“This entity, named [original illegible, unreconstructable, overwritten with the same script] Crippled False, is a child of the city, and – unless given dire reason – in the city it will remain. It shall protect the residents of Rhaagm in time of great need. In large part, it will dole out justice as I would see fit. There is one exception, though. If anyone should take an oath and invoke its name in the manner described by the plaque below, they put themselves in the power of this entity. If they perjure themselves under this oath, and they are destroyed or irrevocably mutated by this entity, know that they are guilty of lying – not of lying about their perception of reality, but of lying about reality itself. Be careful of assuming too much, however – it may decide, for reasons of its own, to sometimes extend… leniency.”-The Crippled False Etching in the Tower of Rhaagm
Eihks wavered a little bit, trying to reduce violent destruction in their possible futures.
It would have been VERY nice if Ktsn had foreseen some sort of fractured could-be selection, and provided advanced warning about their new equation of conflict. But beggars weren’t often prophets.
“Hang on,” he growled, and reached through his clothing. A quick unlatching, then the Morris-weave blanket he’d stuck beneath his other articles that morning came free.
“Wrap this around you,” he ordered Ktsn. “Especially the important parts. It should help keep you from getting cut or stabbed. If you can, put it under your clothing. It might save you if I somehow can’t.”
To her credit, she complied quickly, though he thought he heard a complaint about intolerable heat. Dull metal-gray skin settled atop her pelage layer. Somehow, she slid the fabric beneath both her garment and jacket without taking them off first. She tightened some places on her outermost layer.
“What is happening?” she demanded in a subterranean hiss.
What was happening could be summed up fairly neatly, if he decided to go over the subject in detail. As of the here and now, Eihks triggered his overclocking to gain some thinking time.
At the extent of his hearing’s limits, he had just picked up a familiar masculine voice, saying something low and hard and powerfully motivated. It wasn’t too clear what the contents of the speech were meant to discuss, but the inflections and register were most emphatically Loonmith.
The last time he’d heard that voice, it was arguing in secretive tones on the other side of a wall, and he’d been trying to look calm and collected while walking past the only building on a road for at least a quarter kilometer.
It was that other voice, though, that made him want to send his dæmon cluster to investigate. A dark saccharine Bequastish.
He paused, contemplating the various things that weapons fueled by nuclear synthesis and destruction might do to a human – or karkshesh – body. They were very unkind.
A few possible courses to consider.
Option the first: ask Ktsn to stay far away in the name of safety.
Option the second: physically and uncompromisingly manhandle Ktsn away from danger.
Option the third: at the first sign of danger, kill anybody posing an outlier level of threat.
Option the fourth: leave and pretend to have never been here.
The last was odious. It barely registered except as an academic blip, a case of empty decision space being populated. The second made him grimace inside. The first technically wasn’t exclusive of any of the others, and though murder wasn’t his preferred initial solution, he’d happily contemplate killing people if – say – it was the only way to keep Ktsn unharmed. Not that he enjoyed killing, but the separation between “knocking out or cutting arms off” and “killing” was a barrier often crossed, and not uncommonly crossed by accident.
Various dialogue-and-choice schemata he’d utilized for negotiations and civilized conversations whipped through his head. This particular set of events was an on-the-toes scenario; too many unknowns. A lot of his plans got filed under “may prove useful, keep tabs on this.”
He dropped his overclocking. The world came back up to a speed more normal than hours-per-millisecond. He opened his mouth, then immediately shut it as another voice slapped the air.
“And then what?”
The short loud phrase was followed by shushing, and another bout of Loonmith. Steps punctuated the reply with a steel-on-bark texture. The fact that the steps were audible from such a distance told Eihks they either fell on a floor of very curious composition… or they were caused by exceptionally heavy, metallic boots.
Non-Loonmith plus heavy metal sounds equals trouble.
“I think the strange visitor is over there, having an argument, and getting suited up for doing battle,” he whispered to Ktsn, like his throat had turned to warm stone. “If this turns ugly, odds are that people will get hurt or dead. I’d recommend you get yourself to safety.”
Ktsn rubbed her hands silently together.
Eihks slammed his eyes shut for a two-count.
“You’re sure?” he asked when they opened again.
Her handclap was silent but unmistakable.
Eihks waited, to make sure his approach was unobserved, then stalked toward the house of interest. Lusendrad’s tight-wrapped rope kept its planchette from thwacking anything as he kept fast and low. With an admirable softness of step, Ktsn sneak-crept beside him, each foot’s rear flagellum gentling the fall of her tread to near silence, while the front fleshy tentacle-cone-bits lent the mechanical advantage of long toes. Even carrying her bags and other assorted goods, she managed to keep her noise under the trenchant wind.
He set a quick flag in his sensory recording suite, indicating that action might need some hefty editing past this point.
They dashed behind a wide cart, empty except for a gauzy-looking tarp. Planting themselves by the fat building’s wall, they watched through a tall thin window with their ears. The window and the wall immediately around it had the sort of aggressive deterioration he’d usually need a couple ripmap slugs to achieve.
He gestured, edging down and away from the window, and Ktsn followed. Carefully, he imitated a tramp’s hunched sleeping squat – leaning against some “strange steed” sheltering in the building’s lee, putting Lusendrad to the side where he could instantly snatch it. He hadn’t seen many vagrants in this country, but it was at least plausible he could pull off the look for “holiday intoxication.”
He wondered how much meddling would result from this particular escapade.
“I told you five times if I told you once!” the Bequastish voice growled, now decipherable again at close range. Feminine traces. “This isn’t a toy!”
“That isn’t what I assumed,” creaked the voice Eihks had first recognized. “What I not only assume, but know, is that this is going to be our best chance. It will be your best chance. If we have to wait much longer, all our preparations for setting things to rights will be for nothing, and things will become much harder – assuming we can still meet our goal! The… big man, then his house, then his treasures, and then you can go home!”
Some similarities to other phrases he’d heard came back from his last espionage outing. “Big man?” He’d assume that was the king.
Eihks had a moment of existential displacement when a hand tapped the ceramic tiles of his shirt. After a second of his unbeating heart speeding up again, his eyes jackknifed onto the hand’s owner.
“How does that person know my native language?” Ktsn whispered.
He’d be thrilled if she started doing things with direct channel communications soon. In his experience, eavesdropping by committee was betrayed through whispers more often than almost anything else. Mind-to-mind was better.
“Something about… reminding someone. Something about not being a toy. They sound foreign, but not as natural as you.”
Really? Huh. That’s probably a linguistics magic of some kind, then. Possibly converts to the primary language of the listener. Weirdly arbitrary. I wonder what someone without formalized grammar development would perceive. I wonder what sort of corrections or corruptions it’s making. Assuming it is a breed of magic like that.
He deployed a very basic and easily-disguised utility for assessing Hiek machines. Nothing for measuring intent or function or structure or anything like that; just a yes-no breakdown of “is thing Hiek machine” and “how big thing’s magical influence” and nothing else. As it happened, thing Hiek machine, thing’s magical influence incredibly wide, in spacetime terms. It wasn’t anything like the very limited-range magical reach of living-water or dead-water. He’d glimpsed one or two rituals for the creation of living-water and dead-water, and those seemed at least a bit more similar.
Translator magic, he was almost certain.
“I think she has a special kind of magic… and there’s going to be trouble.”
Coincidental with his reply, the man stopped talking to the Bequastish-speaking stranger and barked something that could have been a name. A door inside the building thwacked open, feet stippled flooring, and a quiet voice mumbled furiously. Something with a lot of hard consonants delivered through teeth was the counter-reply.
A certain nerveless stomach nevertheless began feeling some flappy lepidopteran residents when more steps quickly crossed the inside of the house. The butterfly swarm became more active when the steps stopped right at the eavesdroppers’ window.
He and his partner weren’t as silent as the grave; even graves sometimes have visiting unquiet wildlife making noise. A hand cradled the end of the bullroarer’s staff. Rope tangled in fingers.
The person stood at the window just far enough back to avoid seeing human or karkshesh, then retreated.
Amateurish, at least some of them. It started to make more sense why Eihks hadn’t been caught staking out the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere house. It suggested either a sizable operation or desperation on the part of their recruitment efforts. He revised several operating assumptions to accommodate this new intel.
“I see the signal. Royal procession’s underway.”
“Right,” responded the first Loonmith voice. “Now, you hear those drums?”
The Bequastish was a bit curt, and had the air of someone primarily reacting rather than initiating.
“Those are part of the big man’s entourage. They’ll be coming this way shortly, but remember. You need to remove him, and perhaps his guards, but don’t get distracted. Don’t get tied down with other participants. There is a single true objective. If needed, we can deal with other obstacles as they occur.”
The emotional impact of mulling over the eavesdropped material gave Eihks pause. The feeling forced upon him was a bit like some call-and-response reaction. It was in the vein of walking Rhaagm’s mean streets with a wary eye and seeing a person, then recognizing them as a threat, and getting a very specific sensation based on that cogent realization.
However, it wasn’t any of those sensations on their own or even necessarily all of them in tandem that rankled him now. Rather, he had a weird out-of-phase leap between two states that shouldn’t be split by a gulf. He shouldn’t NEED a self-aware sober connector to join a general feeling of “bad” with a more specific “bad.” If you heard an animal sniff in the dead dark of night, suddenly seeing a predator come out of the gloom didn’t mean you had to consciously acknowledge it was a wolf before you could go from unnerved to actually scared.
This was his way of distracting and chastising himself. He wasn’t the most sentimental creature, being what he was. He shouldn’t NEED to grapple with such things to understand them, but…
“Clear. I shall regularly consult visual reference material for the priority target. He is likely to be conspicuous, protected, and wearing blue. Auxiliary targets are armed hostiles in his vicinity.”
“Good! Now prepare yourself, and may the dead guide you with their hands. One of our friends has cleared here, here, and here for your use; if you start in either of these vantages, you should…”
Eihks stopped listening and started hearing. Down the street, by the fork in the road, voices rose above the low-level din of controlled ecstasy. They rose because they drew nearer. The crash of drums spiked through the din, pinning each word to the air with nails, while in starkest contrast to these jagged percussive intrusions a gray gravel bed of footsteps paved the way for the voices’ owners.
A royal procession, bearing blood yet unspilled.
Eihks threw together a tarot deck’s worth of plans, immediately discarding half of them and scavenging what was worth saving. He tasted unease each time he contemplated how Ktsn might contribute.
Yes, he’d given her the Morris-weave. It should stop more than a couple supersonic kinetics, assuming she ran into any, and a wide number of other possible sorts of both magical and nonmagical harm. That wasn’t to say it was perfect, and wasn’t to say that taking a blow to the head couldn’t still kill her.
He didn’t regret taking an oath so much as he regretted the consequences of it.
“Right,” he whispered into a fold of Morris-weave just above her dust-laden fur. “You hear that ruckus down that way?”
He poked her in the side closest to the underway procession.
“Yes,” came from her. He almost wasn’t sure it was a pronouncement rather than the wind, until he grabbed the relevant recordings in his sensory records and replayed them half a second later.
“I think the king’s in imminent danger, so I need you to do something. Keep those people from coming this way as long as you can. Try not to harm them, but keep them away – and protect the king – at almost any cost, unless it’s you. YOU watch out for yourself. Remember to use that fabric as a shield if things get dangerous.”
She blinked in his peripheral vision, and then he added, “Please stay safe.”
Ktsn neatly rose to a crouch. The knock-kneed akimbo of fastlegs sped her silently up the lane from the house. A small fortune of time later, she peeked back at Eihks. Her pickax was loosened.
She resumed her transit a few seconds after the house’s residents started talking again.
He’d implored her to put her own welfare at the highest echelon of importance. That was a petty legalist stance to protect himself, to be sure, but Crippled False seemed to respect genuine argument even when the intent behind it was disingenuous. At least, so long as he didn’t go out of his way to learn anything about her state of health until the situation was resolved, he’d be cleared… in theory. If he did “fail to realize” her danger until after the fact, then it wasn’t preventable, and thus it would lie outside his oath’s demands.
Unless the interpretation of that oath was extended to assume he should constantly watch over his charge with liberally seeded temporal savepoints.
If his weird biology had still boasted working exocrine glands, he would have been sweating fit to wash his clothes. But he gave a mental swipe of the forehead instead.
Can’t do anything about it. Deal with business instead.
The long human brushed himself off, and toyed with a few ways to try and head off what sounded to be a planned strike by multiple offensive elements.
“We have a situation with possibly delicate – or possibly extremely indelicate – agents acting against our interests,” he subvocalized for the benefit of his future audience. “The agents are in that most dangerous of cliques: thinking, feeling people.”
The voices inside the building moved a little away from the main door on the other end of the wall. The Bequastish voice said something about… warmth? She urged caution immediately after. By way of reply, the original Loonmith-speaker insisted that action couldn’t be delayed any longer.
“Now,” Eihks continued under his breath. “In my younger days I would have thought that the expected behavior for which these people are watching is someone coming up to the door and saying hello, so clearly they’d never expect someone to take such an obvious course of action. Thus – OBVIOUSLY – I should do just that to throw them off before confronting them.”
“That or I would have burned through a wall to get inside.”
Yes, he would have done just that. Still did, on occasion.
“But now, armed with the wisdom of ages, it’s clear that ‘throwing them off’ isn’t always an attractive goal in itself. Furthermore, trying to play the double-bluff game of guessing expectations often leaves you with a sprained brain if it goes too far. It seems like they’d mostly expect intruders to just come up and say hello at the door, and we shouldn’t assume they’re going to do mental back-and-forth gymnastics about it. So… without further ado, or the desire to burn through a wall…”
He asked the Way for wisdom, strength, and patience.
Lastly, he dropped a tiny scalpel-sized blade from his sleeve, and ran it across the wood of the bullroarer’s “handle.” A sliver curled off. He pulled it free from the staff, then let go and watched. The thin flake started in a downward direction, then curved and made for the place where it had been carved away. It reseated itself, the wood becoming seamless as he replaced the knife.
Good. The Rochambeau sequence of the facet wasn’t dampening its magic appreciably. Not that he’d expected anything of the sort, but his expectations were getting tossed around lately. If not for the fact that his ability to use chandlery and other such thaumaturgy was tied to his skein rather than an independent object (and that he’d literally practiced it that morning), he’d probably be testing that as well.
Eihks snorted, moved around in front of the building’s door, bracing himself against Lusendrad’s staff, cleared his throat loudly to no effect, sighed, and rapped his knuckles smartly against the wood of the threshold.