slumbering unsleeper; rest and rest well.>
Louis felt something, then: a little like his brain getting thrown into shark-infested mental straits and hearing the idea of a surfaced fin changing trajectory. He had an ominous and extremely discomforting intuition that Hereld had thrown defiance in the face of all the powers of heavenly places – and that since he had no intention of willingly going to his eternal judgment, the afterlife would come to him instead.
The pseudo-space lying along the edges of the gem’s facets, called the Purple, wasn’t exactly something Louis had really known in his previous life. Even so, he’d recently needed to brush up a fair amount on the salient literature for purely practical purposes, and the place’s properties put it in a camp very comparable to some realms of which he’d heard – realms named Sheol and Gehenna and the like. A country where not even inconstancy was constant.
That line of thinking came home with a vengeance as he perceived something which would have been perfectly at home among the forces constituting the Purple’s scouring strange entropy.
A semi-sensate tunnel of self-sustaining definitions, having the thickness of a soul and the impetus of a war deity delivering justice, curled into local realization. The tendril flailed with very specific intentions, “looking” to all those who witnessed it somewhat like a length of corrugated piping, if the piping’s metal were forged from a repurposed link of the Great Chain of Being. It focused for a very brief moment upon Crippled False, and then for an even briefer moment upon Sebastio.
Then it fell down and engulfed dear Mr. Upswitch. What followed was something not to be recounted.
When the deed was done, the strange tunnel fled, and rescinded itself as well as every article or effect of Hereld’s. The room went from merely silent to something not nearly so noisy. The passing of dear Mr. Upswitch was not cause for celebration or petty jubilation in Louis’s deepest parts, just relief and slack lukewarm gratitude.
Crippled False moved then, to rest upon the once-standing-place of the man who’d given the people of Pennat Gate so many unhappy dreams. It spoke to everyone present – but centrally to the estate’s Lord.
<Go. This individual has been voided; here, now, always, everywhere. Your degrees of freedom have been restored to you. Continue what has been begun, and begin what has not. You will receive many blessings on this road, but none more from myself.>
Crippled False shook out the digits of its single limb, then compressed and contorted like the making of a pi-dimensional paper boat.
“Yes,” said the human that the entity addressed, after it left the scene in a lightless flickering transition.
<Yes,> echoed his body’s other resident.
Sebastio fell to his knees, and broke down into sobs as the people – HIS people – who’d survived what had seemed unsurvivable began approaching him in singles and small clusters.
And then Louis knew what coursed through his veins at that moment: a tantric archetype that he’d never experience again in exactly the same way.
He moved forward to reassure the twitchy and now oddly vocal Seven, to tell Adz that it had done everything it could, and to hold his weeping brother close. He took his own first step away from being an infrequently-invoked mascot of his brother’s goodness, and toward making the world a better place.
It was long ago that he’d begun to associate his brief stay in Bequast, then his brief stay in Rhaagm, and then his life in Yrdky with unique feelings. Uniquely confusing feelings as he tried to get to grips with a world gone mad. Unprecedented rage as he considered all that he had been given in his new life since Paris, and all those who would never receive such largesse. Frustration as he failed to grapple with and subdue any objective perspective on his loss and his gain and his families, both new and old. A little budding rose of comfort, when he looked into the future and saw the people Pennat Gate might help in the days to come, against all the contrarian efforts of Hereld Upswitch and his ilk.
But now, there was a stilted and damaged but still recognizable rightness, something that made the tendons and sinews and fat and flesh of his person completely static and unchanging while the rest of existence around him ran amok with flexion and transition.
And that something was the realization that he would ever and always be home.