“Why do we forgo the powers and pedestals of gods? Why do we refuse to tailor ourselves brains with perfectly leashed emotions, or bodies woven straight into the stuff of existence? Why do we accept any measure mortality? Some might say it is in the name of preserving our self, our identity, and this is true. But… the Údanese folk saying has it better. ‘Remember what the skin eater knows: beware, lest you get everything your heart desires.’”-Connisel Frena Frena Pjoßtet, On the Extrafacetary Principles of Lesser-Privilege Life
When Sebastio Artaxerxes met the gaze of Tuoamas Pennat, the Lonely Lord realized he was dealing with no ordinary man.
The Cambrian wore an iron-hued cloak on his back, and his garb had an Earth Standard cut archaic enough to naturally blend in around Yrdky, though it was also painfully drab. A small roughspun shirt with cloth ties at the throat showed a little of his very dark complexion below the neckline. His legs bore trousers of that brown color which was a frequent choice for people where the fact of clothing was far more important than which dyes might be used to make it. He was wearing long thick boots made for tromping through thorns and kicking open doors. A large heavy glove used in hoop-hook hung on his right arm and ran to his shoulder, though his left was conspicuously bare.
The man’s face was where things began to get interesting. His hair and beard wove in braids of a simple pattern, leaving a curtain of dark vines to shade his throat. The nose, mouth, ears, lines, and most of the skin of the face seemed normal enough, aside from a blurry yet angular glowing orange tattoo running up the right side of his neck where his skin was not shielded by hair.
His eyes were a different matter.
The right one was a searing orange, a strange veiny starburst that overflowed from his iris and into the sclera. In the center, the pupil even seemed to be tinged yellow. The left eye was less extreme though still quite shocking; the iris had a circling ring of sky blue, but near the middle the color began to mutate to orange as well. It was not any kind of vanity augment or magic (or gene modification for that matter) that Tuoamas had seen, and he had seen a lot. The Lord was Yrdkish through and through, and though he would not leave his home for the world, he had a cosmopolitan slant not often seen among the self-invested culture of his nation. True novelty was so rarefied that even if he had no other reason to remember him, Tuoamas would have recalled Sebastio for the rest of his life.
Bequast covered a span of endlessly-layered adjacent spatial dimensions to satisfy its infinite real estate demands; Rhaagm had more arcane methods of managing and augmenting its own territory. Yrdky, though, boasted a limitless countryside, extending in an unbounded plane in all directions of the compass. Deserts, fields, marshes, stone bluffs, woods that stretched to the sky. Most of its bounty, oddly enough, suited human-congruent life right out of the box – tundras of methane ice and very occasional regions of extraordinary atmospheric pressure notwithstanding.
However, the mountains of Yrdky, like its estates, occupied a position of unapproachable grandeur. Some people compared mountains to knives, others to teeth. Animals, gemships, the dew of the morning grass. To none of these could the distant and cyclically recurring geometries compare: they were the mountains of Yrdky, and that was all. The backdrop of those keening soaring slate-blue points, far above even the many-kilometers-high surface of one of Pennat Gate’s Eighth Step platforms, formed an awesome backdrop against the forest-yard, and especially the strange unknown visitor with his gently wafting garb.
As far as visual first impressions went, it took some beating.
Then the man issued his challenge.
“Tuoamas Pennat, Lord of Yrdky, I demand you meet me in battle.”
His Yrdkish was rough in its pacing, he had a Rhaagmini accent of the highest order, and he spoke with a directness that would have stopped the heart of any of Tuoamas’s diplomats. At the time, standing in one of the hundreds of forest-yards of Pennat Gate, Tuoamas was sure that the stranger must have been addressing some other person.
Afterward, Tuoamas felt a slurry of confusion about the whole ordeal. He’d been called out by name. It was his face at which the newcomer was staring with his livid gaze. But even so, the Lord had felt somehow… irrelevant to the proceedings, like he’d accidentally walked into one of his estate’s courtrooms during a session for an ongoing lawsuit.
Actually, it felt more like he’d stumbled into a private discussion between two Republic Lords.
“Battle?” Tuoamas asked, after a half-breath in which his nine armsmen inserted themselves between this unknown quantity and their Lord. The trail of followers he’d bled in his wake slowly condensed, drawing up over a distance of several hundred meters to consider this new development.
Earl of Eighth Step Korint Pasel, who was a mechanical engineer by house trade and quite unhappy to be interrupted when making pointed suggestions to his liege, left off his tirade about the insufficiency of Pennat Gate’s pulse engines.
“You, boy!” he exclaimed, bringing to bear that aura of contempt, only available to Yrdkish actors and Yrdkish nobility, which crossed cultures and any barriers as trivial as time and space. “To whom must you return with lumber this day?”
Tuoamas felt a small lift of the burden he was now suddenly carrying. The assumption-and-clarification trail would undoubtedly draw out over two or three minutes at least, giving him time to collect his spontaneously errant thoughts.
Pasel would riposte the man’s reply with further questions: “If you aim to obtain lumber, must it be from my forests?” if some village’s carpenter did indeed require wood, or else “Then why do you accost us in a place where hunting is prohibited and the only reason worth visiting is to gather the strong glass I’ve seen cultivated for years?” From there the discussion would perhaps be directed toward the newcomer’s family and house, or to which Lord he belonged if he were not a citizen of Pennat Gate. Eventually his doubtless Rhaagmini heritage would be “discovered” and ignored in the interest of etiquette. A few niceties would be exchanged eventually, perhaps nominal gifts traded, and if need be Tuoamas could then send the man on his way with his blessing or words of caution.
Instead of any of these, the strange man obstructing the party’s forward movement, who had emerged from a stand of smoky glass-oaks like a demon in a stageplay, said, “I am Sebastio Artaxerxes. I have made demands and require satisfaction or denial. The selection of either is left to your agency, Lord Pennat.”
An exclamation of disbelief floated on the breeze to Tuoamas’s ears. A Duchess of Sixth Step, one of the higher-standing aaneds in his nobles, sounded like a woman beset by odd pains. In his experience, the Lord had never known any infraction in decorum to render his subjects faint, but this Sebastio Artaxerxes clearly did not care for Yrdkish protocols. His wording, curiously enough, was distinguished and apropos despite the outlandish manner in which he spoke his vocabulary. Yet, he showed no verbal circling, no fencing with wit, no attempt to trick his conversant foes into stating the desires he himself sought.
Showing no sign of his angst, Tuoamas shelved protocol as well. Perhaps the man would be more amiable, and faster to leave, if he extracted a measure of frankness from the Lord as well.
“For what reason should we engage in conflict?” asked the Lord. “I do not know you, Master Artaxerxes, and do not believe you bear me any animosity.” Tuoamas was quite certain of that last observation – he knew how to read some aspects of people’s motivations, particularly in fellow humans, with nigh preternatural accuracy. It was a necessity for those with aspirations to become Lords of Yrdky.
A bitter buttery chuckle.
“You would not know me,” said Sebastio, “since I have been at best a celebrity by the most minimum standard until late. I have also been an indecisive, meek creature with a grossly optimistic view of solving disagreements without violence. Unfortunately, some granule of violence is likely, on account of the cause which urges me here.”
That Bohemian cloak swept straight back in a sudden wind, redoubling the impression of the man as some chthonic infernal in a fae or silkal fable.
“For a wager, Lord.”
For the first time Sebastio’s face softened. It showed a measure of respect, a measure of regret, and a measure of relief, all of which confused the Lord even further.
“I declare an interest in Pennat Gate and all its holdings, talent, and pedigree. If we do battle, my suit shall be for the same, should I emerge victor.”
Tuoamas heard a family of squawks rustling in a nearby grove of plastic-oaks, and despite the size of the crowd surrounding him the soft huuit–taaaaah… of the thinner blueneck sounded clearly.
“Master… Artaxerxes,” began the Lord. “My objections to this are twofold.” Murmuring began somewhere behind him, and Tuoamas felt like his informal outfit was chafing fit to set him alight. The pantaloons were styled for constant motion in their current configuration, and his jacket was more meant for show than comfort.
“First, it would be more than uncouth to compete with an entire estate unless the opponent should have an estate in turn; it would be a cruelty. Second, even should the idea be entertained, what benefit would I gain from your loss?” Tuoamas quirked his head with a minor amount of levity. “I would assume you do not have an estate to wager, or some backer willing to do so on your behalf, Master Artaxerxes?” At least the Lord could be sure that his visitor wouldn’t spring a trap by suddenly announcing himself as an envoy of another estate. If Hide Mountain or Nor’ridge, to think of a couple, even heard of this barbaric conduct, Sebastio would probably make some enemies for life.
Instead, the Rhaagmini-accented man’s alien eyes narrowed, and the Lord realized suddenly that they, and the tattoo on his neck, both glowed with light of the same precise color.
“You have an interest in the Old called the Maker.” Sebastio gestured toward the Lord, prompting several of his armsmen to move closer and two to place themselves much nearer to Sebastio. The measure was mostly for show; their countermeasures to the incredibly unwise prospect of assassinating a Lord didn’t require things as basic as lines of fire. Even before the figures in decorative armor stopped moving, a spectrum of defensive mechanisms went online. Some of them would interrupt the intruder immediately on their expenditure. Others were less kind.
Barely noticing the movement, Tuoamas himself raised a hand, touching the pendant at his neck. The pendant bore a stylized Rhaagmini phrase, reading “Something Into Most.” It was an icon commonly seen amongst those with interest in the Maker, even outside of the cults dedicated to him.
One didn’t have to hail from the Parsed City-State to appreciate the doings of that august Being of Old. Indeed, outside of those such as the Lesser-Greater Sifters of Cubic Ganglia and exceptional academics, few felt a more profound attraction than Tuoamas Pennat where the Maker was concerned. He’d wandered a small portion of the Tower of Rhaagm as a young man. He’d seen the two hundred fountains of Ichabod’s Alloy and their living glass streams growing straight out of Yrdky’s blasted heath not a thousand kilometers from Œlthlant’s present acreage. He’d felt the noiseless music played by that titanic thing in Ilsabal Square called the Taupe Wrasse.
He had as strong an interest in the Maker as one could feel and still number among the relatively-adjusted members of homo sapiens. Equally, he had an interest in those drawing attention to his interests.
“My wager, and my means of doing battle with your estate, is one of his artifacts,” Sebastio continued.
Then he removed his glove, and bared an arm missing a sleeve.
At the elbow the man’s arm was a swollen maze of rigid-looking veins of fluorescence. Along the humerus the glow of orange became diminished, vanishing entirely near the shoulder. Below the elbow, however, the arm ended in a gnarled twist of glowing flesh. Occupying the whole length from the elbow onward was what looked to be a blade, piercing the misshapen stump of an arm. The weapon, which had a double fuller, seemed to throw off a bright white that failed to offer illumination. At the end of the blade, roughly fifteen or twenty centimeters past where a hand would have been, sat a stylized chimera’s head as an odd basket hilt, leonine mane sweeping up from the handguard. Protruding from the creature’s face were two stones that could have been rubies if not for the nearly painful intensity of their color.
The chimera’s head shifted, and Tuoamas was unashamed of the fact that he flinched back a short distance. Mimicking a hand’s function, the mouth which formed the hilt yawned wider, and several teeth protruded. The creature’s tongue, apparently meant to be used as a grip, flexed and bent to meet the top jaw. After a moment, the Lord realized he was watching the equivalent of finger movements, with the tongue-handle serving in place of a thumb.
“Caladhbolg, or – if you should believe the weapon itself – Malumortis: an implement to kill what was never meant to die, a destructive catalyst with superlative force.”
Sebastio turned his extraordinary prosthetic, and bared the bottom of the chimera’s head. On the chin of the hilt, a shining shape caught the midmorning sunlight. The shape in question was a replica of the image around Tuoamas’s neck; the Maker’s mark.
The Lord suddenly reconsidered the curious reports from the higher news organizations of Rhaagm and Bequast about some young fool tampering with the Maker’s works. The name and likeness of the man had been suppressed for some time at the request of the Pursuant. Now, the stories of “cautious refinements to the Caladhbolg Contingencies” gained a great deal of context – if what the Lord heard was truth.
As though reading the concerns from his brain, Sebastio looked up at the Lord of Pennat Gate with a mien of grave mischief. “It is unreasonable to expect you to believe me when I make such an outlandish claim, Lord Pennat – especially given that it might well be a very clever if dedicated forgery.” Sebastio gestured with his normal arm to his now-bared right extremity, the heavy glove folded slightly in his opposite hand’s grasp. “For that matter, if you ask any magi of yours who might be in attendance, they would see very little out of the ordinary regarding this blade’s active magic.”
Sebastio gave a small open-handed wave, something which somehow managed to perfectly fit the carefully managed outdoors scents of wildflowers and synthwood trees.
“If it would be acceptable to yourself, I will provide a demonstration of the weapon’s nature.”
Tuoamas felt the collective ocular organs of many people on him. Curiously enough, he found he cared very little about that one way or the other.
“It is acceptable so long as none of those under my care come to harm, through action or inaction.” Tuoamas considered a moment. “In addition, it is desired that no permanent damage be done to Pennat Gate or its aspects.”
A slight acknowledgement from the other man.
“I advise you then, Lord Tuoamas Pennat – some of your subjects may find this… disturbing, but I assure you that they are in no danger. Apologies are offered in advance for their troubles.”
Before the Lord could do anything more than contemplate the nature of his next question, Sebastio retreated six, seven, eight steps so that more of the crowd of followers could see him. He grabbed his cloak, pulling it off and holding it in his left hand along with the glove. Then his sword-arm pointed skyward, giving a vague illusion that it pierced nearly his body’s length.
“Please keep your distance,” Sebastio instructed, his eyes widening marginally.
The sword erupted.
A noise which Korint Pasel would later refuse to describe announced a sudden upward surge of molten-looking metal, spewing from Sebastio’s limb like a geyser. The medium thickened and clotted as it rose, and the head forming the weapon’s hilt expanded to scale with the new length. Folds and edges appeared in the substance as it came onward, textured like strange flesh.
By the time even the slowest heart in the crowd of estate dwellers managed to beat twice, a tremendous, monstrous head bent down from a twenty-meter height to gaze upon the procession. Its red gemstone eyes had not changed in their dimensions, and yet it was trivial to pick out their gleaming positions in the head’s brazen surface. They considered the crowd, spaced apart now by a meter and a half of supermatter rather than a finger length, as though their owner was the master of Pennat Gate, and the Lord captivated by their stare the interloper.
<I am Malumortis, named by my creator. I am Caladhbolg, named by my bearer. I have existed in my most recent dormant stasis for a subjective period of time with a real coefficient of some five quintillion, nine hundred six quadrillion, seventeen trillion, thirty seven billion, five hundred twenty eight million, two hundred forty five thousand, and eight hundred sixty five extrafacetary years. I greet you people of Yrdky, and ask the boon of a moment to observe these environs.>
These vocalizations were clearly coming from Sebastio, the man’s eyes and other glowing features flaring brighter as his lips formed the words. Yet the voice in his throat was the voice from the bottom of a well, if one should follow a coin with a cry into it for a favor most grievous, and the well give answer back.
After four and a half seconds, Tuoamas was nearly drowned by the monsoon of incoming communications. The entreaties, some from those physically nearby, most from telepresent observers, slurred the breadth of civility and composure as the ideals were understood across nearly any subculture. A large percentage of the smothering accostment could be boiled down to, “What, Lord Tuoamas, is happening right now?” It was all very direct and un-Yrdkish. The harassment continued until one of Tuoamas’s personal assistant eidolons began beating back the onrush with a combination of belligerent pings, counter-harassment, and throttling his inbound network traffic, were you born dumber than a stipp or did you have to work for it?
The apparition emitting from the new man’s arm swung ponderously, digesting the scenery of the forest-yard, of Pennat Gate, of the idyllic half-tame wilderness beyond. It seemed almost surprised by the mountains rising off in the distance, so far away that for days they could pass as being relatively stationary despite the constant pace of the estate’s engines.
<It is so very close to what I remember. Perhaps even more timeless than I.>
The incarnation of the sword turned its attention back to the watchers, mane flowing in the stiff wind, squashed nose at just a steep enough attitude to see alien nasal passages retreating into its head.
<If you have inquiries within reason, answers may be furnished in like reason.>
Tuoamas set his teeth, and asked the question going through the mind of at least half those standing there – and truly countless more souls across the gem. The question to which he had been desperately digging for answers for nineteen centuries. He knew the occasion would make a small place in history.
“What befalls the Maker?”
The chimera focused on his person again, jaw closing firmly. Nevertheless, its voice was unhindered through the vessel of Sebastio.
<An inquiry within the bounds of reason. Unfortunately, I cannot say. My creator has contacted me for diagnostics most recently a little more than twelve trillion years past. In the interim, neither my wielder nor I have discovered reliable information concerning my creator’s status.>
Disappointment was far too small a word for what Tuoamas felt at that moment. For several seconds, he could feel tears trickling from eyes totally unused to weeping, and felt no shame. Surely he ought to have expected others to thusly question this entity in the time since it reappeared in the world of the living. Surely if such questions had been answered to satisfaction, no power in existence could have delayed the spread of the great tidings, and he would have heard of the happy circumstance before now. And yet he could have refrained from asking as much as an ordinary man could avoid drawing breath.
The sun cooked the countryside with kind obstinance. The Lord waited to gain his composure again, then gave his attention to the chimera again. He continuously expected a sudden magical or psionic or digital probe from the being, but it had the placidity of a windless ocean.
“For what purpose does your wielder seek acquisition of my estate?” His voice was harder than granite, colder than ice, and more brittle than the thinnest plastic-oak twig. The reason for this was that, in all, whatever answer might be provided did not matter. He would take up the challenge offered him. He would do everything in his power to lay low this weapon’s holder. He would make every effort to secure possession of Caladhbolg, up to – and perhaps including – the sale of the lives of his people.
He would bet his own life on the failure of his enterprise.
That candor with himself, perhaps more than anything, contributed to his surprise when the creature answered him.
<To sow the seeds of that elusive quality your kin call “home.”>
<I am not made aware of all my wielder’s intentions. Some are freely shared; others, by the nature of our relationship, cannot be hidden regardless of desires. This topic is neither. However, my assessments of his character and motives incline me to believe his aims stem from… for lack of a better phrase, survivor’s noblesse oblige.>
The floating monster head abruptly appeared and sounded to crack its mandible, as though expanding its jaw in the manner of a snake. One of Tuoamas’s hangers-on, a ragathencider, made an anxious anguished odor. Caladhbolg resumed as though nothing of note had occurred.
<He does not nurture the patience for seeing change occur in his native Rhaagm at an appropriate, acceptable pace. Furthermore, he grasps with enthusiasm at those means which might help him better the cause of downtrodden facetary souls. This is almost certainly due to the events surrounding my recent awakening, in part or full. Considering the depth of his conviction, and his erratic discipline, my speculation is that he hopes to transform Pennat Gate into an asylum of sorts.>
The Lord of Pennat Gate had no idea how to respond, and so he did not. Not a whisper came from the audience, and the trickle of communications handshakes dried up entirely. The only sounds were the wind, the squawks, and of that kind of ravenous frantic thought which both builds empires and razes them flat.
Eventually, the apparition curled in on itself. There was a flash of light reflecting off metal; the sword-beast vanished whence it came. As it finished doing so, a dazed Sebastio patiently waited and watched for several minutes.
“Well, Lord Tuoamas Pennat,” he eventually said. “Do we have a deal to which you might feel amenable?”
“Yes,” said the Lord with a gleam in his eye, and then the two parties retreated to consider terms beneath the buzzing shiver of chattering nobles.
Despite the unique nature of the challenger, the standard restrictions of Yrdkish war games applied, according to the Lawmistress of the region. Said Lawmistress provided consultation at her goldspire a considerable distance from the nearest estate community. Pennat Gate’s weaponry fell under the usual limitations. No tuning, no folding, and no direct mass-energy conversion, save as either methods of producing additional armament or as power supply apparatus. Both parties had to separate themselves by a minimum of seven thousand kilometers.
Victory, for Tuoamas, would be achieved when Sebastio died or simply could no longer fight.
Upon hearing of the challenge being issued, the Lawmistress informed Tuoamas that Caladhbolg represented so large an uncertain quantity that he ought to rebuff the outlander for the presentation of a malformed offer. Perhaps the Lord might even implore some among the Republic Lords to put the Rhaagmini under political interdict.
Of course, he did no such thing.
Two minutes passed between the first sonorous gong of a goldspire sounding the song of war games and Tuoamas sending in his opening argument.
The first wave of Pennat Gate’s ancestral space-air fighters shrieked over the flat countryside from the estate’s hangar combs. Without ceremony, their engines were surgically removed by lancing spicules of phantom metal, strange and fluid, that shed from the distant figure like hairs from a dog. A positive storm of bombs, beams, and missiles aimed at the tiny dark-skinned man, far ahead and below, had been cut out of the air like a string of ripe olives. The twisted carcasses that fired them fell to ground no more than a handful of seconds after their leaving the airspace of the estate, the pilots ejecting at a range closer to their home than their intended and questionably human assailant.
Such premature failure marked the milestone of their closest brush with success. More planes met their ends even faster, a torrent of speeders likewise, and the few sniper specialists who framed the figure in their crosshairs found their armament less than adequate to the task.
Within two hours the pinprick form of Sebastio Artaxerxes came gliding to a distance of a hundred kilometers from Pennat Gate. The estate’s Master of Cannon distinguished himself as the first to notice the bright birdlike shape growing from the man’s arm, and immediately ordered all batteries to target and fire at will. The long guns continued to do so right until the moment that a lace of static-filled haze exhaled from the oncoming hostile’s direction. The whatever-it-was settled over all the in-service emplacements, which were spread out over no less than half of the estate’s considerable lands, like a gelatin. Then it induced oxidation and other, less identifiable processes with brutal efficiency. Those components susceptible to rust instantly degenerated to dry powder, those with a brittle structure began snapping apart, and any other materials not chemically inert reacted in ways that should not have occurred except under very extreme conditions of temperature and pressure.
The earsplitting silence of failure encouraged some of Tuoamas’s less militarily proficient advisors to propose drastic retaliatory measures. The first time a Ninth Step duke recommended the use of n-minus-one collapses to dispose of the challenger, Tuoamas chastised him. The second time the man said the same thing with more gusto, he found himself a Duke of Eighth Step. That definitively put an end to suggestions of breaking the rules of battle.
When Earl Nels Filendodt tried to convince Tuoamas to plea for an annulment from the presiding Lawmistress, the Earl found itself cast from the nobility entirely. Tuoamas felt less disgust about that particular casualty of war than the others he’d been ready to suffer for Caladhbolg’s acquisition. It was a not-infrequent manifestation of the concept of honor for many jioji, seeking the good of one’s kin and country above even one’s own reputation and word, but after so long in its earldom it should have better learned the more human-influenced standards of conduct in Pennat Gate. The newly-socially-bankrupt jioj never asked why he leveled such a penalty for a mere suggestion; the Lord’s reply never came. Had it been articulated aloud, his reason would have simply been: “We may lose the comfort of our lofty dignity, but we will never surrender our right to that dignity by perjury on the witness stand of war.”
By sunset, all other defenses of the estate had suffered equally alien and fatal treatment, the estate was laid low, and the halls of Pennat Citadel displayed bunting and drapes of numerous festive varieties. Fortune favored the participants, and no more than twelve personnel casualties resulted from the skirmish. It had been a truly unique occasion, all agreed. An occasion that outsiders might have expected to generate resentment among the majority of the estate’s residents. Perhaps resentment at their new “benevolent tyrant” for his conquest, or resentment at Tuoamas Pennat for his role in acceding to rule by a foreigner. Those same outsiders could be forgiven for failing to grasp the respect for change won on the Yrdkish field of battle. A less than absolute respect, true, but still tied inextricably to their sense of identity and their share of honor.
Out on the citadel’s lawn, and even in many of its other function rooms, the carousing continued late into the night. However, by full dusk the banquet had worn down in the spacious throne room of the citadel. The diners were tired from the day’s excitement, and Tuoamas was interested to hear word of his own freshly installed Lord’s intentions. His own first order of business long years ago, on receiving control over his former estate, had been to rename it from its old designation of Gallowsnight. Hardly petty given the circumstances, but hardly worth a place in the vaunted annals of history either.
As a matter of fact, the first decree from Lord Sebastio Artaxerxes was thoroughly unexpected.
Seated at a regular if ornately carved wooden chair, with the vast electrum and opal throne sitting far behind him atop three tall steps, Sebastio rocked forward and leaned onto the heavy table, his orange eyes raking over the whole world piecemeal. At the opposite end, the former Lord watched his new liege with fervent if leery curiosity. Stretched out into the cavernous room, from the wide semicircular steps just past Tuoamas’s edge of the table to the distant half-open doors, a tide of the subjects of Pennat Gate watched the man with the hoop-hook glove once more placed on his right arm. On the bottom of these steps stood the nine armsmen of the Lord’s person, impassive and dutiful, to prevent any rush for the raised level of the throne room. The newly installed Lord, despite his brash outlander ways, had clearly tasted Yrdkish custom before, and knew what was expected of him.
“People of Pennat Gate,” he began. “You have been subjugated. Let it be known that your new lives will be no worse, no harder, than those which you’ve lived in the past. In no small measure, this is because of the illustrious personalities watching out for this fine society’s health and well-being.”
He strode sedately around the table toward the tip facing his audience, indicating some of the people with whom he’d been eating until moments before.
“Sujdusddujus, a woman of character and a fine Finance and Trade Minister. Rophiel Tybek, one of the best civil artists and architects of our lifetimes. The indomitable Footstone and her horde of equally indomitable ambassadors. Industrious and tireless Vocrrrekre Evrokcrrer, and its multiplicity of digital persons and distributed utility systems. Reltenifor Seven-thousand-ninety-four-centimeters, a truly amazing tactician, and against whose defense of Pennat Gate this day we would have lost had we not possessed a deep store of very significant advantages.”
The conjugated pohostinlat strategist, despite himself and the fact of his estate’s utterly crushing defeat, bobbed his head with self-deprecating happiness at his recognition.
Sebastio continued around the long table, recognizing those who’d served to maintain and nurture the tremendously complex workings of an entire Yrdkish estate. Twenty or so seated dignitaries later, he stood with his body facing his expectant congregation just past the table’s end, perhaps three meters from the top of the steps to the upper level. His alien luminous gaze was over one shoulder and trained on Tuoamas Pennat with a ferrous glint.
“This beautiful estate is shaped, more than perhaps any other cause, by its namesake. Tuoamas Pennat: ambitious, resilient, driven.” Tuoamas felt himself go stiff. “He is not a kind man, nor a gentle one. He is not cruel or capricious. What he displays is an abundance of that substance called pragmatism, and the direction to ensure that pragmatism is used for the betterment of his people.”
The former Lord heard the words over the images of his subjects being carted off into servitude as he himself stood atop Pennat Citadel, covetously caressing the masterpiece named Caladhbolg. He shivered in his soul.
“You may have noticed, dear people,” Sebastio continued, showing a grin so small as to be nearly imaginary, and slid his cloak back a tiny amount. His glove came down his arm just a fraction, enough to bare the glowing flesh below his shoulder. “We are not what many deign to call ‘normal.’” His glove was returned to its original place as a small invasion of amusement pierced the crowd in several places.
“This is one of the reasons for our first decree as Lord of Pennat Gate: we have dreams and aspirations. Some of these are feasible, others are not, and to engage in learning the difference at your expense would be crass, mean-spirited, and unworthy of you. For the sake of those we are now privileged to call our people, we shan’t make laws or speeches which do them little or no good, nor make rulings in the haste of youthful exuberance.
“Instead, may those here bear witness.”
The formal, legally binding pronouncement stripped away even the silence of the throne room. What was left had a form more olfactory than auditory, like the blood of a hunter’s wounded target, leading into a dark forest where a wild beast might turn and fight, or a fantastic trophy could be collected.
“Tuoamas Pennat, along with all those who have served his estate in occupations pertaining to its governance, shall be extended the same rights enjoyed prior to our acquisition of Pennat Gate. They will act as our regents, with our own authority strictly limited to the rights for dissolution of these roles, and to convene this estate’s principal powers in council.”
The newly minted Lord indicated his predecessor, a tutor placing a pin on a map depicting a crucial historic battle.
“Unless we should offer explicit unambiguous instruction to countermand his right to lead and call for a replacement, the man called Tuoamas Pennat, fifteenth Lord of the Yrdkish estate called Pennat Gate, remains your liege in any matters beside the purely technical.”
An instant of disbelieving delay. Then, the hall suffered from something close to apoplectic breakdown; its first or second cousin, perhaps. The minor and major citizens squabbled to reach consensus about Sebastio’s words’ ultimate meaning. Questions were flung at him like gifts and refuse. He grimaced.
“We shall answer certain concerns of the people here and now,” he bellowed. The acoustics of the room made his declaration carry far more volume than it ought to have possessed. As soon as the echo faded away, he pointed to one of the citizens who stood closest to the steps, and who had been quite vocal.
“Madam,” he said into the silence following his declaration, “voice your grievance.”
The woman, a middle height assassin, clicked her mouthparts together rhythmically and half-genuflected in her formal garb. The motion was more like the unsheathing of a weapon than respect.
“Worthy Lord,” she said, being honest both in the way the content of her words said her objective actions would support his decisions, and the way her tone of voice suggested this was to be the case in spite of very unsupportive sentiment. “Have you some special means by which to substantially increase the time-efficiency of resolving your personal affairs?”
A flicker of a smile passed over Sebastio. In this instance, he obliged his questioner with a minor bout of oratory deconstructive battle, either not knowing or not concerning himself with the game of staying several unstated questions and ideas ahead of his opponent.
“We have means by which to expedite completion of certain of our personal affairs.”
He raised his covered right hand, giving a bitter toothy human grin, and the assassin winced before her riposte.
“You consider, then, that your actions might incite rebellion, so early and on such a fundamental level, that you elect to watch this domain in order to crush unrest before leaving for other conquests?”
“We possess no arrogance so great as to assume universal love from all residents of Pennat Gate. Neither do we think its people petulant children, in need of constant discipline and vigil to enforce rule of law.”
There showed no sign of a smile on the man’s face now, but a melancholia sufficiently massive to sink the hardiest man-of-war.
The woman’s voice degenerated to nigh frantic, and Tuoamas felt himself leaning closer to the vanishingly rare spectacle of an assassin overcome with emotion.
“Then why do you remain here as an idle figurehead?”
“We remain, dear lady, not as a figurehead, but because we hope to foster a mindset, a mission, which will persist beyond our own lifetime as a legacy of this great collective.” The Lord watched the watchers with his searing eyes. “It is our hope to offer a second chance at life to the washed, no matter from which facet they have been untimely ripped, or how foreign the requirements they might boast to maintain a life worth living. It is our hope to adopt those hopeless souls who know no peace outside their own fantasies, and to provide them with safe haven. It is our hope that you dear citizens might embrace this ideal and thereby improve not only the existence of countless displaced aliens, but also the realm of Yrdky as a whole.”
Not a few of the onlookers evinced ambivalence or dismay. Certainly Tuoamas noticed members of the peers seated around his table muttering darkly amongst their number. Footstone looked like her angst might cause her facial markings to ignite. He himself proved more curious than ever, even if only after the fashion of a horde of human adolescents witnessing a man hauling a large and mysteriously dripping sack.
Sebastio did not seem upset.
“We understand full well the magnitude of such a lofty goal. Not in the minutiae of how it shall mutate your livelihoods, no, but in terms of the dedication and aptitude demanded. Thus, another reason – the primary reason – to elect your beautiful estate for such a cause. It was not for the direction and character of your leaders and rabble alike. It was not for the willingness of your old Lord to accept an uneven offer of battle in exchange for the chance at an unequaled prize.”
Tuoamas felt his eyebrows meet his hairline. That was more backhanded frankness than he’d been expecting, as well as quite unflattering, but it fit the established patterns of the man’s unmannered and blunt persona flawlessly.
Sebastio fixated the prior Lord once more with his stare. The stare’s recipient pondered the likelihood of telepathic awareness of his thoughts.
“Those are all legitimate and true reasons, but the biggest attraction of Pennat Gate was, and is, your character.”
There must have been at least eleven thousand people right there hanging on his every word, and their glassy silence was tense beyond compare.
“We set out to do deeds and change lives on a scale not frequently embraced.”
Those orange irises never left Tuoamas, and yet the voice carried with the direction and gusto of any great orator. There was no reliance on subliminal networked input amplifications this day, no mass outputs on parallel channels coupled with soft and poorly delivered speech.
“We do not select your selves as our medium through which to reach these dreams out of naïve confidence. We select you because Pennat Gate is home to neither the most righteous nor the most cunning… but the best.”
When none protested, he drew to the precipice of the upper level, bordering the topmost step and surveying the focus of his monologue.
“Humans have espoused plenty of adages and aphorisms over the ages. One of these is precisely capable of summing our reasoning for the choice of this estate above any alternative: ‘when something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.’ If there is any other estate in the whole of Yrdky whose people and leaders equip it with better odds of bringing about utterly fantastic ambitions, we defy you to name it. For the whole of you are paragons of persistence and success. Consider the records of Yrdkish diplomacy and war.”
An off-center quirking of the head.
“Before this day, three hundred and twenty years elapsed since the last time this estate failed to establish a treaty with a foreign power, or to emerge victorious from the field of skirmish, when its citizens made up their minds to do so. That is not a fluke, dear people, nor a mark purely in favor of leadership or common folk. It is the fruit of your character – and if any circumstances will realize our dream of becoming a beacon to the oppressed masses, that character shall form an integral part.”
The thunderous silence gave the man answer.
“Have the people any more concerns, thoughts, questions?”
Sebastio was not smiling, yet he exhaled a vigorous satisfaction with every breath. Tuoamas, despite centuries of cynicism, began to think his new Lord’s crazed notions might persist even after their architect’s time.
Then he felt an emotion which had no business in this hour and environment: dread.
He was no dat-per-telling-prophet, nor one of those halcyon icons for whom a price in simple dats would fall terribly short of earning a foretelling. But Tuoamas had known for a long time of his minor ability with the second sight, and in the duration had become accustomed to gauging the accuracy of his predictions. This was absolutely a foretelling, and despite the relative subtlety of the emotion he knew the premonition to be completely justified. The reason for his confidence was, unfortunately, made clear several seconds later.
An autumn elf shipwright by the name of Leanshe Etruphana stepped forward. At first, Tuoamas allowed himself a slender thread of relief – lately, the woman had given off an air of despondency, affecting everything from her craft to her ties with the estate Engineering Compact. It was naturally expected; she’d lost family recently, and her sister’s children were well-beloved by those who’d met them. Their refusal of revivification was a stance adopted by autumn elves slightly more frequently than other human-analogue races. Leanshe’s presence signalled, perhaps, a reprieve in her mourning for her relations, and a return to the caring if overbearing woman she was at heart.
“I have something to offer,” she said with a rasp fit to strip flesh from bone. Her rust-colored hair and skin were inundated with a nearly lustrous gold, and she gave off a bright aura signifying stress in her kind’s subclade. Her ears, mouth, nose, and burning hazel stare shared a painful sharpness which contrasted with the flat passionless membrane spread thickly over her whole person: a static and perfectly preserved hate.
Sebastio’s response was to stand straighter, every cell in his body directed at the elf.
“Our attention is yours, citizen.”
A beeping began, slowly at first, but rapidly climbing toward a single continuous whine. The beeping of an enthalpic priming shell, a favored kill vehicle of political assassinations. When one wanted to sow panic, there were few things more likely to start a riot than hearing that rhythmic pattern.
Leanshe’s expression never changed. “A gift for the man who cost two of my cousins their lives, and who proudly displays the abomination of their killer melded to his own flesh.”
The elf was still behind the row of now vigorously active armsmen, even as they drew the tools of their lethal trade, but that was more than close enough.
Leanshe hurled her concealed weapon without so much as a grunt or blink, the projectile arcing hard and fast.
The multi-frequency sound, specifically designed to hit the auditory register of most any species known in the extrafacetary world, stopped. Tuoamas saw the priming shell intercepted impossibly quickly by Sebastio’s ethereal hand, and every cell in his own body seemed to age a hexadecade. He’d expected a cavitation grenade, or a ripmap cartridge.
As he could tell through the thick transparent casing of the device, and from deities past only knew where, some fool had procured the shipwright a causality sabotage.
It was astounding, and effectively unprecedented. The others of a prophetic bent in the estate had foreseen nothing of the sort, or they would have immediately gotten word to him. He supposed that the attack might succeed and pulverize local continuity like chalk beneath a boot, making prophecy about it highly erratic and unlikely. It could also be that none had actually observed the chain leading to this potential course of events, and Tuoamas hoped desperately that the second case held true in this instance.
The human activated his overclocking, hoping that some inspiration might strike home. If ever there was a time for him to sacrifice for the good of his people, this was it. Should the causality sabotage that was heartbeats from going off do so at this moment, the confluence of temporal and spatial structuring in this place – the people and events at the exact spot where Sebastio stood – over the years would be violently shredded and scattered to the winds.
Over the subjective equivalent of eons, Tuoamas’s sped-up brain and neural utilities worked to find a solution to a problem that was objectively seconds from destroying what he held dear… and to his bitter and everlasting shame, could conceive of nothing to avert disaster.
Eigenflak defused the danger of ripmappers and hurt spikes, barriers of properly layered Hiek confluences or Morris-weave could render most magical attack impotent. But each and every causality sabotage had unique traits stemming from the many operations involved in its creation, and the order of application. It was a tool handmade to reach out into the stuff of existence, bypass the quantum structuring giving direction to time. It was neither infallible, nor able to be procedurally dismantled. It spelled doom for the unprepared, and Tuoamas Pennat was not prepared.
The freshly appointed Lord of Pennat Gate sighed, and opened his mouth as his inhuman gaze pierced the elf who’d hurled him a death sentence, but it was not he who spoke with his lips.
<You wish to make of us a peg? Very well.>
The exotic compound called anankite, or redmetal, had more industrial use than virtually any other building material. Largely, this arose from its stability in the face of both applied forces and changes to the operating rules of whichever universe it occupied. In nearly any environment it transitioned to a watery liquid state at something approaching absolute zero, and remained an indestructible, unmodifiable, nucleus-dense solid in other circumstances. The substance had become a standard for impregnability over the eons, effectively immune to brinelling and other damage. Thus, it was a wonderful choice for protecting something valuable like the few delicate components found in a weapon of mass destruction.
The Lord’s metallic fist crushed both the transparent barrier of the priming shell that it held, and the redmetal canister of the causality sabotage within, to twisted ruin.
A small and cataclysmic shearing occurred with Sebastio at its epicenter as the almost-calibrated device spewed complex mass, along with a slew of estranged matter and tuning definitions. The good news, if it could be called by such a name, was that the weapon had been effectively turned into a more potent and more primitive ripmap cartridge. As it happened, ripmap cartridges were usually an extremely unpleasant way to die, even for creatures with weak immortality who enjoyed an immunity to aging.
Time accelerated in a perfect sphere, moving forward at its skin, and backward at its core, in a terrible rush of fundamental distortion. The stuff of existence cried out in protest at this unnatural violation, a scream that wasn’t heard so much as felt or tasted. It was as numbing and dead as deep space even for those select few in the crowd whose perception in “normal” time was comparatively retrogressive.
In a miniscule span, the distortion unwound its fingers from reality’s throat, and again stood the new Lord of Pennat Gate, a shallow parabolic depression in the floor making him shorter than his previous height. There was no echo, no burst of expiring light, no true sound at all to speak of. In one sense, absolutely nothing had happened; the accompanying caveat was that a very, very large amount of nothing had been happening around Sebastio for an incalculable amount of subjective time.
The first thought of Tuoamas, and many of those seated on the upper level table, was that the Lord was, miraculously, alive. The second, with variable levels of uneasiness or analogous emotional state, was an uneasy query as to whether living was a mercy or an affliction worthy of a campfire tale monster.
Instead of an outfitted and mostly human figure with notable deformities, Sebastio Artaxerxes boasted not a solitary molecule of clothing. Evidently his garb had either disassembled itself some time in its past or fallen to dust and memories. The man had no need to worry about his indecent state drawing scandal, however – his groin could have been painted with a picture of the Ripper and no one would have noticed or cared. A curtain of modesty was provided by an avalanche of beard piling up in the fore of the depression to a bit below the man’s navel. From his chin fell the waterfall of wavy and dandruff-besieged facial hair, and the same held true for his scalp, shielding him from view with straighter foliage tangled up to his thighs. The whole right half of his body from waist to neck bore smooth, slightly geometric, glowing orange flesh. One part was delineated from the other by a vascular seam pattern of cross-hatching. The arm which had once been a sword now dangled to his knee like a lanky spider, spiny talons the size of his foot sprouting from a head-sized hand. Perfectly centered on the hand’s back was the searing color of one of what used to be the sword’s “eye” gems.
That was hardly the pinnacle of the changes. Following the line of orange up where it bordered his dark skin with incredible contrast, past where his right nipple once was and atop his neck, a face had been unevenly divided. A straight line marched from chin upward just aside the nose. The prism quality of his altered face broke into finer and more numerous angles than in his torso. At the rightmost third of his mouth, his lips changed in their shape and thinned to the breadth of fishing line, failing to fully obscure four needle-point fangs unevenly paired, top and bottom. Farther up, the demarcation intersected the bulb of the right eye, which had turned to a shining orange-gold globe. Above the sight organ’s metamorphosed surface, where a hairless brow lay slack like an ebb tide, a gleaming red pinprick betrayed the location of the other gem once adorning the man’s sword prosthetic.
In place of an ear rested a brilliant glyph all too familiar to Tuoamas.
Like a breaking glass was the sound of sharp edges scissoring together when Sebastio raised his massive right arm. He apparently pinched his chin, and then his head, using the edges on his alien digits to free a stupendous volume of hair. The movement threw a monsoon of dust particles into the room off of his tangled and quite rank locks. Without ado, he similarly truncated the nails on his left hand, which Tuoamas noted also bore growth that went beyond his knees. Bending into the piles of hair he repeated the action, and presumably freed his toes from equally unwieldy keratin.
“If any might spare it – a cloak, please.”
The creature had a neatly crisp and understandable discourse, pitched almost exactly where it had been wont to wander before the transformation. There was also an overlay of sounds of hammering metal, of the inhale of a war horn, of magical servers burning themselves out one memory address at a time.
One of the armsmen, an executioner of considerable natural physique, drew off the long tasseled Morris-weave cape dangling from shoulder to knee. As the figure stood at least a meter taller than Sebastio himself, it made a decidedly large cloak, and after stepping free of his prodigious bodily leavings he took it almost lovingly from its owner with subdued thanks. Nevertheless the newest Lord of Yrdky, despite his frightful mutations and his nudity and his raw novelty to his current role, managed to draw the heavy fabric about his person with an ageless dignity.
“Your pardons, please,” he said, though to whom was unclear. He turned, holding his larger hand out toward the supremely out-of-place pile of keratin, palm facing the ceiling.
An arcane mirage of some kind encompassed the biological material, and then it vanished, taking the refuse with it.
“Let our business here be concluded for… this day. Further questions will be answered in due time, either through future disseminations or by those in places of authority.”
Fretful murmurs. A few raised shouts.
“Regrettably, the presence of Leanshe Etruphana is needed a while longer.”
Without raising his head. Sebastio clenched his fist, embedded glowing stone flashing with an inner flame. A tumbling coil of light surrounded the autumn elf in the crowd, a cloud of roiling energy which spat flickering orange dagger points. Before a hew and cry could rise, Leanshe stood just beside the Lord, betraying not a shred of consternation or surprise upon her relocation.
The human’s new shining eye closed, surprisingly eloquent in its conveyance of fatigue. A fleshy palm tightened about the makeshift cloak, pulling it closed like a toga as Sebastio’s newly multi-layered voice rang out.
“People of this fine estate, you shall be informed. Midnight, and no later, will see the publication of most pertinent agenda and decision-driving material. A forum for management and discussion of suggestions, grievances, and so on…”
A sigh which fluttered and flapped like paper sheets in high wind.
“… will be provided as soon as events permit.”
Tuoamas considered mentioning to his Lord that the estate already had such public venues. He considered adding that it failed in upkeep of a frankly unnecessary number of forum services under less-than-demanding circumstances.
He decided that an attempt on the man’s life at day zero of governance made matters sufficiently complex to warrant delaying his observations.