A Dreaded Composite

<< The Simulacrum of Dread

“There he goes, GedGetKroDra the Sword Hand! See his sword! See his hand! See how the two are one! Touch his hand, lose your own.”

-Opening of many assassin children’s stories about GedGetKroDra, and his collection of bladed prostheses

Sebastio felt the writhing beneath his skin, and knew the primal nauseating revulsion of infestation experienced by sentiences from all walks of life. The way the bones and muscle and vessels just dissolved like snow in water before his disbelieving eyes only compounded the despair. Beneath the flesh, he saw a molten orange light spreading veins of marbled foundational matter up his arm, his shoulder. He felt the dermis on the side of his neck disturbed by something beneath, and the revulsion transmuted to a horror that needed no words for substance. A corona of orange blotted out the world.

He screamed again, and far louder, when a voice resounded in his mind. Compared to the sensation of cerv-mesh transmission, it was lesser, and greater, and different, and the same. At least, observed the semi-hermetic part of his mind that lived in his overclocking hardware, it could be considered a dispersal of data that had the hardness and sensory fidelity of audial input, instead of the and-now-you-know instant acquisition of cerv-mesh communication. The feeling was the closest he’d ever known to having a second dissociated personality (digital or otherwise) living in his skull.

<I am not resident in your physiology. I am processing your biological components to instantiate an adapter for my transcendence functions. It is fortunate that your… lodestaff, you call it? That your apparatus’s useful materials can be co-opted.>

Sebastio could not even shriek in reply, so great was the extremity of his desire to be anything, anytime, anywhere else.

<Your distaste is understandable. However, note that the effort expended on altering your corporeal aspect is done in the name of keeping you alive. Were I to halt the process, your interruption would be an eventual consequence.>

Sebastio considered that prospect long and hard, not fully convinced that life with a synthetic parasite sword-

<I am not the blade. I merely coincide with its form along the axes of reference inherent to its arbitrary definitions of state. However, it also serves as a convenient designation, so such suffices.>

-a crazy synthetic parasite sword, which had just eaten his arm, was better than the alternative.

The Cambrian looked down the double-fullered metal that used to be his radius and ulna until it capped off with a basket hilt. The eye decorations were an obscenely bright red, the kind that suggested a visible hue even for those creatures whose light-perception organs captured lower wavelengths completely disparate to natural human senses. These gemstone lookalikes gleamed at him, and Sebastio recalled a snippet of Earth Standard poet-philosophy: “When you gaze into the void, the void gazes back.”

<Do you wish to make war?> The voice of Caladhbolg washed over him again in convergent ripples, centered around his id and the hilt which he still thought of as his right hand.

Sebastio had caught onto the psionic traits of his new and uninvited companion by this point. He answered question with mental question.

Why am I not dead?

The sword entity was nearly testy. <I intend to preserve you. I make you over into a vehicle which shall survive my intrusion, not into a corpse.>

But I was impaled by an object that ripped several buildings apart, and… killed multiple people, without anything like physical contact. If my logic is sound, and that seems too likely, I ought to be a pile of slumped meat.

The blade managed, somehow, to express a collection of lessons or principles or codes in a pseudo-visual presentation that called hieroglyphics to mind. Images which would have been right at home in a standard Not-Fire tarot deck spun rapidly past like a zoetrope. Thereby he gathered that, when Count had surrendered his hold on the weapon, he had also annulled his ownership, and it had passed to Sebastio upon Caladhbolg tasting its new wielder’s blood. His “claim” to the blade did not negate its woeful properties, however. Now that it had dealt his physical form a corporeal wound, the weapon’s destructive inclinations meant he would perish instantly if it were ever totally removed from contact with his person, wielder or not.

<My broad directives include the protection of my possessor. It transpires that improving on your physical makeup is important to this end – the forces I can bring to bear will otherwise ruin organs and pulverize bones. To that end your skeletal structure is now categorically reinforced, and your tissues have been either rendered redundant or annexed with protective measures. This would be a greater challenge normally, but again your staff weapon’s remains make for excellent foundation material. Just as importantly, equipping you with knowledge of my mutator and reflection methods shall prove advantageous. Consider this primer, and employ it where suitable.>

Another influx of knowledge. Sebastio abruptly gleaned many of the terrible and awesome things which his new arm could do. Like the sharing of a sensory, he gathered a great deal of subjective information, similar to getting the knack of how to hold one’s lips just right for whistling instead of an awkward salivary exhale. Unlike a sensory, the comprehension sort of… grew into place inside his brain, rather than snapping to a relatable but divorced perspective for the ends of teaching and instruction. It represented a familiarity on par with being good at throwing a ball, but not quite boasting the aim and self-mastery to unerringly land a hit on every shot.

<If you wish to make war, then do not fight – despoil.>

Two seconds after his body unhappily accommodated its new guest, Sebastio’s gaze refocused on his old foe. When Count noticed he’d drawn the Cambrian’s attention, a small noisome gasp leaked from the dark man. The greasy black color of the Nightmare Count’s trousers and tunic began to ascend from the cobblestones, several small conflagrations on his body dying quickly, and started to extend the distance from the man now in possession of Caladhbolg.

With an undignified yelp at a curling movement beneath the skin, Sebastio pointed using the head-hilt of the integrated weapon. The mythical head’s tongue handle untwisted, rolled into a cylinder, and extended in the blink of an eye. There was a psychosomatic event like the squeeze of a trigger. A flawless solid sphere of pure photons, accreted by a variation of the strong nuclear force, punched out of the new barrel, through Count’s thigh, and fifty seven meters down into the Paris street at a steep angle before dispersing into singular free-floating loose particles.

The Nightmare roared in pain. Sebastio knew he could not simply heal the fist-size wound as with most physical injuries. An application of his dæmon cluster would speed the recovery life cycle, but a coherent light projectile meant the man’s powers over darkness couldn’t just close over the gap and replace the lost portion of his body arbitrarily.

In a flash Sebastio collected a sense of exactly what and how he’d done what he’d accomplished. A little family tree of the traits and oddities bestowed by his freshly introduced transfinite tool glimmered in his mind’s eye, showing what kinds of interesting capabilities he might utilize to better visit ruination on the world. Twenty-four-quark munitions, generalized waveform lensing, at-will manipulation of the supermatter composing Caladbolg’s sword. Legions of additional lessons awaited his experimentation to expound further – every one of which had been founded on the perpetuation of violence.

Ye gods.

When goosebumps unrolled down his spine, he tried to push back on the subconscious trickle of endorphins, to deny a fact which hurt on a physical level: thinking about the pain he could inflict effortlessly felt… good. It was a setting that bore all too much resemblance to a time where a younger man had just discovered the potential of his electrical manipulations. A time where his actions arguably saved the life of the young battered woman who would go on to become his best friend’s wife. A time when Sebastio learned what it actually meant to kill.

In an instant Count jolted him from his introspection. The man had extracted Christopher’s axe from from his hip, its destabilizer construct teeth sinking into cobblestone after it dropped from its victim’s grasp. He imperiously speared the air in the direction of one of the members of the scouting party climbing gingerly from the wreckage that had been the Great Mountain, a semiartificial of unknown specification, and a serpentine bleak ribbon uncoiled from the man’s hand. It careened madly through the intervening space, and Sebastio made a swipe with his not-hand before it crossed the median to the semiartificial, who chirruped in distress while drawing a pistol and a thaumaturgic channel – probably a wand. The dark stripe abruptly changed course, pulled toward Sebastio like a pile of magnetized filings, along with gouts of street dust and miscellaneous debris and a few wooden baskets and crates.

The creature-missile-thing slid into his grasp, flailing and displaying stalactite teeth as it tried to fillet him. A squeeze and he did away with the construct, realizing half a second after the fact that he’d employed the sword hilt’s tongue and teeth as a normal human would use fingers. His elbow flexed and brought the chimera head shape closer to his face to see metal bend like articulated joints, despite the evident solidity of the medium. Another rush of inspired knowledge flowed into him. Capabilities for which he had not the mathematical background to entirely comprehend lined up for inspection.

Meanwhile, Count had folded himself out of immediate danger, leaving uninteresting atoms behind. Sebastio snorted, then his eyes widened as he whipped about to catch his foe just beside the door to a small house, using an unfamiliar magic as he peeled off part of the mace-wielding assassin’s white exoskeleton. The lack of pained cries from the victim, who had dropped his heavy pistol and was immobilized from nothing more than the Nightmare touching the back of a shoulder, made the ordeal that much worse.

Sebastio himself folded over next to the assassin, or tried to. His cerv-mesh, bewilderingly enough, relocated him half a meter aside from his foe, and so when he swung with his left fist it came up just short of Count’s ribcage.

What!? How… what… ?

The failed blow encouraged discretion in the not quite recipient and Count fairly flew back, revealing an agony of carved lines in the assassin’s flesh. The markings were clearly ritualistic and from an arcane discipline Sebastio guessed was founded on the taking or perversion of life. Whatever the rite was intended to do would possibly kill the assassin and probably a number of the other visiting extrafacetary investigators.

Moments later, an assessment of the incomplete magic trickled into his brain, courtesy of his squatter. A flexible ritual base, R’gaonit genre of thaumaturgy. Based on the size and shape of the outermost marks the effective range of the ritual would extend around sixteen hundred meters in every direction. Based on the primary tokens shaping its function, the effect would be instant and biologically inclined. Based on the accents, it clearly had the trimmings of either some kind of gardening application or a neutron bomb.

Based on the identity of the ritual’s instigator, he knew what its function would have been.

Sebastio gritted his teeth as he locked eyes with the Nightmare once more.

Free from his captor, the assassin leapt away, the relatively low pull of Earth Standard gravity permitting him to clear half the square before he touched down and sprinkled some of his gore on the street.

<Wielder, your foe persists. The element of decisiveness will assist you in voiding him more than efficacy of tools, unless you specify further voiding of life as an objective or acceptable side effect. Since your favored solution design patterns imply preservation of sentient life as a major directive, I will make a suggestion of one of my functions.>

The Cambrian thought quickly, then accessed the function. This one was a combat utility, but unlike the function he’d used for lassoing the eel thing at a distance it also incorporated a very strange simplex connection. His mental tutorial on the tool’s use was oddly vague except for specifying that it was excellent for a surprise advantage. The almost-manual in his brain only mentioned that it “used energetic relocation” and not exactly how it worked.

Sebastio felt a glowing halo surround his sword hand hilt, and before Count could so much as blink the supernatural blade flashed pure orange. The halo fractured like a silent midnight upon the first chirp of a cricket. A small window into elsewhere, some elsewhere covered in gleaming yellow brass and slathered with blue sunlight, rent the air apart just above Count’s head. Through the aperture flowed song, and a jumbled mess of inputs for senses the human witnesses could not name. A foot-sized bundle fell through, rebounding off of Count’s face, and then the window closed immediately. Count made a small exclamation of distaste, and shook himself. The object fell earthward and landed unevenly on the stony street. Sebastio felt thought vacating his mind like a ruptured balloon when he saw that it was that anachronistic staple of human civilization’s comedic history known as a rubber chicken.

Count stared dumbfounded at the thing.

Sebastio stared at Count.

Count looked up at Sebastio.

Sebastio looked down at the rubber chicken.

The tuning mechanism hidden within the rubber chicken went live, modified the dictates for the immediate vicinity’s applied material interactions, and converted two thirds of Count’s bodily mass-energy to heat and then to nucleus dense matter in a multi-stage definition translation.

In such a case, the man’s tremendous darkness-aided resilience served as a curse of the highest order. Instinct drove him to sublimate his person into the form of a mist at the ultimate moment, and a cloud the color of smoke from a tire fire rose as his head and shoulders dissolved. No more than halfway through the transmutation of his ribcage, the activation of the weapon caused his black clad legs and midsection to fluoresce and then drop to the ground as a collection of organic-looking metallic tumors. A shriek of pain and rage scythed out from the mist.

Sebastio watched the small cloud pulsate, looking for all the world like a diseased lung ripped from its owner’s chest, then it whirled and flattened into a disk. The still-alive wretch that was Niall Bennosuke flew its amorphous form abruptly away from its opponent, growing and contracting toward the hills like an accordion made of evil wasps.

What kind of functions are available for dealing with an adversary like that?

Sebastio watched the cloud, then tried the same tractor beam trick he’d used before. Count’s miasma slowed, began sliding back toward Paris, but it shimmied and writhed, and a moment or two later it resumed progress, though at a marginally decreased rate.

<There are tools for voiding creatures of spirit, or the spirit aspects of entities with non-spiritual shells. An enumerable few are these.>

Sebastio was taught in quick succession about something like a tactical nuke meant to sanitize specters, a spear of holy light that cleft bodies and souls from each other, and a truly disturbing utility which banished its operands and everything in their immediate vicinity to the Purple. The last was unsettling because he couldn’t quite convince the little voice in his head that Count deserved anything more than wandering the living nondeterministic Hell which was home to Beasts and inimical to virtually everything else.

The Cambrian watched his onetime friend’s retreat, and realized that employing any of those functions would almost certainly kill more innocents. Even the price of Count’s life was too paltry an exchange for that, he thought as he turned to see the hurt and destruction wrought by perhaps two minutes of action with Count and Caladhbolg.

Any other options in that vein with smaller yield?

He looked up again to see dark mist streaming over the horizon of the nearest hillside.

<Additional complementary functions are available. They also have far more complexity than the tools you have brought to bear so far, and ought to be practiced extensively.>

Interesting but not useful, and further lost life is unacceptable in these circumstances.

There was an urge to fold after his opponent, to pursue until Count was exhausted. Sebastio had the need to kill, and it rolled up from his right hand into his mind. The all-too familiar conflict: ought one to manufacture suffering?

Yes, said the back half of his brain.

No, said the front.

He stepped on the primal lust and quashed it, shaking softly.

No. Not here and now, after the loss already meted out. Not when we’ve been so fortunate to have so few die. Sufficient unto tomorrowyear is the evil today.

<An inquiry – do you not desire to extinguish the man who even now flees?>

I want an end to all this pain. Most of that man just got turned into recycling mass. Even if he survives, and losing that much of one’s body makes the prospect uncertain, I doubt he’s going to try anything anytime soon. Speaking of physical inconveniences, for that matter, that folding function a couple minutes ago didn’t put me at the designated location.

No response came forth, but the weird sense of another tenant shoehorned into his body didn’t tell Sebastio whether that was a deliberate statement or a lack of worthwhile contribution.

In any case, he continued, I don’t know whether there might be other functions I can’t trust right now or how much you might be related to that sudden change of affairs, and that makes me hesitate to just throw myself into another scrap.

The son of Iggez Artaxerxes didn’t think this judgment was another pedestrian case of self-sabotage. He was not a person with whom actual killing sat quietly and easily. However, he knew the difference between self-produced emotion and emotion from external sources – sensories and otherwise – and recognized that he felt a skin-thick layer of slaughtering madness which was… not his. It didn’t exactly project onto his psyche, but it was like his mind was a temple and in an ugly roofless shed behind it lived a well-read and polite troll that would happily rip apart any person who dared visit it.

If he let that troll out this time, and laid Count low… could he stop there and lay down his arms?

I’ll kill if needed, and I won’t be an animal given to bloodlust.

He held his arm farther away from his body.

The entity in his arm did not reply.

A chittering cough drew his attention – the assassin was busily ripping up a ragged stretch of fabric dangling from the shattered side of the Great Mountain. The intended use of the fabric was as a bandage, he discovered, when the bleeding figure wrapped the cloth around a traumatized torso several times. With a grunt, the assassin stepped over the low splintery edge of the building’s wall and into the shade, his uninjured chitin plates throwing a dull farewell kiss of reflected light.

Sebastio expanded his awareness and realized the damage in the square was hardly trivial. A number of buildings bore signs of violence, underfull bags of coin ruptured to get their paltry contents. He was glad, he supposed, to see no natives lined up to either worship him or put him to death on account of his evidently supernatural status.

The plan to ambush Count worked, after a fashion, but the cost had included several more civilians, and a couple of the research-scout team’s members – including Christopher Leffikan. It suddenly hit home, the degree to which Sebastio had been in exactly the same spot roughly half a year prior. The Cambrian didn’t sink to his knees in his lament, but it was a near thing.

A memory of the slurring chaos of fighting readmitted itself to the mind’s halls. Several dæmon clusters, busily seeking each others’ Hiek machines, solving for the sequence of operations which would nullify their opponents. A chill ran down his back, and he instinctively looked about for mannequins coming to escort the offenders away. Phantom images of mannequin-auditor pairs actually appeared before him for a moment, so great was the ingrained power of suggestion. Then he cradled his head.

If anything justifies using a dæmon cluster in a combative scenario, this is surely it, he thought to himself. The thought was so comparatively feeble that he immediately abandoned the subject entirely, shivering slightly.

Sebastio made a hard consonant-laden noise, picking up the weaponized rubber chicken from the street’s surface and examining it. Whoever had come up with the implementation of such an armament had a warped sense of humor. As for the shining elsewhere location from which the counterfeit fowl had sprung, that was its own series of mysteries. He would need to dig up more on the Maker than the slurry of folk tales and historical records held as canon for many Rhaagmini. But that could come to pass later. For the time, he removed his cloak, wrapping it around Caladhbolg and binding it in place.

He mused with bittersweet irony: he had always adored the tales of Eihks Richard’s adventures into perilous and wild facets in his youth. Now he himself was living the dream of navigating interesting times, just like his childhood idol – although probably not even the human legend or his karkshesh partner had encountered a scenario quite like this one. He repeated that question half-facetiously asked by many other fans of the Journals of Gem Pioneering: what would Eihks do?

The cursory glance he ran over the covered shape of Caladhbolg froze in place as an idea occurred to him. It was the sort of idea that would have been discarded out of hand if it did not strike a resonant chime in his soul. Of the legions of adages and proverbial sayings with which Eihks peppered his documentaries, one inexorably boiled to the top, and lay glittering like a gold pendant. The one that entered the hallowed halls of immortality from a speech just before the explorer-cum-philanthropist and his then-new compatriot began their first sojourn together.

“Greed of spirit has cost too many too much over the eternities. Charity of spirit is the only necessary remedy, and the only acceptable response.”

Maybe it was time to put aside his institutional breed of giving, and give something else instead; give a safe haven to those who could or would not otherwise find such a thing.

Stowing the enigmatic ersatz fowl of destruction he had summoned from elsewhere inside the cloak’s folds, he sought and found Otris. The naufer was doing something to an array of medical modules in the center of the rented space. Dust and splinters scattered about the inside of the Great Mountain’s still-intact if exposed back room. Sebastio stepped through the gaping hole which had been the rear wall of the structure, noting meanwhile that multiple new supports were emplaced around the room to uphold the doubtless unstable second floor. Most of the crew had relocated themselves to the confines of their technological oasis. Not a few hovered near Otris, seeking orders or explanations or something else entirely.

Sebastio glanced five bodies laid out by the right hand wall, and saluted unconsciously when he saw Christopher’s closed eyes and mouth sticking out from under an insulating blanket. The Maker’s creation had effortlessly flensed the layered defenses placed over the Minuteman and other combatants. Defenses which used everything from diagonalization jitter to perfect Hiek shells. 

A single pretentious-looking sword had done that.

He darted a furtive look at the thing embedded in his flesh as he stepped past, walking up to the naufer while scuffing his heels loudly enough to avoid surprise.

Otris turned, the medical unit under her busily spewing out useful nonsense as she helped a human tech to keep her hand motionless on the device’s plate. A lengthy gash across the hand’s back creased shut, though its owner looked almost like she didn’t much care if the hand was salvaged or replaced later. The weal should have been simple and clean enough for the tech to treat with her own facilities, not much more than removing the unsalvageable cells with her cluster. As such, the Cambrian was sure the injury had come from Count’s shadowy ministrations, seeing the measures being taken to treat it. Hopefully it did not harbor some exotic variety of rot, or whatever it was that Sebastio had previously seen the strange bitter atypical use to render biological matter down into sludge.

“Otris, I have something to discuss.” Sebastio tensed, like he was the one who’d been injured on the hand and not the young woman undergoing treatment. Although, he reminded himself, he was uninjured only by dint of no longer possessing a hand capable of getting impaled.

Otris stared at him, then her sideways-figure-eight pupils broadened.

“Storms protect me. What did you do, human?”

What a question. What an answer.

“The best I could manage.”

“Your eyes…” The naufer faced him directly, her nresd softly stirring in the stiff intruding breeze admitted by the wall’s breach. The other faces and expressive features in the room, covered in dust, likewise peered over. The reactions they started displaying were alarming in the extreme. Sebastio met a few sets of eyes, and finally turned to the extremely reflective chassis of the dark generator, bending down and peering at his own image.

Two eyes of unearthly orange looked back.

He lunged backward with an involuntary yipe, slowly reaching past his collarbone with his left hand to where he’d seen an arterial glowing tattoo running up the right side of his neck. The texture of his skin was wrong, like the smooth ungiving substance of a luxury disk’s seat base.

Sebastio stroked his neck again. He sighed.

“Things went worse than I’d hoped. I’m sorry it cost good people. Count won’t be around to cause trouble, at least for a while.” 

A sudden realization. Niall Bennosuke had grown superbly venal and malicious since his still-painful attack on Kallahassee and… other innocent Rhaagmini. That, or it had been an expression of an otherwise-hidden face of his character. He had also shown a cunning in the pursuits of the saboteur and the charlatan. Sebastio felt worse than stupid, he felt useless for just now spotting the likely correlation between his nemesis and the infestation seen over continental Europe during the present period of many Earth Standard analogues.

“Wait… He may have been… There’s a chance he might have been involved in the spread of the disease that’s going around this part of the world right now.”

The striations over the twin-pupiled eyes seemed to flex and dance as they stretched. A single hoarsely hissing breath seemed like it would cause the woman’s lungs to explode.

“Black plague,” the naufer half snarled. “The animal.”

Sebastio up-signed.

“Count prefers to do things at a distance, but he hates a lack of agency. Consider investigating the vermin for unusual traits, my guess is that he may have done something to speed the proliferation of the affliction, or create more transmission vectors.”

The techs slowly began to drift off to what they’d been doing. Sebastio looked around, then shrugged internally, and sent a direct channel connection request to Otris. She seemed surprised at his eminent rudeness of isolated communication – you didn’t have to be Rhaagmini to recognize ill manners. After an impenetrable pause, she answered the handshake.

{I am terribly sorry, about everything. I know very little about your chain-of-command; who is your superior now that Christopher is… neutralized?}

{We are technically under his leadership even now, but until he completes revivification and redeployment, I am head of surveillance and research. KogNakKktDzk takes precedence on issues of security.} Otris indicated the injured assassin, who treated everything around him uniformly as either inconsequential or suspicious. Sebastio momentarily thought about talking with the assassin instead, and dismissed the notion.

{I do not intend to remain much longer. If Christopher returns, give him my apologies and thanks. There is something I can give you, though – maybe it will appreciably mitigate the costs of your enterprise here.} Sebastio composed a large sensory of the partly forced and partly requested lessons on Caladhbolg’s nature, and the instruction on how to invoke its harmful talents. He paid special attention to capturing the subjective feeling of how distinct from a typical digital personality it seemed, in everything from speech patterns to the curious evident lack of normal emotive modes.

Before he could send the files to Otris, an increasingly familiar intruder butted in on the two-way channel.

<Do not share that information. It is privileged to users with wielder level permissions or above. Only root may lift or alter those restrictions.>

The Cambrian nearly terminated the connection with Otris by accident, reeling as he heard the sword entity “speaking” in bytevoice. The sound, if the noun accurately described either the medium of person-to-person communication through mesh and Monolith connections or… whatever the HELL was used in the normal mode of talking with Caladhbolg… was somewhat more compressed or distorted than he’d been getting used to from his uninvited companion.

{It communicates directly?} Otris lay somewhere on a straight line connecting intrigue and defilement, and closer to the less pleasant side of the spectrum. Her words came over the link with a minor quaver.

<I communicate directly with my wielder in very specific contexts. In yet more specific contexts, like those at hand, I may extend discourse to entities outside of my regular means. It requires bridging or circumventing adapters in this instance, but my prioritization training deems this allowable. It is quite refreshing, in all frankness – after ages of idle loneliness, the first person to uncover myself was so thoroughly contained within his own workings that he only qualified as a wielder by the narrowest and most literal margin. Should I have integrated with his biology directly he almost certainly would have continued to demonstrate an obstinate segmentation.>

Sebastio drew the words of the sword’s monologue back and forth, hoping to use them like a bow and light some inspired flame. Before he could put thought to verbiage, the naufer interjected.

{What do you mean? Did Niall Bennosuke utilize… you… differently than Mr. Artaxerxes?}

The sword responded with a lashing flood of ideograms summarily describing an arm being converted to faintly glowing orange exotic matter. For some reason Sebastio felt extreme embarrassment at seeing the explanatory sequence, like he was giving birth in the middle of a stadium and the stands were overflowing with attendees hanging onto the announcer’s minute-by-minute commentary.

<By contrast, my prior wielder had a moratorium on the types of interaction medium with which I create percepts, both entity-to-entity and entity-through-proxy. In my limited experience with contemplations of personhood, he displayed traits which suggested mental fragmentation or even loss of gestalt cohesion. He might have been entirely unaware of my sentience, for that matter – he certainly never expressed an interest in myself beyond using my most basic folding-isomorphic applications. I can safely say that I feel insulted for the first time in my existence tied to this weapon’s vessel.>

{Did you not see Count stab me through the palm? Did you not see the magical light show?} Sebastio tried to restrain his incredulity at Otris’s questioning and succeeded partially at best.

Her response nearly drowned in the sea of disgust buoying it along.

{I witnessed some variety of energetic discharge. I was also under the impression that the Nightmare had been thwarted by some more esoteric magic at your disposal. In the spirit of full disclosure, the eccentricities you Rhaagmini show when talking about your patron saint’s accomplishments led me to conclude that the sword was a frivolous allegory for an extremely dangerous magus’s creation. But it is real – and… inside you.} She assessed the bundle of Sebastio’s covered arm, and she gave the impression of a shudder.

{Believe you me, it was less than comfortable to experience.} Sebastio considered speaking to Caladhbolg off the channel, but it was quicker to use the accelerated adapter-designated portion of his brain, and save the trouble of repeating himself later.

{Whatever you are able to divulge about your nature and capabilities, or of anything else which might prove interesting to those hoping to learn more about the Maker, please tell this woman.}

<For what reason?>

Sebastio felt an ember of frustration. He would do less well in his relationship with the enigmatic entity if his decisions were being consistently questioned.

{Why does it matter?}

<You recently acted against my underlying operating parameters. It is in my interests, and yours, to gather training data on your decision-making weights and the logic directing the same, so that my agency upholds your directives.>

Sebastio thought.

{I would certainly like to improve on the knowledge of the Maker available to the people of the gem. More importantly, I also hope to make reparations for failing to preempt the crimes of the Nightmare Count committed this day, and strive – where justification and means intersect – to… protect. The spread of useful data, pertaining to something as potentially destructive as yourself, serves to achieve both goals.}

He half expected the sword to chastise him for a mismatch of value between concrete information on a priceless relic weapon and a handful of lives. Instead, two data were extended through the channel connecting him and Otris. The first was a date. The second was a much larger deliverable, containing a public key in the virtual equivalent of a useless but ludicrously opulent reliquary.

<These files may be disseminated without violating outstanding constraints from my creator. The former is the absolute time at which I was connected to the weapon you apparently refer to as Caladhbolg. The other is one of the keys used by my creator in his projects. If you find one of his works, send that key as a ping payload, and you may get a response. That response will almost certainly prove… useful.>

The value of the key was self-evident. The date, on the other hand, was arbitrary, except that it denoted a time from an age past. A very, very long age past, even for a civilization used to thinking of a “long time” as anything in excess of a couple trillion years.

Otris sounded subdued. {To think that this artifact seemed three-quarters myth just yesterday. I will need to examine the key for veracity. Circulation will not leave a highly select expert team until sufficient evidence that it is benign can be compiled. This is amazing if it admits any breeze.}

Sebastio felt a miniature grenwall running through his brain, trampling and clawing, painting images in the color of blood and gray matter of the Artaxerxes manservant Nessro. Nessro, talking about his father’s admission of breeze, over hexadecades of above-board dealings. Nessro, describing the odious “wind-walls” with whom Iggez Artaxerxes had to negotiate time and again. The youngest Artaxerxes was not quite the last person deserving the Sterling reputation of admitting breeze – but he was far from the first as well.

{Otris, I need a favor.}


{The people of this facet are suffering. For many reasons, not just what Count may have been doing here for the duration of his stay. I want to save someone here, just one someone, from a likely terrible and diseased end.}

{You want me to assist you in abducting a facetary civilian?}

{Crippled False, no. I want you to avoid mentioning the absence of myself and a certain young man named Louis to your colleagues for a little while. This kind of adoption, for lack of a more palatable word, can be done entirely within the bounds of law, but… well, I cannot think of many Bookers, or Ganymedes, who will look upon this kind of development with great pleasure. Hopefully within one or two hands extrafacetary time it will be a non-issue and my friend should not have to revisit Rhaagm again. I want to give him the opportunity to live a greater life than a slow spiral down into obscurity and grief. If that means I have to move to Bequast to do so, then amen.}

Another pause, so long for cerv-mesh operations and so short for everything else.

Not stressful or anything.

{If pressed, I will have to disclose what I know; barring direct inquiry, though, no information will be surrendered.}

Sebastio’s muscles quivered and loosened, and the relief melded with the sleepless exhaustion of the past particularly taxing hand he’d spent wandering this near-copy of Earth Standard France. He gratefully let the channel connection between himself and the naufer hang, so that she could end it if she desired. Removing his attention from the nigh instant world of mesh networking to the comparatively glacial pace of biological forms, he gave Otris a small soft smile.

“Thank you,” he said, and knew that anything more would be gauche at best.

The naufer considered him, and her blue-striped eyes showed some kind of resolution.

“May you and honor be joined on life’s journey,” she replied, ears pushing forward several degrees, and turned to continue working without another word.

The Cambrian felt a small surge of hope as he made an about-face, holding his hidden arm with his free hand, and left through the door of the small recently-bereft team’s operations room. His prayers for those whose lives had been stolen or ruined by the Nightmare Count were terse, heartfelt, and, to his amazement, helped him to find his own peace.

Where does the world end, and where do I begin?

He considered.

Where preservation can be done by action, and not by example.

He managed to pet the Great Mountain’s cat as he went in search of someone whose life he could better.

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