“BREAK THE WALLS DOWN! THEY HIDE GOBLINS, AND THE GOBLINS LIVE OFF OUR GOLD!”
-Sanni, Sanni Juhinmkoltspeeéee’s Journey From All Phantastes To All Madness, Act IV
Seven, as usual, remained in a corner. Its head cocked to one side, watching the proceedings. In this instance, Friend Lord Artaxerxes had told it, the reaching-fellow had to accompany the others to the gathering. So far, the experience had been intriguing.
The place’s size made it possible to house all eight or nine people (discounting Friend-Foe Argyva, whether or not one included the person made of murder attached to Friend Lord Artaxerxes) without trouble, even considering the wealth of growing things running rampant and intruding on the structure. Stone and open space and leaves and fruits. Not one tree of flesh, but Seven had slowly gotten used to Friend Lord Artaxerxes providing it with flesh not taken from a tree. A lack of trees of flesh no longer caused it to seek them out in vain. For that matter, Friend Lord Artaxerxes had said that Seven was free to return to Home if it ever desired, but so far it had not attempted to negotiate such a scenario.
Numerous chairs and not-chairs had been arranged over a rocky ground - a “floor” - for use by all those present. Seven didn’t use one, of course; it saw no reason why it should. Almost all the others did, though, save one of the strangers and Friend Lord Tuoamas. Friend Lord Artaxerxes and Friend Louis sat next to each other, one with arms folded and one with hair spraying every which way. Beside them, Friend Lord Tuoamas looked over the scenery as though it were not a familiar sight.
Across a short wide table from them were four strangers. At least, that was what Seven thought; it knew which ones were called Friend Bugbear and Friend Sun. From Friend Essie’s explanation of the concept, everyone it knew was still something vaguely close to a stranger. But it at least knew the names of some of them, and that satisfied it in part.
The ones whose names Seven did not know occasionally glanced toward it, at the others, and about the unwalled structure’s surroundings.
Seven found the sight more than merely interesting.
From their vantage near the top of a tall hill, that thing these people called daylight just barely crept between the terminations of a tree reaching overhead. It grew a long way away; by how its friends had taught it to measure, its base was fifteen hundred eighty two and sixty three hundredths meters away from where Seven stood as measured in a straight line. If one simply measured at a static altitude, the trunk of the tree lay only thirteen hundred ten and twenty nine hundredths meters distant. From what it had so far learned, the fact that the tree’s boughs stretched overhead, reaching at least twenty four hundred fifty two and three quarters meters from the trunk in every direction, made it considerably larger than any other tree the reaching-fellow was likely to see in this place.
Wisps of light quivered in the branches, varying in size from much larger than Seven’s own height to the width of its nails. All across the forking crooks swept long jagged sprigs of paper, patterned with extremely complex symmetries, and occasionally little hutches hanging between, housing birds and weelees and squawks. Below it all sprawled a tangled tiered collection of stone houses, like Shine Backward, yet fundamentally different. No fellows hunched or swam or flew between them, and yet these different people had an unusual bearing that was exactly as unfamiliar as all the rest.
The reaching-fellow thought that the word Friend Essie had used that first day of arriving at Shine Backward - “beautiful” - was something it understood now, looking over the sight. Perhaps it also understood a little of that nebulous thing it had heard called happiness as well. The idea of standing and watching the way the birds swung about, the way the large swaths of tree flowed in the wind, the way that the daylight touched things and seemed to make them come alive. Even though it wanted to see and understand so much more of its surroundings, it didn’t strike it as necessary to go and learn rather than absorb what it now beheld.
“Well, it’s a good day to do business,” boomed a deep voice. “It’s also a good day to convene with family and worthwhile associates.”
Seven turned to the speaker, hands flexing and relaxing.
Friend Bugbear, the second-largest of the strangers, approached Seven’s own height, and had a funny flat portion of its face covered in something. That something included a little shining thing where an eye would have been. Seven wanted to investigate that something. However, it had learned that there were times and places at which a person who wasn’t a fellow might violently resist such investigations. It had learned to ask whether this might be one of those occasions before engaging in scientific research. In any case, it could wait.
Friend Louis made a little pleased sound.
“It’s good to see you again, Bugbear.”
Friend Louis looked up at the fuzzy figure next to Friend Bugbear.
“And you… Big Sister.”
Friend Sun, who was shorter than Friend Adz, but no one else which came to mind, scuffed round hooves on the ground. The creature had been seated half a meter to the side of Friend Bugbear, and possessed claws, large completely dark eyes, and horns covered in glittering metal.
Seven wanted to touch the glittering metal, but that was another of those things about which it should ask before attempting.
“It’s good to see you again as well, Louis,” said Friend Sun, shifting on a stool that was too small, and yet which seemed perfectly appropriate. “And you… Sebastio.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes made a gesture at that.
“To you two, of anyone, I am and will always be Sebastio.” A hand waved. “I don’t care who hears; there are some bonds that are as deep as blood. If you were Yrdkish, it might be a different story, but you aren’t and it’s not.”
“Yes, well!” said one of the strangers Seven didn’t know. “I ‘ope I’m no’ the only one ‘ere lookin’ forward to thin’s makin’ sense again soonish.”
It was the same kind of person as Friend Lord Artaxerxes, Friend Lord Tuoamas, Friend Louis, and Friend Bugbear; a kind of person whose unit of measure was a “human.” The person had more cloth than flesh in evidence, and many metallic implements which dangled from its garb in clanking clusters.
“I as well,” said the extremely short person, standing on the other side of Friend Bugbear. The extremely short person was covered in a much thicker fuzzy layer than Friend Sun, as well as having a single stretch of cloth descending from its middle. A long tail flicked out from under the cloth, switching back and forth.
It turned to Friend Bugbear, large eyes blinking rapidly.
“I’d like to stop having to… rely…”
The creature began making yowling moos, and an occasional sound (words, they were called words) that Seven recognized. After several seconds of this, crescendoing into wild flailing of limbs and screeching pleas, Friend Bugbear placed a hand on the creature’s head, between its tall pointy ears, and said things that weren’t words. It sounded like something very large and very heavy falling.
“Hang on,” said Friend Bugbear. “I’m not great at gift-of-gab - I’ve only had the license for four years - but it should reapply cleanly as long as nobody breaks my concentration.”
“If there is one thing I have learned of you, Mr. Pickering, it is that you and your illustrious wife have bona fides above question,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas.
“Why, thank you, Lord,” said the large human. “I aim to please, but let’s not be too hasty in praising my quality until we come to a resolution.”
The hand on the short creature’s head glowed, and then quickly it began to speak understandable words once more.
“... and get on with it!”
The shouting stopped momentarily, and the glow vanished. The creature looked up at Friend Bugbear, ears twitching as the hand rubbed them. A long nose twitched. Twitching also befell the eyes.
“Why are you doing that?” the short entity growled.
“Be quiet, you, and let me pet you.”
“It’s good to see you’ve gotten much more mature in my absence,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes. Seven felt mild surprise that it recognized the statement as “sarcasm,” that thing where one said one thing while meaning something quite different.
Friend Louis began laughing, in the fashion which evidently meant it was happy.
“He’s never goin’ to reform, but he’ll do his best,” said Friend Sun. One clawed hand and one without claws touched, Friend Bugbear not looking at Friend Sun.
“Touching,” said Friend Louis, making a contorted face and pushing a finger far into its mouth.
“Distractions are a spice of life,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas, “but I agree with the already-voiced sentiment: let us be about our business.”
It gestured to Friend Bugbear.
“Excellent,” said Friend Bugbear. “I see and accept your assurances of identity, Lord Tuoamas Pennat.”
“And I yours, Francis Pickering.”
Seven remembered how, according to Friend Lord Artaxerxes, the people around it could invisibly do a great number of things. It had heard that there would be a ritual of some kind, performed between Friend Lord Tuoamas and Friend Bugbear, so that each of them could be sure that the other was the one they thought they were. That hadn’t made sense to Seven then, and it still didn’t, but Friend Lord Artaxerxes had said it shouldn’t have to worry about the topic at present.
“Unless ought else should be reason for pause, I think Lord Artaxerxes may assume the mantle of arbiter at this time.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s hands clasped, then gestured to the small fuzzy stranger and the human stranger.
“When in Yrdky, Bugbear…?”
The subject raised part of the brow made of flesh, expelled a guff of hiccupped air, and firmly rubbed the short person on the head for another second.
“Sela Naas, lately of Lesq-Nineteen-Lesq-Seventy-Two-Wrut-Eight-Hundred-Six-Eetee.”
The other human became the subject of a near head-rub, but only the air received a massage. Even so, the cloth-wrapped soul displayed a less than appreciative air about the exchange.
“Ishkub nRa Aklid, lately of Grus-Four-Dredodil-Seven-Thousand-Three-Hundred-Thirty-Iar-Sixty-Four-Aadsl.”
The person made of murder extended without malice as Friend Lord Artaxerxes swept to take in the both of them.
“Mr. Naas, Mr. Aklid. We ask your patience; I’ve been friends with Francis Pickering for most of my life. He’s already gone over this with you as I understand it, but that isn’t quite the same thing as knowing you fully grasp the mechanics of what we do here. Could you elaborate, for the benefit of myself and the others present, the situation as you understand it?”
Friend Aklid, the human with the excessive cloth and metal bits, glanced toward Friend Bugbear.
“So… we of Doenland, and the people of this fella ‘ere-”
A long digit, adorned with a sharp metal spike, poked in the direction of Friend Naas’s shorter form.
“-‘ad a bi’ of an acciden’ which shoved us… well, somewhere else.”
A quick swing about with arms extended indicated the surrounding hill and far beyond. Friend Aklid pointed at Friend Bugbear, rolling the other hand in a wheel-like way.
“So we ge’ picked up by some freaks - and don’ mistake me, we’re very ‘appy of i’ - and they brin’ us some other somewhere else called Rhaagm.”
A finger pointed in Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s direction.
“Apparently they don’ much care for you there righ’ now.”
“True, at least in that they want me to either go away or lose one of my limbs. Unfortunately, that would kill me, so they’ll have to be disappointed… for now.”
“Ey, makes sense.”
A movement of Friend Aklid’s head, then shoulders.
“Then THEY say we can’ stay there, we ‘ave to go somewhere else ye’ again, all fifty million of us. We Doenlanderin ge’ approached by this grea’ blue fella ‘ere name of Bugbear in the name of love and bureaucracy. Wha’ a stupid idea, a bunch of people arguin’ abou’ ‘ow rulin’s supposed to be done instead of doin’ i’. Anyway, ‘e’s already talkin’ with the furballs abou’ the same thin’, and says tha’ we can go alon’ with the same deal they’re gettin’. Well, since we’re goin’ to ‘ave to choose between some place called New Armis which sounds awful, and whatever destination this guy wants to sell us, we like to keep our options open.”
Friend Aklid turned to Friend Bugbear with a clank.
“Anyway, turns ou’ this place name of Penna’ Ga’ is supposed to be open to folk like us, so - after this guy convinces me and mine to all ge’ these-”
A tap on the back of the neck.
“-we all lined up to learn abou’ this promised land. There’s supposed to be some sor’ of pos’-physical society ‘ere. So far, i’ looks very physical to me, bu’ could be almos’ unimaginably worse. So, if you approve, we’ll be glad to stay.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s arm-that-was-a-person flexed, bringing to mind three nights ago when those others had tried to hurt it, and it had hurt them instead.
“Missing a few key bits, but you’re correct in your understanding in general. Now, Mr. Naas, what do you say?”
The shorter person’s tail twitched more. Friend Bugbear’s hand retreated from the soft fabric of the head’s top. Its voice was still gritty, like very small pebbles ground down against larger ones.
“Well, some parts the same, I guess. We didn’t have an accident as much as we had a bunch of creatures invade. Creatures that looked a lot like that.”
Friend Naas looked straight at Seven, poofing out to a much greater size, tail whipping.
Friend Lord Artaxerxes glanced aside to the reaching-fellow.
“Ah, yes. I was wondering when someone would raise the topic of our sharp-fingered guest. We’ll come back to that, in due time. Anyway, Mr. Naas, please continue.”
The short creature made a sniffing sound.
“I understand we had to leave because they would have killed us, and we couldn’t remove them.”
The voice got louder, and the tail’s swishing intensified, though the creature’s fluffy outside shrank down again slowly.
“If our elders grasped your offer correctly, we understand you people have enough space for us to grow our food here, and give us a…”
Two ears much like Friend Adz’s flapped.
“... a safe haven, I think Elder Bugbear said. Well, even we can’t go back home…”
A little motion trilled through the creature from foot to head, then the ears and tail drooped.
“We could probably learn to live in a place like this, in time.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes motioned at Friend Bugbear.
“I assume you haven’t gone through the essentials of general Monolith knowledge requisition with your charges who’ve received meshes, correct?”
“Ha! No, your Lordship. We’ve got a bit of a time crunch, and no chance - short of Hssi and Dlg unifying their dread powers in our aid - of borrowing a temporal savepoint. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, we don’t want anyone getting used to godlike omniscience if they’re going to get it taken away later. Apparently Úda’s little colonies of extrafacetaries often demand removal of meshes when someone joins, and that’s the next-best place these unfortunates might find refuge.”
Friend Bugbear snorted as though something would have been ejected from its mouth under other circumstances.
“That improves things a bit, in fact,” leaked quietly from Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s mouth. “Okay, then.”
It got up, tapped its chest, and moved quickly around the low table to stand in front of Friend Naas, crouching down as the shorter creature stepped away. Then it moved over in front of Friend Aklid, and the other human watched intently as it was watched in turn.
Without saying a word, Friend Lord Artaxerxes returned to its original point, and sighed.
“Louis - your thoughts on suitability?”
Friend Louis propped a hand up under a pinched chin and pinched eyes.
“They’re as needful as anyone else we’ve seen. If they want to join us, I’m in full support.”
“Good. The Lady voices concurrence.”
A seat was retaken and fingers were clasped.
“Wagers upon the table. Here is the hand you’ve both been dealt.”
A single digit pointed out into the far distance.
“If all goes well, you will be admitted to this estate as citizens. To list the glut of benefits this would provide is a considerable time investment, so I’ll keep it short. These-”
A tap at the back of the neck, precisely imitating Friend Aklid’s motion.
“-are one such benefit, providing you with access all the knowledge you could ever desire.”
Friend Naas’s teeth appeared. It touched a small stud hanging off one of its large ears.
“If it’s all the same, I don’t much care for the idea of sticking something in me like those… things! Piercing ears is one commitment, but getting my back torn open and lots of wires put in is quite another.”
Friend Lord Sebastio smiled.
“It doesn’t actually work that way. Granted, it isn’t exactly an unequivocally nice experience, either - as I’m sure Mr. Aklid can attest. If you truly feel disinclined, though, there’s no rush or requirement to get one. You’ll be unusual, but hardly devastatingly so. My younger brother got his mesh quite some time after he arrived here.”
A palm rested on the chair arm closest to Friend Louis, then retracted.
“So. You won’t have to worry about your biological needs - not just that you can get rid of your little negative-mass helpers that are keeping you in good health in our local gravity, but you won’t need to worry about food ever again if you don’t desire it. You’ll be able to go as long as you choose without sleep, if you’d like. Eventually, you’ll also probably find you’re missing out on things you wouldn’t expect if you give those up entirely, but that will be your choice.”
The arm-that-was-a-person tapped the upraised chin.
“In effect, weak immortality also comes with all the rest.”
“Weak what!?” came from Friend Naas. A smooth arc beat the air behind the short figure as its tail began reflexively switching in rapid order.
“You’ll still be subject to certain deaths, to be sure: sudden tremendous violence, bartering away your spirit in some oathbinding deals, or going places you simply aren’t designed to survive, for starters. But illness and old age and decay will no longer make themselves known, unless their presence is specifically requested.”
“... You make jest?” probed the short fuzzy creature, rapidly blinking.
“Do I jest, Louis?” asked the human of Friend Louis.
Friend Louis swiped thumb across forehead, shoulders wavering, and reclined at an angle of fifty seven degrees, twenty six minutes, forty four seconds.
“If so, it’s news to me.”
“What say you, Bugbear?”
Friend Bugbear made a little parting gesture with both palms. A great many teeth began showing.
“The last time I remember you putting your sense of humor on display was that wonderful encounter with the fruit crate and the digital personality girl at that Farner distribution center.”
“Well, there you go, friend,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes. “That from a man who’s too stupid to be stupid, and stupider than me.”
Friend Bugbear made a face.
“You know, that really doesn’t sound right unless you say it in the Bequastish.”
There was only the soft breeze for quite some time, adorned with the chirrups of some very thin birds.
“Don’ tell me there isn’ a catch for all this,” Friend Aklid eventually growled. “‘Too good to be true’ doesn’ even begin to describe… wha’, ‘eaven?”
“There are always sacrifices made in life’s decisions,” observed Friend Lord Tuoamas. “Much of what you consider to be ‘private’ will enter the sphere of public knowledge; some religious matters, your circles of acquaintances, most comings and goings throughout the region. Some of that information can still be obfuscated by a dedicated person, although at a hefty expense. However, most of the problems you will inherit in signing on the dotted line, as it were, flow from allegiances and philosophies that you implicitly endorse by accepting our communion.”
“It’s what you might call strange,” said Friend Louis. “My father was a carpenter, and he died to black plague when I was young. After growing up in a whorehouse…”
Seven noticed Friend Sun fidget a bit at that, readjusting its cloth and the belts adorning its body.
“... well, Yrdky looks more like a fever dream than heaven in many respects.”
“Oh, reeeeeally?” replied Friend Bugbear. The words were so thickly forced through the fleshy lips that something ought to have fallen out of them with the expulsion. Friend Sun abruptly made an inhale-stippled whinny followed by a fusillade of coughs, at which point the exceptionally large human sat up and leaned over, murmuring, “Sorry… You can make me laugh next time we’re sharing drinks with some Ganymedes.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes smiled, then grimaced.
“Friends, if you deserve truth, then you’ll get truth.”
“We’re in a bit of a hectic transitional period right now. If we’d had this meeting a year ago, then things would be a lot more idyllic in every sense. At present, this estate’s recently seen a spate of varying kinds of discord. Three nights ago, I had an attempt on my life.”
Friend Bugbear had kept one hand on Friend Sun, rubbing up and down the back of the taller person’s fluffy neck. Abruptly, the smoothness on the left side of the human’s face flashed in the light as head twisted like a sewing-fellow’s sleek and sudden locomotion.
“YOU WHA- OW!!”
The human almost leapt over the table and into Friend Lord Artaxerxes and Friend Louis. It managed to avoid doing so, and perhaps just as well on several counts; that person wearing metal called Friend-Foe Argyva had appeared out of nowhere, precisely at where Friend Bugbear’s trajectory would have reached apex. It bore a bright liquid sheen across its whole exterior. Seven presumed that touching that sheen would cause ill effects.
Instead, the leaper managed to land posterior-first on the ground, clutching at one hand. The tableaux remained perfectly static for several seconds, save the rustling of leaves far far overhead and Friend Naas’s ears twitching with a mad allegretto rhythm. Then, Friend Bugbear jerkily looked over one shoulder at Friend Sun.
“Sweetheart, did you clean up after you trimmed your horns down today?”
Friend Sun’s wide maw parted just a bit.
“Ah… I may have rushed somewhat.”
“Well, you must’ve nicked a blood vessel! I love you unto the deepest depths and the highest heavens, though, so you’re forgiven just this once.”
A thumb extended; embedded an impressive distance into its meat was a long slender spine. Its surface was dark where some now-dry fluid had soaked in, and it had obviously stiffened in the neighborhood of the staining. It came free with a firm yank.
“My deepest and most profound apologies, Armsman,” said Friend Bugbear to Friend-Foe Argyva, standing and returning to an abandoned seat after discarding the lengthy unwanted appendage. “Now, you were saying what precisely, Lord?”
“I believe that either my current status, or past accomplishments, have stirred up the ire of personages with a controlling interest in a reality-spanning cult. In any case, some of their members - or people posing as such - arrived in an hour where the Lady of the estate was asleep, and I might have been myself, if I could still actually manage such a feat. They brought with them weapons and tools of murder. Their discourse ended quite poorly for them.”
Friend Aklid, after several deep breaths, turned to Friend Bugbear.
“Is ‘e serious?”
“As I may have implied, he doesn’t have a sense of humor in the way you understand the concept,” replied Friend Bugbear in a hoarse low voice. Two palms clapped together, and lips wrinkled. “Don’t care if you are a head of state now; explain.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes tapped the table, Friend-Foe Argyva having vacated the area with no sound or sign of its presence, or its exit, remaining.
“I’ll do one better.”
A glow came from the table, and a three dimensional image stood up from its surface. The image had a strange quality in its depth, changing and swinging at peculiar times. Accompanying sounds came from the ether. It was a familiar place - the room where Seven had spent its nights with Friend Adz and Friend Lord Artaxerxes. Friend Adz appeared, very close by and lying horizontal. The image changed, and Seven saw… itself. It had seen pictures of itself before, and somehow could discern between when it saw some other reaching-fellow and when it saw itself. In this case it didn’t have to do so; the reaching-fellow at hand was pushing along those strange string-threaded conical shapes.
“Let’s… move ahead, and skip some unnecessary figments of the moment. You don’t need to see me chatting with the Lady and so forth.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes coughed into a fist.
The image tangled up in a sudden convulsion, then Seven beheld Friend Adz sliding out the door of the same room, staring back through the opening for an instant before the portal shut.
The reaching-fellow made a sudden leap of intuition: what it saw, it was seeing from the perspective of Friend Lord Artaxerxes.
From that strange angle, it relived the attempts of the strangers who had visited in the night, intent on doing harm to the human which had the arm-that-was-a-person. Each in their turn came forward and met their end, save for one very thin and angular creature with hands that seemed to be attached backward to their arms. It had a recollection that the breed’s unit of measure was called a “jentrillian.”
Seven tensed when the cladding-fellow appeared, spines and beak all sharper than any rock formation or geometry seen anywhere in Home. No more than an instant did it have to look about and come to terms with its sudden introduction to the place Seven had begun to think of as a second Home before Friend Lord Artaxerxes rent apart the distance separating them, rent apart the cladding-fellow, and then rent apart the picture.
“That’s the salient stuff,” it said, shortly before covering its eyes with a flat hand. “Not-Fire agents. They brought a Beast with them. Each had, on their person, an icon of the Sifters. Whether those were intended as plants, we’ve found evidence that a fairly major cult is displeased with… well, me at least.”
The familiar human glanced at Friend Naas and Friend Aklid, both of whom appeared silent, still, and - unless the reaching-fellow had utterly misunderstood the concept - perturbed.
“Those sorts of things are what you might unwittingly court by accepting a place in our extended family,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes. A thing that wasn’t a smile emplaced itself across the mouth. “Stochastic sampling says that you’re not likely to run into murder attempts yourselves, either as an observer or a target, for several reasons. For that matter, that was one of a relatively small number of efforts in that direction over the span of the dynasty they’re describing as a fractured throne, if you measure by the standards of non-Yrdkish societies. Compared to other estates, though? We’re about as war-torn as any comparable nation you could care to name. In addition, there’s been a resurgence of some subversive elements we’ve encountered in the past. People who make it a habit to throw a handful of salt into the soil each morning. We won’t lie to you: joining Pennat Gate might be like achieving the afterlife, but it’s only Paradise if your definition of that idea differs greatly from mine.”
Seven saw that moving image over and over again in its mind, and came to an utterly disorienting realization; a realization of itself. It was not the sort of realization that a reaching-fellow often had, in its estimation.
“I… want that you had not destroyed that cladding-fellow,” it pronounced carefully. “It might have become like me, in time.”
“It talks!” shouted Friend Aklid. Its chair scooted back, rearing away from its upright position for a precarious moment before angular momentum became exhausted and the seat dropped back down. Friend Naas abruptly became a dusty sphere of fluff. The shortest member of the congregation looked like its eyes would go rolling straight out of its head, and it began making a quiet, high-pitched rhythmic hum.
“Dlg’s backs!” said Friend Bugbear, moving away ever so slightly. “Not at all like a sensory. I don’t suppose you’ve got any over-Beasts taking up residence?”
“We haven’t yet gone quite so far in courting disaster, no. Eventually, though, that would be a perfect little gemstone in the crown.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes cocked a wrist, then pointed next to the table.
“Seven, come here.”
Seven answered the demand-which-needs-to-be-met as it must: without delay.
“Seven?” asked Friend Aklid, arms crossed before it.
“The Beast’s name: Seven Plus Two Minus Three Times Three. They have a very objective mindset, and their thinking leads them to use basic numeric expressions as their preferred method of designation.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes leaned upon one elbow, and gave Seven a small wink.
“The creatures pose a sticky issue,” answered Friend Lord Tuoamas, supremely efficient in use of breath. It touched the fabric over its chest. “If you join this family, you must know that we have taken up yet another hobby that has made us more than passingly unpopular: adopting what many consider, at best, quasi-domestic killing machines. A portion of our policing organizations, who have recently gained the moniker of the ‘Pastoral Division,’ monitor their behavior with a zeal that is frankly amusing. That does not stop some of our people from worrying. Nor should it, in the interests of fairness.”
“But it’s standing right there! How do you know that thing won’t just gut us when we turn around?” hissed Friend Naas. It had fallen back behind Friend Bugbear. “It could put one of those claws straight through me and probably through another one of me as well!”
“Simple,” came Friend Lord Artaxerxes’s reply. “I told it that it’s banned from acts of harm.”
Before anyone else could respond, it pierced Seven with a glare.
“Seven, go stand by that pillar, then jump up and down three times, then lie flat on the ground.”
The demand-which-needs-to-be-met was answered. The life-giver’s commandment must be honored.
After obeying and returning to its feet, it saw the others gathered there watching carefully or curiously or with some kind of emotion it didn’t know.
“I must request you don’t spread this around, Bugbear, Sun, but give it orders, and it will follow if it can. Repetition reinforces to a significant degree - for example, if you asked it to kill a person, I’m pretty sure it would become distressed but refuse unless you devoted several hours to counter-programming. Go ahead, tell it to do something - just nothing destructive or vandalizing, and nothing that would endanger it or us.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes pointed from Friend Naas to Seven.
“Go… stand in the corner!” it said, ears twitching.
Seven complied. For moments thereafter reigned utter stillness.
“Are they really tha’ dangerous?” said Friend Aklid.
“They have arcane and most strange talents,” replied Friend Lord Artaxerxes. The person made of murder rubbed across the thin mouth. “For example: my prosthetic’s quite special, you might say.”
Splintery phalanges webbed out from the fingers, and they entwined to make a sharp and pointed mask of a face. That new face was presented at the end of the arm, so as to provide a closer look.
“It started life as a transcendent sapience, and in many ways you could say it’s now part of a very beneficial symbiotic relationship. Presumably, you gathered that it’s not just a normal arm, but also presumably you didn’t gather that it’s technically alive.”
As the face unseamed itself from the end of the arm, it swung to point at Seven.
“Seven knew as much without needing to be told. Indeed, it seems that our friend here can identify sapients on contact - in some situations, at least. There’s a lot of potential there; possible military applications, plenty of philosophers who’ll find it neat to forgo using Ktarebte machines to test for thinking creature presence.”
The person made of murder clenched into a long-digit fist.
“But as to why they might have such a talent? They hunt and kill and eat the remains of sophont entities. Not that they need to do so, but if this miniature nation-state’s people didn’t have exceptional faith in their leadership as a rule, they would have certainly revolted against the thought of living side-by-side with those which see them as food.”
Friend Bugbear’s not-eye glinted. It sloped a sideways nod at Friend Lord Artaxerxes, then forced its shoulders out and back.
“Those things give nightmares to hardened soldiers. There’s a saying you’ll hear: ‘Beasts know no immortals.’ Not strictly true, but very close.”
Friend Lord Tuoamas scratched its head, then moved to where some vines wound about the pillars of the structure in which they stood. A hand rose and pulled a warty astraform fruit from the vine. Without severing the stem, it was then gently pulled from its resting place and put on the table in the center of the gathering. The trailing connection leading back to the column made Seven think of the way Home’s structure sometimes reshaped to produce knots and entanglements where there previously were none.
“Seven, perforate this illash, please,” preceded a gesture indicating the fruit.
Seven did so, coming only as near as was required to wound with its outstretched nail. The sound of protest from the fruit came soft and opposite of the act which produced it: smooth, unbroken, static. Quickly the fruit warped and fell into itself, turning to a dark decadent slag. Not long, and the same occurred to the vine. The plant’s whole form became a memory of malleable ashy material - dry, then rot-moist, then, before Seven could partake of the food, flaking residue carried off by the wind.
“Tha’s one of the mos’ disturbin’ thin’s I’ve ever seen,” said Friend Aklid, staring at the quickly-fading stains where plant had coiled around column, then at Seven’s nail before it retracted.
“Having met and destroyed many of those creatures myself,” said Friend Lord Artaxerxes, “it’s preeminently obvious that Seven, and its brethren, are self-aware. Yes, they’re dangerous and disturbing - they’re also people.”
Friend Naas looked about, head jittering.
“But why do this?” it asked, almost on its knees as it stared up at Friend Lord Artaxerxes. “Why support these creatures if they are so deadly?”
“Because he’s an Abednego,” said Friend Bugbear.
“Excuse me?” interjected Friend Louis. “I’m afraid that’s a new one.”
Friend Bugbear’s arms folded, and turned to Friend Louis.
“Of the three Paths of Aidenism-”
Friend Bugbear stayed silent for a moment, then slid ever so slightly closer to Friend Louis, who didn’t seem to think the interjection was too wise in hindsight. The taller human’s frown had grown bloated.
“... Fourth-Pathers. Three Paths, and one sect of nearly-religious observance of neural engineering. My Nan didn’t care much for when those Fourth Path novitiates came along and tried to recruit kids in our neighborhood every couple of years.”
A hand waved.
“You’ve heard of the Way’s recounting of a long-ago Earth Standard king, with a fiery furnace and three misbegotten hipsters named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.”
Friend Sun prodded Friend Bugbear, and they looked at each other for a moment. Friend Sun gave another prod, and eventually another when nothing more came of the last one.
A short jump, then Friend Bugbear’s head turned to Friend Naas, then Friend Aklid. Both hands waved this time.
“For those who don’t know: there once was a megalomaniacal king who wanted people to worship him in effigy on a regular basis. Three guys stood out among his subjects when their faith dictated they resist. He threw ‘em in a mighty hot furnace for having independence of thought, but they survived - through faith or providence or miracle. There; you’ve got the story I heard ad infinitum in my youth in about a twelfth of the time!”
With a deep breath, a hand rubbed up and down the smooth crescent on the left side of Friend Bugbear’s face.
“No, I’m not annoyed. Anyway, Nan was, and probably still is, one of those people who saw Aidenism as a framing device for measuring one’s own philosophy, not just a flag to be waved or a dogma to embrace. She collected perspectives the way some people collect Grediwe dice and cards. She never got a cerv-mesh put in when she was young, bless her heart, so she forgot things eventually. She couldn’t remember the other two, but the last fella of those bunch was like a totem she never had to try to recall. She could always remember how he represented faith in motion, and so she’d always equate him with the Second Path: set an upright example and damn the consequences.”
Friend Bugbear stretched two large arms.
“There is the way of mourners on the First Path, there is the way of Abednego on the Second Path, and there is the way of persistence on the Third Path. Is life worth living in complete hermitage? For some creatures, arguably so. Should a culture enforce the implementation of standards to the point of hobbling society? Well, that way lies expediency-as-justice, which is not a slope to be lightly contemplated. Call me crazy as well as scary, but it seems the only meaningful position from which to change the world is strapped to the front of the gemship that is one’s moral compass, come Hell or razor-blade precipitation.”
A finger pointed.
“And, after knowing him for most of his life, I can say that Lord right there is probably the most ‘I couldn’t care less about people complaining that I’m rocking the boat if I were stone dead’ man I’ve ever met, except maybe the Jon of Rhaagm himself.”
Friend Bugbear looked at Friend Naas, and pointed at Friend Lord Artaxerxes and Friend Lord Tuoamas.
“If you join the family these people are raising, that’s the sort of household you’re going to have: a sanctuary for people who have been given a mattock to the teeth by luck of birth or kind or circumstance. I’m not arguing for or against the choice - just offering explanation.”
Far away, near the base of the tree, six or perhaps seven voices rose; they began singing a warbling tune about someone named Sean Mara, who “liked noses a little too much.”
“I don’t know,” said Friend Naas. “The elders didn’t… I don’t think I can make a decision on something quite so big.”
Its tail swished again.
“Not…” it tried, and looked out at the tree, then at the reaching-fellow.
“If you want to discuss the issue, then you have plenty of time in which to do so,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas. Lips parted and disgorged the largest smile Seven had ever seen grace the face.
“I can say tha’ we’ll be givin’ this a miss for now,” said Friend Aklid. It dusted off the cloth on its torso, and pulled the cloth around its head tighter. “If i’ seems too good to be true, and so on.”
“You have every right to go if that should be your wish,” replied Friend Lord Artaxerxes. A look passed with Friend Bugbear, along with glance down at the tree’s base. A sigh coincided with an increase with the singers’ volume and the joining-in of several more.
“Oh, Shillelagh Day. Anyway, if that’s how you really feel, I’ll be happy to conjure up a recommendation for the Údanese community to take you in. Don’t pursue anything with New Armis, though, unless you own several hats and very flexible ethics.”
Friend Aklid made no noise, but provided a complex hand sign that evidently placated the others. Friend Lord Artaxerxes swung upright, and stood.
“It’s about time that we put aside such weighty matters, and gathered together for a quick round of drinks. Argyva, I intend to visit Vemple’s Tavern; if you could please…”
Friend-Foe Argyva appeared, saluted, and disappeared again. Friend Lord Artaxerxes turned to Friend Lord Tuoamas.
“Will you have any interest in joining us, Lord Tuoamas?”
The addressed human put hands behind back and feet far apart, looking toward the daylight.
“The meeting with the Fifth Step information management community is not for another two hours. Yes, I might enjoy that. Although, we shall meet several noteworthies on our short sojourn that I may elect to greet.”
A sudden Shepard tone resonance, wavering and intermittent, invaded the mellifluous voice. Then, a grimace.
“I am sorry; my prophesying has proven erratic of late.”
Friend Lord Artaxerxes indicated the tree with a grand sweep.
“If we have some delay, then so be it! Come, friends, and let’s enjoy ourselves.”
Friend Bugbear rose, smiled, pressed both hands together, and with fingers stretched back elicited from them a racket like rocks being smashed together.
Friend Sun’s head tilted, before saying, “Only if you drink a firkin of ayrag with Bugbear.”
Surprise suddenly fit Seven very well: Friend Lord Artaxerxes and Friend Bugbear both began laughing, and didn’t stop for close to a minute. When the former finally regained composure, a similar surprise rested on Friend Louis as well.
“Let’s go, then - one of the earls of Fourth Step swears this place has more traffic than the Hammer and Scapula.”
“Oh? I’m a bit skeptical,” said Friend Sun.
The others began making their way toward the verdant path stretching down toward the tree’s base. No one made any mention of the armored figures leading the procession, though Friend Naas curiously watched them.
“Come along, Seven, but stay close,” admonished Friend Lord Artaxerxes.
“So you want to hear about my newest travails in being a host, little man?” Friend Bugbear asked Friend Louis. A hand pulled forward a broad-leafed stem on the path’s edge and let it swing back at the subject of address. Friend Louis chuckled and dodged.
“Not if it’s as bad as it was when I was sleeping in your upstairs. How is that little sprite who was next door doing, by the way?”
“Ah, she moved on.”
Another branch swung back without warning, and this one caught the shorter human in the face, eliciting a splutter and an oath to repay blood for blood.
The few branches of conversation cut off when a couple crossed before them, two people whose breed the reaching-fellow didn’t recognize.
One said something it didn’t understand in a bright voice, sweeping back out of the way with a wide gesture to hold its companion at bay. The other added something suitably solemn. Both made what Seven had come to recognize as motions of benediction or happiness.
Friend Lord Tuoamas repeated most of the same words with a wide smile.
“Well-predicted, Lord Tuoamas,” Friend Lord Artaxerxes was heard to softly mutter. “Though the law of averages makes this fulfillment a smidgen lackluster.”
Both of them caught sight of Friend Lord Artaxerxes then, and added something else. This time, they genuflected instead, offering something in low somber tones.
“I shall be along in a moment,” said Friend Lord Tuoamas to the others. “Let me catch up with these good publicans first. Do not fret, Blue, it will truly be no more than a moment,” was directed at another armored figure Seven had noticed poised silently in the bushes to the side.
“We’ll hang back a moment as well,” answered Friend Lord Artaxerxes. A hand waved at everyone else besides the two newest arrivals, Seven, and Friend Lord Tuoamas. “You lot go on.”
They did, with a few looks backward. Friend Bugbear stayed turned around a second longer, and gestured to eye and then to Friend Lord Artaxerxes. Friend Lord Artaxerxes looked to be about to return the favor, cut a look sideways at the pair - who were divided between cautious surreptitious glances and trying to make sufficient room for Friend Lord Tuoamas - and merely waved.
“I won’t drop eaves on you, Lord Tuoamas. The first pick-up hoop-hook game I’ve seen this season is right over there, and getting an idea of their spirits would be neat.”
A sideways twitch of the head at a tree-cleared square of ground to the other side of the trail. Over its grassy shadow-crossed breadth tumbled an array of creatures, all armed with crook-ended staves and long thick gloves. They were fighting almost to the death over a wide ring of some very rigid material, judging by the sounds of their distant exertions. Three had the curls of their staves braced against the inside of the thing, pulling and jostling each other away from the shifting hopping group trying to merge with their atoms so that they might get at the object with their own levers.
“Please do,” replied Friend Lord Tuoamas with what sounded like approval.
Seven followed Friend Lord Artaxerxes a bit closer to the gradually intensifying scuffle. After a few more false starts, a fourth participant placed yet another long staff in the same circumference as the others, and then things became chaos.
“Friend Lord Artaxerxes, is Friend Lord Tuoamas… happy?” asked the reaching-fellow.
The human stroked braided chin hair with an expression of contemplation. The scrum devolved into people violently leaping at each other with no interest in the grappled loop.
“He’s satisfying his duty, and satisfied with his success,” came the eventual answer. It was followed by a return question: “You have heard the term ‘maturity,’ correct?”
Seven signalled confirmation in the way it had seen on numerous occasions, with upper arm extended straight forward and forearm bent up and inward across its torso. That motion was one Friend Essie had never explained, but which the reaching-fellow had learned in the time since leaving Home.
“It is the growth, or the derivative of the growth, exhibited by a graduated system.”
The reply earned it an interested, purse-lipped expression from the shorter person.
“Accurate! However, my family’s manservant taught me the idea a bit differently when I was young. He said that maturity is the point when someone begins to realize that what’s good and what makes them happy are at times directly opposed. And that is what Lord Tuoamas possesses in abundance, and of what I strive to gain more on a daily basis.”
Seven thought about that until Friend Lord Tuoamas came up behind them.
“Let us continue,” said the other human. “It will be nice to see what has become of the place in the last couple of months.”
All three moved down the plant-soaked hill at an easy clip, toward a tall leaning building into whose doors Friend Sun was just vanishing, and the sound of recurring loud verse describing Sean Mara doing highly biological things with other people’s noses.