The Actor and His Dilemma

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“Putting on a role is just killing a small part of yourself for a while, then resurrecting it.”

-Annotation in Epinoster Nine-thousand-six-hundred-thirty-centimeters’s Pontification in Gold Rhizomes, ascribed to the playwright

Eihks remembered everything.

That was a state of being, a blessed curse, to which he had long since consigned himself with maudlin glass smiles. His “everything” of eidetic recreation didn’t start at the day of his cerv-mesh’s implantation, as was the case for most extrafacetary citizens. However, it most certainly included every inconsequential instant of his time here, on the facet containing Dōdielnan.

Thus, as he sprinted down into the depths of the palace, he didn’t have to worry about taking a wrong turn. His recollections put little ghasts of less stressful times into the world, and he followed their lead – easy as being dead.

Thus, the only difficulty lay in telling which footsteps were the flight of the invaders, and which were echoes.

Thus, as he ran, it came as a minor surprise when he arrived at the intersection he’d intended, and the sounds of people jogging and running were already fading away. With perfect knowledge of the palace floor plan and specific directions both in his grasp, he’d expected to beat a decent chunk of his quarry to the punch. Evidently, he actually arrived last at this party.

His eyes glued onto an arch that he recognized, and he slowed. In its depths, people moved and distant non-foot-sounds crossed sound-swords. The arch went overhead, then behind.

He emerged into a titanic slanted-floor room best described as a basin, if basins featured a sunburst of water channels radiating from their epicenter. His was one in four door-and-stair arrangements leading down, and the only entrance currently unbarred. Columns shaped like incredibly tall urns fostered just the smallest necessary light in recessed sconces, leaving much of the cavern-gallery room in near darkness. Every bit of floor, level or otherwise, had a thin condensation sheen that was a little more than “damp” and a little less than “slippery.” Some twist of acoustics made sounds in the vast excavation reverberate and come back as sharp and concussive.

It was the center of the room which invited the gaze, however.

A cavity four meters across dropped into the bared flesh of the world. The angular rim of the hole wore very elaborate bas-relief patterns. Besides the carvings, it bore more resemblance to the product of mining equipment than, say, a swimming pool. Around the pool, contributing to the rocky defile of sharp voices, were arranged something like a hundred and fifty living people. An indeterminate number of dead had gotten pushed to the gathering’s edge. The latter category consisted primarily of people in the colors and insignia of Goeyren. The former were exclusively the sort who had slid their collective dagger into the kingdom’s side on this day.

Some of them bore clear signs of struggle. In fact, some of them looked like walking corpses, and nothing nearly as comely as the ambulatory cadaver who called himself Eihks. The ones who could move busied themselves with carving signs and patterns on the ground with a variety of edged tools. Their construction had several layers, magic that acted across itself and at counter purposes to its own structure in some places. It bore some similarities to the designs he’d observed with an odd sawtooth knife in Fonlat’s possession – a knife whose dead-water she claimed was rendered permanent and immutable. Presuming he was reading this scene before him correctly, of course.

Eihks tried to formulate possible interpretations of the Hiek machines getting assembled. Having a theoretical grasp of a genre of magic was different from the ability to sight-read it like musical notation, but he’d had to make do in similar circumstances in the murk of bygone years. That time he mentioned to Ktsn, when he captained a steamboat while a little something sorcerous went wrong with its engine, came to mind.

A psionic shiver ran down his cerebrum as he assessed the thing spread beneath him. It didn’t take a working primal instinct to see that this product was… wrong. It fell across the border of “unwieldy” and “cognitively dissonant” with deliberately calculated malice. One of the crucial components was a color-strobe obverse, the sort of thing that was to Hiek machines what anankite or something even more exotic was to hammer-and-forge metallurgy.

It was like an oblivious, stripe-and-collar bedecked family spending a Rhaagm night in the streets of Southsea, watched by alley-hidden figures holding weapons and axon strippers. It was like waking up and finding a message that you hadn’t written scrawled on the inside of a locked door. It was like watching a woman eating her lover’s extracted teeth while he avidly looked on.

Calling it merely distressing would introduce far more error than saying nothing at all.

As the pieces came together, his lips almost split with his frown. Operating on a nontrivial number of biases, he had to exercise caution in trusting his own judgment… but still, there was a perverse kind of sense to the proceedings. The picture he’d slowly constructed of Rollhir’s character, deposed and slightly mad and full of poisonous chemical desires, fit the mental image of the implications too well. Seeding the attempts at restoring himself to power, failing, and deciding to raze the fields before sowing them with salt.

The spell accreting in the chamber assembled like the kind of material used for making dead-water, but in an inviolable, inoperable form like the permanent shaping spells he’d seen here and there – Fonlat’s knife the most recent among them. It was a highly redundant working for making water dry, and doing so on a tessellating scale that would render the primary source of hydration for the city completely unusable. As far as he knew, there weren’t many aquitardant layers in the region.

Barring some very significant misinterpretations, the limits of this magic were the limits of freshwater contiguous to the room’s well.

For a moment he considered trying to ruin the symbols; maybe he’d get lucky and do enough damage to corrupt the spell’s purpose. But looking over the tapestry of moving bodies, he reminded himself that the weakest point in any particular magic (and many other things besides) was the person or entity in charge. That, and he couldn’t be absolutely sure what demolishing the symbols would accomplish in the heat of the moment.

His soles clapped louder than normal, moisture adding a little bit of extra smack on every toe-fall. It wasn’t like those overseeing the proceedings were in any way unaware of their environment – the instant he’d come through the mouth of the stairway down into the room, he’d noticed being noticed. However, when you had this many humans working in concert, it meant you probably wanted to do everything in your power to keep them on target, and the best way to accomplish that often meant giving them very clear and specific instructions for a very small subset of tasks. Ignore all else except in emergency. Back to the grindstone, peons.

Thus, the defensive outer ring for this incursion into the heart of the building complex that was the center of the city at the core of this nation didn’t actually constitute more than a tithe of their total. They also didn’t rush to meet him in his descent. The nearest group engaged as he approached, though.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me by, would you?” he asked as he reached the not-quite-level floor.

An arrow whizzed by, nipping stone when it missed and bounced from the floor. In the crush of adversarial souls, a few others had also seen fit to bring bows with them. The sound of their strings being threaded and metal brought to ready defensive positions and living-water or dead-water raised in the spirit of battle rippled the air.

“I don’t want to do this,” he thought of saying, and then disregarded the impulse. It wasn’t breath that would accomplish anything.

Eihks slipped his bullroarer out from his clothing, snapped its segments into place, and with a flick of the bullroarer’s rope lassoed the nearest of the rebel figures. He ripped the man out of position, then arrested his flying approach with the butt end of the staff. The victim’s ribs saved his heart from fatal trauma. The ribs themselves didn’t prove quite so kind to his body as they snapped.

Two arrows and a hammer flew at him. Pushing the roped man’s body away, he propelled himself from the arrows’ paths, then pulled the rope loose with a flourishing tug. He had a second or two to stare at the hammer, which clattered to the stone two full meters away. When he looked up, he saw one manic and utterly mad woman sprinting at him with a short javelin. Her face was a field of clay, scoured clean and level.

The short javelin, sadly, was short. The approximately three meter reach of an unfolded Lusendrad was not short. It also made a grimly funny noise when colliding with the side of a human skull at speed.

He swatted at a probing length of living-water and sent its controller spinning, received a cut across his serratus anterior, shoved another member of the opposition aside with a free hand, and kicked a snake-lean sneaking man’s teeth together through the meat of his tongue. He let out a scream of dying patience when a bodkin arrowhead stabbed through the back of his forearm. Simultaneously, a brute of a woman wider than she was tall cracked a cudgel against his back. A few vertebrae bent almost enough to fracture, and he went to his knees for an instant.

That was a truly freakish smack, lady.

“Break his skull open and eat his brain!” he thought he heard someone say, which was ironic – and uncertain, given the reverberating lunacy of the dubiously indoor locale’s acoustics. The direction of the outburst received attention as a target. The bullroarer’s weight whipped around in a wobbling arc. It hit something – it could have been the speaker, or a weapon, or one of the pillars keeping the roof aloft.

He rolled away, noting where he had to check his freedom of movement.

A skinny old soul whose vestments were more patch than weave spectacularly missed a dagger lunge at the Rhaagmini. He was rewarded for his bravery by getting a noose fastened around his shoulder, lifted by his belt, then whipped around as a living flail. The slightly unconventional tactic bought Eihks a bit more space than even his weapon’s considerable length would have won – perhaps some reticence to harm a comrade-in-arms. Or maybe unease at the stranger using him for improvised weaponry.

Two full rotations, and he let the man go. A short-lived hole in the ranks appeared when he knocked a couple of his colleagues over, but even before Eihks recovered Lusendrad’s rope the hole shrank.

The crowd started to fill back in around him. First a short-bearded man, then a pair who might have been brother and sister leapt at him, then got repulsed. He contemplated the distance still between him and the center of the room.

Eihks sighed inside, asked himself where good judgment fell, and considered the wider implications if he exhibited some of his foreign magic.

Supposing failure to prevent revolution: things would get very very bad for a large number of people – beyond even quality of life. It would be an open question whether or not they’d still draw breath in a hand, or two hands, or a month. Any unusual abilities he displayed would probably be forgotten in the scrum, which was… well, it was a consolation prize.

Supposing revolution successfully averted: presuming he decided to capitalize on the fact that he’d never explicitly denied being capable of any sort of magic to the natives, he’d have some awkward questions. He’d possibly need significant addenda to his running narrative in the eyes of the locals. He might find some difficulty getting to sleep.

A persuasive number of desirable outcomes huddled around the ethereal totem that was violence. He reluctantly raised his free hand in the direction of the enemy.

Chandlery, like many things, was a system of exchange. It worked with a much steeper tariff than Earth Standard general relativity, which (when exercised in proper conditions) had a rule-of-thumb going rate where a gram of mass converted into a magnitude of energetic yield on par with a simple nuclear weapon. The magical discipline only accounted for relational operations that involved thermal energy on one side of the equation and limited kinds of oxidizable matter – like flesh, and tallow, and wood – on the other. It usually returned at most a tenth of what other, neater means of energy-mass conversion could achieve. If the practitioner really felt the inclination, which Eihks frequently did, a substantial additional tax on mass consumption allowed for fine-tuning the direction of the resultant energetic expression. All this meant that he ended up making a teeny tiny crater near the heel of his hand, and pushing.

The enthalpic shift resulted in a change of ONLY a bit over fifteen hundred degrees centigrade, and ONLY affected a conic range of four meters in front of him.

A hard loud snap came from the evaporation of the region’s moisture and the gas expansion brought on by the transition’s instant nature. Nearby eardrums strained to deal with the barometric adjustment. Multiple combatants found themselves engulfed, every fiber and every cell of their persons lit on fire.

The sudden inferno exorcised very short-lived vivid shadows from many of the attending figures. The ululations emerged nearly stillborn; the overwhelming bulk killed from the invocation of chandlery stood entirely in the area of flash-fry danger. “Merciful” was a very relative and very applicable adjective.

Everyone else in the immediate vicinity stopped chanting, then relocated as rapidly as the human body permitted. Steam raised welts, and the few who’d only partially ignited tried to roll themselves over nearby damp patches of floor. A minority found room to dive into a nearby lesser water capillary.

“Excuse me,” Eihks said a few seconds later as he stepped over an increasingly-wet laid-flat man. For the briefest moment he thought he saw the water slowly turning the man’s clothing pink.

The outer ring of rebels parted to let him pass, some of them falling silent. In the torch-glow, and faint rhythmically pulsing light of the symbols they’d drawn around the room, their faces had stone-chiseled edges. A tiny handful of their number sneaked their hands into their garments for secreted daggers or grabbed improvised armament. Most got the wise idea that they wouldn’t do much good. Two of them decided to inconvenience him anyway. They found themselves decisively removed from the equation – the first got punched so hard he almost made a full half-rotation backward.

The fact he wasn’t burned evidently emboldened the man who’d been next to him. That emboldened fellow received a more incendiary discouragement after lunging with a shortsword. 

His howls also managed to discourage the rest of the gathering. Judging from their urgent whisperings, they’d only consider discretion as the better part of valor for a little while. It hadn’t expired yet, that little while, when he strode up to the clearing they made around the well.

“No,” he said, like he had to explain something to a child. “This is going to end badly for many people, stop, just stop.”

The holy of holies in this clique was a triplicate unit of simply dressed people. All three stood in a shallow arc to the side of the pool. The ones to either end gave Eihks only marginally concerned looks before going back to what they were doing. They played with strands of dead-water, making long thin channels which forked and spread and tapped into the room’s star of canals like tree roots.

Perhaps “blood vessels” made a better simile – clearly the hint of pink in the water wasn’t just imagined.

The man in the group’s middle had a font or basin of some kind, feeding into the pirate network. The man’s pallor could be best described as wan, under a fat face with thin stubble. He looked like parched soil rather than the healthy darker shades of most of the natives. Along the network dripped thin fibers of red, and given how much blood slowly fanned out over the incredibly thin but extensive channels he felt surprise the man had only grown pale rather than dead.

“We shall not stop, cannot stop, and serve a purpose that will not stop.”

Eihks didn’t experience fatigue, and – even were he a living human – his extrafacetary heritage ensured he wouldn’t undergo deterioration with aging. Yet despite this, he felt the weighted yoke of antiquity reclining across his shoulders.

“Stop, or I’ll stop you,” he said.

“No,” the man answered.

“You’re going to destroy this city’s infrastructure, kill an unknown number of people, and ruin countless livelihoods rather than let the king retain the throne?”

The man didn’t answer this time, he just waved.

The woman to his left halted whatever she was doing to the blood network, and pulled a knife from her belt. She brandished it high.

Eihks had not prepared himself for the possibility that she’d almost truncate an arm at the elbow, but she did. Pressing hard on the bone-deep slash, she bent down, doing her best to direct the flow into the nearest major branch in the network.

His hand reached out, gripped her wound, and efficiently cauterized it shut with less than surgical precision. Her expression gave evidence of some small amount of additional stress, but that was all. Her attempt to bring the knife back up got her hand broken on the heel of his right foot.

The crowd started to condense around him in something almost like a frenzy. When he whirled, his arm was at length. He steadily consumed invisibly thin runnels of skin to produce a radiative field, and the resultant space heater effect yielded a mirage haze that raised the gigantic room’s average temperature by ten degrees. In his other hand, he kept Lusendrad extended like the accusatory finger of a storm deity.

There was perhaps a single person in the whole company who hadn’t seen a portion of their own cooked alive, and that was because it wasn’t clear if the codger with the blue facepaint was blind or merely covering his eyes with a dark fabric.

“Do not threaten,” the man in the middle said from behind the pioneer, his tone almost convivial. His smile was that of someone watching a granddaughter take her first steps.

Over a shoulder, Eihks spied him spreading his arms wide.

“The man standing guard over our people learned of this rite through… a voice on the wind, a gift from the blessed dead as sure as we are standing here.”

Eihks’s lips pulled back, and his eyes flashed. How detestably… interesting.

The smile had stitched into a rictus, as the man continued, “If you wish to kill us, then kill us, but this rite cannot be stopped. Not by us, not by you, not by anyone. We are meant to do this!”

The man picked up his downed colleague. Her arm dripped blood on his sleeves, lost in the red scarves already cloaking them.

“You could… delay our triumph a short time, maybe slow events with the removal of the blood of the faithful. We could speed up the process by offering more of ourselves. But look!”

The half-mad individual was giggling as he pointed. At the end of his finger’s path, the pool was transfiguring. A downward spike of solidifying matter accreted in the center, veiny offshoots anchoring it to the edges. In less than five seconds, the whole surface of the pool was like glass. Blood dripped onto and ran over the surface of the newly formed dead-water, then ever so slowly spread over the transparent lens. In the same time, the sinking spire’s point had extended almost two meters below the surface.

Eihks rapidly contemplated how to extract or otherwise hinder the expanding plug, completely disregarding the other people in the room. His cerv-mesh made his brain’s overclocking go wild, setting him up with all the time in the world to ponder possible solutions.

And he came up with nothing.

If desired, he could set his dæmon cluster to deconstructing the spell, and by the very nature of a dæmon cluster’s capabilities it would succeed – but it would take time. Far too much time for humans, who (by extrafacetary time-measurements) required breath roughly every three minutes and sleep roughly every three hands, and water roughly every three days.

Try to unseam the spell’s motive apparatus? No, every part of the working was commutative for the time being. He’d have to affect the entire quantity of altered material. Judging by the way it skated down the channels radiating from the room and started growing branches from the well’s main spike, he’d require more sophisticated quarantining facilities than lay at his beck and call. Moreover, the working had a slight entanglement in its progression, a preservative redundancy in each isolated unit of spell-flesh. It wasn’t the factorial rate of increasingly interconnected interconnectedness seen in qubit manufacture, but plenty fast enough that even with this short head start his toolkit couldn’t hope to break the multiplying bonds faster than they were getting made.

He could take the nuclear option and cauterize enough of the palace, and surrounding terrain, to disconnect the transparent virus from the medium that spread it.

… No. No, he couldn’t. Not just because it would send Ktsn’s constituent atoms to the wind. At least, not for only that reason.

A door shut, a very very long way away.

The psycho-acceleration halted, and he returned to his normal one-second-per-second perception of reality, in an unaltered frame of reference. He barely noticed as the other rebels stared at the seething magic along with him. They started shouting their victory cries, but he didn’t even twitch.

As they rousted themselves to celebratory violence, making subtle moves in the direction of ripping him apart, his body started puppeting his mind rather than the other way around. It gave orders to give itself orders to do protective things.

Minutes later, when a stream of guards appeared at the entrance to the room, they found him approaching the foot of the steps. Several more bodies lay between him and the center of the room than there had been a short while ago. They’d dealt him some ugly blows. In some crooked jape, yet another arrow hole had been put through his forearm. In return, he’d made them look like half-charred suet.

Later, the guards who went down and apprehended the rebels would retell stories about the tall pale man. Two or three would say that they found him hoisting a strong man by the throat, still walking as though unburdened. They’d say they saw the rebel screaming and stabbing with a dirk as the fat of his neck ran like milk. The whispers omitted how the skin writhed beneath those fingers, merely telling that the rest of the crowd parted for the stranger before he turned and hurled the insensate figure into their midst. Others remarked at the way the foreigner smelled of warm metal. They’d point out signs of fire throughout the thoroughly damp room. Not a couple mentioned strange wounds. The invaders themselves alternated between jubilation at victory over some “scion of embers and evil,” and sick apprehension.

In the end, it all qualified as less than a footnote; someone loyal to the crown had struggled mightily against a multitude. The multitude succeeded in their terrible plan. The rest was dubious detail.

For now, the tall pale man climbed the steps. He stopped at the landing in front of the water chamber’s arch. Then he began wandering, though he didn’t get farther than ten paces.

He wandered with his head, with his feet, until his wandering almost tripped over a karkshesh.

“What…” she panted, clearly having sprinted with abandon from… somewhere.

Eihks stopped, blinked slowly, and dredged his memory for something important.

“That prophecy you made about king and kingmaker?” he muttered. “I think the kingmaker is Sandany. I think Goeyren needed to give her more free rein.”

He blinked.

“And I think she is the kingmaker in the sense that she’s kinged him over a brand new land of hardship and poverty.”

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