A Dreaded Scrimmage

Submitted by elliott on Wed, 02/13/2019 - 01:06

 

“‘Good’ is that for which to die in vain be just.”

-Rhaagmini aphorism

 

Kallahassee Jones Esckel Marion Lille Bartimaeus the Thirty Fifth had a squinty smile permanently affixed to his face.

The smile came from the request of his… of the wonderful Magdod. Magdod no-longer-Bartimaeus. Even though they hadn’t addressed the issue of their vows after her interruption, he felt very confident that she’d demand they officially marry or remarry, whichever it was, quite soon. On the way to that decision, though, she’d mentioned in passing a duty to heal that she felt, and one shared by Kallahassee as well.

Thus, he half-slept under a bed-pad occupied by his almost-but-not-exactly-wife on the plains just West of a verdant Yrdkish polity below Mt. Eighteen-Ezer whose name he couldn’t pronounce without twice as many vocal cords as he possessed. Marriage, across its numerous forms and variants, held exceptionally powerful meaning for those in Rhaagm even amongst those who didn’t see it as a component of faith. The inevitable bad jokes usually adopted the aspect of a fetish for license acquisition.

In semi-ironic reality, it came of the fact that going the long haul with someone in the Parsed City-State meant you had to go through an average of about half a month’s worth of official due process: notarization, counter-signing, testaments and attestations, and occasionally a mandatory feast. That covered only the church’s side in most faiths; the city’s legal proceedings loomed yet larger. God help you if you wanted a divorce.

All that combined to mean that Kallahassee went out of his way to treat Magdod with the respect and dignity any Eighth or Ninth Step noble would expect from their meanest subjects.

Looking up at the underside of the floating unit and revelling in the feel of firm spring-bladed grass, he busily occupied a queue for admission to Pennat Gate’s borders. Eventually, Kallahassee and Magdod would mount up to the heights of the estate on the wings of a monitored en masse folding timeslice. Eventually - though in the meantime, the unusually restricted Monolith throughput in the area was vinegar on the laceration of irregular public transit scheduling. After that, well… meeting a Lord didn’t exactly just fall into place.

As Magdod had reminded, though, Artaxerxes wasn’t the kind of man who could just bear up under the thought of killing, or permitting the killing of, those he held dear. A good man? Debatable - certainly no saint, but no unsaint either. It didn’t take a great deal of guilt, however, to drive a man to the brink - and both kind-of-husband and kind-of-wife knew that leaving Count to his own devices could cause Sebastio to inadvertently let his shame bring harm to those now called his subjects.

If they had the capacity to do so, didn’t they bear some responsibility to let him know that the Nightmare, and not the Nightmare’s friend, held the blame for the carnage at Gursral Corner?

Yes, thought Kallahassee as he glanced over his shoulder, wearing some stretched-mouth mask between a grimace and a laughing smile, they did.

In spitting range lay the leaves of pleasantly springy grasses of the meadow. Beyond that, he saw a widely-dispersed mess of tents, yurts, instant-buildings, and parked gemships making up a sort of penitent shanty-town. Beyond that, a half-wild forest, mingled oak and Bokov and dustwood. Beyond that, Mt. Eighteen-Ezer depended from the sky by its peak, kept from falling by the good grace of the ground. Beyond that, the “horizon” - to his mind, a bit like the point at which a shoreline’s depth becomes exactly deep enough to hide the sand and silt of ocean-interred land.

Straddling the border of that fuzz - beside the shape of the sun’s shrinking meniscus - lay the broad inverted-cone shapes of Pennat Gate’s constituent central and Step “landmasses,” clustered like a family of mice. Its cities and townships had been removed to their current homes not even three years prior. Though it would patrol its domain in lazy, deceptively intricate circuits, Mt. Eighteen-Ezer and the other places for which it held responsibility would not be gathered up and reallocated for years yet to come.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Magdod from above him. Her bed-pad rocked to provide her with a better attitude to appreciate the necklace of the estate’s members. Her faux-slicker coat ruffled around her like it was a clam and she its pearl. Her slightly open mouth showed the luster of her midnight teeth. The lines of her face - the only vanity she’d allowed herself in her forty seven hundred years - carried her appreciative awe to the wider world in wordless poetry. Her complete guilelessness radiated from her in ways one didn’t have to be a human to recognize.

“Yes,” he said. His mouth curled up at the corners, and he looked up at the estate in the distance.

It was good. Despite the fear which had become his constant companion, the feeling that he would lose something precious again, that he would reunite with some omen of the shaggy wretched past, life was good.

His smile vanished, his eyes narrowed, and his breath snagged in his lungs when the ground beneath him shook without warning.

“... what…?” leaked out of Magdod, and she turned over and dropped from the bed-pad to the ground beside him. She stood, staring, and he couldn’t see what had earned her sudden attention from his vantage. Then he saw her blanch; her photocorpuscles, one of the biological vanities with which she’d been born, turned her the color of new-fallen snow.

Kallahassee threw himself to his feet, following the stare. His skin seemed to flow up and down and around his flesh. He committed the nearly unforgivable Rhaagm impropriety of modifying not just his body’s mechanical workings, but his brain chemistry as well, in the name of remaining functional.

The world shivered, “horizon” churning with motion to the Northeast.

Kallahassee couldn’t exactly tell what he saw, at least at the start. Then, with the application of a telescopic function, he realized that the disturbance came from a rippling, gnashing membrane swallowing the eventide light. A membrane whose surface was an eternal sea of black not-quite-human forms. It gradually became more distinct that the Northeast was only the direction from which the occurrence first caught his attention.

The whole world from North-Northeast to South showed a nimbus of roiling sooty advancement. The foggy limits of sensory data, not the termination of marshalled forces, marked the end of the dark tide. A dark tide of not-people, whose beltlines formed a divide between the bad and the worse, and identifying which was which carried a special torment all its own. A dark tide of people with their waists and legs replaced by a grafting-together of the anatomy of several scuds - that pervasive and countlessly populous flavor of missile-shaped Beast whose anatomy, given to launching itself toward its prey at delirious speeds, trying to bite down with the jaws composing the front half of its meter-and-a-half body, seemed to make for good prosthetic material.

A dark tide of people who universally shared the mien of Niall “the Nightmare Count” Bennosuke.

Kallahassee’s grip tightened repressively on Magdod. How had such a monstrous army stepped into being out of nowhere? Yes, Pennat Gate was one of the places of the Lonely Lords, almost always drifting inordinately far from other concentrations of estates. Yes, there were all kinds of oddments in the less-traveled wildernesses of Yrdky, native and artificially-introduced. Even so, someone somewhere should have noticed the procession of horrors, and said something. Even one person… Even half of a person…

Awful epiphany ran him down without warning. He tried to reach out and join with the digital river of the Monolith, so consistently part of life for anyone from outside the gem. Instead, the lethargy he’d encountered earlier no longer limited him to an almost useless slowness. The river wasn’t blocked or jammed; it had been replaced with so much treacle. The transit of information to and from his adapter had all the animation of a broken doll.

Some agent, some saboteur, some villain had laid the Monolith low.

How such a travesty came to pass bore thought, but at a later time. The man knew he didn’t have a chance in any Hell of repairing what was possibly the greatest information network of all time to a working status, at any scope or for any duration.

He was just starting to consider the best route for flight, picking out a place to which he and Magdod could safely fold, when the world behind grew bright, and they both turned.

“Is that…?” began Magdod, something not actually hopeful in her achingly beautiful voice. Kallahassee wordlessly stared. If he had been at a loss before, then the very act of articulation failed him at this juncture.

The shape of Pennat Gate’s edge impinged the blurred distance of Yrdky’s artificial horizon effect. At such a tremendous distance, it seemed an utterly disconnected thing; save, that is, for the way the sky broke upward and outward in an orange funnel with the estate as its locus. A funnel of orange lightning, twisting and bleeding like a pricked fish in some divine fishing pond.

Even as they watched, the lightning forked out across the heavens, and forked out again, and then it was above them, and then it had fallen to the field. Countless smaller tongues licked and prodded the crowds of Counts, incinerating a thousand small pockets of the incoming forces. An elongated thud like black-powder cannon fire inside a town-sized steel drum washed out over creation.

The form of a man remained airborne in the wake of the discharge, despite having no skids or active Hiek machines to levitate himself, scanning the Brownian movement of the seething hordes flowing in from the East.

The man’s right arm gleamed so brightly that an observer needed no special tools to see the halo of molten light. One did require some kind of assistance to behold the circlet crowning him in glory. The figure of the Lord of Pennat Gate hovered less than three hundred meters away from not-husband and not-wife. He looked down over the people of the camp, considered the shape of Mt. Eighteen-Ezer. He glowered out at the unending expanse of Count.

Since the last time his gaze had clapped upon the man, Kallahassee thought he’d become notably less, and notably more.

<This will not do,> came a strident Yrdkish voice from the shining man. <There are so many other things to be attended.>

The voice, among other qualities, had a plurality of a weird bent - somewhat similar to hearing several members of a hive-mind speaking with each possessing a different vocal disability. There was also a psionic element of direct-mind projection, and something of an amplifier effect that lent the expulsion of air from lungs a force like a pneuma metal hammer.

Then he gestured, and the human-livable portion of the countryside’s vector space creased in a ray projecting from him straight to the East.

In a knife-edge line three hundred meters wide, and going past the horizon, a blank region scoured itself into the army of monstrous Counts. They toppled over and turned to dust, and it was like they were eaten by dæmon clusters one and all. Not decoherence magic. Not a ripmap function. They were simply disintegrated, as though the very air had become an unbelievably low-pH substance.

The figures started to make themselves known as upset. Like a nest full of starving ants converging on a stack of meat, they accelerated to a dashing, leaping, flowing onslaught. The vacant stripe left by so many dissolutions slammed shut with tooth-rattling force. A Rhaagmini war cry went up from the Count collective, all the more horrible for its heterogeneity:

“Don’t run!”

“Suffer and suffer and suffer and-”

“KILL ME!!”

“HraAaaaaAaaaagh…”

“It’s you, isn’t it!?”

“Old Lady Entropy sends her regards, haha!”

I love you.

“Eat the misery and leave nothing behind!”

That was bad.

What made it truly unbearable was the fact that the Beast components were not actually dead. The sound of scuds and partial scuds wailing under the shouts raised hairs, caused spines to stiffen, made sphincters loosen and grips clench. It was the kind of noise a metal door would make if it were forced to watch as its entire family was tortured. It pierced one’s processing center completely irrespective of audial capacity. It was a living dead racket.

Beasts were inimical in more ways than their capacity to kill victims in both body and spirit. The difficulties in actually killing them - the fact that the person firing the bullet or swinging the axe nearly always had to consciously engage in questioning their actions as they did so, to fulfill arcane and ulcerous psychic gymnastics so as to land a strike not immediately repaired by the creatures’ dark-stuff - made them true horrors.

If the same properties extended to the disturbing things swarming so intently over the countryside, then only a very few tools could do harm to the entities. Kallahassee felt a certainty that the thing called Caladhbolg qualified, and that it had managed to inflict deathblows even without its user trying to convince himself with every lethality that he didn’t want to actually destroy his target. Assuming, of course, that the not-persons had inherited the resilience of Beast-kind; but Kallahassee knew they had without needing example.

Even so, there existed but one Sebastio Artaxerxes. The wealth of Nightmare Counts numbered surely in the billions.

The encampment of those waiting for Pennat Gate to approve their ascension had not been idle. Some folded away; presumably to safety, possibly to the estate itself, probably not concerned with the legality of their actions in the present crisis. Some began streaking off with disks or skids, and one of the larger gemships unseamed along one side to begin loading passengers.

Some obviously didn’t plan on taking the turn of events as reactionaries. A small tribe of fregnosts had spun their gemship about, baring an array of ripmapper broadsides. Several of the residents also seemed to hail from the Yrdkish clique of martial nobility, and they began presenting a wide array of exotic arms and combat functions.

Despite everything, though, Kallahassee saw the Lord looking out on that vista had not concern, nor consternation, but contempt writ across his every sinew as he stretched out his barbed right arm.

“The world ends, and I begin, where the ability to make wrong into right founders. And I shall make you right, my friend.”

Then the hand on the end of the arm seemed to turn to mist, and the mist turned to light.

Fortunately, very few of the “townsfolk” had a chance to engage the enemy. The howling from that wretched population dropped without fanfare or fuss, as a sickle of something opaque, twisted and long, came from a hole ripped into nowhere, then furrowed a not-widdershins harvest through the unholy masses. A chain of explosions whose centers radiated not destruction, but nullification, followed on its heels. Carnage that refactored the very wilderness and injected ravines, divots, grykes, canyons, sinkholes - all orchestrated to the sound of a tornado in a glass factory.

And then, in the slipstream of the killing energy’s maelstrom winds, the horde numbered perhaps a twelfth of its previous magnitude. The grasses and shrubs and things-which-grow of Yrdky lay flat where they remained at all. Far more frequently, carbon and hydrogen and oxygen had gone their separate ways, whether whole or as their constituent particles. From a hundred meters beyond the limits of the squatters’ camp to the false horizon, the aborted child of a blasted heath clicked and rustled and crumbled. No dust rose, no ashes kicked up - the land could not have been rendered more desolate by Hssi’s grasping reach. Next to that cauterization, the addition of several thousand cavitation barbs, ripmap slugs, and n-minus-one collapses from the shanty-town’s rallied forces contributed only negligibly.

Even so, among intact patches in the ruination, millions of wildly leaping figures yet encroached on the people at Mt. Eighteen-Ezer’s foot, colliding with each other in their eager phobic need to take life.

Some stretched out their fists, first a couple, then hundreds. Kallahassee recognized the slugs of caustic solidified darkness they began spewing forth at the hovering Lord. He saw Magdod’s flesh turn a fear-tumescent white. Her fingernails closed painfully on his arm as she also recognized the mechanism of her demise, and was about to trigger his pain dampeners when he realized his own grip was drawing blood from her wrist. He didn’t relax; he couldn’t relax. Instead, he forced his fingers apart, feeling an awful regret at the stickiness on his fingertips.

Oh well; compared to the murder of one’s indivisible transcendent self by abominable Beast-grafted things, a little bleeding didn’t count for all that much.

<ARE YOU NOT FINISHED?> came an ethereal howl, less shouted than escaping containment, from that glowing figure. A foreign geometry sprouted from it, a hand and a lash and also a single many-syllable word. The geometry applied to the inbound flechettes, and the projectiles became so many reflexive grammar formulations, returning whence they’d come. Huge fans of darkish rain sliced down on the stretching gray wasteland, hissing like frying serpents. The reflected missiles had little effect on the Count masses.

By then, even the most warlike or offense-minded civilians seemed to realize they were making themselves more hindrance than help to the Lord’s efforts. Shots pierced targets; chem pistols and hurt spikes alike did nothing, though ripmappers slowed the advance of Hell’s vanguard momentarily. The uncontrolled and rapid evolution of the confrontation, and the overwhelming force of the Lord, convinced the peanut gallery to break off in dribs and drabs where emotional reaction had not. Illegal outgoing foldings picked up until the crowd had dwindled to a quarter-tithe of its already diminished numbers.

The levitating figure’s head tilted as he watched the threatening tide draw nearer. He glanced down at the milling defenders yet remaining. The twitchy, mechanized swivel of his head seemed to pause for a quarter second on Magdod and he-to-whom-she-was-beloved. Two glints of red - one at the temple, one on the hand - suddenly cut the air like shiver knives.

<This might be enjoyable… but it will not last long enough,> rumbled an entity with extraordinary power, little empathy, and a temper which had been incited to full blossom. The thing which was no longer fully Sebastio Artaxerxes pointed at the army of foes, clutched at the air with fingers coiled like a scytale, and squeezed.

The dimming sky above the scourged fields - the region which would eventually be named the Beaten Brow - flexed. A deformation or dip, like the bending of light around a significantly massive object, first whispered, then suggested, then demanded. Eventually, the phenomenon ruptured. On the other side of the wounded skin of reality lay a sliver of some strange blue-tinted realm, some place with exotic principles or interpretations of physics. Through that tear came… something.

Whatever that something it was, it wasn’t alive, and it wasn’t subject to most Willabarm interactions: soundless, sizeless, evidently massless, emitting and interfering with no identifiable radiations. In fact, it only seemed to have any appreciable perceptibility as a kind of beacon projected into the minds of the observers. It was less like thinking about an idea, and more like being thought about by an idea. The idea in question, it so happened, was entropy.

The something descended into the middle of the blasted heath. The something retreated. Between the two occurrences, everything there which moved was, and then was not.

Kallahassee blinked. The senses with which he was born did not lie. The damnably unforgettable faces, copied from that man who’d interrupted Magdod and put her through about as much pain as the living mind can suffer, had vanished tracelessly. No parts of Beasts were left behind. No evidence of the nameless something remained. There was the candlelight of evening, and industrially produced destruction, and nothing more.

What power of Old has been thrust upon the world?

He turned to Magdod, about to either ask a ridiculous question like whether she was alright or just make an undignified and smeared-sounding noise. She had an expression like she wanted to chin him for hours and maybe sleep for the rest of her life. Fortunately, they were both saved from their stupidity by the interruption of yet another upsetting development principally shaped by the newest Yrdkish Lord.

Of the many unwelcome things the son of Adele and Orisoun Bartimaeus experienced over the course of his life, among the topmost was having a direct channel connection FORCIBLY opened from an outside party. Of course, it also had never happened to anyone previously in the history of the protocol, barring those with segmented minds or disorders of various kinds that let them be swayed against their will by other people.

{Hello, Kallahassee.}

The man’s physical voice obviously had certain differences in its quality from when they’d last spoken: a quiet grating cracking sublevel underpinning every vowel. His bytevoice, however, was identical. The Rhaagmini sounded a tad tinged with the accent of the more northern Lonely Lords, but a proximate tempo, the same pitch, compared to what he used to have.

{Lord Artaxerxes.}

If Kallahassee sounded confused, slightly miffed, and even more anxious than he’d become in recent days, that was for good reason.

{To you and Magdod, it will always be Sebastio.}

{I beg to differ… Sebastio. Public salutations so frank will have consequences. Probably inconvenient for yourself, probably considerably worse for anyone else. But if you want it, then Sebastio you can be in… private.}

{Hah. Acceptable, I suppose.}

Nobody mentioned the breach of privacy which had been committed; one for any reason one could name, the other because he didn’t know if he even wanted clarification on how such a feat - tried and failed since the beginning of time - was accomplished.

Kallahassee paused, not quite sure how to broach the topic. Then, he decided to swallow the bitter draft in a single gulp.

{I and Magdod wanted to come and talk with you about something important. About the incident back in Rhaagm.}

A pat of genuine and bitter laughter.

{I suspected something of that stripe.}

{She, and I, need you to know that what happened was not your fault.}

Sebastio’s reply took a moment to return. It wasn’t inconsolably disgusted or unquenchably incensed.

{She has said the same thing just now. Thank you.}

The follow up would have raised an eyebrow if the whole conversation chain didn’t happen in a shorter time than the half-life of nearly any radioactive isotope.

{I have to return the favor and insist that you stay here for the time being. Returning to Rhaagm is almost certainly unsafe, and the same can probably be said for every other territory outside the gem.}

{What? You have news from outside Yrdky? The - how do you know?}

{I - or rather, Tuoamas - and the people of Pennat Gate, along with the resources of Nor’ridge and Aaagalas, have the means and reason to cobble together a very inefficient but functional transfacetary network. Information is coming in at a clotting trickle. More estates will be joining as they are able, hopefully, and improving relay throughput. It currently uses the same models and platform signatures as the Monolith. I will give you a private key shortly.}

Kallahassee suddenly realized, actually realized at a level above academic or sensory information conveyance, just how differently Yrdky’s Lords exercised power from the officials of Rhaagm. The kind of work, of unilateral capacity to collate industrial processing and effort, of political spleen that it took to improvise even the most piteous substitute for the brain-meltingly-complex and superlatively redundant system that was the Monolith - that was almost scarier than the events that they had just survived.

{I hate to ask this, but do you have any idea what is happening?}

He absolutely hated how wheedling his bytevoice sounded.

{Our unwelcome visitors have been dropped into the wilderness by some highly parallel folding whose like very few have ever before seen, starting approximately one and a half hours ago. Two billion here, several quadrillion more in the midst of a major industrial community. That coincides with the termination of Monolith function. Where we stand, we lie far outside the worst of the invasion. What microscopic snippets are arriving from Rhaagm are less good.}

A pause.

{I have reason to believe that other players in the sorts of games frequented by the Maker are responsible, both for the events underway and for choosing the particular person that seems to be the template after whom the enemy infantry is modeled.}

The gushing tides wearing that face. That face of all faces.

{That is quite an axiom.}

{Yes, and who or what else can you conjure to mind who might be capable of taking down the Monolith? That might be easier than destroying Rhaagm, but those feats are separated by degree, not kind. I also heard something of a warning to this end when… speaking with someone, back before I left home to become what I am now.}

Kallahassee felt fear’s claws sink in to the bone. Fear for himself, for the innocents who had died or would die, for Magdod. It directed, rather than hindered, his sense of urgent higher thought.

{What now?} he asked the Lord.

The reply seemed almost sanguine.

{There, sadly, stands the crux of the problem. The forces arraigned here have had far more successful siblings elsewhere. Outside of the overwhelming numbers deposited in this region, many other estates have been victim of like attacks. Some of them repulsed the effort completely. Some did not. Bathilsprot and eCraim, for example, no longer exist at all.}

{... Crippled False.}

A dangerous sense of bared teeth flowed through the connection.

{All told, there are only around twenty estates’ worth of dead at this time, but that number might easily climb far higher. We barely stand at the beginning of the beginning.}

The connection cut off abruptly.

For an instant, a drunkenly meandering line of air leading from just in front of the couple shivered and cracked upward toward the orange-gleaming figure. Color leached from the affected stretch in a long weird spurt, like a sausage-shaped water balloon slit by a knife so quickly its content momentarily retained its shape. Then the asymmetrical man flickered into being within spitting distance, mismatched eyes twinkling, red gems glowing with flaming light at temple and hand, with the sound of whispering thunder.

It happened so quickly that the urge to jump backward seemed to make Kallahassee take a single step out of his body. Magdod, on the other hand, turned slightly darker than normal, and her face tensed, but she didn’t budge a millimeter.

“Sorry,” said the rough-throated voice with a chuckle. A glowing finger tapped at the small prism of Sebastio’s cerv-mesh where it grew from his neck like a shiny fungus. “I can’t fold anymore unless it’s with a context. Side effect of the freeloader.”

He sighed. His voice changed.

<It is not a soluble problem - the Maker works almost exclusively with materials immune to tuning. No skein could possibly be created to rehabilitate the cerv-mesh’s folding module.>

“It’s very neat,” murmured Magdod, in that voice which turned joints to jelly and brought tears to the eyes of statues.

“Thanks,” said the man beneath the Lordly circlet, and for a moment he was the same new fella who’d walked into Gursral Corner looking for a place to put up his feet. Kallahassee felt his smile come back, and for a glorious instant between what used to be a good friend and what used to be his wife, all his long-lived dread left him.

“Gah!” shouted the Lord, and clutched at his head.

Before either of the others could get in a word edgewise, a half whisper began unspooling from the man before them.

“We can preserve ourselves only barely. Poor Tuoamas is running himself ragged. My Lady has my plenipotentiary confidence for the time being, and it’s coordinating as only a designer can. My brother, heh, has a future as a politician if he can instill confidence in people like what he did for me earlier… but, not enough. We’re running out of give. Too many dead. Too many lost.”

“You’re doing the best you can,” stated Magdod with absolute certainty. When the Lord looked across at her, she stepped closer, and chinned him like Kallahassee’s aunt did for him on senseless confusing nights long ago.

“No,” said Sebastio. “Not yet.”

Before any questions could arrive, Sebastio steadied the unspeakably beautiful creature and stepped back. He turned around, and looked to the sky.

“But let’s do better.”

One of the upside-down cones straddling the dusk, made featureless in the wan shade, suddenly vanished from the numerous herd of its siblings. The castle-island of the structure, probably First Step or Second Step based on its size, appeared almost overhead, dropping rapidly closer. Within a hundred kilometers of the ground, it slowed dramatically. Flocks of mobile lights descended from the smooth-seeming sides of the complex’s tapering bottom. They streaked down upon the border of the tortured landscape, and also toward Mt. Eighteen-Ezer, where they would activate and provide managed ad hoc transit to and from their roost.

Even though he didn’t look for more than the one which appeared within a hundred meters, Kallahassee knew a score of free-standing context hubs must have set themselves up below the lower-Step domain. Some of those people who’d fled from the Count armies, heading to the mountain’s hypothetical safety, would profit from their use. Some would not.

In any case, Mr. Bartimaeus knew that it was time to go, and he clasped Magdod’s shoulder with as much support as he could manage.

In front of the frame of the context hub just before them, a figure appeared. Four meters tall, a pair of cord bundles below the waist, a vaguely humanoid torso above. The large flaps of ears atop the head redirected toward the trio.

“Come, Sebastio! We must be away! There are survivors still fleeing from Œlthlant’s outlying-”

The Lady’s voice wasn’t urgent as much as it was stone-hard, but it crumbled halfway into its concerned advisement. When it stopped, the udod aodod’s every stretched sinew practically lifted its scales right from its body. It pointed, eyespots flaring wide.

“The sun?” it asked, and Kallahassee turned on his heel just as Magdod whirled to see what had garnered its attention.

It so happened that all three of the highest-order extrafacetary territories found their daylight provided by the same nameless star; artificial heavenly bodies served some small sections of each in certain occupations, but when one said the “sun” it was preeminently obvious of what one spoke. The physics behind that particular arrangement could be explained only by throwing out the lion’s share of accepted axioms in Earth Standard cosmology. For that matter, it implied a flatly impossible correlation between the realms.

For practical purposes, despite both Rhaagm and Yrdky having the topography of an unbounded two-dimensional plane, denizens of extrafacetary climes always saw the sun rise in the East, and set in the West, at the same hours each day, every day, every year. This made dawn and dusk times of special significance for chronometric purposes, among others. An iridescent yellow lunar companion did the same each night.

Thus, when the light began to increase once more, when the gloaming died by giving way to light rather than darkness, nobody was quite sure how to react.

Nobody except the sun.

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