If one’s occupation leeches traits from the people one meets as part of their duties, then the Herald of the Olds had an occupation which came very close to “complex beyond adequate comparison” despite his duties being fully encompassed by two words: passing messages. It was, in fact, the sort of thought which never entered the Herald’s mind.
That was for a grand number of reasons, and none of those ever entered the Herald’s mind either.
In his role as a finder of people, he was compelled to enter the Purple at this juncture of agency and opportunity.
In a ziggurat atop a temporal and liquid hill, lit by a temporal and liquid light, an accordion of colorless woven fabric came pouring into existence from leftward of up. The fabric piled onto itself, layering curls and twists around a center of gravity which made even less apparent sense than the normal quirks of the Purple. Following a short thrashing almost-folding, part of the material turned right-side-out and exposed an array of brushes used as fasteners in place of buttons. Above and beside the brushes, a painter’s palette lay fastened to the Mortal Canvas. It had no paint upon it for the time, but that would change soon enough.
After the fashion of a turtle, two hands, two feet, and a mulleted head poked out of the tangled mass. They were extremities that had no skin as much as they had tattoos of words done in every conceivable color of ink. Upon his upper lip was the word “listen” written over itself an infinite number of times, and on his lower was the word “speak.”
Among the very few mysteries of the Olds that were still debated among their own numbered the question of whether the Herald’s eyes also featured needless writing, since his eyelids were perpetually closed.
The Herald’s attention moved to the sole resident of the prison.
Ms. Nightjar. Mother of new souls, desecrator of Old. Guilty of misdemeanors numbering greater-than-ordinal, guilty of but one true crime. She had been bound to the chair she carried as part of her legacy, sentenced to a powerless existence, and then abandoned in the Purple within a prison crafted for her use. Its greatest curiosity as a punishment was the merchant who peddled it to its unwilling buyer.
Well. If one were so foolish as to gravely slander the Being of Old known as the Oiler, to aggrieve the caretaker of that article known as the Device, to elope with his property and spit in his eye, then permanent exile was a reasonably lenient outcome for any who fell back into his power. Being voluntarily immortal just made the whole affair more interesting.
The Herald felt neither satisfaction nor sympathy for the woman. Neither was his job.
Surmise the wretched and abandon picaresque indulgence and endure the education and eat your eggs, he wrote on one sleeve with his paintbrush. He signed the sentiment with the Maker’s sigil – in this case, something quite specifically requested by his contractor – then soundlessly tore the statement free.
“Make sure she remembers who gives her his most evil love,” the Maker had said, stroking that feline artifice upon his lap. “I most assuredly won’t forget any time soon… and nor will any other who once called Yawning Kris ‘friend’.”
The words flapped on the shred of the Mortal Canvas, birds waiting for flight from the prison of their ink and mind. Even as the sleeve’s material grew back outward like a pathogen defending against hostile inroads in biological territory, he flipped the message out of his hand. A sourceless wind picked up the message, carrying the medium in whirling short loops. It stretched out on an invisible rack before the tormented creature, and spoke its silent damnation to her. The woman began to uselessly buck and writhe, knocking over her chair, knocking it back onto its feet, and generally doing her best to escape the confines of the huge hollow unwalled structure. Her efforts proved very impressive, but her chair’s bloodstained legs had been lashed to a ring bolt at the ziggurat’s center. A ring bolt constructed of a bone fragment taken from her own living skull.
And besides, her chains were creations of the spirit even more than physical obstructions.
The woman made a single noise the whole time, at the very instant that she’d osmosed the material. It wasn’t a noise of rage, or bereavement, or denial. It was simply a noise, commuted to the Herald’s senses through the ether that the place had instead of air. No meaning besides that which any thinking system stitches into the fact of its existence. She watched from her prison, as the fleshy vessels of Purple-stuff which bunched up and vanished and stuttered into and out of existence at nondeterministic intervals. She watched those bits of the violently active stagnant land she now occupied, meters or parsecs away mattering not at all. When she slammed her wrinkled forehead into the ziggurat’s floor, the building shook. Had it been a normal building, the ziggurat surely would have crumbled or experienced structural failure, be it only two kilometers tall or as much as two million. But the Device had commissioned its creation, and it was no delicate tulip to be harmed by an Old’s desires.
The Herald didn’t bother with his customary offer to supply the sender with a reply from the receiver. Ms. Nightjar had herself a special kind of liberating entrapment: anything and everything which might interact with her operated on a purely one-way basis: inward. Exceptions were allowed only in the forms of any Beasts or other Purple residents who might clap eyes on her in person. Even the Beasts who did so noted only two things: her confined nature, and the alien absolute which was her jail.
Perhaps it was a measure of kindness that she could watch the antlike toil of her conscious and perfectly obedient children from so far distant, every moment for as long as long could be. Perhaps it exceeded the cruelty of the harshest purgatory’s demands.
In neither case did the Herald have reason to remain. Unlike Ms. Nightjar, he could leave at any time he so desired. She would not leave, buried alive in air and spirit and nothing.
A rustling sound familiar to any person walking while wearing denim pants warned of his departure. The Mortal Canvas seemed to consume him, and uncoiled, going rightward of up.
Zero seconds later, he manifested again, hovering in the not-air above or below or beside a massive ropy pylon of what a person might call “land” if given overweening artistic license.
Some four thousand small buildings clustered over the thick tendon of that stuff which made up most of the physical-analogue material of the Purple. They crawled around the curve’s top and sides in a fashion which may have been impossible in continuous differentiable gravity, rather than just very inconvenient (the Being of Old didn’t really think much on the specifics of existence’s constraints, tending to simply ignore them in most cases). They teetered off to what the Herald decided should be called the underside from his vantage. They tipped in ways no sane building code would have even acknowledged as constituting a standing structure, let alone allowed to pass inspection. The Old moved himself adjacent to the tallest of these structures, and gazed at the streetlike lanes, idly curious.
Esmrald Qlikiss reclined against a small stone wall near the center of the small village. The stones in question, like every other bunch of nearby stones put to such constructive use, adhered to one another when they lay adjacent, without regard to angle of incidence, load-bearing tolerances, or piddling things like binding materials. Taken from a distance, it made every one of the dark stone creations look a bit like an inuksuk which had been augmented to absurdity over multiple generations of builders.
The tiny gaunt figure of the woman below, surrounded by a small legion of creatures of graceless shapes and nimble motions, wasn’t the most foreign thing one could imaginably find in the country of her new home. On the other hand, even fundamentally formless creatures like aarls had a terrible time of it when thrown into the glacially rapid gnashing of that-place-betwixt-facets. Esmrald’s changed person represented an astonishingly stable outlier, compared to how other beings tended to weather the climate of the place. It was a land where ideas retained their wholeness, but implementations inevitably and eventually became habitually fickle in character.
Indeed, when you looked upon Esmrald Qlikiss, her humanness didn’t require a defense in depth or some kind of justification. Rather, her pale snarled skin, covered in the tatters of Rhaagm clothing which could no longer self-repair in the Purple’s unloyal natural law, formed an expressed crease in the world. She wasn’t a shape of meat and pattern crisply encased by and encasing something one could call a self, not now after this place had swaged her and molded her by so many tiny degrees. Instead, she was a human whose invariables seamlessly rose up from a larger surface; she was a section of an infinite plane of paper, cleverly folded outward in origami that yielded the structure of cooperating bone and tissue and hair. If you looked at the border of her profile, you’d see the Purple between the last atom of her and the first atom of the world. Even returning to Rhaagm, she’d be forever marked, sharp lines warping the soft curves of flesh.
What was it that his colleague Saint had said? Ah, yes; “Hell is a place just like home, where tomorrow one plus one will be three.”
He always had a funny way about him, Saint.
“No,” explained the person who’d facilitated most grievous war crimes, quite carefully, to one of those Beasts that some ironic soul had named a “happy.” She was obviously in the middle of the rapture of pedagogical ecstasy as she sought an object for her current object lesson.
Eventually, she hit upon one.
“Do you see that tree of flesh over there?”
They all turned. They all saw. The Herald gave his attention to the sprawling nodular growth between two buildings, budding arms and dead server hardware and feathers and cartilage and the failed refutations of living proofs. As he watched, a few fingers and strips of dry leather extruded themselves from the leidbaum.
“Yes,” said nearly every Beast simultaneously.
“When you consider how it’s put together, do you recognize how one portion’s rooted?” she asked.
“Do you see how there’s a portion farthest from that point of rooting?”
“For me, ‘up’ generally is the direction from my feet to my head. For that tree, ‘up’ is the direction from the root to the farthest point from the root. It is relative. But what if there was a single ‘up’ that we all agreed to call ‘North,’ because it orients to some outside thing?”
The idea was so foreign that her students had been rendered dumb for several beats of the woman’s square-edged heart.
“What thing might this be?” asked one of the happies, its massive teeth grating across each other, pestles without mortars.
Esmrald gazed around, looking for something, anything. That, far more than Ms. Nightjar’s existence of privation, nearly begged the Herald to feel something for her plight: the knowledge of how very little the human could count upon as certain. The fact that the little town of Shine Backward her “pupils” had built might be utterly gone very soon. Thanks to the Herald’s correspondence with… other parties, who even now observed her (and himself as he watched her), he knew the woman had experienced that bereavement on multiple occasions. One moment she sat in the midst of a primitive culture she herself had helped bring to a flourishing health; the next, the Purple collapsed against the town and moved much or even all of it elsewhere. Four times thus far, it had removed every remnant of the place except herself, leaving Esmrald to reach out and gather together thinking Beasts and teach them the art of being taught.
The Herald had seen many far more painful vistas on his journeying. But even so, the woman striving to find but one constant in the Purple’s madhouse gave him pause. At least in the vacuum of intergalactic space, even when you were completely blind, you had yourself to serve as some value of “constant,” no matter how technical or misguided the distinction.
“Never mind!” said the woman. “It was just a thought.”
She continued conveying concepts of the abstract to a collection of sophomores, of tabula rasa standing stones, as the Herald decided to remain here, with a relatively normal woman instead of one of the most powerful creatures to exist.
It was the most monotonous revolution he had ever witnessed.