A Dreaded Dark

Submitted by elliott on Sat, 01/19/2019 - 15:13

 

“A system incorporating both one or more dæmon clusters and one or more folding-capable simplex suites is capable of accomplishing any formally definable task which that system can parse, provided that the system receives appropriate direction.”

-The Metasymbolism Equivalence System Hypothesis

 

Niall Bennosuke, better known as The Nightmare Count, slid a single finger up and down the surface of the artifact. He felt a thrill run his extremities’ lengths as he considered the fruition of his sacrifices, and the efforts of his - benefactors? Allies? He was not entirely sure of what to call them. Whatever that thing naming herself Ms. Nightjar was, though, she and hers had given him the keys. The keys to carefully bypass a series of privations worthy of Sisyphus over the course of days. The keys to worm his way closer and closer to the priceless oddment without instant annihilation.

The sordid and sticky air of the sunny countryside stuck to his shoulder-length greasy black hair as much as it stuck to his simple greasy black clothing. A placid breeze belied the effort he had gone through to collect his present quarry. Much of the kilometer-square field in which he stood was thoroughly covered with the remains of… unfriendly greeters. Some of these, mechanisms of a dissuasive nature, were almost trivial to bypass or disarm, with the knowledge bestowed on him. Others were things he’d neither received warning to expect nor even thought might exist.

A somewhat obviously placed n-minus-one collapse mine had revealed itself, to his morbid tremulous fascination, as an extremely exotic causality sabotage of some kind - one which could apparently reach across facetary boundaries. That could have been enough to draw the attention of absolutely anything, and especially that of those entities opposed by his benefactors. A nasty chill.

There had been the shining automata that resembled playful treble-eyed infants, whose musical wails sent hyper-entropic ripples through their immediate vicinity. Soil and vegetable and insects and air converted to perfectly diffused particles, the particles robbed of their motive, utter heat death writ small. He’d needed to regrow body parts on several occasions after making their acquaintance. A couple of magical workings were sufficient to deal with each, though each case was unique.

Of course, his greatest dread remained reserved for those things which could not even be described in the limits of his imagination, so transient and alien were their forms and wonts. Those he avoided.

Close behind him stood a pair of skitchers, long sweeping billhooks frozen within a handspan of beheading their prey. Both massive entities wore helmets the size of prize pumpkins, polished and reflective as mirrors. The miniscule wave-shaped slits provided a view of what one of Úda’s oldest poets of note had described in his writing as “the eyes which count the dead.” A frighteningly intelligent awareness stood present in each gaze, but it was clear that this was an intelligence that knew no compromise. Creatures that were not simply capable of undergoing revivification after their deaths - they had a certain degree of strong immortality… much like the beings of Old without whose help he would never have gotten this far.

Die they could not, but they could be broken badly for a time.

“Caladhbolg… sunder,” Count whispered. He raised his hand, a gleaming glass-smooth edge catching and throwing the wan light, and the skitcher nearest him suddenly bent double. A report like gunfire rang out, a faint clinking of glass on metal; the skitcher’s simple all-covering mask was cleft and fell in fragments. Under the mask lay a face not quite zoomorphic nor precisely abstract. A chitinous layer which covered most of the head was fractured and bent like the heart of a rebuffed romantic, tiny feathered antennae things just above piercing green cubes made of solidified relentlessness.

“TŒLÑE ATSETH MAGOQÜLMA, LETTT,” it threatened. Though its weapon was forged from that miraculous material known colloquially as Ichabod’s Alloy, and thus could not be constrained by his talents directly, Count had immobilized the guards themselves with a shrouding of his tenebrous force. If his grip on the skitcher’s limbs should falter, though, there wouldn’t be enough of him left to fill a dinner plate when the creature was through with his corpse.

His prize glittered. Caladhbolg, a relic wrought so very, very many years past and laid to rest on this facet under hideously thorough guard. It could have had some correlation to that object of Earth Standard myth called Excalibur, but that couldn’t be proven either way. It was a little like the objects that many Olds were gifted with, becoming a part of their legacies through the endless march of time. The properties attributed to the subject of such tales would thus be allegorical or exaggerated, but even so… The glinting ruby colored eyes of the chimera basket hilt seemed to move, watching him.

Count pointed the weapon at the masked skitcher, and it immediately answered with a tremendous tangible force exerted outward, pressure weighing on his eardrums as if a scramjet had passed him by. The creature’s weapon arm was sliced off instantaneously and, though the billhook was unmarked, its clawlike blade took off toward the distant French hills, skinning the air on the journey. Lacerations grew out of off-blue flesh where a ribcage would normally sit, striping the skitcher’s torso a muddy gory beige.

“Beautiful,” he murmured, watching. It would serve as a marvelous tool for chaos, even more so than the rodents he’d released in a great many major urban centers. He didn’t even have to fold himself from place to place to distribute them; he needed only a little spot of darkness to swallow a rat, then it would walk from a shadow elsewhere, running free and careless and virulent. Nevertheless, he’d spent much time seeding the land with his agents of death, which even now skittered on hairless paws between streets and over corpses in the country of France, the surrounding nations, and beyond.

Very few things were as strangely beautiful as a rat.

He’d carefully meted out effort across a pair of fronts during his stay in not-quite-Earth-Standard. First, he was chipping away at the blade’s cradle in tiny fits and spurts in the morn, then rousing the infectious rabble in Paris-town in the eve, set on fire thanks to his rodentine helpers’ influence. Two things he sought to command: the boiling kettle of national politics that had already started to overflow, courtesy of the poisonous blood between those two regents - Edward and Philip were like himself and his once fellow Rhaagmini that way - and this pearl beyond price. He considered how much the world would soon resemble the pitiful undying creature that huddled by his feet, shattered and seeking respite of any form by any means, no matter how temporary.

Twisting on a heel, he shoved the hand holding Caladhbolg into a minor abyss that rent the air near his elbow, removing it after a moment to examine the faint, murky ribbons that danced between hand and weapon. Chance had been unkind to him in the past. If loading the dice included physically using the darkness for binding his new advantage to his person, so be it. He would have started whistling as he stalked away from the place, had he not passed by a thing - some crystalline and evidently inoffensive construct - whose supremely complex phalanges and nodules, from his vantage, uncommonly resembled the face of that wretch, that peg, that cog in the machine known as Artaxerxes.

Suddenly a red wash overtook him.

He remembered their first meeting in the halls at the Gursral lodgings. Count had known only ambivalence toward the whelp.

He remembered the time Artaxerxes had spread wide his own story on the beautiful act of taking life. How it had intrigued. How it had hinted.

He remembered the fellowship he’d begun to feel over the months, seeing another who enjoyed the sweetness of delivering pain unto another.

He remembered the shaking betrayal when the whelp had stated that he’d garnered enjoyment… but found the enjoyment sorrowful.

He remembered the final insult, when Artaxerxes had stood between him and Artaxerxes’s friend Kallahassee. When Count had slandered the man’s wife to his face in her absence. When he’d waited for Kallahassee Bartimaeus’s patience to snap, and strike him, so that he might in turn snuff out the man’s flame.

He remembered Artaxerxes begging Kallahassee to take pity on him.

PITY.

The next thing he knew, his nails were digging crescents out of his free palm, and he stood nowhere near the weapon’s resting place. Instead, he stood at a ligament of grass joining Caladhbolg’s house and a swath of adjacent untamed field.

He looked around, hoping to see… something. Something worth the depositing of his fresh wroth. He turned to see the place he’d pilfered, and felt a strange satisfaction at the same sight which had greeted him at the outset of his little venture: a perfectly normal patch of countryside.

The glamor-like borders of the hiding place didn’t betray their contents from the outside world. Indeed, even gaining admittance had required several tricks, and a bauble from his backers. Now? He felt fairly confident nothing else good would ever again come of the compressed region.

Somehow, the idea that he’d left nothing behind worth taking pressed his ire down, and Count felt a weight lift as he exhaled a tiny sliver of his bitterness onto the wind. Then he was moving again, shouldering his way through the air and headed for his destiny.

There was a skip in his step as he turned over a hand like he was tipping a glass full of water. A well of ink spilled from his sleeve, singeing the ground wherever it touched, smoking, curling, following him like a second shadow. A hearty belly laugh escaped his lips as he lifted the ninety-centimeter-long trophy overhead and flung it forward. The flash of metal shod the air in a smooth arc of silver, boomeranging back to its point of origin as pitchlike cords dragged the blade once again to his hand. He struck out up hill and down moor to Paris-town, lost to vagrant and leprous thoughts.

The journey was longer than he expected, thanks to the recent rains. By now the fruits of his patience were ripe, and a duplicate of himself strode in lockstep by his side, first faintly similar, then shoddy, rough, plain, exquisite, and finally identical. Not even he could have said for sure, looking at the doppelganger, if it was a reflection or a true representation of his form without the strange reversed reversal of seeing oneself in a portrait. Meanwhile, the soles of his heavy boots steamed against the grass as it begrudgingly gave way to a well traveled but completely empty road, his corpulent skin almost moon-white. “Go and await,” he ordered the body double, “and perform as I instruct you.” The silent figure crossed its arms as it sank into the paving stones, descending unseen stairs into the earth's womb.

The Nightmare began the slow climb up the last rise to the border of the town, eluding detection almost unintentionally. Of course, no one would think of watching the top of the city’s newest defensive wall for agile infiltrators bounding straight up and over the barrier. Rejoining him in the back of a boarded-up ash filled house that stank of putrefaction and rat feces, the clone was provided further guidelines for execution. He amused himself in the meanwhile, tenderly prying the organs from the chest cavity of a resident cadaver which lay on an exhausted and stained mattress.

Less than an hour later, Count entered the square in front of Our Lady wearing a darkness-borne disguise, while members of the Parisian populace looked on, despondence turning to revulsion at the sight of him.

As he trudged heavily over the paved street, those Parisians saw only a tall, spindly abomination, bulbous and faintly lustrous soot-brown features, gummed and red eyes, a rubbery beaklike snout, and two grasping clawed stick insects for arms, walking out of the shadows.

To folk of extrafacetary society, his visage was that of the creature known as the skin eater. If the disguise were dispersed, it would be apparent that the engorged carpals on one arm were quite artificial, hiding a large blade under their false image. Beneath his guise Count swept his arm sideways in the manner of a politician drawing his audience into his vision as his costumed hand stretched outward in an elastic gutting swipe. Though Caladhbolg remained firmly within his grasp, a horizontal phantom edge bisected multiple onlookers cleanly at the waist. Euphoric.

Improbable appearance with impossible lethality summed to a heady cocktail of panic and unreason. The watchers flew, and with the speed of those whose supposed consignment to death shatters in the face of the real beast. There was one small group of armor-clad participants with little interest in remaining bystanders, sternly raising and loosing arrows. He hardly needed to exert himself on their account. Tendrils of darkness caught and redirected the projectiles idly.

In return Count’s disguise let out an excited squealing bellow, and the odious thing fell on them like twitching floppy lightning. He slew the men with vicious grace, taking special pleasure in the way Caladhbolg’s physical contact alone could kill without maiming. They might have only seen “his” long digits touching them as they died, but if anything that only made their terror the greater. His glamor’s outer layer reproduced the distinctive chilling screech of a bull skin eater.

At the cue, his doppelganger emerged from the shadowy alleyway behind him, hefting an illusory replica of the terrible blade. His mimic struck his back with the flat and goaded a disgruntled ribbit from the skin eater's larynx as he whirled and savaged the air. Without any hesitation the clone reentered striking distance and seemed to impale Count’s disguise through the gut. The clone narrowly avoided a set of hungry talons in the act of withdrawing the weapon. If one had suddenly stumbled upon the square, the prime attraction would have been a pair of weaving, pirouetting marionettes aiming for each other’s strings, one like the natural child of an ape and a vulture, its counterpart occasionally panting from exertion as his loose attire flowed in his wake.

A final failed swipe, and the human combatant won victory: a two-fisted riposte from four o’clock to ten o’clock, and the skin eater seemed to burst into obfuscating vampiric dust. It was obtusely easy sleight-of-hand for the real Niall Bennosuke to banish his clone and his guise both, emerging from the dust cloud to appear the victor. Bathing in sweat below the noon sun, Count turned to the slowly gathering crowd, wreathed in statuesque terror and bewilderment.

“We are asked to set aside everything - everything, and no mistake - for those English dogs who call us their fellow denizens of Europe, and what do we get? Witchcraft and unholy abominations sent to blight us?”

His French was staggered and limping but entirely functional. Tearful mourning wails intersected with his verbal gauntlet, citizens draping themselves over the bodies of those who a mere thought before had been filled with life.

“How many loved ones have we lost to the curse that Edward the imposter gifted us?”

He brandished his weapon high.

To his pleasure he witnessed some small flickers of recognition scattered about the knot of witnesses. That was good, very good - his efforts to develop a persona of a valiant with the people’s interests at heart had finally caught hold and laid down roots. He gave a whistling sigh.

“My friends, I am Jean Millau, a nobody. I am nothing thanks to that fool of a usurper. Those who traffic with the powers of death find death as their reward,” he continued, the point of the sword swinging regally to a line of coffins resting in melancholy stasis in the leeward side of a tavern, “but not their own. The death of innocent and defenseless. But I for an I say that this mockery of justice must end. Who among you disagrees?”

“I do,” exclaimed a voice that set the Nightmare's teeth to gnashing, borne of fury and surprise.

No.

None other than Sebastio Artaxerxes was less than a stone’s throw distant.

Count tilted his head back to get a glimpse of the figure which stood clasped in the bosom of the restive befuddled crowd, identifiable immediately by his dark, almost off-green complexion, and the blue eyes in their settings of rounded hard flesh.

“And who, exactly, are you? One of the crown's supporters?”

“I am nothing like the people gathered here, or over the sea, or anywhere on this earth. And neither are you, Count.”

He suddenly could see where this was going. Prodigious toil to bring the right mix of chaos and control to this facet, to deliver it to his will, wasted. He began to argue with as much reason and bias as he could.

“Rest assured that I seek only the truth, boy, nothing like the English will tell-”

“And I tell you the truth, you’ll not like the tales I have to spin.”

The Cambrian, now in a tiny growing pocket as the Parisians about him turned to this new speaker, glanced meaningfully at Caladhbolg, then smiled.

“You might even keep the people convinced of your benevolence by the time I’m done.”

Before Niall could so much as sigh in protest, the son of misery retreated from the crowd, and was gone around the corner of Our Lady.

Count knew bait when he saw a trap being laid, and this was hardly the picture of subtlety. He held in his grasp the answer to any conceivable danger - at least to his person, as far as Artaxerxes could possibly manage.

And, on the other side of that same coin, he all too easily remembered the introduction he’d had to that creature called Ms. Nightjar.

Whatever she truly was, she and her associates were content to collaborate with his aims. But the provision, as she’d said, was to “make sure you impress on those poor souls how frightening the gem can be, and that we just want to be able to help them, dearie.” Then she’d smiled, and the perfect honest happiness in that smile made him smile back so hard his cheeks almost tore open.

The crone’s bent head had just barely risen above Count’s navel as she walked with him around… that place. Her soft drawling put him in mind of what many people described when they spoke of grandmothers, or sometimes aunts. Her wizened face carried a smile that had been born sometime long before any of Count’s known ancestors.

When he caught sight of the archaic human-style chair she wore strapped to her back, and how the chair’s feet narrowed to heavily stained thin posts, he knew an unprecedented unctuous fear. Count had instilled morbid terror in others many times; to feel it himself was nearly life-changing.

He also knew that his benefactors would look upon failure to meet their terms with the highest displeasure. The kindly woman who’d taught him many mysteries of the universe, and explained how he was to deface the peace of his specified facet, and instructed him on obtaining a nearly unparalleled implement of mass destruction, was the single most dangerous entity he’d ever met. Every moment he’d spent with her tickled the need to fall to the ground on his belly, his chin resting on his palms as he gave her his full attention.

If he had such incentive to avoid unnecessary complications in his rabble-rousing, there was a great deal of reason to leave off and simply ignore what Sebastio represented in this instance. And yet, the whelp must realize the shape of Count’s aims, if not the substance. Leaving off would provide no opportunity for his mask to slip and show his more indulgent side, but Artaxerxes had a few talents, and high among them was shoving wrenches into the works. Eventually he would need to be destroyed.

Although his itching frustration urged him to spit two or three of the crowd on spines of darkness, or to peel off their fingernails and feed them to their owners, or even just break bones until the screaming stopped, the man who tried to actually think of himself as a displaced noble named Jean Millau shook his head. His face was grave as he addressed the gathering again.

“There departs another man broken by the squabbling of rulers. Mayhaps I can help put him to rest. Too much pain has been birthed today to allow more to fester.”

His eyes streamed a moment, then he wiped his thin tears away.

“Bury those you must, and cherish the rest, Paris, and pray the kings of nations see the sense in seeking peace during these dark and cursed times.”

As though scolded by a furious parent his shoulders slumped, holding Caladhbolg somewhat away from his body, and he affected a small limp as he pursued Artaxerxes at some distance, slipping over the crowd like a raindrop down the leaves of a shrub.

Curling around the bend of Our Lady, he took in the expanse of the river which broke north around the small isle supporting the cathedral’s majesty. Halfway across the thin yet hardy bridge connecting the two sides ran a tiny figure sprinting at a pace to outstrip any predator species native to the planet. Count allowed himself a grain of grudging admiration; he’d never really seen the whelp run before.

Did the peg of a man actually know about the ultimatum the Olds had offered to Count? Was this overt demonstration of superhuman capability some kind of ploy to construct an alternate narrative to that presented by the Nightmare? He felt a moment of unease.

After gauging his options, Count decided to cut the chase short. Even at his ludicrous speed, all Count needed to do was fold ahead into the course of his intended path, and his months of preparation had taught him the streets of the surrounding cities and towns all too well. To ensure the sanctity of his Millau persona, though, he’d need a disguise, regardless of how many or how few witnesses stood about. He ducked into the shade of Our Lady’s north face, a cool embrace of darkness swaddled his form completely, and his skin eater glamor returned into being. Then he accessed the folding functions of his cerv-mesh, and designated the appropriate codomain: a square into which the bridge his foe now crossed deposited its travelers.

The skin eater vanished, its atoms exchanged with those of its destination volume. His orientation changed to face the oncoming spear of the bridge some hundred meters from where it met the shore, and beneath his false shell Count sneered.

Artaxerxes saw his instantiation and skidded to a halt over the space of some twenty five of those meters, heavy footwear skipping over the cobblestones like a wave-thrown rock. The whelp’s reflexes kept him from tumbling, but the consternation on his face was priceless enough that Count didn’t mind the lack of bleeding skinned stripes over its length. In all, more than Artaxerxes’s face would be utterly unrecognizable as human tissue shortly enough.

Then the peg of a man’s bearded lips drew back in a grimace.

Count’s bestial image bent back to howl its fury at the bloated sun just as his disguised form intercepted in quick succession - among other things - six bullets of varying materials and velocities, a roiling magus-fire projectile, a flashbang cell detonated directly between his feet, a wicked axe with destabilizer construct teeth, and multiple dæmon clusters intent on disassembling him.

On instinct he lashed out, his own dæmon cluster making an effort to repulse the other hazes of machine and function. He swung Caladhbolg to his right, scoring a gash up the cobblestone ground, into the midsection of a man with numerous knives, through the walls and roof of a house about ten meters away, and finishing after dividing two more of his attackers who crouched above the house’s nominal protection. One of these two, both of whom were elves, separated barely higher than the groin, and his black-clothed halves tumbled to the ground in dark sleeves of gore. The other’s corpse might have remained where it fell, save that the supernatural cut Count had inflicted caused roughly the upper third of the building to collapse on itself as it lost structural integrity. A billow of dust and screams washed over the square; those few people walking the broken-stoned street broke and fled in terror.

Another swing, this time in the opposite direction. The cut went far off its mark; the Nightmare was in far less danger of dying from his injuries than most living beings - for that matter, only one of the fired shots, along with the electromagnetic radiation burst from the flashbang and the hurled axe’s teeth, had potential to do him grievous ill. But those injuries still produced a moment of shock in spite of his pain tolerance, and so his failure to inflict harm proved spectacular. One foot belonging to a creature of indeterminate taxon was shaved off at the ankle, and a great deal of some whorehouse became so much driftwood when Caladhbolg’s ruinous nature staved in its nearest side, rather than slicing it apart.

Like a real skin eater, the pain brewed up an objectless fury. The sight of so much of the world completely untouched by blood or excreta enraged him further. Then, in his mind’s eye, an image bubbled up even clearer than the procession of hauntingly stupid faces he’d had to endure over the past endless days. It came clearer than the women trying to justify to him their sale of their children in exchange for parched fruits and bread more fungus than grain, as if he could or would vindicate them. It came clearer than the first and only time he’d seen a French gendarmerie contingent, passing the overflowing Hospice Comtesse, going from nowhere to nowhere and pitying the world they occupied in the process. It came clearer than the fool of a priest who even now risked illness at the foot of Our Lady as he bathed in the human excrement coming to him for something, anything, everything.

It was the face of that odious Kallahassee, and as he held her his dying harlot Magdod, asking him to forgive Niall Bennosuke even as Count’s darkness caused her to slough away in chunks. The face of a true madman. The face of an angel, horrible and meant to resemble a human’s only sparingly even at a distance. A small growl began swimming up his throat.

If she had been re-lifed right then, Count would have ripped Magdod in half with his bare hands and urinated on her just to see Kallahassee distraught again, and twice so for Sebastio Artexerxes.

Count’s left leg buckled, and in his surprise he twisted into an unskilled lunge. A long stone’s throw away, some bald French pedestrian likely saw the skin eater’s illusory limb stretch impossibly. An instant later, Caladhbolg defied the space between them and pierced through the man, the wall of the building behind him, and whatever the structure contained. Drawing the blade back, the single cogent raindrop in Count’s ocean of rage observed the strange trick of perspective with the oversized hole. If he’d stabbed a melon from an arm’s length and looked through the perforation, the borders of the wound in the fruit and the wound in the man would have matched perfectly despite their difference in proximity.

Crouching lower on his unsteady left knee, he swung his weapon at a feminine figure aiming some kind of thaumaturgic channel his way, just as it loosed a compound freezerburn. The cold magic’s Hiek machine became nonfunctional as his chop parted it and sliced into the woman’s side. Her whole right leg came off, as did much of her left, and she fell with a rising wail. A cut across the neck silenced her and a huge line carved itself into the house behind her slackening spurting stump.

Somehow, as he whirled about to slake his bloodthirst, the Nightmare felt his cheeks rearing up his face. If he didn’t know better, he might even have called himself… happy.

Abruptly, Count detected the advance of the man who’d once called him friend… on foot, no less. Clearly the band of brigands wanted to avoid shooting each other in the back, what with their approach from wildly different angles. Artaxerxes ran tilted steeply forward to offset air resistance, that staff he carried extending to fit his body length.

A buzzing crackle warned that the son of misery was using his gift of lightning, not only to coax his legs to greater speed than most mortals could survive, but also to convince his weapon to change form. He’d demonstrated the very trick when they’d first met in that tiny Gursral apartment so long ago; even then, Count had decided it was a novelty, if a dangerous one.

Count carefully interposed his blade. Even with the cold bite of the wounds his darkness would be incapable of soothing, at least until he could mitigate their luminance poisoning, he calculated distance and speed. The whelp moved fast enough to worry him, and his self-aggrandisement grew and then shrank. He should not have let his priorities shift from an individual whose familiarity gave him the knowledge to truly break the Nightmare.

The separation of the two foes shrank to zero, and Count’s speed adequately placed Caladhbolg as a deterrent. Unfortunately, one downside of his skin eater appearance was that the whelp did not realize the illusion of a lanky bulbous limb extended into his advance hid a vicious and lethal remise. Artaxerxes outthrust his own right arm an instant before impact, his metal staff supported at its very tip in his palm. Caladhbolg’s phantom edge sawed through a small portion of the right knuckles of the son of misery just as its point came into contact with the staff’s end, and the sword peeled into the staff lengthwise. The whelp’s momentum pushed the staff down the waiting edge like a mouse onto barbed wire.

In an instant, Sebastio cleft his own weapon in two, careened into Count’s zone of control, and skewered his arm on the blade through the palm and nearly to the elbow.

Count had felt pain before, but when his foe contacted Caladhbolg’s surface, the juddering echoes of agony forking through the sword and into his whole being suffocated him, rendering him unable to cry out. He did not even twitch as he held onto the prize he’d won through trickery and cunning, because he knew subconsciously that letting go would be a terrible mistake. And yet, the accelerated thoughts darting between the fingers of electrical discharge in his brain prophesied that to maintain his grip would mean his own interruption. But he needed it! Needed it so badly!

A gravelly voice of night and bloody metal seemed to speak in his soul: regret is for the living, and better than the lot of the dead.

The bells of Our Lady tolled the birth of a new hour mere heartbeats after he dispelled the binding that snugged Caladhbolg to his grip. He sank to his knees, smoking and afire in several places, action totally denied to him by resounding pain as he witnessed Artaxerxes keel back, his dark skin flickering and snapping where sparks leapt between beads of sweat. The peg of a man stared at the sword growing from his palm in a shower of blood, panting from some slurry of exertion and fear. His blue eyes darted from the blade’s handle to Count, to the tiny crimson puddle swelling the dirt between the cobblestones, then back to the glinting coin of sunlight neatly reflecting onto his maximally dilated left pupil from the weapon’s flat.

Then he began screaming.

Count had observed far too much pain over his long life to find any exclamation of suffering genuinely surprising. In this instance, though, he recognized an uncommonly potent double portion of horror mixed in with the sensual torment. He backed away on his haunches quickly, slapping at the flames beginning to extend their loving caresses down his shirt and up his hair.

The splintering of wood and screams of Paris natives still deafened him as he reached out with his gift, crushing the dæmon clusters doing battle with his own using opaque sheets of inky night. Trillions of pseudomachine microcognizances were snuffed out, their shared energy dispersed into waste heat as they, and a good portion of his own cluster, met destruction. Immediately the reserve in his cerv-mesh began cranking out replacements, as did those belonging to the owners of the other affected clusters. He didn’t take notice of when his appearance warped and ran off his person like water, returning his human likeness.

He was about to call upon several stored magical weapons he’d been saving for emergencies when there was a chime from the whelp’s direction, and then Artaxerxes’s right arm began melting from nails to wrist.

There was an orange light and the smell-taste of driftwood soaked in the sea since the beginning of time.

Eight thousand two hundred and eight Parisians muttered and prayed and crossed themselves in trepidation as they saw the glow from as far as the horizon, and heard the abject wail of “GET IT OUT OF ME!!” from Sebastio Artaxerxes.

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