A Dreaded Welcome

<< The Simulacrum of Dread

“… After the cavitation barb (that is, a ‘hurt spike’) is expended and stable, you have several methods to dispose of the resultant peg. You may activate the sublimation facilities of the peg, returning it to a pure energy state and reclaiming it. You may also alter its form and retrieve it as a physical object. In either case, make sure to retain records of the reason for using your weapon functions. A peg itself does not keep data on why it has been fired, only how much and of what varieties of material its original barb has disposed.”

-Excerpt from Bhushalt Fabricants and Design owner’s manual for custom firearm augmentations, dealing with cavitation barbs

Ten minutes after the attempted assassination, a double handful of people congregated in the beautiful landscape of a hedge-bracketed field of garden. The garden had gracefully flowering trees of all colors and low mushroom caps of shrubbery, like duts who sprouted greenery instead of rubbery tendrils. A couple of small ponds hunched sulkily below woodmetal bridges. Silent armsmen stood protectively at the entrances to the enclosed verdant theater. The flowers and bushes, the carefully stewarded half-tame wildlife, the noble spectators, and a great many observers who watched through countless peripherals bore witness.

The large transparent cylinder, just now assembled to order by estate eidolons, hinted to the onlookers that the event entailed something unusual.

Most of the arrivals glanced to and from the cylinder as though it would bite them. Tuoamas frowned faintly at the object. The autumn elf retained her stoic, unfeeling shell, even while examining the thing out of the corner of her eye.

The Rhaagmini sighed. He put away the dossier provided by Tuoamas on the autumn elf, after the man had insisted on educating his Lord about “his new enemy” while they exited the crowded halls. He did not much like the additional layers of politics now stretching drum-taut over his inaugural night.

When the Cambrian dropped any pretense of the official “we,” it obviously hit some of the nobles at or above Sixth Step like a slap. His glare, funnily enough, didn’t do anything of note to the autumn elf… at first.

“I am not given to capricious action. I am not given to useless action. And, may the record show, I am not given to inaction. Lords do not interrupt without reason, but those of a Lord’s estate have a duty to uphold the security of their realm.”

He glanced behind him at the citadel, rising forever against the dark sky. He’d walked into that fortress just that afternoon, but – thanks to his experience with a gentled causality sabotage – that entrance had subjectively occurred a long, long age past. He’d spent that stretched and transfixed moment conversing with his new bodily companion, even as his body itself changed.

It refined certain parts of him and roughened others.

Leanshe saw something on his face as he turned back, something which finally sparked an emotive ember. Her aura – one of the simplest tells available in an autumn elf – dimmed with a dawning apprehension. She almost took a step back, but words nailed her to the spot.

“Murderers, actual or intended, represent a threat to the security of our enterprise’s order. Murderers will face the tender mercies of their desserts. Presently, murderers will find themselves the subject of prejudice.”

Then: “I hope you like salt.”

“Your pardon, Lord?” Tuoamas asked, just as Sebastio’s polyhedral limb made a slashing cut.

With a quiet sound, Leanshe Etruphana was naked as her clothes came loose from her person and drifted into a pile by her feet. By many Rhaagmini human-analogue standards she was still decent, though on the edge of scandal, since her nude form bore no hair beside that on her head. Then, a moment passed, and she began screaming when phantom cuts dug into her flesh. The cuts widened, then the woman’s outermost layer came unseamed and detached like a single garment.

Surprisingly little blood came from the savagery; a trickle here and there only, as Leanshe’s fleshy exterior flopped on top of her sartorial belongings like a squawk with a broken wing. On the light-colored dermis, where the skin had pressed on the back of her neck, a small rectangular hole showed the site of her cerv-mesh’s exposed box. A blood-smell wafted across the verdant yard, briny and grassy.

Calling on one of Caladhbolg’s translation functions, he placed the woman in the cylindrical container. The container promptly filled with highly saline water that Sebastio produced from a mass-energy conversion. The screaming improved in volume, and a rosy flare of the woman’s aura represented a spontaneous, caramelized desperation.

She either expected no consequence, or expected to die. Possibly both.

Sebastio would once have felt a worm of pity madly shoving at his heart, pleading with him in its tiny worm voice to take back his actions and end the woman’s pain. He’d had quite a good span of time to come to terms with himself that evening, though.

It was amazing, he thought. The potency of violence’s siren song. The ease of resisting, without any need to tinker with his chemistry. He was even more a creature of plural minds than usual, and yet finding resolution was so much more straightforward.

At least, in restraining his outward behaviors.

Resolution in this moment manifested as realization that the proletariat happily accepted his right to be called Lord… but by no means did they have to consider him a respectable Lord. Leanshe’s attack on him required an answer. The kind of answer from a storybook – where a kindly king forgives the rogue who stole her ruler’s gold, because she’d done it to pay her family’s debtors, because the choice lay between that or the unthinkable – was out of the question.

To the people of the estate, his estate, true justice demanded punishment.

A breaking wave of questions and objections began to gather momentum behind him.

Sebastio raised a hand, and imperiously demanded attention without words. He got it.

“I meant what I said.”

He almost had to stop and find a mirror to confirm his throat was the source of that wretched grating sigh. It was not a good voice, and the fact he hadn’t jumped from his own skin the few times he’d exercised it so far demonstrated a superhuman ability to contain his reactions.

“I will not administer the death sentence with any immediacy,” he added, turning. “Interruption may be the traditional sentence for using proscribed armament like a causality sabotage. How much good will it do in this instance, though?”

The garden witchlights cut icy shadows into the lawn. The people casting those shadows were like rodents attending a tea party with a hawk. Tuoamas distinguished himself as a rodent with not a scrap of weakness or give. The man’s eminent solidity also precluded him from raising objection.

That was not the case with the venerable strategist Reltenifor.

“Did you not state, just this hour, that you would leave decisions and actions to those who have previously made them on this estate’s behalf?”

Sebastio felt a small arc of electricity dance over his left cheek. It continued dancing over to the right, and a dull hum echoed in his head. He sent another after the first, and another after that.

When the part-pohostinlat’s ears went back, Sebastio chose to interpret it as an unspoken submission. He challenged the rest of the crowd with his gaze, sparking all the while. It took a moment, but eventually most save Tuoamas adopted a cowed look.

“I spoke out as Lord of this estate. As the Lord of Pennat Gate I fully stand by my statement. As a civilian, I was directly assaulted in a time, place, and fashion which could have killed numerous others.”

He let the silence sink in for a minute, ministers and cabinet members in varying levels of discomfort. He pointed at the container holding the autumn elf, who was strobing every aura from humiliation to hot fury.

“Is this not a lesser punishment than death?”

“It is debatable,” answered Reltenifor in the archest of tones, “whether it is considerably worse. There is far more suffering on display here, for one thing.”

“There is exponentially more suffering,” riposted Sebastio with a perfectly even voice of fact, “and I am currently blocking her pain dampeners.” His orange fist flexed, bright tendons straining. “If there is any way to inflict further torment on this woman without likely killing her, please do tell.”

Some of the more vocal dissidents on that front began to protest vehemently.

“No!” Sebastio cut them off with the kind of disrespectful impropriety that actually might have given a hardcore traditionalist noble conniptions. “This estate has a manifest need for talent. The Engineering Compact will not turn out another of such skill for a long time to come. I will talk with Leanshe Etruphana myself. If she listens to reason, I ask that she remains in state. If not, your judgment will have to do.”

Will it really, though? he asked himself. Or am I so determined to thwart myself that I insist on going until I cross some irrecoverable line, some boundary even more contentious than Tuoamas’s deposition?

No, he realized, his cross-grained aspects – protector and tormentor, romantic and cynic – still ground against each other, but his earlier inkling proved accurate. It was easier to put them aside, to degauss his impulses, to move all of him in one direction. He could cope with many things.

“Are you going to launch a coup against the Republic Lords next?” The greatest surprise was how completely Tuoamas’s tone suggested he would support such a scheme, despite the overleaning sarcasm. Sebastio – the new Sebastio – had patience to spare if required, but not for playing social games.

“Let us be forthright with one another. This morning, I had an age just shy of starting my seventh hexadecade. Observe, if you will, my age as reported by my mesh.”

He brought up his biographical info on the Monolith’s naked eye layer. Over his left pectoral appeared a readout. The “age” statistic had a figure of notably greater than three and a quarter million years.

“Impossible!” The shout came ambiguously from a gathering of several tightly knit watchers.

“In all,” Sebastio murmured, “I and Caladhbolg were distinct, separate entities even after my… accident. Now, we still are, but we also think far more alike. I spent a lot of time this evening in deepest discussion with my symbiotic companion.”

Corroboration came moments later, from the entity who had been sharing and speaking in his mind for an age.

<We are almost entirely in agreement on any topic one could conceivably raise.>

He was interested to hear Caladhbolg’s vocalizations now resembled the timbre and pitch he himself used to possess. How odd. He closed his eyes and focused.

“I have come to a realization: a statement must be made. Neither elimination nor pardon suffices, so we must show the consequence, in obscene detail, for attempting to harm this estate. Based on the talks had between myself and… my associate, this compromise best splits the difference of the various debts this woman owes. She lives, and lives with a dire punishment.”

He fixed Tuoamas with a loaded stare again.

“I have no far-reaching ambitions apart from those already voiced in public. I shall submit to a dowsing if you wish to discern my intentions with more granularity.”

He almost coughed a laugh, thinking of an entire estate crowded around a couch as a specialist medium tried to draw forth his motivations, his ego. Even if his every thought was laid bare, there would still be detractors accusing him of taking countermeasures against standard dowsings.

For that matter, in light of recent transformations, dowsings would probably need to employ very unusual tools and procedures to affect the new Lord of Pennat Gate. Assuming, of course, that the Maker’s creation didn’t scrub such examinations of his gestalt outright.

“If the Sledgecrafters or Fountainists – either those policing this estate, or any of its holdings – wish to make an example of my hooligan ways, then the same treatment as this woman would be only fair. But for the moment, I ask your discretion. Not as a Lord, but as a man.”

The beautiful night cleared its throat, and a measure or two of uninterrupted nocturnal songs intertwined, birds and squawks and bugs and even a weelee or two, sparkling like stars. The sounds of Leanshe faded to sobs beyond hearing, becoming ever more terrible.

“How and when do you next wish to convene, Lord?”

Tuoamas had steel in his spine and a knowing glint in his eye as he cut across the symphony. The sort which, without malice, still asserted the ownership of a favor owed.

“I will convene with whomever wishes it at dawn. Engineer Etruphana requires my attentions a while longer. Observers may remain so long as their constitutions allow.”

A few half-indignant murmurs at the insinuation of weakness, though the two assassins present had no complaints either way.

Sebastio called to Argyva, the captain of the Lord’s armsmen. Bodyguards, he thought. I have bodyguards.

Rather than contemplative, the thought made him sad.

“Captain! Please ensure Tuoamas Pennat is cared for with all the attention to detail you have employed in the past.”

In reply, the woman – facing in from the hedge gap her Lord had entered – somehow improved an already perfect standing attention.

“My Lord. You are our principal. Our duty binds us to your person at all times.”

She managed to be both clearly audible across the distance and conversational in manner. More importantly, she spoke aloud. Not unknown, but the fact of an armsman vocalizing in the company of those besides their Lord had happened perhaps two hundred times since Tuoamas had first taken up the estate’s mantle.

“Then assign, finagle, bribe, blackmail, or incubate the best possible substitutes you can produce for his benefit. Consider that an order of the highest imaginable importance.”

When Argyva said nothing further and made no attempt to initiate a connection, Sebastio hummed to himself, and swept back around to face his victim.

She nestled between two dextrally spiraling blackleaf trees in her vat of salt solution. She no longer tried to make noise. The suffering in her radiant aura raised the hairs of his organic components.

<Remember what we discussed,> advised Caladhbolg. <If you want to hold your violent side in check, consider her as the subject of her story and not the object of yours. Look at her as a daughter or sister.>

She has no siblings.

<Beside the point. You cannot kill antipathy. You can->

I know, you can only nurture empathy. We’ve had this conversation nearly verbatim, what, thousands of times? Millions? After spending so many relative years in a head together, I think we understand each other that well. Gods above and below, but I’m a walking cliché – every single famous warrior bound to their weapon in flesh is going to have a caricature with my face now, or someday.

He snorted, and then something hit him: specifically, that his new sight organ did not simply need “time to adjust” as he’d assumed.

Also, can you do something about the eye we’re now fully sharing?

<Of what nature?>

I’d like to still see color when I close my left eyelid.

A swarm of rod and cone cell stand-ins deluged the gold orb entrenched below his brow. He could now perceive hue and shade as normally as possible for a man who was half semi-deity sword symbiote.

Thank you.

“Thank you,” he said aloud to the autumn elf, “for trying to kill me.”

The woman writhed in stilted jerks. She might have curled into a ball if it didn’t mean her face would be submerged. A little shiver made Sebastio’s left hand clench as though he’d taken five or six uncut hits of fidget.

He felt violence knocking.

Yes, said the back half of his brain.

No, said the front.

With unusual ease, the path of the latter part of his mind opened up.

He requested a direct connection with the woman’s facilities, which she eventually deigned to accept. She immediately responded with a sort of dazed hostility.

{Why have you not ended me?}

Yrdkish might lack true slang dialects, but Leanshe exhibited a terseness culturally equal to the gangbanger drawl of Twelvebishop or Southsea. Her earlier speech, Sebastio suddenly guessed, had been rehearsed for the occasion. She was probably looked upon as a very skilled punk by her peers. Perhaps even an idiot savant of some kind.

{I have plans for you, Leanshe Etruphana. You surely heard what I said to Tuoamas and the other nobles. It was no verbal political gesture.}

{You would leave me as a member of the Compact. Very well; I shall remain a pariah for all of my days. Not one job will come to me, not one contract.}

{On the contrary.} Sebastio stepped in a wide arc around the vessel, watching the aura of its occupant go dusky. He waited until he’d circuited the tank precisely one and a half times before continuing. {You have crippled your reputation, and with time it might yet heal. Especially if the upper Steps and other nobility ask for you by name. I will see that it is so, as much as it lies in my powers of persuasion.}

He sniffed, turning to the statuesque form of Argyva across the garden lawn. Behind her one of his executioner armsmen held position, watching outward.

{In all,} he pondered, {you have helped me become what I am. But know that I did what I could to keep your family alive. When I went to put Niall Bennosuke down, there was virtually no possibility of bloodless victory, but I tried what I could to better the odds.}

Skinless, obscured by a veil of salt water and the emanations from a refracted light aura, Leanshe obviously didn’t believe him. The true hell of it was the great weight of reason behind her doubts. He was no evil man, but he was far and farther from a good one.

Sebastio sighed, argued with himself, and produced a sensory that captured the rising action of Count’s flouted subversion of an entire facet. The gunfire. The blood. The wanton destruction. The culmination in Sebastio’s unwilling bonding with the weapon. He sent it to Leanshe with his signature prominently attached.

Upon reliving the several awful minutes of experiences, the woman’s aura went totally blue. That posed a few questions, but her face did not. Raw flesh and muscle and lidless eyes only chiseled her thoughts out in greater contrast, and those thoughts made her unsettled.

And so he sat before the elf, and began recounting in the hope that she might understand:

Opportunities for intrusion countermeasures to flag suspicious activity. No avail.

{That man was once called friend,} he began. {It turns out, his father made a decent name for himself as a shaman, and his mother was something of a prophetess. When Niall first showed himself to be an atypical, he made his family proud. However, as he grew older, his taste for pain became clearer. A bird’s wing broken so that it would heal and become useless. Hundreds of bugs with legs removed, or shells peeled. A few more accidents among the other children in his neighborhood than the laws of averages permitted. All things indicative of mishap, or the immaturity common to many in their formative periods.}

Penetration of the secured area. An unchallenged outsider.

{As he became older, more attuned to his magical peculiarities, Niall found that the act of dispensing suffering on that border between self and not-self was… pleasing. By the time he and I met each other, he knew what made him smile. A trait I share, and which makes me smile as well – but that fact of smiling brings me unhappiness. And, you see, a mistake was made: confiding in another assumed to likewise share one’s mores. He did not understand shame, he did not repent his actions, he did not forgive a fellow consort of violence for misleading him.}

Too late, alarum. Exfiltration concluded successfully.

{There were casualties, and the Nightmare Count numbers among them. Now? Now, this estate is going to be MY fortress, MY shield, MY safe haven!}

He paused, shuddering, and looked in the direction of the sun’s descent.

{You wanted to destroy me? As bigoted and conflicted and sadistic as I might be inclined in the mire of my worst character, I will tell you a truth. So long as Caladhbolg and I remain joined, very few means exist with a chance of undoing me.} He stepped close, placing his large orange palm against the barrier. With an effort, he reshaped it. A mirror of his fleshy limb now protruded from the right shoulder. {If we separate, it will persist, and I shall be interrupted.}

The elf twitched every so often, giving no reply. The pain she failed to hide unsettled him… yet that paled beside the greasy malcontentment caused by how those little twitches occasionally brought a smile to the new Lord’s face. For three days he watched her, like a monkey waiting outside an orchard until the farmer decided to leave.

Three days proved a long, long time.

Sebastio’s changes had extensive and resounding implications, amongst them the inability to sleep and a biology no longer dependent on sustenance of food or energy of any kind. As a result, he spent the days interacting briefly with those who sought him out. Tangled Gordian knots of Yrdkish inquiry parted with ease under his distracted tongue. Most of the time, he sat and watched his handiwork. He waited. His callers quickly got the picture. The armsmen stood at their vigil without sleep, their self-subsistent means far more orthodox than that of their Lord.

On the third day’s demise, the elf rose again above the milky caustic waters, and Sebastio Artaxerxes gave her a new skin from out of pocket. As her dermis knit her together once more, salt dripping from her shaking frame began soaking into the lawn. Grass died beneath the saline and regrew at the behest of gardener eidolons. Others busily dismantled the elf’s prison.

Sebastio waited until her clothes returned to their proper places. He released the disruptive functions he had been sustaining on her person, and Leanshe sighed as her pain dampeners began soothing her. Then, the Cambrian crossed his legs, sat in the lotus position, and carefully eyed the woman he’d decided to consider the daughter of her mother.

“Leanshe Etruphana.”

The now-hairless autumn elf’s aura remained dim and unreadable. The acceleration of her heart told him she might expect to be debrided again and returned to her containment for another three days. She didn’t illegally fold away, which encouraged both optimism and delicacy.

Over the days of watching, Sebastio’s synthetic parts had gradually leaned toward a more biologically human exterior. Twisting a swath of newly grown orange chain-link beard hair, his unnatural jaw stretched in a soft line.

“If you still wish to do me harm for the noble sacrifice made by your cousins, here is your chance. I require advising. I know little of how Lords are perceived by their subjects and peers on an Yrdkish political theater. To make my vision become a reality, I need to be less of a Lord, and more of a symbol. A banner. I need to restrict my decisions, and to make them mean more each time.”

She met his contemplative ocular lasing, unfazed.

“Advise me.”

The autumn elf’s aura slowly turned crimson, then topaz. A very gradual calming. Eventually she requested a direct channel connection. Bemused, Sebastio accepted.

{It may sound a strange thing, perhaps, to you. When we take upon ourselves a serious goal, it is supposed to be a singular pursuit. Bringing others to share that goal is, of course, noble. Even an outlander Rhaagmini like you can see that.}

{Of course.}

<Plainly,> interjected Caladhbolg, and so used to his other half’s “voiced” thoughts had Sebastio become over his immurement that interminable evening that Leanshe’s psychic flinch surprised him at first.

{If you want to be seen as both aloof from the details, and yet dedicated to your cause, you should do what most Lords consider political folly. For most it demonstrates a catastrophic degree of inconstancy, on account of the additional demands it places on a Lord.}

She turned then, and the time it took her to face the sun peering above the horizon was a comparative eon in the rapidity of their bytevoice.

{My Lord, you should marry.}

Sebastio mulled over the suggestion. As far as “ways to coerce nemeses to their doom” went, it failed to devastate. It sounded, frankly, like a joke. He said as much.

{You have unexpectedly placed a deal of trust in me, Lord, and yet are the slumbering unsleeper. You are the very picture of contradiction.}

The aphorism of a well-to-do silkal, so indecisive as to whether it wanted the wonderful realm of rest or the wakeful lucid world, was a figurative construct which might have been minted in Sebastio’s honor for all that it fit him. Yet on this occasion that metaphor held no weight.

{On the contrary. My relationship with you is the antithesis of trusting. Has it already slipped your mind, the very hour your sentence is fulfilled?}

With his new body’s alterations including corruption to his cerv-mesh’s simplex module, Sebastio could no longer reliably fold in the traditional method. However, with his new gifts of destructive talent he could pare away radians and distances, warp cosines and tesseracts, and break down numerous barriers between his given state and the state he desired. He stood and deployed a function, smashing apart the separation between Leanshe and his seated position.

The autumn elf twitched as a figure shuddered into focus within arm’s reach.

{You tried to kill me. Undesired from my perspective, yet something I can, in isolation forgive. But when you did it with a tool that could have rent apart every person and event intersecting my person’s temporospatial coordinates…}

{The device was open-bounded to a range of only eight hours.}

Sebastio had never been truly scared of himself before. Upon hearing the autumn elf’s justification, though, his whole being petrified internally. A thin river of something – not quite thought, not quite emotion – trickled through his center. A river that stank of klaxons and oaths and lightnings and shadows.

He never remembered moving of his own volition, exactly, but he next stood close enough that the vellus hair of his nose brushed the woman’s face. His own face contorted, and he knew without the aid of a mirror that the fury in his mien could only be described as incandescent.

{Crippled False. That miniscule show of forethought upon the well-being of your fellow estate citizens is one of a terribly small number of reasons we are talking at all, and for that you still draw breath! Disrupting eight hours along the time axis means you only would have destroyed several hundred people without hope of recovery. If you had extended that period to, say, a full day… your records would have been wiped from recovery servers and you would have died three days ago.}

The hairless elf twitched again, more explosively.

Sebastio found it amazing when he didn’t breathe fire as he next spoke aloud.

“If I had your mind plumbed to find where you obtained that weapon, it would doubtless just show examples of how convincing you can be when under pressure. So your trespass is forgiven, not forgotten. Now, business calls for attention, including your most interesting advice, and I must depart.”

Leanshe’s eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets as she watched everything in the garden simultaneously, as though to see if any assassins or “accidents” might hurtle out at her.

“Understand that I sincerely hope to see this incident fade into inconsequence.” Sebastio moved to leave, looking over his shoulder. “But if you ever threaten the safety of my estate’s residents again, then you had best make peace with yourself and whatever powers you may hold dear.”

As he left the garden’s beauty with armsmen in tow, Sebastio didn’t know if he’d made an unstable ally, or an unsteady enemy. But he knew his time as Pennat Gate’s Lord would be anything but obscure, and the furthest thing from boring imaginable.

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