Bully Ol’ Boys

<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

“Every person to ever be deserves life, and life abundant. For all those who would otherwise die broken or fall to pieces in the wasteland of the gem, the Yrdkish estate of Pennat Gate offers succor.”

-The Pennat Gate Haven Edict, as first paraphrased by the Parrot of Rhaagm

Sebastio Artaxerxes didn’t sleep anymore. That made it difficult for him to wake up, per se. However, he moved through life in a kind of cycle, using his nights to catch up on major information from around the whole of creation, organize any correspondence requiring the attention of Lord Tuoamas and the other decision-makers of Pennat Gate, ponder the big questions of life, and other inanities. More recently, he idled in a documentarian’s observational slump, watching the schlrikt he and his Lady had taken in like the ugliest feral qinp imaginable.

Lying on his massive bed-pad’s cushioning force, the Cambrian human caressed Adz’s head, following the curve of an ear. A shallow smile trickled across the fractured topography of his face as the ear of his other half quirked, the lipless mouth tightened, the leg-cables loosened their weave by an iota. The gorget it wore to mark it as a Lady of Yrdky caught the light with a beautiful twinkle. He was so keen to make sure the world knew how deeply he respected the udod aodod’s opinions and schema that tenderness and public life had pretty much taken on the respective aspects of oil and water. It was just one of the ways that his marriage diverged from its original design. Where he’d hoped it would make things easier to appear a concerned but too-busy-caring-to-meddle Lord, he now hoped it would serve as a meticulous tapping on the gauges and meters of governance. To the credit of Lord and Lady, that part seemed to be successful.

I’m the spitting image of decisiveness, he laughed inside.

<You are a man whose acute buyer’s remorse does not prevent him from actually making decisions when they matter,> replied his third half, for perhaps the thousandth time that year. <Being weak-willed and being open to continuous analysis for one’s own betterment are two very different things.>

I’m aware they are, Caladhbolg… Malumortis… Yes, I can make decisions and live with them. It would just be nice to look back and have a tenth the confidence in them as everyone else seems to think I have. It would be nice to not have absolute foreknowledge of enemies provisioning themselves for grappling this upcoming Lordsmoot.

Line item: consult Adz on likely difficulties posed by Leanshe Etruphana – check.

Line item: same, Hereld Upswitch – check.

Line item: categorize methods by which the aforementioned persons of interest could defend or besmirch Pennat Gate’s sanctuary-cum-melting-pot mission – to do tomorrow.

Line item: inquire with Earl Rophiel Tybek as to how the artistic accrediting negotiations were going with the estate’s undead stewards – check.

Line item: discuss with Lawmasters, ministers and Lord Tuoamas the ominous declaration from Lord Naomi Galt of Œlthlant that her estate was “interested in becoming very closely acquainted” – check.

Line item: decide what statement to offer on a thrice-life-size pyrite-and-exotic nude sculpture of himself and Lord Tuoamas, presented as a gift from the estate’s newest rescues – very shaky check.

Line item: meet with Kallahassee and Magdod and their rapidly-expanding team of researchers for organizing Beast-related documentation – to do tomorrow.

Line item: make plans for meeting up with Francis “Bugbear” Pickering for the first time in years – check.

Putting a mental marker down in his agenda, he requested that Telmbian, the digital personality steward of his estate’s executive pinnacle, notify him of any work which fell too far afoul of normal, and “woke up.” A kiss on Adz’s forehead was perfectly acceptable in the bedchamber, and his spouse’s mostly sleeping form twitched a bit, happy in those affections reserved by extrafacetary human culture for the thumb-and-forefinger-circle-sized collection of one’s deepest-loved.

He looked up at Seven in its far corner of the bedroom, a bit tickled at how entranced the Beast was by a child’s toy. The toy in question was a generalization of the Towers of Hanoi called the Pagoda Trains; seven posts for Údanese stelae instead of three for… towers, a single sprawling length of cord instead of annuli, and shuttlecocks threaded onto its length in a pattern not quite as old as God. The schlrikt had made a little cuboid nest of woodplastic against the corner, a tiny roofless house over whose walls it stepped to enter the civilized world, and exit to some alien place no non-Beast could really understand. It drew threaded shapes along their rails, the faint witchlight picking out its painstaking manipulations with a strange grace.

They’d tried to offer it a bed-pad of its own after some time, but apparently a place of rest wouldn’t do if it wasn’t the load-bearing corner of a building.

Sebastio smiled, eyes slimming.

This is where the world ends, and I begin: a place where all may know, for this moment, peace.

The Lord’s first feeling as the day closed down, the fifteenth hour rolling around again to the zeroth, was a sense of contentment at the few stolen minutes delighting in the small innocent pleasures of being.

The Lord’s second feeling was a gritted-teeth grin of anticipation at the mountainous challenges lumbering over the false Yrdkish horizon.

The Lord’s third feeling was a bit of concern as Caladhbolg drew his attention to a couple of anomalous folding events that weren’t supposed to be happening just above him, inside the living quarters he shared with his Lady.

The Lord’s fourth feeling was a warm red-rooster crow in his soul as he realized an assassination attempt was underway, and assassinations begged for violent response.

{Argyva,} he sent to the leader of his armsmen, {there are going to be some rude people arriving shortly. I insist on dealing with the ones here myself, but would appreciate your making sure that no others are positioned to do horrible things to this estate’s subjects.}

After so long with him repeatedly proving that he was bad enough to dispose of threats to his personal safety, the Lordly armsmen of Pennat Gate had finally surrendered to the idea that certain other people benefited more from their attentions.

Overclocking engaged, the Lord darted over to the sleeping udod aodod.

{Adz,} he sent, forcing open a connection to his Lady. He got a groggy quarter-coherent reply, even with the protracted time for thinking made available by dint of accelerated brain activity.

This is the point in the action sensories where the heroine chins the hero, then kicks him off the disk she’s piloting into a sun for his own good, or some such.

Well, it was good to be a horribly selfish person for straightforwardly selfish reasons, for once.

{You would only get in my way,} he told his Lady, {so this is for your own good.}

The fact that he’d actually said “for your own good” sank into his brain about three seconds later, and made him want to tunnel into his own navel in shame.

Something in his tone also sank into Adz’s brain. In relative terms, it came awake and aware very rapidly.


The bytevoice sounded a bit like the few times Iggez Artaxerxes came home from business, found his son had done something horribly immature, and metaphorically began to put a woodmetal rod across his son’s backside.

{No time.}

Sebastio rather rudely killed the connection, leaned forward, and kissed the udod aodod full on the mouth.

Despite such a wonderfully intimate act, Sebastio merely felt a candle flame being pumped around his veins. He didn’t say “I love you” or “be safe.”

He simply shredded Caladghbolg’s length, lifted Adz with the orange strips, flipped his Lady upright, and virtually threw it none-too-gently out into the moon-and-witch-lit hall. The udod aodod, still clad in bedclothes, slid along the floor, leg-cables trailing out in its wake. The shutter of the door clamped down on the sight of four eyespots splayed wide.

A small thought ran through both him and his body’s trespasser. Caladhbolg voiced it.

<If interruption should come, at least another competent soul besides Tuoamas will still be here to help guide this nation through the discontinuity.>

I’ll have to apologize to Argyva later, but I don’t expect or intend to die.

<Just so. Now… there. Take caution, we have guests.>

A fractured second of a glance into the corner where Seven dwelt. He found the Beast strangely endearing in its own way, but it was not going to get tossed out of harm’s salt-grinder blades in any case; no time, no opportunity.

It’ll be fine. Especially if it stays down.

One person popped into being just above the door to his room, two meters over the top of the door and adhering to the wall there with some sort of stickpad boots. Why one would bother with such measures was unclear at first, then he realized the person in question had the coal-and-amber attire of a Not-Fire warrior. Used to wildly different rules of engagement at every conceivable level. They wouldn’t employ radiant arms, or distance-independent magic. Not-Fire’s idea of “honor” in war, even subterfuge, would play to their victim’s benefit. Hopefully.

He reached out his right palm, and beckoned. The freshly-transported person found their adhesive ripped open by a tractor beam, rapidly spinning off their perch and downward toward his inhuman hand.

When they got into range, Caladhbolg ate them.

The first of several targets gone from infiltrating to neutralized in an eighth of a human heartbeat, he pivoted on a heel and pointed at a second, larger collection of atoms transposing themselves with someone’s distant staging area. This time it was a jentrillian, of all things, armed with a quadratic accelerator and a mean look on his face. Based on the wonderful tool of stereotyping, Sebastio guessed this one would be the easiest to pump for information.

Just as the man raised the weapon and prepared to fire, the Lord beat him to the punch, and flicked out a single finger to send sixteen piercing flechettes through the most major vertices of his thin body. A small utility supplied by Caladhbolg followed to keep the man conscious, unmoving, and unsuicided. He flew back against the wall, pinned and bleeding, and hung with his long head flattened against the morning-gray surface. One of his fat green eyes stared from the side of his skull with a strange hate-absent glare, the witchlight next to his neck making it look like his other peeper had been plucked out and repurposed as extremely tone-deaf fixture decoration.

An inaudible disturbance of air to his left, and the sensation that he needed to be elsewhere. He kicked off the floor, dodging a pohostinlat who swung his shiver knife just as he folded behind the Lord. The blade instead sliced through the odious holojector for Sebastio’s least-favorite piece of art in existence. Priceless relic or not, he felt a little twinge of satisfaction when the virtual landscape flickered and died. He then felt a bit of puzzlement when the man tried to follow up with his wrist spurs instead of stabbing with the implement specifically built for combat. What was his plan, envenom the Lord before interrupting him?

Sebastio actually didn’t know for certain that his own cerv-mesh would still prevent that offensive deployment of folding tools that its users called “slivering,” though Caladhbolg would probably have something to conclusively rebut such tactics. His folding module had been compromised in some sense by his transformation, and forced him to find interesting ways around the problem of personal long-distance transit. In the absence of the ability to repeatedly superimpose oneself partially over another person’s volume and disperse them one minute layer at a time, a last-instant fold in the middle of a blow was usually a deciding strike in a confrontation. The human’s special circumstances shrunk such inarguable uses of martial physics to the realm of the annoyingly effective instead, even when they successfully carved out bits from his physique.

Sadly for the pohostinlat, Sebastio-and-Caladhbolg’s workaround of the folding issue was a sort of… shattering of the spatial axes whose grain ran perpendicular between him and destination. Unlike foldings, it was a very loud method of movement, not dissimilar to a lightning strike – less on account of air crushing back together after a superheated flash and more segments of physical continua being given a slap across the face. Also unlike foldings, the implicit personal tuning field around every possessor of a cerv-mesh, which prevented so-blessed people from slivering each other or folding onto the borders of similar tuning fields, didn’t actually prevent him from using his little trick on people and stopping halfway through them.

One metal-tasting indoor thunderclap later, a Sebastio’s-head-shaped chunk was missing from the front of the pohostinlat’s armor and the attacker’s own face. The pattern continued downward, and one of the pohostinlat’s legs had a calf put right through it. The disconnected shin toppled to the floor, while the relocated bits and part of the old owner’s armor also fell to the floor in their new coordinates a meter or so away. No explosions or sudden conversions of mass to more interesting stuff, but the opening of an unsurvivable percentage of blood vessels and a decent number of vital organs provided more excitement than desired in any case.

“Sorry,” he muttered past lips dripping onto his beard, and wondered exactly what he meant a moment later.

Drenched in the cuprite-rich blood of one intruder literally to the front of his scalp, flecked with bits of gore from another, the Lord turned to the other three members of the team, two of whom were – appropriately enough – assassins. His right arm flicked off a good deal of fluid, and an orange light suffused the room as Caladhbolg assumed a long pronged shape. Electricity began arcing madly between the terminals.

“I would ask you to not do this,” he told the watchers, “but we know how this must end.”

His one pupil set in the orange flower of his left iris expanded to the size of his thumbnail, and when he grinned, the needle teeth on the right side of his jaw almost crossed the gap in his lips.

<So let us be done with it,> lowed a voice of ossified metal and mind that set blood sublimating.

And he hated how much he loved it.

The assassins at least recognized that their situation was their certain end unless they could drastically change the mathematics. Thus, certain provisional laws that ordered the death penalty for misuse of Rhaagm’s miraculous technology had to take second priority over right-now survival. Both deployed their dæmon clusters, clouds of distorted space and femtotech brains bookending Sebastio in rapid order. In response, the Lord extended his supermatter fork, and gestured violently while he fired a sequence of pings at the bundles of death that would have burst the bandwidth of any finite-throughput network. Disrupted and assaulted by exotic forces, the clusters were torn asunder, though they began spinning up new members almost immediately. Sebastio felt needles all over for a moment where his skin began to dissolve, before orange substrate flowed over the afflicted portions of his flesh. He wouldn’t die from cluster digestion with his stupendous resilience, but it was the second-most-unpleasant thing he’d ever felt in his life, after his long-ago causality sabotage accident.

Astoundingly fast, the hudenot among the remaining assailants made a rippling hurdling river of their body. The bundle of tentacles flowed over the six meters separating them, exploiting the placement of two podia supporting scrollwork treasures of ages past, and began wrapping around the human while trying to fillet him from the shins up. Sebastio growled as he looked down into eyeclusters protected by translucent ceramic faceplate. His atypical gift of bioelectric manipulation came into play again, then; a hundred plus amps apparently couldn’t overload the hudenot’s protective measures, but obviously sufficed to disorient the creature. Then he bent his arm, shimmed it between the meters-long stretches of tentacle and his hip, and Caladhbolg became a razor-sharp saber. Lengthwise separation followed.

A destabilizer construct knife the size of a human femur suddenly went through a human sternum, drew itself up toward his head, and stopped at about the point of his clavicle. It was the kind of insult which normally resulted in instant interruption, or at least forced the victim to use their pain dampeners to avoid becoming a broken weeping humped mess. In Sebastio’s case, it wouldn’t be fatal, but it was really, REALLY distracting. Instead, the victim pulled most of a hudenot’s torn muscled form from about his waist, and whipped it around his shoulder at the assassin who’d folded behind him. The reward was a meaty report, like a terrible accident in a medical operating theater.

The antimatter blade’s hilt fit into Sebastio’s hand. He pulled it free with a sound that would have cost him sleep if he’d actually still been capable of slumber, and hurled it at its owner as he spun. Broken facial chitin managed to dodge out of the way with contemptuous ease, considering the man’s eyebars seemed to have been damaged from getting beaten over the head with the corpse of his former comrade. Having not killed the man immediately, the Lord found himself further annoyed at the milspec recovery augmentations his backstabber apparently possessed. About a tenth of a second, and the slumped gaze straightened out with a crack, while the exoskeletal profile became whole once more. The profuse amounts of hemolymph cleaned up instantly.

Unfortunately, the man then summoned another weapon to his person instead of folding away and reassessing the situation. As he raised the ripmapper, the point of the saber replacing Sebastio’s right arm lanced his center of gravity, then sliced upward through the sagittal plane of his head. Removal of the blade caused the freshly deceased to topple forward, until the Lord’s heavy boot knocked the form backward again. The corpse fell atop the majority of the hudenot’s remains, and suddenly the stench of mortality seemed much greater in the glow of the room’s witchlights.

The final capable assailant looked, for just a moment, like she might have fled, dishonor of failure or not. She was saved the decision when her target sent her a slug with a six hundred millimeter caliber as a token of respect. The monumental force managed to overload her inertia sumps and spread her out over a region about five meters long, a meter wide, and averaging about two millimeters thick.

However, before she was interrupted, she plucked a breaker box – a device both small and extremely useful for emergency evacuation scenarios – and threw it. The object shattered against the wall just behind Sebastio.

The breaker box had a very sensitive mechanism inside which threw open a simplex connection as soon as it activated.

Even as the simplex connection was identified, traced, and chopped to pieces by the estate’s type nine Willabarm event countermeasures, its work was done. A cube of space about the size of a human-built lavatory had been exchanged with the air filling the equivalent volume from one distant point (presumably located in a Not-Fire headquarters, but no time to check) to the hall outside Lord Sebastio’s bedroom. The morphite that had been occupying that distant region came along for the ride.

The Beast had a slightly shorter time to get adjusted to changing scenery than its summoner. Sebastio replaced the cannon barrel terminating his right arm with a saber once more, and lunged across the short distance with another whiplash crack. Whether it was because Caladhbolg itself managed to supply the ambivalence toward doing its foes harm that was normally a necessary part of killing Beasts, or a miraculous feature devised in the mad mind that was the Maker’s, the weapon’s wielder found it possible to slay them as easily as if they were any creature of the field.

The prickle-backed form surprisingly reminiscent of a bipedal silkal, from relative proboscis length to exoskeletal geometry, had enough opportunity to loose a single fluting whistle before it was run through. Sebastio didn’t know how, but just seeing the thing told him it was quite different from Seven and his estate’s other new residents.

The creature flailed once, jostling its killer, and collapsed. It promptly assumed the color and texture of the floor. As it slowly died, though, its original black coloration and shining eyes returned in waves that had fits and starts, weakly gravitating back toward its pitiful disguise. Each time, it became what it truly was a little more completely, until it eventually reached the stillness of expiry and began to dissolve.

The human stepped back. The human breathed. The human made a little squeak deep in his throat.

“This is not a good thing,” said Seven from behind him, and the schlrikt sounded mournful.

With all hostiles minus one interrupted, the dæmon clusters tormenting Sebastio could receive his full attention. He disposed of them, breathed out a sigh whose exhalation of pleasure was obviously profound, and took a turn about the high-ceilinged confines.

It looked somewhere between a Southsea gangbanger crime scene and what he’d found at the Gursral Corner apartments when Count finally went off the deep end, but less profulgent smatterings of midnight ichor.

The Cambrian decreased the rate of his overclocking a bit, thinking on the obvious topic with great fervor.

First, who was the beneficiary of trying to knock off the Lord of Pennat Gate? From a hard currency kind of political school, well, no one. If the population of Pennat Gate suddenly moved to New Armis to become a bunch of street performing harlots in the next three days, the expertise and craftsmanship of the lost souls could get replaced inside of a hand. If one considered the symbolic or ideological aspect instead, then the list suddenly got very long indeed. Being forced to get re-lifed, and return to leadership without Caladhbolg as part of him (and God knew he wouldn’t survive another go at fusing with the entity’s housing), would do very bad things to his legacy’s image. Little point in dwelling on that topic overlong.

Second, why use Not-Fire recruits to do the job? Much easier to resolve. The whole cultish dedication to Yrdky’s estates thing made them far more reliable than any alternative. Come to think of it, Sebastio himself probably had a few billion or trillion people off in that madhouse of a society who worshiped him as something like the avatar of some Bacchic god. Deniability came with that package as well. A legal fiction, and one obvious as a fiction, but saying “Of course they’ll listen to a person from Nor’ridge when he tells them to murder someone” was gauche even at the most placid of times.

Third, why the-

He stopped. The introduction of the Beast had a hundred tangents all its own. His survival of a causality sabotage, extenuating circumstances or not, was long-established public knowledge. No matter that maybe five percent of the populace still had a death grip on conspiracy theories surrounding the occasion, the historicity of the occasion lay well above question. Any team trying to insert itself as a covert long-knife mission probably had to be planning to use something besides knives or guns or thermal thaumaturgy. A morphite would have seemed like an acceptable alternative, perhaps, if one had to choose some other method for trying to kill a person previously unkillable.

He quickly reconstructed what he thought was a plausible program outline for events, from the perspective of the intruders. Expectation: the Lord’s armsmen can detect incursions, but it might take at least one or two minutes for something to be done about it, depending on a plethora of factors. Expectation: automated defenses are obviously in place, but a small six-person team might be able to slip under notice. Expectation: get into position, put a morphite where it has a chance at sticking the man between his ribs… and it might easily look like one of the estate’s new ungodly pets went berserk and shivved the person some yet considered the thief of his estate’s throne.

Well, there were still plenty of holes in that line of thinking. The armsmen of a Lord, for example, were roughly on par with Rhaagm’s mannequins in the field of martial competence, and not expecting them to be waiting on the far side of a fold. In fact, drawing only on the years of experience Sebastio had accrued as a security consultant, poking at systems and subsystems designed to thwart exactly these sorts of scenarios, there were more than enough holes to sink pretty much any boat built out of those boards of the mind. Of course, the number of known variables compared to the number of unknowns weighed heavily in favor of the idea that something was just outside his understanding. If this came from the same people behind Nor’ridge’s recent efforts, maybe this too was supposed to be observed. Maybe some interrogation of a questionably-loyal agent would clear the air.

There was no doubt, though, that the incident represented more than a semantic disagreement between powers of state.

By these small pushes is the barrier between self and world broken, and one’s soul thrust into the fire.

A clowder of helpful types came rushing down the hall leading to the throne room with a spate of surprisingly orderly questions, while a couple folded directly into the abattoir. It soon became crowded enough that some of the observers’ cerv-meshes gave little warnings, telling them that someone had tried to coincide with their physical coordinates and been denied, before the guilty parties folded to a slightly different location and succeeded. Among them were Argyva, whose utterly immutable quiet competence was a thing of beauty, and Gorar, whose competence was equally magnified in those realms which didn’t require subtlety. For a moment he wondered at the influx of assistants, until he remembered that he’d done his little trick twice. There probably were a few thousand people around the close-to-ground levels of the citadel whose sleep or duties had been neatly hamstrung by the sound of murdered murderers.

“HOW MANY WERE HERE?” asked the gnoll. She had her ears folded back, and her nose was bent in distaste. A few odd looks were sent her way when she didn’t end her interrogative with a title, but compared to the looks afforded the bloodbath they were spaghetti in a tangle of hudenots. Several people tried to forcibly treat the Lord for medical needs. They were refused. The state of the remains before them suggested that was a sound course of action.

Sebastio pointed as he spoke.

“Six in total, plus one morphite. Not one of the residents, they brought their own. The jentrillian on the wall is still alive, and may know something of value.” He quickly described the mechanisms used to keep the assailant in place and placated, and how to remove them. “You should only find evidence of five intelligent attackers, sorry to say.”

“We found nothing to concern Lord Tuoamas, though one individual scoped out your brother, Lord Artaxerxes.” Argyva’s contribution surprised Sebastio a moment. Then: “When did you know they were assailants?”

It didn’t show externally, save for any empaths who might have been on the scene, but the Lord’s stomach rolled inside his belly. The thought that he might have reduced a collection of suspicious but innocent people to so much jam was absurd both in a factual and speculative sense. Even so, the flash-and-burn instant that it managed to remain intact between his ears – his ear and the symbol scribed on the right side of his head – was a thing of shining sepulchral horror. When it left him, the sensation of relief almost brought him to tears.

“Unannounced entry within the personal quarters of a person who was surely expected to be indisposed. Stealthed unannounced entry. It was not exactly the pinnacle of epiphany.”

The reply would have been biting if not for the little scratchy rope that seemed to be crawling up his larynx. That tiny feeling made him, for the first time in his life, not merely angry with but hateful of himself, with the damnation of every Hell ever envisioned.

“Lord, are you-” started a voice behind them, before hitting a wall of perception. Sebastio saw Adz stepped halfway through the bedroom door. The Lady’s eyespots were rapidly assessing the situation, and between the smell and the shapes made vague by violence (mercifully or otherwise) and even the occasional sound as guts settled into shapes they weren’t meant to keep, it probably wouldn’t have the appropriate words at hand for a while yet.

No, wait. The udod aodod was staring at Sebastio’s back.

He turned a little, and saw himself the jagged claw of a morphite sticking out of his ribs by the vertebral transverse processes, even as its stump melted into boiling energy.

Now, THAT might actually really kill him.

“Oh,” said Argyva in something like a conversational tone. “That is bad.”

His right hand coming back to extract the pointed thing, Sebastio drew out the claw as carefully as possible. When it came free, he tore open the garment to examine the gaping wound with some trepidation. A deep wound. If his organs had begun to succumb…

But there was none of the indigo-blue steaming rot that slowly ate away everything. No sign that cauterization would be required. Nothing to cure. Of course, he’d set his dæmon cluster on peeling away the tissue bordering the entry wound momentarily. For the moment, though, Sebastio felt his expression change at the miracle, and looked up at Adz as he pointed out his untainted if currently mutilated flesh.

“See,” he said a bit shakily. “Nothing to worry about.”

Then he collapsed unconscious for the first time in over sixteen years.

Eventually, the human came back to himself in a strange place.

He blinked.

He sat up.

He started.

He stared.

“WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS GOING ON!?” he demanded of one of the two people sitting on wooden boxes and watching Sebastio Artaxerxes with most ardent interest. Which one he was addressing, he left up to them, because he didn’t exactly know which deserved the most attention: the person he’d met twice before and who left an even greater mystery each time, or the person who had wrought the weapon now flesh of his flesh and who made “legends” seem like the nice old fregnost lady down the hall.

“Come on now, keep it down,” said the Being of Old called the Maker, a smile on his mouth sharp enough to cut every throat to ever depend from a head. “It’s a library.”

The Maker had the exact appearance that graced a plethora of portraits in the Parsed City-State. His hair was closer to a hair-colored dust on his scalp than actual plumage, his dark eyes had a child’s mischief, his nose could replace a ship’s rudder, and his skin was white. Not “white” after the tradition of many a so-misidentified person of Earth Standard Caucasian heritage, but the color eventually adopted by skeletons after they’ve been left in a desert and aged until bleached, then yellowed, then bleached again. His clothes were a striking blue shade, wherever they didn’t feature symbols that read “Something Into Most,” if one knew how to look at them. On one of his shoulders sat a cat, and by the solidity of its perch it might very well have been born there.

The Being of Old next to him was that man named Target. The man in question wore black-and-red striped clothes, except for where a gray scarf cradled his neck and its twin curled about his waist like a rope belt. His dark skin had a uniform shade everywhere save his right eye, where two circles, one small and one large, orbited it with livid rose hues that came nail-bitingly close to the sclera on its inside edge. His gun was particularly interesting because, like many mathematical problems of sufficient complexity, it was nearly impossible to conclusively describe but quite simple to correctly identify: somewhat bent, somewhat smooth, somewhat truncated. On that perfect gun rested one hand, tapping a secret ringing tune up and down its metal.

Not nearly as sweat-inducing, but almost as curious, was the setting. Sebastio’s perspective lunged back several times in sudden heart-lurching screeches. First, he and the two people looming over him, like fallflats wondering if he had any life yet to be squashed out, were in a kind of a plaza. Then he realized that the plaza was an open square in what he could only identify as a… well, a library, lit by vertical cables of ethereal intangible light. Shelves starting five meters to his left, shelves starting five meters to his right, arranged in rows that fanned out in every direction. They were stuffed with books. They were stuffed with storage bricks. They were stuffed with cloth-and-rope tomes written in tongues of tactile memory. They were stuffed with graven obelisks and smeared shards of painted glass and fossilized sounds and – in one case that leapt out like an acorn in a sack of diamonds – a highly tattooed human skin stretched over an emphatically nonhuman skeleton.

As Sebastio realized the wealth of storage on display, the actual scope of the place began to sink in. The shelves didn’t just go off into the distance; distance left perception behind before he could see the terminus of the sea of literature. Looking higher, he realized that there were glass floors, connected by vitreous spiral staircases made for giants, scarring the air at regularly spaced altitudes. Higher levels of each shelf were accessible by higher floors, and yet higher levels by yet higher floors, and…

He looked straight up, and an ancient scrap of poetry ran through his brain: Fall upward, ye Rhaagm sky.

There weren’t any clouds, there weren’t any opaque horizontals. Bookshelves of varying sizes just went on up into infinity, a strange grappling of unbounded space by a bounded mind. It was a feeling sparingly familiar to any person who glanced an instant of complete absence of traffic on Rhaagm’s greatroads: looking into the distance, and looking, and looking. That was the kind of beauty that caused a peculiar reaction in those who possessed inner-ear gyroscopic orienteering (such as primate-like entities), a border crossing between existential delighted wonder and gut-flattening nausea.

Sebastio fell onto his back, momentarily overloaded.

“Hi again,” said Target. “I’ve been seeing you a lot.”


Sebastio cut short his reply. He started about six different questions at the same time, stopped, and stared in silence at Target, who – against all reason and logic – happened to be the most familiar thing on hand.

The Maker’s look turned pensive. He scratched the head of the cat without looking, the recipient’s demeanor not changing in the slightest, save for putting both ears back to allow better front-of-head access.

“I bet you-” was as far as the Old got in his slightly smug monologue before he was interrupted by more paper than Sebastio had ever before seen in his life.

With absolutely no warning, a flock of literature – books primarily, but many other eccentric media – came flying out of several lanes on the left side; a tide reaching at least twenty meters straight up into the air. Deafening and self-propelled at speeds that should have set all involved inflammable material alight, the air was churned by hundreds of thousands of volumes which emerged into the open space of the plaza, and made a hairpin turn directly away from the three seated people. It went on for a lot longer than one would have thought possible, words and words and words all flying by so fast that identifying what tongue they transcribed was an impossibility, let alone actually reading any of it.

With just as little warning, the verbal river shrivelled up. A single lagging red-bound tome of improbable proportions had to take the curve a bit awkwardly, nearly helicoptering the cat off the Maker’s shoulder, and then it swam or flew or shot off into the depths of the library after its fellows.

“I bet you have a lot of things you’d like to know,” said the Maker, no acknowledgement of the break in conversation at all present in his tone. “Let’s get the basics out of the way. Number one: you’re dreaming.”

Sebastio raised the hand-that-was-not-a-hand, then set it back down again.

“Unfortunately, given your noggin’s reformatting by my dear Malumortis, and your subsequent permanent insomnia, we had to improvise on the ‘sleep’ side of things. Suffice it to say that a bit of a favor to one person on that count, and another to the guy responsible both for watching over this place and also that.

A thumb jerked at the hurricane of text just now disappearing around another bend.

“He’s got a knack for dreams. Number two: you aren’t presently being met in person by any of my colleagues because – and don’t take this the wrong way – the current difficulties presented by meeting in person outweigh the benefits by quite a bit. Right now, we have a significant number of other issues requiring our attention. VERY IMPORTANT issues.”

The Maker set one hand on a knee and tapped out a perfectly timed rhythm.

“That brings up number three: you have been an excellent pawn. We want you to not die so you can keep being an excellent pawn… so you absolutely must not try to go to the Purple.”

“I’m sorry?” escaped the Cambrian’s lips.

“Not masterful psychology,” chipped in Target.

The Maker’s hands rubbed the head of the cat and his own head at the same time in opposite directions. “Your regime shows interest in the new developments in Beast-kind. You’re personally hoping to learn more about the possibility that a Rhaagmini war criminal survived long enough to teach them to think. An expedition into the Purple isn’t much more ambitious than taking an estate by storm. Or rather, it wouldn’t be.”

A shift forward on the box, as a shadow passed over the Maker’s face.

“The place is now a point of even greater conflict than it has been in a long, long time. If you want to investigate the claims of Esmrald Qlikiss still being alive, you’ll find out that she is. Or you might; shortly before or shortly after, another one of my Old friends will pop you like a balloon.”

A quick frown.

“How do you know we’re planning…?”

A trailing squirt of a sentence. One side of Sebastio hit himself for asking, another told him to give himself a break. Even so, the Maker’s single jerky eyebrow-lift was like having the sun reprimand you for not appreciating it. The eye below that brow fell to the gemstone embedded in the Cambrian’s right hand.

Ah. Once-magic-sword and magic sword creator have some kind of connection.

“Your operations have a logging priority rating of ‘exceptional,’” was the voiced reply. Frankly, the fact that the voice came from the cat, and that it was precisely the same as the Maker’s own, didn’t phase the Lord in the least.

“What Clive won’t say,” remarked the Old as he poked the cat’s head with one finger, “is that you’re currently saddled with the fallout of a magnificent Pyrrhic victory. Those new friends who have the ability to learn, who aren’t just animals, if you will, arose from the application of a certain thing which we in the know call the Device. Before you ask, THAT is the result of having a bunch of people decide that the name you give a specific thing is important, but not agreeing on what that name should be. The object is powerful enough that I literally cannot make a meaningful comparison to give you an accurate scope – don’t let it concern you for the time being. Now, these uplifted Beasts represent a whole new rank of game pieces in the competition which we in the know call ‘life.’ In any case, all of that falls under the heading of what we consider quite important. You’re close to the action, so you get more heavily surveyed.”

A short pause wherein the Maker’s hands went behind his back, and Target did something to his gun. Whatever that something was, it resulted in the weapon becoming a different weapon, like those fregnost chainguns with the really flimsy-looking shafting – if the chaingun in question had barrels the size and shape of a human head in profile.

It was quiet for a minute.

“You know, you could’ve shown better timing than making me collapse on the floor of my residence, immediately after an attempt to take my life, in a pool of other people’s blood.”

Let me express my deepest sorrows,” said the Maker, plunking his chin down on one fist.

It was quiet for another minute, except for the susurrus of another flock of books taking flight in the distance.

“So this Device thing made the new Beasts. Why did it make those half Beast, half human things as well?” On this point at least, Sebastio felt less like he was some idiot, and more like he just hadn’t gotten the Monolith message.

“Not the Device,” replied Target. “Technician West.”

The name remade Sebastio’s every nerve ending into razor wire. It was a name he’d heard from Caladhbolg, during the millions of subjective years they’d spent together on the wrong side of a warping of time, that day Leanshe had attempted to ruin his temporal state. It was not a name with nice connotations, according to what little history the entity could supply of its owner.

Target noticed the reaction, and made an approving face.

“Truly awful man. When Count failed to return with his designated prize-”

The gun he held brushed at the air in the direction of Sebastio’s conjoined entity.

“-he was repurposed for more concrete ends. As a template. Those slightly older perversions of Beasts with your old friend’s shape built into them were a pet project of his.”

Sebastio shivered, memory’s icy caress biting into his veins. Fields and fields of screaming faces, grafted to scuds, spewing corrosive filth the color of starless night. Ending them had been perhaps an even greater mercy than he’d thought.

That it had been necessary was a whole new level of failing someone’s needs.

“So the Western Sunrise was essentially one Old’s science project,” he said.

For the first time, the Maker sounded angry. He didn’t remedy a misunderstanding, he rebuked a fool.

“The Western Sunrise was the direct result of a time-buying ploy and warning flare on the part of a dearly beloved friend. He died in the name of restoring the Device to its rightful place before it could be used to do any more damage.”

Sebastio wondered at that. Even now, it seemed almost unreal. Nowhere in the many libraries made or updated after Fallow Srid’s folly, nowhere in any apocrypha of which he was aware, certainly nowhere in the treasures left behind by the blue-clad man before him for Rhaagm’s countless generations, had there ever been mention of an Old ceasing to be.

“I saw the archives of that… person who died on the Sunrise. The one with the feather.” He didn’t really know what other words to say.

Target’s face suddenly locked up like a safe. He coiled his neck scarf around himself an additional time, turning slightly.

“Yawning Kris. May his children clasp his memory to ‘em forever ‘n’ ever.”

The Maker’s face clouded, his shoulders hunched, and his hands folded in preparation for doing work most terrible.

“That man volunteered to warm my city until the end of time, and his sacrifice will not go unremarked,” the Old said with hair-raising deliberation. Every syllable had been cut from the void of silence with a knife. It was the sound of someone who stared at a planet’s tallest mountain, and determined that the best way to demolish it involved tugging a moon out of orbit.

His eyes turned back on the Lord before him.

“Our society’s past, though, is none of your direct concern. Indirect, of course, is a different matter. Of our number, you only need worry of the influence of our most-recently deprived member – a once-intimate of Technician West called Ms. Nightjar.”

Another name that sent shudders through the Lord.

“She was the agency we may thank for the birth of your new friends, and the agents once in her employ are likely to be among the primary agitators of your opposition in their turn. Among them are a few you already suspect. A few others, like your old chum Leanshe Etruphana, aid their cause under some amount of duress.”

Sebastio wanted to complain, or respond, or something. He wanted to give some assurance that he would do his best, that he wouldn’t disappoint.

Those eyes, though. They did not say, “Convince me.” Those eyes said, “Go. Do. Believe.”

The Maker eventually cut those mesmerizing orbs over to Target, breaking the spell. The gunman put his weapon aside, and it became a pistol as it left his grasp. He rolled a shoulder, and snatched something from the weapon – a magazine, Sebastio thought at first. Then he saw his mistake: it was… a salt cellar of abraded metal. Target spun the thing on one finger, an effortless deftness bringing it to gyrate just beside the man’s head. He leaned back a bit, tilted to favor his busy hand. When he spoke, his lips gave forth easy conversational syrup, just as they did when he’d given Sebastio a gift on their first meeting, and advised him on tracking down and dealing with Count on their second meeting.

“So. Don’t go to the Purple. Watch out for nasty characters. Live to be a great figure of the past for the far future.”

Sebastio eventually up-signed.

“And take good care of my son,” added the Maker, a vulpine grin stretching his lips in sudden sarcastic levity as he looked at the red gem in the Cambrian’s hand.

<We shall take upon our shoulders the world, creator. Do not despair.>

Sebastio gave his mouth a second to clear of his cohabitant’s use, then set it firmly.

“I’m okay at building a nation and leading it, but only really great at two things: breaking stuff and hurting people. If things take a turn for the awful…”

His voice dropped, four parts severe, one part hopeful, one part shameful.

“I’ll do what needs doing to keep the peace.”

“Keeping the peace,” said the Maker, chewing at a thumb. “A wonderfully intricate economy. I think you’ll come out ahead.”

He looked at Target.

“Talking of exchange, we need to turn out our time for a different kind of money at this point,” he said. It was obviously a signal of some kind.

Target abruptly seized his salt cellar, and made a face at the Lord.

“Mayhaps we’ll meet again. If not, then let your meat be ever savory and your bread be ever blessed.”

Before he could have possibly blinked, the dispenser served its purpose and dispensed a cloud of something at least salt-like directly into the visitor’s eyes.

It was painful.

Fortunately, returning from a disturbed dream to the care of one’s spouse is a uniquely comforting feeling.

Sebastio sensed several things quite quickly on reawakening in his room. He was swaddled in Adz’s arms, a pose nearly opposite of “dignified.” The position he’d been obligingly contorted to assume was facedown with his shirt removed, exposing his anterior. Any remaining viscera had been expunged, leaving the room almost normal – discounting the absence of an eyesore simulation, and numerous places where walls and floor had been scarred.

Over by the wall where hung the still-living intruder, he saw Gorar and two more Fountainists. One of them had an uncomfortable look as he questioned Seven about events. The gnoll and a pohostinlat were collectively wrestling with some amount of frustration. He heard the pohostinlat inventively curse someone for knitting a Ktarebte machine into the intruder’s brain in such a way that it ruptured and irrecoverably reimaged his memories as soon as they’d begun probing. The jentrillian claimed that he was a simple mason, in a confused plaintive voice, and it could have easily been the truth. His innocence, sadly, was far less so, remembered guilt or not.

Judging from the way the estate’s chief physician was standing beside Sebastio and wearing a sterilizer gauntlet over one fist, he’d probably gotten a partial debridement of his back as standard procedure for Beast assault. The skin certainly felt stiff enough.

He was about to protest the treatment when a hitch ran through him, and he coughed deeply. It startled Doctor Xianchi into a lurching backward step. The debate about the surviving assailant broke up, and the other few knots of conversation came unraveled.

From Adz, the only reaction was a brief freeze, and then lifting him into a wordless hug.

An encircling embrace may have had very ambiguous connotations in extrafacetary human culture, suggestive of different kinds of assault. In this instance, though, no one criticized the Lady who clasped its Lord to it, eyespots closed as impenetrably as the heart of the devil, softly whispering. No one would have had the spirit.

“Thank you, dear Lady,” Sebastio said, hoarse in more ways than one. Despite an embarrassed look or two, he lengthened his artificial limb and clasped his spouse about the torso. He didn’t really consider how his placement put him directly next to Adz’s chest orifice at first, and by the time it did become a consideration he’d mentally moved on. Adz still wore a shirt, he wore a shirt, they weren’t tearing each other’s clothes off, it would be fine – though he secretly felt sure at least one of the Fountainists would be keeping a sensory of the occasion to ogle at a later time.

He and the udod aodod quite efficiently disentangled themselves despite speaking not a single word between them, audible or otherwise.

When he turned, Argyva waited at the edge of the bustle, watching with her usual silent competence. Their gazes met.

I can only guess how terrible your angst could be, Armsman. I promise I won’t put you through that again.

Sebastio rotated the arm with which he’d been born, and sighed through pinched teeth.

“Doctor, are there any remaining problems with…?”

An abbreviated gesture at the Cambrian’s spine’s left side, which said “potentially lethal paranormal injury” far more eloquently than words.

The Doctor blinked rapidly, sterilizer gauntlet spooling down.

“No, Lord. The site of the wound was clean, if quite deep. The, well, foreign body penetrated the diaphragm, but – if I am honest – your biology is still largely a mystery. No medicinal attention was necessary, or indeed possible, once the supermatter from your modified anatomical portions began treating the injury.”

Xianchi cleared his throat. Before he could continue, Gorar interjected with her characteristic septum-ripping volume.

“WE HAVE FOUND A COMMON THREAD BETWEEN THE ATTACKERS,” declared the gnoll, her leather-bound feet rapidly patting over the gray floor. Between two clawed digits she brandished a crystalline globe wrapped in woven rope and strung on a necklace of cast-iron links, containing a non-Euclidean shape of brass and wood and hardened effluvia. The shape moved, but only about a vertical axis, and in discrete rotations of two and a quarter radians.

It was the symbol of the Lesser-Greater Sifters of Cubic Ganglia, granted to its members after they passed the rigors of the Mysteries of the Maker.

“Good. That is an excellent start. If anything else might lead somewhere, please follow it. Two of the attackers used dæmon clusters; see if you can track down anything from their registration records.”

Sebastio took the thing from Gorar, held it in his left hand, and compared his filled palm with the orange shape of his empty one.

“Crippled False. The only thing we need is a bunch of actual cultists on our backs.”

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