<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence
“When a person arrives in the world outside the gem, they arrive in a place thoroughly inundated with human-culture values. The reasons for this have received much speculation throughout history. More to the point, the reasons for the disproportionate effects of humans on existence as a whole have received much speculation throughout history. Arguments over whether humans are the cause or the effect of this trend, or if the two are unrelated, tend to consume more time than debates on the philosophical implications of the trend’s existence. Pjoßtet argued that this was both necessary and sufficient proof to postulate a culture-mind whose neurons were merely not individual people and their interactions, but instead the statefulness of the gem’s facets themselves. While I disagree, the apparent attractor mass that is humanocentrism is a thing which we cannot and should not deny. Instead, we need to preserve the uniqueness of all cultures as best we can, even if only as curators of museum trophies, lest we lose more of those cultures which might give us that most tenuous and vital resource: perspective.”-Hmensc Dorlilianmosoliligreganslilipror, president of the Kinsmen College of Information Integrity Preservation at the beginning of the thirty sixth age
Seven watched Friend Gorar, trying to figure out what it – no, she, she, the gnoll was female, it could now actually understand what that meant – was saying.
“What sort of introduction?” the reaching-fellow asked, head tilted.
“THE SORT WHERE YOU WILL BE AMONG THE FIRST TO MEET A PEOPLE!” said the woman. “YOU WILL NOT BE FORCED! HOWEVER, IT SHOULD BE FUN! I AM LEAVING SHORTLY IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ACCOMPANY ME!”
Friend Gorar’s jaws parted wide, and her tongue dangled a short way from between her chops.
The Beast demographic of the estate, as fellows were called, no longer caused automatic fear and anxiety in those not of said demographic. Oh, it definitely wasn’t idly approached by every person whose path it crossed, but it no longer had to worry about them immediately turning the other way when it was out walking. Indeed, until recently, far more time went by with Seven as a free and unhampered civilian each day than not. Now, however, it had a good deal more supervision, rooted in numerous justifications. Would someone else try to do harm to or abduct one of the more controversial publicans running around the estate’s many sizable platforms? Would one of the fellows suddenly become unjustifiably outraged and attack an unwary innocent?
Seven understood what wasn’t being said as much as it understood the statement. Friend Gorar was floating an excellent silent suggestion. It wanted to show the soon-to-arrive new people that they didn’t need to fear its kind. The same held true for those crowds coming in from Œlthlant. Just yesterday, Seven and two other fellows – Four Minus Six and Four Times Four – all involuntarily fielded a great number of curious interviewers, some hesitant about meeting fellows such as themselves, some of them not at all. Even so, no fewer than seven Fountainists had presided in their preferred combat gear. When the newcomers asked them about assurances of safety, Seven related the demands-which-need-to-be-met that had been placed upon it and which were periodically restated. Not quite identical demands-which-need-to-be-met had been placed on Four Minus Six and Four Times Four. It was unclear whether the imparting of this knowledge gentled the concerns of the Œlthlant people or made them more acute. Seven wanted to adequately explain itself and its companions, and hoped to do so soon for more souls than just the most recent visitors.
Furthermore, it had recently begun to grasp the outline of this thing of which it approved, that the people around it called “fun.” It found “fun” when it managed to ask a question to which it did not receive an immediate answer. That nearly always indicated an embarkation on travails of careful thought for its answerer, and it had learned how wonderful those instances could be. It had long known the words learning, and insight, and epiphany. Until recently – around the time of its realization of the nature of “fun” – it hadn’t wrestled those concepts as successfully as it had thought. Not simply in the asking of such questions, but also in the unworded asking of its actions did it discover that “fun” was how it thought of almost any time it was part of a group, even – or especially – those who weren’t also fellows.
“I shall participate,” it stated.
“FANTASTIC!” declared Friend Gorar, before almost push-dragging it from the rooftop alcove and on to a folding junction. She led it down and around and over and through, passing into that strange discontinuous experience that was getting folded, until they both stood at the perimeter of a platform that was a sea of sand spotted with islands of rocks. It billowed into ridged lunes and scalloped ditches, upthrusting moguls that were plentiful in particular concentrations and absent everywhere else. The sand’s surface showed a panoply of textures, and a thousand thousand sets of tracks from creatures that required land upon which to travel. Far to its left side along the edge of the platform, a single tall razor-leafed tree had grown into a bent shape that reminded it of its own hands and arms. In the farthest distance beyond the platform, the invariable mountains upturned the sky.
The reaching-fellow also saw that the sand had enough people already standing about and doing business to outnumber the populace of Shine Backward by a tremendous margin. Some few of the sub-populace were other fellows. Some few of the sub-populace took notice of Seven, and indicated greeting.
Every so often, the scene disclosed a globe of hovering light hanging in the air. After a long time of seeing such things around its new place of residence, Seven had gathered enough to identify that the shapes weren’t what they called witchlights, but instead objects created on the “naked eye layer” of the Monolith (a concept about which it had gathered less). The majority of the people busied themselves with laying out unknown apparatus by these lights. Six and thirty seven thousandths of a meter away, a human pair worked at carefully positioning a set of arcane symbols around the light they tended.
Head tilted, Seven almost managed to ask its guide about the lights and such when a familiar figure came hurtling over one of the nearer dunes. The human figure in question wore a mask, unless the individual hailed from yet another race with which the reaching-fellow was unfamiliar, and which had angular faces indeed. Upon noticing them, the person approached, skidded, and slowed. Planes covering the mask slid back, and a portion contracted near the center of its frontmost segment. The middle of that region bore the eyes of Friend Louis, which flashed at the reaching-fellow with ambiguous regard before roosting upon the shoulders of the gnoll.
“Hey, Gorar!” he panted, gaily and with a bit of a loud enthusiasm as the wind picked up momentarily. After a second or two, he looked up and added with considerably lesser enthusiasm, “Hello, Seven.”
“Hello, Friend Louis,” answered Seven.
“GOOD AFTERNOON!” said Friend Gorar at precisely the same instant.
The human’s visible face wrinkled up so that it was obvious he smiled at both of them, but in different ways. Seven’s increased awareness of that wonderfully complex layer of what-exists-between-people had brought it to a fascinating if unhappy realization. In particular, like Friend Lord Artaxerxes, the eccentricities of some behaviors exhibited by Friend Louis indicated potent opposing but cohabitant attitudes. Based on both the cues it had since learned to seek and some of the history of the human’s life, Seven placed him for one of those who presently found fellows such as itself less than comfortable company. On the opposing side of the equation lay the fact that Friend Louis, by most accounts, found his own fun (or maybe happiness, Seven’s grasp of those nuances still quavered with gelatinous novelty) in welcoming others to this place they called Pennat Gate.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Friend Gorar asked, head leaning askance. She vigorously scratched an arm.
“Coordinating with the rescue operations!” replied the human with a deep breath. Seven stepped closer as he abruptly misplaced his balance, hoping to help him avoid falling. However, Friend Louis pinwheeled his arms, keeping his footing and distance both. He even retreated a single quick hop, without actually looking directly at Seven. Friend Gorar settled herself more solidly into her footsteps as she waited for him to continue. He did, after a second.
“Duchess Irden’s in charge of the civil preparations.”
Friend Louis jerked a thumb behind himself, apparently indicating an especially tall armored individual close to one of the distant floating lights.
“Her assistant caught a bad case of thaumaturgic fatigue loading up on experience with different kinds of scrying, and they needed a replacement on short notice. Turns out that they also needed someone who has skill with managing public address systems. Someone like… well, not me, but apparently I’ll do in a pinch. While a lot of us have cut our teeth on the ‘take care of extrafacetary civilians’ thing, this is a first time for participating in a full-blown facetary retrieval in the cases of most of our little crew. We do have a couple of passels of civilians from Rhaagm and Œlthlant chipping in who’ve-”
He stopped talking with a small grunt, then looked at the slashing fabric on Friend Gorar’s form that marked her as a Fountainist.
“Sorry. Didn’t quite think about who was on the receiving end, there. You’ve probably run into more scenarios on the legal frontier than me by a factor of, what, a thousand?”
Friend Gorar barked. It was very like the human sound of laughter.
“I TAKE NO OFFENSE!”
Seven listened to them talking, and tried to fit some pattern of timing correlation between their speech and the swilling chevrons of sand. It found none, but did discover that its claws sank an inconvenient depth into the lustrous grains when it stood still for long enough.
“How is this ‘facetary retrieval’ to be different from standard expectations?” it asked after pulling a foot free. It stared at how some of the sand gently flowed into the depressions its talons left behind.
“SIMPLE! IT IS NOW PERMISSIBLE, WHERE BEFORE IT WAS NOT!”
Friend Gorar turned a moment to another person who appeared behind them, through the folding junction. The newer person wore a massive cloak covering their whole being with a Fountainist fabric identifier wrapped tightly around the torso, and was notably larger than Seven. The person gestured at Friend Gorar, and Friend Gorar barked something that Seven couldn’t understand. The new person saluted before leaving the way they’d come, and Friend Gorar snorted out a bit of sand before addressing Seven once more.
“PENNAT GATE COULD PREVIOUSLY HOUSE PERSONS OF INTEREST, BUT LACKED THE RIGHT TO PROCURE THEM – ONLY ACCEPT CUSTODY FROM OTHER PARTIES! NOW, HOWEVER, THE REPUBLIC LORDS HAVE GIVEN THEIR BLESSING TO THE ESTATE’S HORRIBLY CHARITABLE KIDNAPPINGS!”
When Seven stared at her, head askance, Friend Louis grunted again. The sun caught the polished plates of his headwear when he turned to Seven, and rubbed his chin.
“Think of it this way: we can go to them now – or at least bring them to us without relying on a middleman. Don’t worry about the details of how it works if you still don’t understand it, you’ll get it soon enough.”
He waved in the tall armored figure’s direction.
“Gorar, tell me when the demolition’s ready for deployment, please,” said Friend Louis. “I’m going to be planning out the communication relay. I’ll send you the coordination specifications.”
A delay of seventeen hundredths of a second, then Friend Louis pointed into the distance.
“I don’t know how long-”
“THE CHARGES ARE NEARLY READY!” said Friend Gorar, ears flicking as a strong gust tossed grit over everyone and everything without exception. She was staring into the distance, and while the reaching-fellow saw no sign of what prompted the outburst, she obviously watched something with profound intent.
“… thank you very much.”
The man stood up, eyes becoming covered by dark material once again. He tapped his face protection, and hopped away from his vantage. He started to say something to Seven, stopped, then looked at Friend Gorar.
“I hope you have some kind of shielding or eigenflak in reserve, because we’ll be having a bit of a poof in a second. A very loud kind of poof.”
Friend Gorar gestured understanding. She then gestured for Seven to keep its distance. “STAY WELL BACK UNLESS YOU WANT TO GET SMOOSHED!”
After a few seconds, Seven looked around, utterly failing to see the source of what it supposed was some esoteric danger.
“What is the prob-” was as far as it got before what it had learned to recognize as a series of destabilizer constructs converted most of a million square kilometers to perfectly flat terrain.
“Yes!” shouted Friend Louis, jumping with skyward fists as several gigagrams of dust vindictively fought against settling back down. The scratchy thuds when bits of dirt and pieces of rock which had escaped conversion fell to the plane of the remaining substrate had an astounding volume.
“Alright,” chuckled Friend Louis, still rapidly moving on his feet in something close to dance. “That’s part the first. Now, we need to prepare for the grafting.”
He tapped the back of his helmet, and Seven sympathetically poked the back of its own head, trying to decipher the meaning of the gesture through method acting. Eventually, Friend Louis pointed to a point on the flat sand, and a long and finely detailed shape began to sprout from the shivering grains at a tearing pace. The shape held no opacity, no hint of opacity, and began throwing out forks in every conceivable direction. A thousand fractal recursions later, the form bore the unambiguous likeness of a tree, logarithmic curves describing the distance from each sub-root to each sub-branch. Each of the many terminations began glowing, tipped by a möbius strip of blurry motion, and within an almost imperceptible time the glowing fragments started to pulse in a spiraling pattern. On the falling edge of each period, a small sound came from the thing: not a word, but a sound which could have been cut out of a word.
After this went on for most of a minute, the reaching-fellow spoke up in a confused sort of inquiry.
“Is this shape meant to act as some form of beacon?”
“You could say that,” was the reply. Friend Louis swept an arm out to his right, and Seven followed the indicated line. Far to the one side, an identical tree sprouted, twining around itself and giving off the same pattern. Beyond that tree began another budding glass shape, and another, and another.
“WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BE A POET-WEAVER?” asked Friend Gorar.
Friend Louis tapped the glassy tree, and it began to hum. All the other trees began to hum as they rose from the sand, becoming clearer and purer as they unfolded from the gritty covering.
“Well, after I picked up witchlights and a bit of Ast, I decided I should be getting into something with special applications, yeah? Twenty years ago, I thought of magic as something entirely unclean. Now? Honestly, I’m just happy to have the chance to play around with the art, but still. We’ve got an endless supply of shallow talent in broad subject matter; I’ll stick with situational magic studied in-depth.”
“AND YOUR RELATION TO OTHER SIGNIFICANT PEOPLE WHO APPRECIATE THE SECURITY OF POET-FIRE-”
Friend Louis threw up his covered hands, digits clawing at the brass-bright sky.
“All right, yes. My brother also recommended the discipline. Happy?”
Friend Gorar said nothing, but her cheeks pulled up as her mouth dropped slightly open.
“Poet-fire, what is?” inquired Seven.
“Magic. Poet-weaver genre, takes a ritual rather than directed focus on the part of a thinking being’s gestalt, produces little fires that can each exhibit particle-like behaviors. Very good at dealing with a limited spectrum of tasks.”
Friend Louis flicked a digit at the closest of the bright curls on the tree, and it glittered with a sinuous bright curly squirming. The same squirming began on the other trees, in the same positions relative to their planted roots.
“It’s a beautiful thing, my dear Beast. Poet-fire allows a much easier bypass of simple things like quantum entanglement, and more complicated things like the superstructure imbued in interpolation paper… within reason.”
At that moment, Seven innately learned the definition of yet another adjective with which it had only had conceptual familiarity: entrancing.
“I want to learn about this idea of being a poet-weaver very much, and would greatly appreciate the opportunity to practically apply such principles for study.”
Seven’s proclamation preceded a very slow turning of Friend Louis’s head by several very slow seconds.
“Okay,” said Friend Louis, quiet and very intense. “A magical schlrikt – that is one of the scarier prospects I’ve ever encountered. In fact, the sheer uselessness of words to convey the unease that brings me is astounding.”
Seven’s feet sifted the sand. It had a sudden flood of wanting – wanting the human to stop looking at it with that expression in his eyes. Its fangs shivered.
“I do not aim to be frightening to any,” it asserted.
Friend Louis took a single long step, away from the reaching-fellow and toward the wide desert expanse.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t exactly disbelieve you. Just note that there was a man who tried to do some very bad stuff to me not long ago, and while you might not aim for disquiet, I don’t plan to let someone come popping into our conversation and idly tell you to slit me up.”
Seven’s feet slowly carried it back one and seventy three hundredths meters.
“I have received repeated instruction to do no harm to any such as you,” it stated.
“I know that as well. Also, I know that if you had enough countermanding orders, you could still shank me. Yes, you and all the other ‘fellows’ around here have standing orders to inform your nannies – Gorar here, or similar – when you receive contradictory instruction. But what if you had a hundred people ambush you at once and order that you DON’T report that infraction?”
“IS THIS NOT PARANOIA?” interjected a slit-eyed Friend Gorar.
“After getting my mesh painfully (very painfully) ripped out? No. It’s not that any of our Beast residents have anything like animosity; it’s a matter of trust.”
Friend Gorar’s lips peeled back, and she made a little gritty noise.
“THE BARTIMAEUS STUDIES SHOW REVERSAL OF SUCH INSTRUCTIONS WOULD REQUIRE SOMETHING IN THE REALM OF SEVERAL THOUSAND COUNTER-TRAINING EXPOSURES!”
Friend Louis waved a curt, sharp hand slash at the tall armored person in the distance.
“Yes, they do. I won’t say that Kallahassee, Magdod, and their legion of assistants are mistaken. They certainly don’t lie. However, I also knew I was safe – as safe as one can be, in any case – here in this place. That’s why I’m carrying a quadratic accelerator around with me for the rest of my days.”
A snort escaped him, as the distant tall armored person threw one limb skyward. At the same time, one of the other curlicues on the glassy trees lit up, swirling faster and faster. The whole tree lit up, and a voice like the clangor of metal bowls smashed against each other came through. All the other trees replicated the din, until the very sand seemed to shiver under the flaying ribbons of speech. Seven identified this racket as the collection of word-sounds called Yrdkish; an entirely different and seemingly redundant lexicon to express the same things as the Rhaagmini it already knew. It had asked a great many friends about the reasons for the existence of such redundant things as duplicate vocabulary, and had received nearly as many discrete opinions on the matter.
If it had been up to the reaching-fellow, it would have disassembled such needless venues of expression. To its chagrin, that was a labor it could accomplish no more than it could sever the suppurating tissues of Friend Louis’s upset.
Seven was about to say something else, just as the sound terminated. But then it noticed a certain irregularity upon the day’s light. A certain irregularity which it found familiar, all too like that tiny subduction of is by is-not into which it had entered, and which had whisked it from the familiarity of Home and Shine Backward to its new place of residence. It noticed an aberration, and it brought to mind a little recitation it had heard from Friend Kallahassee long long ago, something he’d said dated from the first time a human ever witnessed a fellow.
Shadow without form. Shape without substance. The numbed mind made to dance. The postmature end.
Its nails tried to slide from their housings, but it restrained the reflex as it glared, and glared, and glared. It glared at that aberration, a long meandering knot of chasm in the air, in the sand, and over the second farthest poet-fire tree. By coincidence or by design, it had a faint symmetrical similarity to the design of the expressions of poet-fire.
“There seems to be a… lump in the air, something like the growths of Home, over there,” said Seven. Pointing, its head tracked a globule of clotted space as it deformed back along the knot’s three crosses, before returning to its original position. Then there were four crosses. Moments later, the process repeated, then there were five crosses.
For some reason, the faint and recognizable geometry made the reaching-fellow want to be elsewhere.
“I- what?” Friend Louis half-coughed, fully facing Seven, one palm against the top of his head. “Could you rephrase that in some way that makes any kind of sense?” He sized up the pitch and roll and yaw of Seven’s knot-tracking, looking in the same direction. However, the twitching erratic movement of his gaze made it clear that he couldn’t actually see that which Seven saw… at least, not in the same way.
Friend Gorar began to retort, stopped, then scratched her head as she also looked at the place where people immersed themselves in or left the overlay of the tangled twisting surface.
“I CANNOT SEE-” she began, then her eyes went wide. One limb brought her large pain-hurler to the fore. “DID THE DUCHESS ALREADY ORDER THE TYPE NINE EVENTS BEGUN?”
“No, she didn’t,” snarled Friend Louis. “They don’t have the target location prepped.”
“There is a problem?” asked Seven, hesitant about involving a human when they wore that sort of facial expression.
“AS HUMANS SAY, THEY JUMPED THE GUN!” Friend Gorar growled.
Friend Louis began expelling a lengthy stream of things whose precise content was unknown but whose spirit was obviously searing, then, “IRDEN! IRDEN!!” The little trees began to jangle not merely with gusto, but fervor.
From the knot came a shuddering, rolling, rolling, rolling thump.
The reaching-fellow really, really wanted to be elsewhere.
When an eye with a diameter in excess of three hundred meters appeared in that bloated section of parabolic space, Seven took a small step backward. When the eye’s owner began to pour forth to the sounds of cries and fleeing onlookers, it took another. Seven knew what kind of creature it was watching, and by which it was watched. Ur-fellows (over-Beasts, as Friend Lord Artaxerxes named them) were things to be avoided, no matter where one might exist in Home’s enfolding arms. An ur-fellow did not respect the other denizens of Home.
One of the very few things that Seven and such other denizens of Home possessed, which could be thought of as a saying, went thus: ur-fellows please, ur-fellows do.
Never were any two ur-fellows quite alike. Never did one know of what an ur-fellow was capable. The creature that unfolded from the rubbery almost-place it traversed between Home and here didn’t have any direct link to the paradigms of other fellows with which Seven was intimately familiar, though the lack of rigorous structure put it most in mind of a sewing-fellow. It possessed the same kind of moldable elasticity, but less in the sense of being highly flexible and more in the sense that its presence substituted “parallel” for “tangent” through much of the material and structure in its proximity.
By the reaching-fellow’s subjective measure, the ur-fellow’s height topped out some four kilometers above where it sprawled across the sandy plains. However, it was nowhere appreciably wider than its scouring spherical orbs. Any particular meter-long non-eye region of the entity obviously was either a perfectly flat surface or a perfect right angle or joining of three right angles. Also obviously, it was a product of Home – what Seven’s friends called the Purple – because its shape possessed exactly nineteen vertices; a geometry that Seven knew intimately from the natural shape of many stones lying around Home, but which it had not encountered in its new residence of Pennat Gate.
Oddments and oases, a splicing of things yet unknown!
The ur-fellow’s communication medium was the thinking mind. It obviously had none of the elucidation given to Seven and its comrades; no, it planted idea in semantic soil without the processing of output and input translation.
“Oh, now what!?” wailed Friend Louis. He turned to the nearest tree, and began shouting at it. “Eigenflak! Get an eigenflak blanket ready NOW!”
The ur-fellow’s many eyes traced the lines and distortions of the new reality in which it found itself. It looked up. It looked down. It looked at itself. It looked at the sand. It looked at the vast contour of the platform on which it rested.
It looked at the bulbous seam where its narrow footprint pushed into the pliant sea of grains.
Companions, disperse. Dispose! Take and be taken!
The shouts and dismay and vacation of those close to the ur-fellow multiplied. At the base of the creature, like the hands of a non-fellow when they emerged from their cloth raiments, a ragged drove of entities emerged from under its low fringe. They almost certainly came from Home.
At the sight and faint sound of the creatures, Seven felt a cluttered mismatch of data and learning suddenly make itself straight. It had received descriptions of these entities from a host of sources. Yet, until now, it hadn’t known any want to garner any more direct experience of them, such as the imagery that Friend Lord Artaxerxes and Friend Adz sometimes produced for its edification.
No, that wasn’t correct. It had actually known the want to very specifically not garner any more direct experience of them.
The tides of things slowly coming onward were, perhaps, the first things for which the reaching-fellow was justified in using the term “abomination.” A single identical human face across each and every one of the things. A melange of parts from vaguely-stirring hopping-fellows, unevenly grafted onto parts from vaguely-stirring human forms. Inky protuberances and papules disgorging from every surface. Lolloping frolicking hobbles, half run, half pop-push aided by the bulbous bits of the hopping-fellow pieces. The creatures said and shrieked and roared things. Things which Seven could almost certainly have understood if it were closer.
It was glad that it was not closer.
Friend Gorar broke the hovering perversity-of-mind when she began continuously discharging her pain-hurler at the oncoming hordes of not-human not-fellow creatures. As she began shouting something, it suddenly perceived how many others at the border of the spreading slick of unwanted creatures were performing the same dance of matter expulsion. Some of the abominations went down immediately. Some of the abominations began to answer in kind, hurling umbral streams and gobbets outward in festively lethal sprays.
The screaming became more general.
“YOU WANT?” howled Friend Louis, from in front. He was holding a much thinner and much longer weapon, releasing projectiles only every few seconds, but with high precision. Seven came to the realization that he may not have known what he was saying. “YOU WANT? FATHER IN HEAVEN, HERE? YOU SHOW UP AT THE GREATEST ANTI-BEAST FORTRESS IN EXISTENCE? OH, YOU COUNT RIPPERS KNOW HOW MANY EIDOLONS WE HAVE SPECIFICALLY FOR NOT WANTING TO KILL YOU? I HOPE YOU ALL DIE TWICE!”
The swelling crowd at the ur-fellow’s base did not suddenly stop pouring forth, but neither did it continue to grow outward. By three minutes, sixteen seconds, the tide began to ebb. By four minutes, two seconds, the last creatures had fallen. The ur-fellow craned with gentle deliberation, an observant stamen to the sheared-off petals of the creatures strewn broken and smeared about it.
“Ha-aaahhh… How… did it do that with those Count Beast hybrids? Was it controlling them?”
Friend Louis sounded almost calm.
“I DO NOT KNOW!”
Friend Gorar did not.
Another shot clawed into the sky from the end of Friend Louis’s long tube. It smote the ur-fellow, but as the bestirred grains of sand smote Seven. The many others closer to the ur-fellow followed his example, with similar lack of effect.
The tall armored figure in the middle distance performed some invocation of the glassy trees once more. All the trees’ fires lit with a manic phase-shifting frenzy. All the trees’ fires began to hum with words that set Seven’s fangs to clattering in that same loud voice, evidently originating from that tall armored figure. A fellow didn’t have to understand the syntax to comprehend the meaning behind the turbulent staccato shouts. Friend Louis shouted something back to the tree.
A deprivation of convent. Convenience forgone. What makes when when? Whither not when not-when? Where is reverse irreversible?
In its staid rest, the ur-fellow extended several of its vertices outward, and they appeared below it at the wavy sea’s surface. It began sieving the sand at its foot, pulling up slurries of grit and a collection of parts of the disassembled creatures. It held the components up to one of its lower eyes with immaculate care, held the components adjacent. It tried to convince them to adhere. They did not. It let the slop slide down the sloping air, a precipitation that would land in one thousand four hundred sixty six and seven hundred twelve thousandths vertical meters and throughout a period of at least eight seconds. Over the duration, the creature continued to gormlessly accept further inconsequential damages from the multitudes.
“THE LORD HAD BETTER ARRIVE S-” declared Friend Gorar, pulling back on her pain-hurler, before she was cut off by a needle-sharp sound expanded to infinite thickness. A radiant chariot made of murder flitted across the clouds, and it dragged a human passenger.
Chariot and passenger came to a halt far above. Friend Lord Artaxerxes had come.
Some incomprehensible speech spilled from the mouth of Friend Lord Artaxerxes, but came from the person made of murder. Seven didn’t understand the text of what was said, but from the reactions of the people below, it guessed it was an entreaty to flight.
Friend Lord Artaxerxes moved again then, in a rumble of throbbing prismatic ruptures stitching the sky. The sound was beautiful and impossible to miss.
Far below him, near to the ur-fellow’s base, Seven saw a pattering of armored creatures begin fanning out. It recognized Friend-Foe Argyva’s form as she manifested, then gave a wordless command that the others fan out. She vanished again almost immediately after looking back up toward Friend Lord Artaxerxes.
Moribund creature, who and what are you? seeped out from the ur-fellow’s towering form as it took notice of the tiny human’s approaching racket. It peered closer as a voice’s resonance set the very air to humming.
<I am a simple creature that aspires to reason,> said that arm person from its place high above them all. <Of what do you wish to speak?>
“Why’s he speaking Rhaa-” Friend Louis began, half-bent over as he turned to Friend Gorar. He stopped when the towering form swerved into sudden motion.
The ur-fellow’s vertices and edges squirmed, and a blot of its substance slipped out from one side of it. In a sweeping inflation of material, part of the air immediately behind the tiny human transubstantiated, boiling outward and upward around him in a torrential pillar of the ur-fellow’s stuff. The pillar rose and carried his body before one of its quiescent, reverberating eyes, holding him close and examining the curious little entity.
Moribund creature, take of your dedication of self and set it to worship. Venerate my self of uppermost self and integrate your dedication of self into a directed graph.
<Your personage will not be entered into the local pantheon until it is deemed mete by the appropriate priestly or eschatological powers-that-be,> replied the arm person. <For now, we request that you cease->
A mass of the ur-fellow’s edged twisted and contracted around Friend Lord Artaxerxes. The ur-fellow squeezed down on the tiny human as it overlaid its demands across his voice.
Employment of extraneous agency I do not require. Place volition on hiatus save where dedication of self benefits the uppermost self!
A short pause, and that ominous glint of the arm person’s tiny facilities – which Seven had seen and found to be a source of unease ever since it had first stepped through the hole in Home into Yrdky – lit up Friend Lord Artaxerxes with a most potent light.
<Regrettably,> said the arm person, <I do not kneel to creatures unless I have good reason; being ordered to do so is the antithesis of good reason.>
The ur-fellow abruptly jerked the little shape closer. Its nearest eye seemed to nearly consume him.
Expedients must oblige, and contrariness makes-
A single ethereal hand reached out from nowhere, climbing into existence behind the massive hypercuboid creature. Sleek, sharp, savage; it expanded like the flower Seven had been trying to grow for quite some time in its quarters, nourished to full radial bloom in a single second, an armspan and also a kilometer from fingertip to fingertip. The edges glinted with purpose as surprised noises roiled from the people abandoning the ur-fellow’s shadow.
The hand drew back, and shoved at the ur-fellow. A gesture Seven now knew for contempt and not-quite aggravation rather than intent to harm. It made contact with the dark shape, and the dark shape flowed away, a bag of water escaping the care of its holder.
Castigation! Castigation and denial!
The ur-fellow’s mass rippled and ran, a river of displeased and shallow chastisement. It contorted part of its upper body closer, several eyes formulating a series of solutions that collided at the coordinates of the tiny human’s body. The tall creature’s substance began to emit something that was not heard or seen but felt. As it did so, each eye began to fluoresce with an accelerating rhythm.
As it did so, Friend Lord Artaxerxes flashed like the sun, giving the truth to how some people called him “bright,” and noisily relocated far to one side of the ur-fellow. Seven briefly worried about whether Friend Lord Artaxerxes could withstand the ur-fellow’s mercies.
Then it recalled the tales it had heard about a place, a Brow that had been Beaten.
<Creatures such as yourself are pleasant in some respects. When they begin making unseasonable demands, however, they shall be either migrated, curtailed, or truncated. Which of these do you find most appealing?>
A paroxysm torqued the whole world around the point where Friend Lord Artaxerxes hung as the ur-fellow’s vertices collided with one another on his position. The ur-fellow’s ministrations failed to operate on their human parameter, if by a narrow gulf. Shining lights converged about him, picked him up, and switchbacked him away in a series of more loud affine transformations.
<When such is your preferred tool of resolving conflicts, then truncated you shall be,> he declared. <This will be pleasant for one of us, at most. My deepest sorrows for your pain… but no regrets.>
It wasn’t subject to precisely the same metaphysical constraints as its locale. Thus, the behemoth entity had the freedom to move without undue worry over convention. The ur-fellow instantly twined itself through the air, whipping out and up at the human with a high thin crack. It made contact, and the region surrounding Friend Lord Artaxerxes flashed to a dark-veined bubble, bent and broken. His tiny form was flung back along the ur-fellow’s length, until one of its flashing eyes reoriented and convexed him straight down with tremendous force. Along the route of his descent, no fewer than twelve of the ur-fellow’s various planes and edges compacted. The whole creature’s being pulsed once, and a corrugated scream of light snaked from between its coincidental surfaces, flaring bright as the creature’s eyes reverberated one last time and extinguished their liquid radiance.
Friend Louis gave off a factorially rising sound for which Seven had no name, did something to his weapon, and unleashed a positive flood of munitions in the ur-fellow’s direction, his vocalizations only ever increasing in volume. Friend Gorar looked at him once, then folded away to places unknown.
Snarls came clawing outward on the wings of the searing beams braising the massive thing’s grasp. More explosions and stippling marches of projectiles began to pick up speed once again, peppering the ur-fellow’s towering shape. As before, they failed to elicit response from the towering shape. The towering shape didn’t react at all until a spike of lucent anger punched out of its containing prison, and smashed its successive attempts at recapture aside.
Friend Lord Artaxerxes was… Seven vaguely guessed that the adjective pissed served well enough in this case.
<You have been weighed. You have been measured. You have been judged.>
An immolation earned! Moribund creature, utilities and attractions you possess manifest disappointment! Take these suboptimal dedications of self and exalt them!
Seven’s fangs began quivering, as something began coalescing in the distance.
Behind Friend Lord Artaxerxes, another shape sloughed off the stuff of not-being, evocative of the less-than-charitable hand of moments prior, and faintly glowing with the same ribbed brightness as Friend Lord Artaxerxes himself. A massive blade of some transparent material dropped from the invisible sheath of the air above the ur-fellow’s form, an indeterminate length of simple wedge that fell with great vigor. It swung back, and then slalomed across the ur-fellow with terrifying speed. It peeled two of its vertices away entirely, leaving in its flesh a mark that wouldn’t be ignored. The ur-fellow’s sunfishing away from the wound’s cause prevented any further damage, but its baying made its enmity clear enough for any watching.
Murder of unreason! Span the softness! For all ordered sets a dismantling! Implore you fellows I do insist – quench what hole, convey what matter, seal what differs, partition what matches! Make new auld! Make new auld! MAKE NEW AULD!
Seven had the sense of a sound moving into its brain as the entity’s presence suddenly rose up around the reaching-fellow like a constellation of wasps. It demanded, it dictated: kill everything that wasn’t a fellow. Kill everything that was a fellow. Kill everything. Seven cast off the imperative; not without difficulty, but with far less difficulty than the alternative of obedience.
Not far off, though, a brunt-fellow with the designation of Five Minus Four Times Four shuddered and bent in the middle, turning to a stubby fregnost and preparing to make the biped into food. The fregnost fell backward, and the brunt-fellow leapt straight over its intended target, but awkwardly twisted in midair to land within biting distance as it turned around. It clearly wasn’t used to the gritty loose substrate underfoot, as it kept jerking minutely when taking steps, obviously reminded of Home’s inconstant material and finding it hard to dedicate to a trajectory with each footfall.
Training weights tugged at opposing principles in the reaching-fellow’s mind. Injury shall not be done. Permission of injury shall not be done. Two first order directives that could only be reconciled in a complex system so long as no actionable hostility pervaded the system’s function. It had very often run into cases where one person’s demand-which-needs-to-be-met contradicted another, and the stronger of the two bore out, albeit weakened somewhat thereafter. Consistent instruction from those like Friend Gorar, who were part of what it had heard called the “Pastoral Division,” did something unusual: not the reinforcement of a set of directives, but the forging of loyalties.
A competition between allowing harm and causing harm was novel. Yet, to its surprise, it found it easy enough to overcome one demand-which-needs-to-be-met with another, in favor of doing harm to the brunt-fellow. Its nails lengthened, and it split the difference between itself and the brunt-fellow designated Five, then negated it. One nail went through the brunt-fellow’s flank. Seven pushed and lifted its target from its feet, carrying it along for almost twenty meters before slamming the creature into a flat table of stone. The quadruped voiced a yipping confused protest without words.
Five tried to bend its neck backward and gnash at Seven’s limbs. Seven gave voice to its disagreement with the implicit assertion that it had any right to do so by picking it up and performing upon it what the reaching-fellow learned was known as a pile driver. As with most injury to fellows, the reaching-fellow’s opponent began to recover quite quickly. A rapid fanning of slashing nails over its eyes and other notable bodily features deferred that recovery by a wide margin. Five’s hind legs kicked out several times, prompting Seven to step lightly. Even so, it continued its defamation of the brunt-fellow, hoping to quell its need to worry over the creature.
Seven’s attempt to further erode the brunt-fellow’s capability met a seawall when it got tackled by a cladding-fellow from one side. It tumbled, lost its footing, regained it, then got tackled a second time. Far far away, far past any place it could matter at that moment, it registered the ur-fellow continually bellowing its ire. The exhalations each struck Seven with tiny daggers of demands-which-need-to-be-met, but it still managed to resist. The long sharp blades which gave a reaching-fellow its identity lanced out of their respective fingers, nicking the cladding-fellow on one side, then seriously menaced the air. An explosion of dust resulted when the new contender’s leg joint encountered one of the bladelike extrusions, and it tripped. The tripee stabbed its beak through the tripper. The tripper objected.
As the reaching-fellow tumbled once again, it wrenched the cladding-fellow aside just a bit farther. Seven kicked it in the middle, and then shoved the two of them apart with a long guttural braying. Spumes of grit flew as though lifted by Home’s wicked winds, wings that splotched the ground with thin shadows. The reaching-fellow smashed into its opponent’s arm, bending it backward, then got a vicious slap across the fangs for its trouble.
It flew sideways, bumbled past a trio of robed people armed with… something, ignored their shouts and several attempts to slash at it, and then resumed the disorderly attempt to produce peace through superior application of force. It leapt upon the cladding-fellow just as the cladding-fellow leapt upon it. A proboscis swept in huge carving arcs, back needles scraped against nails, howls and hisses abounded. The unknown cladding-fellow incurred a massive gash down one side courtesy of Seven’s talons, while one of Seven’s digits became crushed beneath a flat heel.
The reaching-fellow managed to avoid being skewered again on its opponent’s leering proboscis, but not a systemic perforation by the long spines adorning the creature’s upper body. It was dashed to the ground, then picked up again, before the cladding-fellow slammed its back down and started propelling itself along the coarse ground. Seven’s body quickly began shredding, and it groped at the rough anvil of its torment, looking for purchase. Even as the cladding-fellow turned its head about to try and poke Seven’s eyes out with its snout, Seven managed to grab a large submerged hunk of rock with one limb, the cladding-fellow’s head with one limb, then smacked the moving thing with the non-moving thing until both of them were temporarily non-moving things.
Even the fellow hesitated in its efforts several seconds later as the world went almost white. It turned upward, seeing the midnight ingot of the ur-fellow shot into perfect relief. The land became molten metal, the people tiny impurities swimming upon the surface, the sky a vast vessel descending to draw a deep draft. In the center of the stilled chaos, a solid point of order hovered in the guise of a man and a person made of murder. From the point of order emanated an explosion of luminescent rivulets, gleaming ribbons refracting off the dust and playing in the wind.
The ribbons moved, and very shortly after the ur-fellow did likewise.
Spinning up into the sky, a cluster of the tight-wound spirals of light smashed into the sand where the ur-fellow previously hunched. The volcanic sounds of pulverization strangled out all else. Seven’s legs unevenly shook as the world seemed to contract and swell beneath it. When a string of identical light projectiles bore down from on high, traveling through both spatial and non-spatial intercept plots to strike at the evasively warping ur-fellow, the subsequent concussions threw the reaching-fellow to the ground.
SUBSET OF UNIVERSAL-NOT! BE NOW!
The massive creature brought its full repressive might down on the glowing source of the scything motes. Nineteen vertices sweeping outward as though they were expanding. Nineteen vertices nearly colliding with a perfect ringing silence. Nineteen vertices exerting a kind of not-gravity, hauling in every direction simultaneously to deconstruct the form of Friend Lord Artaxerxes. The lights wavered in protest; their targeting continued, but became ever so slightly more erratic. Even as they recalculated their respective trajectories, the ur-fellow persisted in its dodging from place to place around the platform’s gravelly topside. The pinwheeling lights slowed.
Seven found itself once more blindsided, this time by another reaching-fellow and a hopping-fellow. It recognized neither fellow. The second of these rebounded from its victim, inflicting no more than a hard blow. It rolled along the glowing sand, righted itself, and then sprang away in the direction of the robed people. The other reaching-fellow, unfortunately, took a more direct interest in Seven’s presence. Their nails met each other. Seven forced its way past the biting edges, and cut out one of its foe’s eyes. A new orb began bubbling up and congealing in the ragged wound immediately, but by that point its near-future owner was flying through the air, hurled at tremendous speed. The disabled reaching-fellow then managed to intercept seventeen bullets with its face – courtesy of a fleeing robed person – after hitting the ground and sliding a short distance. It did not get up.
Climbing to its feet, Seven turned just in time to see Friend Louis do something else to his weapon, raise it, and loose one last projectile. Its speed sufficed to set the air alight between him and the ur-fellow in a shrieking pipe of white. The shot went wide when its intended recipient dodged away again, yet it actually drew some notice from the preeminent presence as several eyes reallocated themselves to examine the line of decaying heat.
Seven saw Friend Gorar then. She had closed the distance with the ur-fellow, she had prepared her massive tubular contrivance, and she had taken up a good position for launching its cargo. The tube coughed out something that looked like a lengthy metallic cone. The metallic cone hit the ur-fellow and abruptly became a sphere, carving a chunk out of the towering creature’s side almost a quarter the size of one of its eyes. The ur-fellow fellow temporarily halted its flickering motion, making as though to crush the gnoll.
Yet as it did so Seven saw another of the fizzling light streaks penetrate the creature from above, then partition into a forking graph that fixated a suddenly-wailing creature. Creeping from a thousand endpoints of its bulk, lucent quills bristled and skittered.
The massive entity flailed, streams of itself curling down and over, in and out of existence in fits and spirited spurts. It gave off a steady stream of hatred or something so near as made no odds. Friend Lord Artaxerxes instantiated in front of the ur-fellow, a single candle against a darkened sky.
<YOU ARE UNWANTED, YOU ARE EXCUSED.>
A strange blurring. A thin straight-line zapping cord exploding from Friend Lord Artaxerxes, and tapping into the jagged arteries of the branching solid light. A sound like the mating of atoms.
The light fractured.
Every single creature for a hundred kilometers heard a vast and rapidly narrowing scream in their mind.
The light compressed.
Every single creature for a hundred kilometers donned the garments of unmarred stillness.
After a second that never passed, merely flipped over from one side to the other, the unending glow in the sky softened without terminating. The desolate plains of the platform retained a single sign of the now-vanished ur-fellow, in the form of a racked and ruined glass crater. At the slippery fissured rim glittered a dusting of dead diamonds.
Just outside the nigh-glowing border touched down Friend Lord Artaxerxes, who strode toward the gradually-reforming crowds of survivors. Several vehicles began closing in on his position, including some of those things called disks and one of those things called gemships. They were moving very fast indeed. As they closed in, Seven also noticed the reappearance of Friend-Foe Argyva and her cohorts.
“I want that I had not done harm,” Seven heard from an upturned dune not fifty paces distant. Its attention went out in that direction, and it found Five unmoving on the ground. The brunt-fellow’s limbs were perfectly operable, and its eyes had recovered to their full size and original placement.
Seven didn’t know.
It left for the more hospitable climes of Friend Louis, where it joined him in watching the unfolding events of afar.
“What shall happen now?” it eventually asked, watching those unfolding events with what it realized was apprehension.
“NOTHING CAN BE DONE UNTIL WE TAKE BETTER PRECAUTIONS FOR TYPE NINE WILLABARM EVENTS,” said Friend Gorar. She had reappeared covered in dirt and looking all the more natural for it. She stood braced on her weapon. “THAT CHILD IN CHARGE OF THE FACETARY OPERATION PREPARATIONS OUGHT TO BE SLATHERED IN GRAVY AND PUT IN A PEN OF LONG-LEGGED GOATS.”
“No,” said Friend Louis, “the appropriate response is a bout of sievemind that leaves you nearly vegetative. Or maybe getting thrown into the Wordapenny House.”
He failed to restrain a very long sigh.
“There’s a very specific demographic of people who won’t last long if we don’t step in and import their populace, and soon. Can’t do that with… this.”
A relatively soft stomp.
“We’ve gotten too complacent about type nine events. It’s always been, ‘Oh dear, something is wrong! We might draw Beast attention!’ Now what, after we’re starting to make nice with Beasts? What do we do when we stumble across something else like THAT!?”
He had disposed of his weapon. Now, he reached up to his head and did something that sucked up the dark cloth covering his form. His paler flesh and other paler cloth better suited blending in with the sand about his form as he pulled the headwear from its perch and tossed it down. It splashed a tiny spill of grains away in every direction from its point of impact. He turned away from the titanic scene unfolding across the windy dusty plains.
“We’ll try again. Not today, though. Not today.”
“WE OUGHT TO BE AWAY,” said Friend Gorar to the reaching-fellow. “WE DO NOT WANT TO WAIT AROUND FOR DUE PROCESS TO FINISH CLEANING UP. IT WILL TAKE QUITE A WHILE.”
“Oh.” Seven awaited the gnoll’s favor or disfavor, as she considered the gently expanding rings of slowly reinstituted control, emergency responders, and the sorts of people who had decided their presence would improve a situation in desperate need of improvement.
“THIS IS A FINE MESS,” Friend Gorar eventually declared.
Seven agreed completely.