The Power

<< Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

“Sixteen chimes in five fourths time / breaking our backs we yet climb. / By poor rhyme and pond sublime / we alight midst hilltop’s rime. / Ere we live and after lie / we into clouds gray do cry. / Reach topward for future sky / to well dream and never die. / Tarry and more music make / cold songchimes brook no mistake. / Lose ourselves in the sky-lake / silent we the zither break. / Beaten brass, chills, mountains, day / sky, string, wind, wood, fountain – nay. / Rise from dream and rise to stay / music, mortal, music… play.”

-Rol Bangulorian, Winter-Wedded Wakeful Liberty, from Many Poem-Songs of Úda

Seven’s experiences of Home had prepared it for a great many things. In the last several hands – as it now understood people measured eights of days – it had begun establishing equivalences between its grasp of Rhaagmini and this moderately different thing people called Yrdkish. According to Friend Kallahassee, it and its other fellows – or Beasts, or what have you – exhibited tremendous ability to learn, but exponentially greater ability to form connections between known graphemes of understanding. Unfortunately, this did not greatly prepare it for fully novel experiences as they happened along. However, it made the reaching-fellow more capable of mentally catching hold of its ideal prey by the trailing tail of linguistics. Words and turns of phrase that encapsulated ideas it wouldn’t have been capable of effectively using even in its recent past. Words and turns of phrase such as “jinxed.”

As in, at times it seemed like the whole jinxed world outside was exploding.

In the sky, clouds of destructive matter took on nearly every conceivable state; some liminal, some extremely bizarre. On the ground, agents of all forms traded insults of many bents and magnitudes; short range firearms exchanges, quick combative altercations, one or two summonings of magical entities which were almost universally targeted on the instant of their appearance, employments of those curious metal-studded belts called warsashes. Craft flew, phased, rolled, sprinted, and (in some memorable cases on one of the Nor’ridge Steps) swam between platforms and engagements, just slowly enough to avoid causing their own destruction through collision. Chemicals sloshed and adhered to their favorite reagents, bugles and wracking beeps and whistles and chuffing growls peppered the almost-chaos, plans of action pulled themselves forward through the axes of probability until they reached success or failure.

Through the circuits and open-bounded systems with which the reaching-fellow now communed, it watched as a storm raged in the ether of managed information flow. Friend Lord Artaxerxes strode through the data frames of Pennat Gate’s interchanges, crying havoc as he demolished those few digital personalities who managed brief invasions of the estate’s processing nexi. Protocols were theorized, implemented, compromised, scrapped, and recycled at a furious pace; packets lanced through the various strata in various stages of hiding.

Seven’s hands-on understanding of the concept of war now possessed a great deal more wear and tear than it could had claimed even a short time ago.

Its interest had peaked when Friend Lord Artaxerxes described the training exercises he’d inflicted upon the local eidolons several hands prior. The reaching-fellow hadn’t known what to think about the idea of information-based combat the first time Friend Lord Artaxerxes tried to explain it. He’d put a great deal of thought into the many lines of inquiry Seven opened up. He’d used analogies and constructions that it had never before encountered, spiraling ever outward and upward into abstraction.

Eventually, he’d settled on giving the entity a front row seat to the festivities, and provided for it a specialized console through which to view the less-than-fully-tangible battlefield. Within a day, the reaching-fellow had grasped the order and structure of how ciphers could be employed to belligerent purpose, and how knowledge lent itself to tailored destruction.

“Hello,” the reaching-fellow now said to an arriving unwelcome digital personality, though a specially-designed interface that allowed it to communicate with the wondrous infinite Monolith.

{Dear Maker and all the past eidolons, what-} began the digital personality, just as it began to spool up a slowly-buffering utility. What that utility might be Seven could only guess, but its experience in the realm of warfare (or lack thereof) suggested some sort of payload meant to breach the intrusion countermeasures of the network.

Unfortunately, the biggest (and most effective at the decision problems of is-a-person and is-hostile) intrusion countermeasure of this tiny portion of the network happened to be a Beast, and the Beast’s associated paraphernalia.

Seven pointed out the set of discrete shifts which provided for the entity’s cortical actions, and immediately saw one of Pennat Gate’s defenders pounce upon the compromised region. It wrapped up the ingoing-outgoing patterns of the datastream, lassoed the qubits and particle operations and traditionally-represented information, and quarantined the enemy digital personality.

{Thank you very much,} said the friendly eidolon, as it siphoned off the operations and states representing its quarry to a demilitarized zone for disposal.

“I hope to do more worth more thanks,” replied Seven, which earned it some kind of salute from the friendly eidolon before its departure.

{Hey, schlrikt!}

Seven consulted a partitioned section of its special interface, completely separate from the continuous stream of information which it normally sifted. A small indicator that corresponded to another friendly entity was striving for its attention. The reaching-fellow obliged the newcomer.

“Are you speaking to me?” it asked.

{Yes, I am,} said the digital personality’s voice. {I need you to take a look at this if you have the time.}

The entity proffered another datastream for Seven’s perusal, and the reaching-fellow accepted the material. After plugging it into its interface, the display altered radically, and made the reaching-fellow quirk its head.

“For what am I supposed to look?” it asked, having picked up the trick of “reading between the lines,” as they said.

{Do you see any sort of sign of intelligent behavior or residence in this packet set?}

Seven’s head quirked the other way, as a grid began seething over the interface in a two-dimensional depiction of memory interstices.

“I see a great number of individuals, possibly exchanging information at great speed and with a great number of… peers,” it replied, weighing its words. “The exchanges are done at very close range with very high throughput, if so. Of the packets contained here, some eighty six percent represent the direct presence or articles of digital personalities in action, and some seven point three percent are manipulators or sub-processes descending from the same.”

{I see. Thank you for your diligence.}

Seven looked down through the console of its interface, and saw the entity flee at speed. A different digital expanse spread out once more as eidolon and eidolon’s little map vanished; the local playing field for which Seven acted as warden and siren.

Then a flood of warnings and imprecations flowed inward as a number of attendants fled from the edge of the access point center’s firewall. Seven saw what resembled a great number of razor-edged digital tendrils spreading out into the system. They sliced into the compartmentalization of the resident processes, violating segmentation limits, and crushed a considerable percentage of the information-and-entities contained within. The information-and-entities thus afflicted were compacted into a scribble of riven supercompacted data, and the data then got zeroed in a single commutative operation. A nearly audible rumble of protest echoed up from the interface as many eidolon instances perished, without the chance to send synchronization or acknowledgement packets back through their private channels.

The dread weight of Friend Lord Artaxerxes sorted and searched through the wreckage that he’d left in his wake, releasing the locks on the affected storage, and flagging the borders of those sectors he’d left untouched.

With a silent whisper of presence becoming not-presence, the titan that was the reaching-fellow’s friend abandoned his current hunting ground in search of more and target-richer environments.

A few million clock cycles went by, and then the domestic eidolons began to pick up the shattered pieces of the structures their Lord had destroyed in his fumigation. They offered analytic descriptors of the remains of the until-recently-intruding enemy processes, helping build up the network intrusion detection priors. Their improvements of automated domestic measures made it possible for more of their number to abandon the defensive, and adopt an expeditionary attitude.

Between other operations similar to this one and the services of other fellows, Seven’s Home had managed to send off nearly ninety percent of its virtual combatants in a series of rapid-fire ping payloads. As a result, the people of Nor’ridge had to cope with increasingly-compromised management in the centralized command of their war effort. Not visible to Seven from its protected information-processing enclave, but one didn’t have to actually see the effects in person to appreciate them. Guns fired at inopportune moments or failed to discharge at all. Coordination of point defense and cross-channel communications had effectively trickled down to the company level if not lower, in the name of operational security and maintaining the necessary services. At least a full brigade of armored troops ended up getting hard-locked into their footsteps, and had to be manually set free from their extremely fancy straitjackets.

Seven paused, as it trod back over the mental steps it had just taken.

Its Home.

The reaching-fellow considered its designation.

Yes. Yes, it now considered this Pennat Gate to be at least as suitably fitted by that name as what its colleagues termed the Purple.

Seven examined the restricted world of the access point center, contemplating the size and shape of the wider realm in which it now lived, and realized that it was more than happy to place such a term in association with the existence of Pennat Gate. It felt right. It was still entirely applicable to Shine Backward, but those two things were very different, very compatible applications of the same idea.

How strange.

That thought repeatedly visited it as it continued its process of helping to get hold of and liberate the systems it was policing from the presence of yet more enemy eidolons. One hundred here. Twelve there. Sixteen in transit from one enclave of the system to another, fifteen of whom were legitimate but with the final one being determined to be an interloper.

{I like this guy,} said one eidolon as they carted away the entity in the midst of vociferous protest. {The Destrier forkings have been out trashing those Sixth Step industrial nodes since three hours ago, and they say the entirety of the opposing air power is grounded until they manage to correct the positioning system gizzards.}

{A true testament to good taste and quality in our comptrollers and actuaries,} replied another, smoothing over the noise left over from a series of apprehensions that Seven had expedited. {It is-}

Friend Lord Artaxerxes came whickering through the center’s intangible representations once more, reaping bits and bytes with abandon. He came whickering through at such a speed that Seven only really parsed his ephemeral presence in retrospect. Then he made a second pass several context changes later, sweeping up the few more complex quines that had escaped his initial predations.

{Ye elapsed gods!} shouted the second eidolon, as several of its method invocations suddenly referenced null pointers.

{Do not attempt to infiltrate the second-West-most enemy First Step platform,} advised Friend Lord Artaxerxes. His digital presence was like that of the ur-fellow he’d slain: as easy to ignore as a dowel through the abdomen even when completely still.

{Is there something the matter with its filtering? Is it intended as a honeypot?} asked one digital personality.

{No, and yes. They have put a series of one-time private keys in storage. Unfortunately, those private keys were generated to specifically yield readable but false plaintext out of the more important enemy chatter. Misdirecting orders to reallocate and reconsolidate clock cycles on one server farm when they were actually rigging the farm with an on-access encryption system, that sort of thing.}

{How did you pick up on this?}

Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s digital presence emitted a little indicator that showed up on Seven’s interface as a blinking light, hovering above a now-cauterized section of memory.

{That one had fairly convincing circumstantial evidence in its protected files. When coupled with the memory contents left behind by several others in plaintext, the picture becomes far more plausible.}

{It could be a false message in itself. For that matter, the message-surrenderers might be participating in some kind of double-blind scheme.}

Friend Lord Artaxerxes didn’t sound thrilled or upset. He just sounded focused.

{A possibility that we should not discount, but the argument of “the opposition may have designs on doing the converse of their apparent action plan” is a very dangerous trap to traverse. In this case, I simply report what I have noticed.}

He dumped a compressed file to the center’s main memory storage.

{Do with it what you will.}

{Lord,} said one eidolon as it entered through one of the auxiliary buses. {There is a strong push at the Fountainist camp. Sheavecore-model kernels, coming through gaps in an availability-denial attack.}

{Really?} asked Friend Lord Artaxerxes, shrinking his digital footprint down for better navigability. {I shall have to detour, then. Keep fighting the good fight!}

And with that he was gone again.

An hour passed. Two hours passed. Three hours passed. Seven believed they passed, in any case; it turned out that fellows had a poor sense of that semi-continuous thing called time unless they could attach themselves to some kind of reference point. It usually preferred to contemplate the position of the sun, or any local moons, when it had them available. When Friend Lord Artaxerxes was in the vicinity, he helped quite a great deal, by providing more exact feedback on the subject.

Eventually, it noticed that the eidolons occasionally making backtrace journeys through their access point center were acting strangely. It debated how or whether it should attempt to raise the subject (having a firmly embedded memory of the several incidents it had caused with its curiosity), and eventually turned to another reaching-fellow also serving in the same capacity.

“Three Plus Five,” it asked, “do you understand what is going on?”

“What is it that you mean, Seven?”

The other reaching-fellow looked up from where it hunched over its interface, nails very very slightly exposed to better manipulate the system’s input. Seven felt uneasy; the people who’d provided the employment to the various fellows had stressed the importance of their not actually damaging the hardware. “It could kill a LOT of people if you accidentally puncture a part of the system that is hosting part of a digital personality’s gestalt,” the nice naufer had said. “Please avoid using your talons if at all possible.”

“I mean the people coming back through this section of our station seem to be behaving differently from normal,” Seven answered. “They are moving at greater speed, and they do not have as many extremities attached to themselves.”

Three Plus Five Plus Six Plus Six stepped back from its interface, contemplating the observation. Seven would have outwardly expressed relief, if a reaching-fellow had the ability to do so in any meaningful way, when Three Plus Five put away its nails and ran its fingers along each other. However, reaching-fellows did not.

“I do believe I know what you mean,” it said, head tilting, eyes blinking rapidly, fangs rippling a bit like how humans sometimes rapped their fingers in rapid succession across a surface. “They are being… cavalier, I think they call it?”

The reaching-fellows both took notice of a human running past them. He wore a thick toothy smile across the width of his face. The fact that he displayed both upper and lower teeth might have been enough reason for Seven to consider it a threat behavior under other conditions; something Seven wouldn’t even have known to factor into its observations three months ago. The jitter of his body and the way his eyes pressed out against the world’s membranes made him stand tall, stare unabashedly at the fellows as he skidded to a halt, and wheeze a bit through his teeth.

“Hey!” he said, using Rhaagmini. Many people still did that around fellows – Beasts. Seven didn’t know if it was habit, or preference to use one particular mode of expression, or something else with which it was unfamiliar, but it simply watched him as he caught his breath. The clothing and insignia he wore both stated that he was a person of nobility. Nobility was a concept Seven knew it grasped on only the most basic of levels even now, but the fact that it was to be respected and obeyed under all but very unusual circumstances made sense enough to the reaching-fellow. This human apparently occupied a place very far above Seven in the “chain of command” – a baron, unless it was mistaken.

“You two! Come with me!” he said, almost breathless.

“What is the matter?” Seven prodded, starting after him. Three Plus Five followed them, at a very short distance, so as to avoid collisions. “Have we done something wrong?”

“Wrong!?” the man barked, half-laughing, as his hair flared out and his head spun back to look at the fellow without losing a single iota of his speed. His cackle echoed through the tall corridor as they lunged in slow motion for the main entry-and-exit of the building.

“You have just about given us the enemy on an anankite platter, is what you have done!” he said, making a wide gesture that looked to hug the whole world close.

The door slid open, and the sounds of celebration were resounding with unparalleled volume around the yard of the platform as the group exited the access point center. More doors flashed open across the building’s length and breadth, vomiting forth a bevy of technicians and analysts and fellows and various factotums.

Into the yard they spilled, an anti-confinement of small glittery rocks and perfect Cartesian cement path functions. Outside in the blusters of the wind, Seven found itself in a concert of people trying their best to say tumbles of things at each other. Those tumbles of things were very excited, and only a little apprehensive. Some of them wound their tentacles into signs they brandished at each other in shows of obvious camaraderie, some of them danced little skittering or flapping jigs around the square, some of them slapped or prodded the rigid stocky dimpled succulents dispersed through the open region.

“Okay, okay!” said one voice. Seven noticed its source was a small round stony dais, upon which stood a small round stony hexapedal creature. The creature in question – a mar-luph – bore scarves or some such tied around their joints. Most of the crowd was slowly congregating around the creature.

“Your attention, please!” said the creature. “We are, to be blunt, making spectacular progress – and it is thanks to you!”

A cornucopia of huzzahs and near-huzzahs spat forth from mouths and near-mouths.

“Now,” the mar-luph said, trying and failing to rein in the excitement, “we still have need of your talents. There will be a short respite for those who desire, but we need to reallocate these activities as soon as possible to the appropriate departments in other centers or Steps. For now, though, we have a message f-”

That furor of self-praise cut short just as the reaching-fellow detected a large gemship, flickering into a free space in the square. Seven watched the contraption, and watched the way that attention very quickly swung over to the contraption.

From the gaping rent that opened in the contraption’s side emerged Friend Lord Tuoamas, the small shiny circlet of metallic substance glittering around his head. No ritual, no announcement to precede his arrival.

And yet his step from the unfolded entryway was a strange and beautiful galvanic marker all its own.

Every gesture, every self-alteration, every exhalation of Friend Lord Tuoamas had a strange anti-self, an other-life to it. The reaching-fellow had long tried to assemble an adequate depiction of the perception. It had long failed. The man simply possessed an ability to make himself an object to everyone else’s subject – a trait he shared with Friend Lord Artaxerxes. He was facilitator, and the people of Pennat Gate were the true focus. They were the ones worth celebrating.

“Our dear people,” the human began. He raised a calming hand to the small convocation, to try and instill placidity.

A screechy revving of approval rising from the several-hundred-strong assembly almost drowned him out. He smiled, faintly, even as he raised his other hand.

“Our dear people,” he said again, more quickly in the name of marginalizing disruptions. “We have done great things this great day, all of us.”

The Lord of Yrdky pointed to the far-distant shape of the enemy’s platforms.

“This is but one stop on our tour, and yet this single waypoint comprises both an invaluable asset and the cherished blossom which makes the current struggle worthwhile.”

He gradually and gently swept that pointing digit across those gathered, like how Seven had seen some simulation designers do when they were beautifying their work with the “manual touch.” It was going through the motions of devoting more attention and respect to something that eventually came to deserve that attention and respect because of that something’s lavishings.

He expunged old air, and new air indwelt him. Even the reaching-fellow realized that what little he had to say would be great, perhaps magnificent. Not necessarily in the content of the speech, but in the personhood that he would give to his words.

But no speech would be forthcoming.

Seven would later have it explained in simple terms that it better understood. It did not comprehend the abundance of ways in which the following events broke the many classes of sovereign Yrdkish law. It couldn’t intuit the level of investment required to undertake such a scheme in the first place. It had no inkling of how completely one would have to discard their self-preservation to engage in the strategy it beheld, or how thoroughly the things one held precious would be scoured from the face of existence in retribution. It would never have predicted the way the perpetrators had sat on their plans for just such a moment; a moment in which Nor’ridge’s desperation pushed them into a massive offensive aimed at a handful of key enemy platforms, and which required an inordinate amount of attention from Pennat Gate’s people.

A non-whitelisted gemship folded onto the access point center’s property, directly in front of and above Friend Lord Tuoamas’s vessel. What peacekeeping resources were free from participating in the inter-estate engagement immediately painted the gemship with a massive target, and began broadcasting very insistent cease-and-desists. A very insistent battery of functions began very insistently warming up when no quick reply came forth.

As the vessel had very little interest in hanging around for long, though, those peacekeeping resources diverted the majority of their already-diverted attention once more, when the gemship left almost the instant arrived. In its wake, the gemship left a package in the form of exactly seventy eight intruders who were armed and armored in the way the past godlings of Rhaagm and Bequast and Yrdky had been, when readying themselves for times of war. Those past godlings who decided that the whole “stagnation of self” thing against which their elders warned was clearly just a fad their crusty ancestors fabricated to keep them down and underfoot.

To their despondent upset, the peacekeeping resources of Pennat Gate very briefly considered the truant gemship to be the bigger threat (reasonable enough under normal circumstances, but not accurate in these).

Each of the intruders possessed exotic congruent-matter bodies, a combination of impenetrable and impossibly flexible, stuffed to the brim with deadly trinkets and full of malice, their shells shining with perfect construction. Detaining one would have been a challenge with Pennat Gate’s usual bag of tricks; detaining a small army would have been impossible, except for the next arrival on-site.

Seven had never seen any other fellows exhibit the use of thaumaturgy, let alone that power-of-prophecy which it had witnessed in Friend Lord Tuoamas. And yet, it wasn’t surprised or disturbed when a low rumble began in the distance, and became rapidly less-distant.

Thunder rasped, then snarled, then detonated directly above the gathering of now-panicking citizens, before Friend Lord Artaxerxes rode the lightning to ground and left a steaming crater in the square.

<What is this?> asked the person made of murder, using his mouth.

“Give us the son of the Maker!” screamed one of the human-shaped new people, who’d retreated to the roof of one of the nearby structures. The human-shaped new person had one limb extended, its end morphing into a bristling lateral grotto of cylindrical extensions.

“Give us the son of the Maker!” echoed the cry, taken up by the others.

The first-spoken armor-skinned individual had already taken and shaken off a massive number of ripmap slugs, cavitation barbs, conventional bullets, and Hiek machines. The munitions had left little sign of their employers’ destructive intentions. The same could not be said of the weapons discharged by the interloper – or those of their compatriots – which were busy cutting down swatches of residents en masse, compressing them into perfectly flat representations of themselves, melting them, consuming them, destroying.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes answered by extending the person made of murder in a single rippling cord of lethal intent. The cord pierced the first-speaking interloper’s body, an instant before thousands of tiny spines tore omnidirectionally outward from the person’s flesh. For the tiniest observable span, most of the chunks that began flying away from the detonation of personhood hung in the air, then attempted to recollect themselves one and sixty three hundredths meters away from the morning star of deadly spikes. Body parts began stitching themselves whole once more, working to recreate the limbs, the trunk, the head. Unlike every other victim it had previously seen assailed by the person made of murder, Seven realized that the person was somehow returning to their ruptured physical form.

No. No, wait; it was not the same person – merely another that looked identical. A different self mapped the same. This, concluded the reaching-fellow, must be that revivification thing of which it had heard a fair amount.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes spoke a cutting word, then, as the person made of murder retracted and gave off a semantic pulse. Something else happened that made the resurrection process abruptly halt, as the person didn’t just fall apart once more, but dissolved into a fine particulate mist. That mist swept into the air, and then vanished into nothing. No additional or repeating person appeared. This time, not remained not.

Seven took a second to examine the rest of the impromptu battlefield. Many of those with whom it had been mingling not five minutes ago clearly weren’t capable of further action of any kind. Most of these were simply gone in large part. Others were wittled down like the interloper who’d received the person made of murder’s attentions, puddles and aggregates of unclassifiable matter. Still others looked much like they had in life, but they simply lay static, husks of once-being.

That same lifeless state, as it happened, now applied to most of the interlopers as well. In fact, the reaching-fellow only spied thirteen people of the original assault element that remained intact, and only about half of these were (presumably) still functionally alive.

Clearly, Friend Lord Artaxerxes was good at the art of multitasking.

One of the living had backed up against Friend Lord Tuoamas’s gemship, one massive spidery thing extended from a limb and pressed to Friend Lord Tuoamas’s head. It wasn’t possible to identify what manner of person they were; the armoring and other changes they had undergone had mutated them into an entity without species or sex or anything save the designation of “sapient.”

“Give us the son of the Maker!” the person snarled. “Else Tuoamas Pennat dies!”

The spidery thing, Seven realized, was the writhing form of a small and temporarily placid sewing-fellow. It was held by a cage or pincer-set, growing right from the other person’s body.

Just then, another of the intruders took advantage of his apparent distraction, folded behind him, and used a long flowing gesture to indicate his shiny arm. A glittery sparkling edge sung through the air, tracing the border of the human like Seven might use its nails to trace the shape of a leaf on the ground, or a cloud against the sky. Part of Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s torso clothing rent and fell away, exposing a line where his flesh turned into the other-flesh-stuff of the person made of murder. Along that border, a thin trickle, or a gush, or a fountain of blood ought to have been pouring.

Instead, there was nothing.

“I am afraid that there are things you do not understand about my possession of and by Caladhbolg,” Friend Lord Artaxerxes pronounced with utmost care and coolness.

“Heathen!” hissed the person holding Friend Lord Tuoamas hostage. “Then let your pedantry be a comfort to you in your loss!” Then, in a gravelly voice: “Kill this one!”

The sewing-fellow pressed to the other human’s head made a shivering clicking clattering sound in its obedience, its teeth gyrating down in a boring corkscrew and following around a thin rapidly-moving axis.

Friend Lord Tuoamas cried out as he was trepanned.

Seven rushed at the intruder with every iota of strength it could muster. When its nails dove for its target’s flesh, though, it found itself cheated of its prey. It skidded to a halt, whipping its head and bared nails about as it sought the person it hoped to defile.

“Seven,” it heard from behind it, “fetch Lord Tuoamas and bring him here to me, please.”

And, obedient as its nature made it, so it did. Nails retracted, hands unclenched, reaching-fellow claws clattered over the pathways until it stood next to the fallen form of that person it had first met so short a time ago.

It bent down to pick up Friend Lord Tuoamas, and found itself vaguely surprised that he yet lived. His hard features still animated, if sluggishly, despite the blood coming from the side of his skull and matting his hair. Seven knew that he would be turning into food very shortly, and this made it sad.

“Thank you,” said the dying man.

The reaching-fellow had no reply.

These moments, these are forever.

Another thunderclap, falling between its footsteps over the smooth pathway crossing the fresh abattoir. “Do not-” came the interloper’s voice. The reaching-fellow glanced up to see two distant shapes flickering around as it carried the fallen human with the greatest gentleness it could possibly manage. One of the struggling parties disappeared with silent hops, aiming for the back of their opponent; the other seemed to be growing louder and more disturbing with every concussive snap. Then there followed a wail, of someone or something suddenly bereaved.

A crack. A series of smaller cracks. Both combatants abruptly materialized, a diorama of mid-resolution disagreement – one with his hands buried in the back of the other nearly to the wrist. Ribbons of flesh and not-flesh appeared and disappeared, yanked from the creature’s body in ropy strands by the person made of murder. Seven half-expected to see the victim fold away and leave Friend Lord Artaxerxes holding empty gory air. Evidently, the victim’s cerv-mesh – or whatever served the same role as that uniquely flexible innovation – was among one of the first things he’d managed to extract.

“I see,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes. There was another series of crunches from the now-subdued figure. Seven looked away, and when it looked back he held out the implement which supported the sewing-fellow’s form. The implement was no longer attached to the assailant’s body. Neither was the associated limb, or any of the other limbs. These and the trunk made occasional shivering sounds, but remained firmly under the foot of Friend Lord Artaxerxes. Or at least, they resembled the limbs in question. He had done something to them resembling tying them up, and something else resembling bolting them to each other.

“DEFEND ME!” the intruder screamed at the sewing-fellow, abruptly rolling over in a puddle of their own leavings to better shout at exceptional volume.

A very soft splat precluded the sewing-fellow vanishing in a squelch of viscous goo, as the person made of murder closed over it, and that viscous goo became strewn out over a fifteen meter length of the courtyard. The viscous goo in question very quickly also became nothing much worth describing.

“You know,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes as he slung the residue from his dread hand, “that you had one real motivation at your disposal that might have inclined me toward giving you something that you wanted. Then you killed him.”

“You fool!” shouted the remains of the person, nearly underfoot as Friend Lord Artaxerxes looked down upon their devastated form. “If you had merely handed it over-!”

“I had a chance to kill myself and surrender this weapon that is now part of me. I may have even considered doing so, had you heard me out and understood what ELSE that implied. And you, in your masterful stroke of genius, decided that the only acceptable recourse for initially denying you what you wanted was to remove that one form of leverage.”

Friend Lord Artaxerxes went to one knee, staring down at the creature.

“If there was any doubt that you people are dancing to someone else’s tune, that you had to be guided by the hand into this little scheme of yours, you have as good as destroyed that apprehension. It is fortunate, I suppose, that I have recompense for your performing this service. Congratulations.”

The person made of murder, once again in hand shape extended and widened to a breadth and length considerably greater than its ordinary characteristics. It descended on the suddenly-struggling form and smothered the person’s entire remaining frame. There was a small thud. When Friend Lord Artaxerxes lifted his hand once more, nothing more than a slightly-depressed outline lay on the hard substance of the path, cracks running its edges in graceful fractals.

“Well,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas, looking over at Friend Lord Artaxerxes. “I suppose that you meant it when you decided to keep yourself out of the fight.”

Friend Lord Artaxerxes once more had two normal hands, and turned as he rose to approach Seven.

“Set him down here, Seven. This will not take particularly long.”

Friend Lord Tuoamas coughed and laughed.

“No, it will not!” he said, spitting out some saliva, and some tiny threads of dark gunk on its fringes caught on the edge of his mouth. “It is… eminently apparent that my condition is unsustainable, Lord.”

“It will not be for long.” Friend Lord Artaxerxes turned, and waved at a figure in the distance that had evidently survived the maelstrom. The figure – the mar-luph speaker – waved back as they worked on pulling free someone, or something, immured under a frustum of upraised path-substrate. All the while, their dæmon cluster worked at dissolving the slab. The someone or something in question did not come easily.

“Precisely my point!”

More laughter, as Friend Lord Artaxerxes started preparing his own dæmon cluster. 

“I… do… not intend that… you rescue me,” Friend Lord Tuoamas said, chest rising and falling very rapidly. More dark fluid creeped from between his lips, and he coughed again.

“Do not speak nonsense,” came the response. “I will administer the necessary debridement, and that will put you-”


The supine man supplicated with earnest quiet abandon.

“Do not let me die,” he said, voice like grit and dust. “Let me… choose the moment for my own… ending.”

“I-” started Friend Lord Artaxerxes, a small bead of water rolling down from lacrimal country.

He gave an outraged snarl as another intruder appeared just behind him, four-legged and thick and towering and dark, before deploying another dæmon cluster against him.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes shattered his way backward through the gross essence of medium, slandering the newcomer which would slander him. The person made of murder assumed a forked shape, buzzing electrodes snapping hungrily, and he began using it to exterminate the dæmon cluster’s members. The new creature, bent-backed and armored, whipped an arm around.

A hardened ripmapper slug manifested in the air as though thrown. Bright metalloid substance traveled straight for Friend Lord Artaxerxes, homing in very, very fast. Obviously not wanting to risk the weapon harming his subjects, its target flung forth his own dæmon cluster to extinguish the projectile. A fizzing sputterflap signified the sharding of the slug’s exterior. Flakes went flying; a small one embedding itself in a nonplussed Seven’s midsection, three more piercing the nearest succulent’s upper lobes.

Despite his successful removal of the immediate threat, the distraction managed to draw the Lord’s attention away for long enough.

The creature folded to immediately in front of the standing Lord, one grasper extended with a tiny button on their palm.

That class of weaponry known as a Saint Peter had very specific and very limited uses under most of the charters of war observed in Yrdky over the ages. A Saint Peter – a sextant’s friend, as some called them – usually (though not always) came in the form of a projectile payload. When that was the case, it was often accompanied by a suite of powerful defensive measures such as special diagonalization jitter seeds and eigenflak and redmetal shells and anti-anti-munition-munition-munitions to prevent its interdiction. This was because the actual guts constituting the crucial tuning mechanisms were typically frail – frail, on the order of “capable of withstanding the application of a chem bullet about as well as a stained glass daisy.”

The reason for such a delicacy was, simply put, that making something which took any and all forms of energy in its vicinity and instantly dialed them down to absolute zero – regardless of the Rochambeau sequence of the operational theater – required sacrificing robustness.

As the intruder made landfall directly in front of Friend Lord Artaxerxes, that little button on the intruder’s palm made landfall on his chest.

Instantly, a conic section with the human at its vertex underwent a reverse-detonation with a strange cut-off thump. The air, the ground, his flesh – a nearly-hemispherical portion of existence almost five meters in diameter flexed in state to something much, much colder. Some parts shrank in size as reduction of energy gentled constituent particles. Some parts expanded when electromagnetic forces insisted that particular atomic relationships were to be maintained at all costs and that things with hydrogen-oxygen-hydrogen bonds would not bend that way.

Then, the flash-freeze vanished as the Saint Peter petered off. Certain parts of the altered region returned to their original selves with amity. Certain parts were less fortunate.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes, or what remained, was little more than a skeleton. Thin protrusions of muscle here and there instead of healthy human anatomy. The integration of his body with the person made of murder was far more extensive than the reaching-fellow would have guessed.

“We shall take the son of the Maker, heathen.”

There was a rustle as the intruder juggled their prize, groping in their garb for something non-compressible. Holding aloft the human’s leftovers by his neck, his attacker drew forth their other hand, another fellow – a small hopping-fellow in this case – wielded like a stone. A pistoning of flexors drove that small hopping-fellow forward with a squawk, jaws positioned to sever that dread right arm.

With the squeak of iced tissues, the dread right arm in question suddenly sprang unto unlively motion. There was a snap, then a set of several heavy mechanical snaps, as it forced the hopping-fellow and its supporting limb to a standstill. A single second of perfectly still pause punctuated by a wheeze from Friend Lord Tuoamas.

<You are interrupting something very important right now,> hissed the person made of murder with its borrowed mouth. <Therefore, you will be interrupted in turn.>

Then, still within the much larger creature’s grasp, the frosted frame of Friend Lord Artaxerxes blinked his not-eye. From the not-eye erupted a coiling spoke, far too fast for one to do anything except observe.

The spoke flailed once, twice, beveled and keen, trifurcating the person holding its possessor and leaving a collection of mechanisms that had once contained a person to fall groundward.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes fell, covered in dark thin fluids, before the spoke he sported retreated not-eye-ward and flapped once, quickly, to clean itself. His flesh returned again; slow and controlled clottings of sinew and skin, nourished to health quickly and efficiently. His nakedness disappeared as he extracted clothing from his store of compressed goods, re-garbing himself.

His circlet had been annulled, though, so his head remained unclothed.

As though the last several seconds had never occurred in the first place, Friend Lord Artaxerxes tromped through the refuse of his most recent assailant. He knelt once more and his face crinkled.

The tear on his cheek finally fell to the ground.

“I wanted many things,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas, as his flesh quickly became food. “I wanted.”

“Do you still want?” asked the other human.

“… Yes.”

“My Lords!” shouted the mar-luph of before. Seven turned smoothly to see them sprinting rapidly toward the despot, and the deposed, and the reaching-fellow all.

“You are in time, Rankleschist,” coughed Friend Lord Tuoamas. He smiled up at the short creature. His head’s unnatural opening was beginning to foam ever so slightly at its edges, and his eyes had lost their focus.

“Lord Artaxerxes, cure Lord Tuoamas as fast as you may!” the mar-luph cried.

“No, my Earl. No.”

Friend Lord Tuoamas beckoned Rankleschist closer, asking a great and terrible favor with the flexing of four fingers. His unfocused eyes looked up at Seven as well.

“You also, reaching-fellow,” he rasped. That smile turned into a grin for the most insubstantial of instants. “I do not have enough time to become particularly eloquent. Let us form a Ktarebte machine now, the three of you all as operands, so my words might be believed in future.”

The three approached, cautiously, reverently, curiously.

“I have long desired to come into contact with a relic wrought by the hands of the Maker,” he hoarsed. “A less-known aim of mine, or ambition, or maybe simply surrender…”

Another sigh.

“I would like to expire.”

His eyes looked up at Friend Lord Artaxerxes.

“I would like a relic of the Maker to perform the deed of parting me from life,” he added. “Please.”

Before Friend Lord Artaxerxes could protest – assuming he would, assuming he could – Friend Lord Tuoamas shuddered.

“But we cannot do that just yet. I have a small prophecy for your ear, Lord. Yours alone.”

A gasp.

“It is to do with the future of our estate. The future of which we spoke several times. Come close.”

There was a moment’s hesitation, then Friend Lord Artaxerxes bent his head down, little chains dangling and jangling from his skull in place of right-sided hair. His still-human ear went down farther still, just in front of his friend’s hard lips.

There was a silence of several long and lurid seconds. Seven glanced down at Earl Rankleschist. Earl Rankleschist glanced up at it. Neither spoke, though other survivors began exclaiming and slowly forging toward the country of four. None of them got terribly close, though, once they noticed the fallen and the crouching.

There was a deep influx of breath as Friend Lord Tuoamas reached some conclusion, and Friend Lord Artaxerxes rose with a sinewy ripple. Friend Lord Artaxerxes bore no more tears, and no more frown.

“Do not forget,” said the prone man. Then, he spoke up with more spirit than the reaching-fellow would have credited possible.

“My… people! Dear people of Pennat Gate! I leave… you now. This is not because of any fault of yours. This is not lapsing… into nihilism. It is… simply… my time.”

A gulp, and a small fan of dark ichor came out of the man’s mouth. A gesture upward.

“Let those who are here, listen and give testimony if they are called to do so.”

Ktarebte machines, unlike people or objects, weren’t things that Seven could actually see in isolation. They were constructs partly of the mind, partly of the pure stuff of existence. They were tickets of inviolability. A breach in the bounds and criteria of a Ktarebte machine would always be observable in some formally identifiable manner, but without some flag or totem they were as abstract as knowledge, or love.

All three of those chosen by the prone man suddenly shuddered, as though stroked by the vibrations of a divine instrument. The prone man held up to the sky a glittering ring; the circlet that was worn by a Lord of Yrdky. Seven stared at the shiny loop, watching it suddenly start glowing with a deep disturbed brightness.

“If these three here before you should… knowingly spread falsehood, this crown will stop shining that day.”

He lifted it, giving its care unto Friend Lord Artaxerxes.

“If you should be asked to subject yourselves to a dowsing… simply say that I requested this, please.”

Friend Lord Artaxerxes turned to the crowd, a man discombobulated and shaking.

“Our beloved Lord Tuoamas has asked for interruption,” he said. His voice was calm, even, and in perfect harmony with itself. “He has specifically requested that Caladhbolg deal him the final cut.”

“Now!” coughed the man below and behind him, as the small crowd began to decry the announcement. A pohostinlat started forward, gripping a weapon of some kind in one hand and closely followed by a magus caber. She apparently wished to halt the assisted send-off of her Lord. When Seven stepped into her path, she stopped, ears quivering.

“I… can… feel the rot seeping through me. End this, Lord. I want to meet the Maker, if he is there in whatever afterlife awaits me.”

The person made of murder sleeved into some long fluted blade, a thing of weirdly perfect straightness. Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s elbow had become engulfed by the open mouth of some strange wrought creature at the blade’s hilt; a creature of flowing mane and curved tooth and tiny empty eyes.

Then to the reaching-fellow’s astonishment, the little gemstone that had lain atop the back of his hand suddenly danced out of its mouth, wrapping around the side of the head, and snapped itself into one of the sockets. From the forehead of the human descended the other coruscating star, disappearing into his vestments at the neck, before reappearing at the elbow. Like its companion, it ran up the side of the metallic monster’s head, and was emplaced in the alcove opposite of its twin’s.

<I am Malumortis, named by my creator. I am Caladhbolg, named by my bearer. I grant you absolution.>

The person made of murder spoke not with Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s mouth, but that of the little monstrous addition to his arm. Its eyes flashed.

“Goodbye,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas.

“I love you,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes.

The sword split the downed man from bottom to top in a single sweep, so gentle and sudden that it almost never happened at all. There were two Lonely Lords, and then there was one.

On that day, the day before the first day of a new existence, the day that the estate’s people would forever after call Haven’s Eve, Tuoamas Pennat, fifteenth Lord of Pennat Gate, conqueror of the lesser Toiné Silkface, childless and well-gifted in issue, brother in every sense that mattered to Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes, died. His pneuma departed, unfettered by resurrection or phylactery. His soma remained.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes made a single low sound, then the person made of murder wiped itself free of blood. The person made of murder once again became a hand. Across its back, two little gems gleamed. One re-centered itself on the uneven smooth surface, and the other began a lazy sliding trek up the not-flesh in which it lived toward its temple of residence.

Friend Lord Sebastio bent down, lifted the hand of his fallen comrade, and pressed it to his chin. Then, with reverence, he let it fall once more. Friend Lord Artaxerxes quickly used his hand to delve into the left half Friend Lord Tuoamas’s skull, digging out the parts of him which were turning to food. The head of the dead human wore away quite quickly, leaving only a small amount of his flesh in place. The carving was less than pleasant, but more than necessary, he later told Seven.

Then, the Lord’s remains were quickly collected – every free-floating atom, every joule. Those parts which could be immediately reassembled became whole once more; the wound which had killed him quickly became invisible. The wound which would have killed him in due time remained.

It reminded Seven of its now-deceased houseplant; a geranium which it had simply neglected for one day too many. The plant had become dry and almost perfectly preserved.

Seven missed that plant.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes quickly cleaned up the biggest and most offensive of errant bits left around the yard. Bits of intruders, which were discarded. Bits of refuse, which were replaced. Bits of victims, which were enshrined. Others helped.

Then there was no present sign that the encounter with the intruders had happened at all, and only the absent sign that there were numbers and selves missing.

Little more ceremony followed, save the rending of garments and myriad other manners of mourning.

The few survivors (unfortunate in a thousand ways, thought Seven, but favored in the opportunity to bid their leader farewell) went their separate ways in separate wailing silence.

Friend Lord Artaxerxes turned the thing he still held in his regular hand over and over. The loop glowed, glowed. He reached up and placed the present upon his cranium.

“Friend Lord Artaxerxes, what do we do now?” asked the reaching-fellow.

“Please, Seven,” came a voice that Seven had never heard from the human. “I had hoped you would already know the answer to that.”

“I have little enough certainty,” replied Seven.

“… I suppose, in that sense, you are too stupid to be stupid… and I am unsure whether I am smarter. In any case, we must continue,” continued Friend Lord Artaxerxes. “Words are no longer acceptable coin.”

The person made of murder hung slack and meat-fingered by his side.

Then the human was gone in a quavering throb of shattered peace.

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