A Dreaded Sword

Submitted by elliott on Tue, 01/08/2019 - 21:51

 

“I am the Maker, creator of many things. Enjoy the fruits of my labor, which make the impossible trivial, and provide for countless generations to come. Keep watch over my Tower, and it will keep watch over you.”

-Inscription on the Northwest cornerstone of the Tower of Rhaagm

 

Sebastio Artaxerxes nearly tripped himself as his cerv-mesh picked up a local transmission, sent out over one of the non-Monolith extrafacetary communications channels reserved for emergency broadcasts. The virtually total silence of months of contact moratorium broke pleasantly, but still set him on edge with its passing. A set of three familiar chimes sounded in Sebastio’s head, indicating the beginning of a public message, before a soft, androgynous voice spoke.

“Any persons who are in possession of information related to the artifact known informally as ‘Caladhbolg’ are requested to contact representatives of extrafacetary law enforcement, in particular members of authorized surveillance and security forces. Those hearing this particular message should attend to the following facet-relative location, please.”

The voice that came from Sebastio’s own brainstem started to name a position within the facet he occupied, in standard universe-scale format. A great many people knew how to translate positions provided in universe-scale into a practical set of coordinates; Sebastio woke a sleeping utility in his mesh to do the translation for him instead.

When he realized where the meeting point lay, Sebastio’s stride faltered for a moment… but it was only a moment. The Cambrian quickly picked up his normal pace again, and adjusted his heading slightly, to a considerably nearer destination. His clothes twitched in a stillborn gust.

After some two hours of further walking within sight of a riverbank smelling faintly of its parent ocean, a city began to pass around Sebastio. He left the small shrubs and bushes which reminded him of beds of gerbil bread run amok, moving into lanes which might have been paved by rude cobbles within five years - had there been any civil engineers left to undertake the task. Small wooden houses watched him climbing a dozen sad stone steps, and his shod feet spat away dirt and dust that belonged to no-one.

Ahead, butted up against a bridge spanning a fork in the river’s curve, unfolded a scene beside the huge stately shape of the house of faith called Our Lady. The soaring unshakeable geometry of the cathedral looked to be cupping the many penitent standers-by like the protective hands of a matron whose instinct to preserve outweighs her proficiency - or lack thereof - at defending those in her care.

Some people lay prostrate on the street under the heavy burden of rash-ridden bodies, occasionally sighing in pain or fatigue. Others crowded close to the doors and windows of the building, pleading and cajoling for help, sympathy, relief. One woman stood just beside the only door of the cathedral propped open, with a massive fruit-purple sac in her armpit flopping through a tear in her dress. She said nothing, just pumped her arm like a wind tossed branch, setting the growth into motion on each downward arc of the dainty fist. Her eyes made Sebastio feel nearly ill.

The majority of the people in the square, however, huddled quietly in a vague and blurred line near what Sebastio was certain was a priest - most of these seemed free of rash or tumor or other indicator of sickness. The people moved slowly forward; as each person reached the front, the priest’s face turned minutely more heartbroken and his hands reached into a thick wooden box. When they withdrew, a few thin flakes of bread were passed to the poor soul before him, and the scraps carried away close to the holder’s chest like the most pitiful of keepsakes.

Sebastio’s gaze lingered just long enough to see a young man with one uselessly deformed arm kneel carefully to receive a tiny black trickle of what could have been water or wine or neither. He presently turned away and he walked and walked until the ruddy smudged walls of his goal stood tall in his view. He noticed the sign, then walked around the building once at speed, confirming that the structure had to contain his destination coordinates.

Cloak oscillating in the slow unyielding wind, Sebastio stepped into the Great Mountain, the second largest house of the flesh trade in France.

As he swung the heavy door inward, Sebastio incidentally trod on the tail of a short skinny yellow mammal - his brain identified it as a cat just as he rocked back from the creature. It snarled, spun, and glared at him with a lashing tail and bristling pelt; Sebastio blinked and stepped away a short distance.

The four-legged tenant of the establishment made an unhappy gurgling rumble before skittering for a set of brown lacquered steps leading to the next floor.

Upon the feline begging pardon, Sebastio took notice of the vacuous state of the room. An enterprising soul had painted a riverside scene of debauched celebration across the walls, practically nude figures everywhere beneath tangled willow trees and eating plums in the ribbons of water. Nearly every single thing besides the room’s inhabitants and the drinking vessels had been carved from oversized wood blocks.

A single man whose wrinkles tripled the area of his skin was sprawled drooling over a warped and stained table, halfway off a stool shaped like a skinny tree trunk. A woman that one might address as “Madam” followed the progress of the cat with frowning eyes of flint from a booth, and only turned to Sebastio when the creature bounded out of sight. Despite the fact that the table was made to seat ten, the woman’s necklaced and rouged face was the only one gracing the seating. Behind the bar a short slight boy with the same oaken complexion as the countertop cleaned fogged glasses one at a time even though they had surely not been used in a fortnight, looking up at Sebastio maybe one second out of twenty. The click of the mugs being set back down beneath the bar was the only sound in the room.

No persuasive kindred of the night flitted about. No gamers threw down dice or cards. No drinks were upended.

No culinary units hawked out a stream of foodstuffs. No babble of conversation about the Jon’s politics. No riots of magic-centric competitions.

After his eyes blinked the sun away, Sebastio calmly walked up to the boy at the bar, pulling a barstool out of the way, and made a show of looking around the room. His eye happened upon the small thing on the wall next to the door leading from the back of the bar to one of the inner rooms by chance, and his breath ceased. A skewed-perspective painting of a woman brushed over with diaphanous robes as an afterthought stood against the doorframe. She held and looked down at a ripmap cartridge stuck to the surface of the wall, colored and shaded to look like a genetically challenged pear. The ripmap cartridge had been gutted, and Sebastio knew, even without using his cerv-mesh to ping the object, that the broadcast signal originated here.

He glanced at the boy again. The boy did not return his glance.

“Hey.” Sebastio’s French was clearly foreign, and quite rough thanks to his coarse throat. The boy jumped, holding the glass he was cleaning tightly enough that Sebastio imagined he heard faint stress cracks. “I need back there.” Sebastio nodded at the door sideways.

The boy’s voice wavered like birdsong as he answered, and he sounded like he had learned the phonetics of many words without really grasping what those words meant. “I’s sorry, sir. Only the missus and her associates is allowed in there.”

Sebastio held out a shiny copper disc a little larger than his thumbnail to the boy. It was perfectly round and unmarked, save a shallow indent on one face. The “coin” represented about seven hours and change in effort on Sebastio’s part, working to extract impurities from numerous cupfuls of the Seine through electroplating just the prior day. The endeavor had left the Cambrian sweating and shaky from exertion, but the handful of metals he’d eventually peeled from the end of his lodestaff had been worth it. Since he’d managed the trick purely through his atypical talents, it could never be called a frivolous misuse of his cluster, and he didn’t have to worry about Rhaagm auditors chastising him for it later.

“Would this be enough to enter into an association with the missus?” Sebastio’s tone was low, carrying, and just a touch friendlier than that of a total stranger. He allowed a smile to show out of his eyes slightly, though his jaw was still stiffly clenched.

The boy’s cleaning did not stop for a moment, and yet there was a flash before the almost-coin ceased to exist. He quirked his head at the Cambrian, apparently gauging whether he was a bad man.

“House rules is no fires, no fights, no damaging the furniture and walls.” The boy’s voice was suddenly different, with the bearing of a wizened alcoholic, tired, slightly detached from everything not in the moment.

It was just before Sebastio began to move for the door that the boy’s brown eyes finally and waveringly settled on his own.

“Is you like those other people, sir? The ones back there?” The boy finished cleaning another glass, setting it down with the others, and the hand not clutching the oily scrap of cloth pointed at the ripmap cartridge on the wall. “They paid in silver. Paid awful lots so they could put that thing on the wall. But they speak funny, like you. Like a... drunk minstrel, but not drunk.” The boy paused before picking up another glass. “That’s not quite right.”

Sebastio looked carefully at the boy again. Out here in the wilderness of the gem, Sebastio knew human beings aged at a far faster rate than in Rhaagm, or most other locales he thought of as “civilized.” However, the boy was clearly not out of the spring morning of his youth, and Sebastio inexpertly estimated his age at between ten and fifteen years. His was a face cleared of innocence at an innocent age. He sported the thin black snow of a beard grown for the very first time.

“I’m not from here, or anywhere nearby. Those other people... might not be from the same place, but they are probably like me.”

Sebastio considered for a moment - yes, others interested in hunting Count were probably from Rhaagm, but he couldn’t be sure. He looked over at the ripmap cartridge again, as much to set his resolve as to break eye contact.

“What is your name, young sir?” Sebastio’s voice was extremely diminished, for the ears of the glass-polisher only. The young man looked up and considered the Cambrian’s face carefully.

“Louis, sir.”

Sebastio felt a lurch in his ribs at the halting way the name came out; not with angst, but the kind of way a boy would shove words around after he realized that how he felt no longer held any meaning.

The youth’s face looked like just another of Count’s many victims. Confused. Scared. Alone. In a frame of mind where mind-and-soul death could almost be thought a mercy. Did a man who brought such things about, regardless of his warped past, qualify as irredeemably evil?

Yes, said the back half of his brain.

No, said the front.

Sebastio returned his hand to the folds of his garb, and a second later there was another circle glinting on the counter - pure gold. “Be exceedingly careful, Louis. There are very bad people about.”

This time, a sharp squawk came from the mug as the boy’s arm hyperextended and scoured a transparent smear of clean glass out of the vessel’s grime. He looked on the gold on the countertop with disbelief so profound it left no slack thought for the task of polishing.

With a slight creak under one boot heel that surprised the tablebound unconscious codger into a somnolent belch, Sebastio moved behind the counter and carefully opened the door.

On the other side of the wall was a long room that resembled the inside of a wooden fruit crate - a fact to which Sebastio could personally attest, thanks to his college days and the adventures experienced at the urging of an incorrigible Francis “Bugbear” Pickering. There was no decoration of any kind that could be identified as “original” besides a pair of windows covered with boards, a swarm of unlit lamps scattered seemingly randomly, and a small stove hiding beside the wall to his right opposite a window. The bare walls were vertical lengths of unsanded wood that had been joined apparently without nails or caulking.

The newer occupants were responsible for most of what now lay about. Obscuring most of a second door from the room was a commercial dark generator, lifeless except for a bright array of readouts blinking and muttering diagnostics. A family of measuring implements hunched next to the stove, some thaumaturgical, others traditional, and all clearly new. Several chairs for various species dourly awaited posteriors.

In the dead center of the room sprawled an emulated Parisian landscape large enough that Sebastio could have comfortably slept in the divot of the riverbed, emitted from a Toothskin refractor hovering directly overhead. On the landscape were a number of cones gently pulsing in a regular pattern. Three or four had the Rhaagmini glyph for “likely” hanging above them.

Through all this hubbub a group of observers wandered, chattered, and thought.

The first one of these that drew the eye was another Cambrian homo sapiens that stood a small measure shorter than Sebastio. The man’s smooth black scalp caught and reflected slivers of light in swatches like an antique telemonitor, and his rounded features made his face look anticipatory. A long garment that was the lovechild of a leathern shirt and a robe snugged against his torso where a knife-laden bandolier weighed it down. His bootpants bore long-dried mud up to his knees. At his hip hung a very long axe with curving teeth, which appeared to be some kind of destabilizer constructs.

A vigorous spit away from the man was a tall naufer, of one of the genders identified as feminine if Sebastio wasn’t mistaken. She was bent over a table and reading something, so that her two meter stature was reduced to somewhat below Sebastio’s own. Her hairy, vaguely canid features sent the epithet “jackal” running through Sebastio's brain, on the same reflex that caused some adolescents to throw rocks at old glass windows and birds. He mentally berated himself, trying to take an earnest measure of the woman.

The naufer’s long figure was swathed in a layered wrapping from knees to shoulders, and a vest buckled at the waist and neck overtop. A nresd hung from her waist to the calves. There were no other accessories or accoutrements that otherwise suggested a magical affinity or area of profession, so Sebastio assumed the naufer simply had singular taste in clothing or frequented the company of magi. Her head was turned away, squarish ears lying down parallel with the top of her head, but the figure-eight double pupils of her race still seemed to draw him toward her. A subliminal associative tie through resemblance to the Artaxerxes manservant? Comfortability with her race? He was unsure.

On the naufer’s bare left shoulder was a patch that showed no fur, depicting a symbol Sebastio did not recognize over skin nearly the exact same shade as his own.

Low to the ground was a relatively standard example of a dut. It resembled little as much as a sea urchin trapped in a net made of flesh, flattened slightly so that it was a hundred and ten centimeters tall but almost a meter and a half wide at its horizontal diameter. It (he, Sebastio guessed) emitted little noises that were like squeaks and like beeps but not really beholden to either name. The dut used a long and boneless appendage to do something with some kind of equipment. Several articles of what may have been clothing were suspended in the tangle of the dut’s anatomy.

Behind these immediate presences the rest of the room’s occupants were busy; humans and elves measuring, aaneds manually interfacing with equipment, a pair of forithkane having stilted discourse in the far corner. There was even an assassin, leaning akimbo beside one of the blocked windows. This last’s mandibles shook as the matte eyebars turned to Sebastio’s entrance.

The bouncer-like figure folded then, passing the room’s apparatus. The assassin held an ominously humming red mace at arm’s length as it arrived next to him. The weapon remained far away enough that any kind of swing would get good head of steam and close enough that Sebastio could feel radiant energy coming from the mace head. Some kind of fun contact weapon on par with a shiver knife, possibly.

Crippled False,” he half-whispered, trying to decide if he should just use his simplex module and flee. If he actually tried, all told, he’d probably get a uncomfortable bodily exploration by mace.

“State your name and business immediately,” the assassin clicked in Emsttko, the language used by many aaneds, which fortunately already existed on Sebastio’s cerv-mesh.

Sebastio’s reply had a great deal of half-counterfeit bravado. He used Rhaagmini, certain that the assassin would possess either the means or knowledge to comprehend him. “Sebastio Artaxerxes of Rhaagm; born and raised. Human. Security consultant specializing in atypical-related matters. I am here to offer some amount of assistance regarding the investigation and apprehension of Count.”

He looked slightly concerned for a breath. “Unless that isn’t the goal of this enterprise...?” His gaze transitioned to the stout bald man, eyes widening for just an instant. “I got the broadcast that persons with information about… a certain weapon should come here. I know a little of that particular, but the Nightmare Count is very, very familiar to me.”

“You know what the Caladhbolg Contingencies - specifically, the Forbidding - lay out as penalty for seeking out the weapon, or any gesture in the direction a seeker might take.” The assassin’s mandibles worked, its head shifting in birdlike jerks. It was not asking a question. “If that be your motivation, then best you, your family, your associates, and your associates’ families prepare-”

“I’m NOT trying to…” Sebastio interrupted his interruption. “I’m not here on account of that kind of motivation.” He wondered if that was true: he was, in fact, seeking out the weapon of existence destruction, albeit in the interests of preventing its acquisition. Then he suddenly became indignant.

“You people are the ones asking for volunteers!”

Several self-flagellating thoughts rustled the bushes of his brain even as he spoke the words. To his relief he saw the assassin reanalyze the noisy human, and arrive at an emotional landing pad of ambivalent acceptance. No sudden evagination, no cavitation barbs thrown. Questionably promising.

By this time nearly every creature in the room had turned to Sebastio. The naufer’s haunting eyes had been one of the first sets of perceptive organs trained on him, and their blue lengthwise striation back from the pupils caused him to shiver beneath his skin. It was her rusted heavy voice that helped to bring equilibrium to the room’s tension a moment later.

“You were the man interviewed just before Bennosuke was declared a threat to public safety.”

Sebastio’s face softened a bit. He reallocated his attention to the creature which reminded him of the Artaxerxes manservant with her height, hirsute form, and splayed eight-digit hands.

“Yes, I was,” he stated, mentally rifling over what he could safely say. With so many people and so many probable ways to scrive his words into the intangible medium he had to avoid alerting, his words needed to be smart, very precisely chosen, and extremely brief.

This is going to end well, he said to himself.

He stopped for a second to cough; the raw boards of the room’s walls must have acted like a magnet for dust and other errant particles biologically designed for maximum histamine production.

“I was advised to offer you what I know by a friend.” Sebastio paused meaningfully. “A friend who gives me very good reason to trust him by nature of who and what he is. In particular, he told me to present my knowledge in person rather than through the Monolith.”

“There is little point to same-facet contact,” came the objection from a forithka. The creature had come closer, although a human with its body language would be interpreted as distracted or inattentive at best. The dark-skinned man with the blades looked impersonally displeased by the interruption as he turned slightly to examine the speaker. Beside him stood the assassin heavy, having stepped back and replaced the mace after (hopefully) assessing Sebastio as unthreatening. The fact that Sebastio had not even noticed the movement of a creature as tall as himself and with probably twice the mass assured him that, if he somehow could not fold away and needed to fight his way out, it would be neither clean nor easy.

“If a message to our organization were problematic then in-person presentation provides little benefit over virtual presentation. Almost all those present have active-waiting cerv-mesh connection with the Monolith and communicate constantly with intermediate authorities.” The forithka’s fangs and triple pupil eyes both jittered with restrained energy.

The Cambrian glanced at the minor translucence of the man’s orange-pink gelatinous flesh, his ferrous skeleton structure, and once again marveled at the similarity to what lay beneath his own skin and sinew. Unlike his old friend Sagp and most other acquaintances of a forithkaish persuasion, this fellow - and at least one other watching surreptitiously over yonder - didn’t seem to think in terms of if-thens and verbal regular expressions. His input threw Sebastio off his originally planned entreaties to action; the human hadn’t counted on justifying his directive. Quite stupidly optimistic of him, he realized in hindsight, to expect urgency to increase the willingness of the powers-that-be to listen to random idiots wandering off the street. So much for smartly well chosen brief argument.

“I… have a somewhat crazy request - every active network connection in this arrangement needs to restrict itself to buffering internally or get terminated before any further explanations.”

The responses to that could have been described with words like “drastic” and “pungent.”

“Excuse me?”

Among the derogation and surprisingly thankfully nonviolent disbelief, the knife man’s impossibly stiff “wherefore” cut at least as sharply as any of his implements. His speech was dry, closer to cool than warm, and absent any distracting identifiers, much like a desert after sundown.

Sebastio cast about for the fastest method of convincing a roomful of strangers, some inherently trusting and some quite the opposite, to at least hear that for which he wanted them to at least consider taking his word. He kicked his overclocking into action, and the world slowed down to a glacial drift as he turned the issue this way and that. Eventually he decided on starting with convincing one person as a trial case, and sent a direct connection request to the somewhat darker-skinned human.

To his minor surprise the man accepted.

{How much of your brain has turned to hot pink, friend?} asked the man, with neither vehemence nor kindness.

{None. Look, sir; if you think I am wasting your time, then please have your… commanding officer, or administrator take me into custody.}

{I am presently the highest-placed member of this installation. Now, if you have the gall to demand something like our whole crew taking ourselves offline temporarily, you WILL have the spine to tell me why before we have to file two hands’ worth of decommissioning reports in the fullness of time.}

Sebastio’s hairs would have risen along his spine if the conversation didn’t take place in considerably less than an eyeblink.

{If that really is your stance, sir, then I ask you do with me as you like now; I cannot in good conscience continue unless my statement stays completely off the record.}

{Really? You run at the mouth about the importance of something you refuse to name, then further refuse to disclose the source of your agitation? Forgive me if this all sounds suspicious, first and foremost, and secondarily sounds eminently ridiculous.}

{Sir, security on this topic needs to be exceptional. It will not be airtight, by its definition, but unless you can allow me that much, anything I say does more harm than good.}

The connection cut abruptly, a sudden clean severance on the other man’s end which would have been unforgivably rude in any other setting. Sebastio almost reeled from his total re-enfleshment as his mind left the local exchange stream. Even in his disorientation, though, he made out the shape of the man saying something in a gruff voice to a lithe-looking autumn elf.

“Temporary suspension, across the board. Decouple the input streams entirely if you have to; if the operation’s gonna need a whole warehouse to store all our documents, then I’ll take care of it.”

“Right away, Minuteman,” responded the autumn elf. Sebastio’s eyes went wide as he looked up and down the knife man with considerably greater respect. He didn’t look military exactly, but appearances and deception and whatnot.

Within two minutes a host of annoyed, angry, or just plain confused people were staring at the stranger. The assassin held a perfectly motionless pose beside a criminally ugly thing that might have been a matter transference unit. The naufer didn’t actually bare her teeth, but her displeasure came off her like a steady river of gamma.

“Start talking and be quick about it,” said the knife man. The look he wore declared a complete and total depletion of his patience. Patience debt was climbing at neck-snapping speeds.

“I have it on good authority that…” Sebastio paused for a moment and racked his brain for the exact phrasing, annoyed that he had become so reliant on Monolithic eidetic memory over the years. The fact that it was always assumed he’d have the capability to use said stored memory didn’t ease his frustration. “... some of the top layers of Monolith packet exchange protocols, at least in Rhaagm, have been compromised. The parties on whose behalf that compromise was carried out have reason to aid Count in collecting Caladhbolg.” He gave a brief sign of resignation. “It’s why I haven’t been keeping up with the news for some time.”

The security protocols didn’t mean much to Sebastio aside from their names. Even so, a small hot hand brushed the hair on his scalp up from the roots, as he recited a list of now-insecure communications standards. The fact that Monolith security was probably the best of any information network in existence did not convince him that the supposed breaches were fictitious.

The expressions of most creatures in the room ranged from disbelieving to confused to furious at his words. When he finally reached the end of his enumeration of compromised protocols, the dut startled him by emitting a stream of vitriol and profanity with gross length and detail. The creature spun like a top and also emitted a faint odor somewhere between seashore and a large straw pen full of qinps.

“And in which contexts are these standards apparently at fault?" the dut asked after a moment, a rubbery limb turned toward Sebastio like a periscope. Many eye-tendrils leaned his way like lines of magnetized iron.

Simple to answer, at least. “All contexts,” Sebastio answered, and the Rhaagmini phrase felt like an expulsion of bile. Before the group could give any further reaction, though, Sebastio added, “This was all brought to my attention by, well, Target. And I assure you that I mean the first one who comes to mind.” His calm assertion was met by the sound of the room coming as close to total silence as possible.

After a moment, almost like a verbal footnote, he continued: “Target also informed me that this facet is the true home of Caladhbolg, and that Count is aware of this fact.”

For the first time, the man with the knives spoke in a civil-sounding voice, showing not a trace of discomfort, shock, or emotion of any sort. His almost light-eating skin glinted when his head inclined, assessing Sebastio for… something.

“Christopher Leffikan. Cambrian human, born in a facet so backwater it’s pointless to name or describe, lived in Rhaagm for the last forty hexadecades. I suppose I’m also acting coordinator of our little manhunt expedition here. Excuse our manners, but we have some interesting challenges we’ve just encountered today, and they’re shaped like you.” Christopher raked green flaring irises over his quarry. Quite casually, almost accidentally, a blade was in his grasp, paring away crescents of fingernail. “Very few reasons suggest themselves as to why you might be lying, Mr. Artaxerxes.”

Sebastio could interpret that statement at least three or four different ways. None of them were nice.

“Now,” Christopher said, leaning back against the table upon which the naufer woman had been reading moments ago, “there’s a way to determine the truthfulness of your claims - aside from a dowsing, of course, since we don’t have the personnel for conducting one. If we were to contact an auditor, for example, then we should have an idea of your reliability in… oh, a hand or so.”

His tone of voice clarified exactly how much of a travesty he considered a prospective waste of waiting eight days to get results. The fact that he even considered the idea should have reassured Sebastio, said one side of his brain.

Then came his moment of inspiration, and he knew exactly what to do to convince a fellow Rhaagmini of his veracity: a binding oath.

Sebastio stepped forward half a pace with hands at his sides, straightened himself to his greatest height, and tried to burn through to Christopher’s brain with a stare.

“Christopher Leffikan,” he said, after convincing himself of his words’ necessity, “I swear before the assembled witnesses, upon pain of judgment by Crippled False, that I speak not merely the truth as it is perceived, but the truth in fact, and that I also know the resting place of that object known as Caladhbolg.”

If he’d doubted the efficacy of his gamble, the way Christopher’s eyes widened, and the knife performing hygienic upkeep bit into the meat of his ring finger without eliciting the smallest notice, put Sebastio’s doubts to rest. A couple of the crew nearer the back of the room made indecipherable noises. The assassin remained immobile.

A small nose-twitch graced the face of the naufer woman. Sebastio noticed, and guessed that she had never been to Rhaagm in her life. If one found an oath before Crippled False humorous, exposure to the culture of the city it called home tended to remedy such failings unfailingly. The woman turned to Christopher.

“That is the… chief digital person which aids law enforcement in Rhaagm, yes?” Her question had the same constitution as a Bequastish academic’s survey of a newly-discovered indigenous tribe’s pantheon. She managed to communicate a paired hope of avoiding stepping on toes and a disregard for any more drastic consequences than hurting another culture’s sensibilities.

Christopher’s knife had wandered home at some point, and his dæmon cluster rendered the cut on his finger blurry as it repaired its owner. He did not so much as glance in the woman’s vicinity. His answer was directed at both the fellow Cambrian standing before him and the naufer at his side.

“If you take your word in vain while invoking the name of Crippled False, the best possible outcome is that you never again set foot in Rhaagm again. If you do, you get interrupted almost the very next instant you’re in the city. When a Rhaagmini uses that oath, it means something that’s hard to describe to a non-Rhaagmini.”

He did turn then, glaring at the taller woman.

“Crippled False does not forgive. Crippled False does not forget. It dispenses punishment for oathbreaking in its purview with the greatest possible prejudice. People in Rhaagm treat it like a deity for very good reason.”

Christopher walked closer to Sebastio, soles of his footwear tromping heavily. The verdant irises in his skull showed a modicum of anger, blended with the respect all thinking creatures show all unthinking creatures. Something else lay there as well, but Sebastio could not identify it.

“Friend, how old are you?” he asked, arms folded.

“Ninety five extrafacetary years,” Sebastio answered, consciously making an effort to avoid folding his arms in a mirror pose of his conversant partner.

“Ripper take me, you’re hardly a fledgling,” Christopher interrupted with a not-quite scoff. “How many interruptions?”

“Of myself? None. Haven’t hibernated either, if you’re curious.”

Those green gemstones abraded his face.

“You’re probably crazy, Mr. Artaxerxes, but you don’t strike me as a person with a death wish, and you don’t strike me as crazy enough to court that kind of perjury. I’ve met both of those in my time on the Minutemen roster.” A shifting of weight onto one foot. “What kind of detail can you provide us on Caladhbolg, pray tell?”

Sebastio gestured at the Toothskin refractor. “I can demonstrate where it lies, within a small zone of uncertainty.”

He considered, realizing his interpretation might be incorrect.

“I received a description: ‘from the hill to Our Lady and the same again.’”

He cautiously moved past the naufer and Christopher, out onto the refractor’s projected content, doing his best to avoid tripping over the topographical errata. A moment or two of orienteering and he located his destination. His boots clicked on the photostatic shape, and he stood right on the edge of a valley, behind one of the pulsing cone shapes. When he looked back up to explain to Christopher, he saw nearly every person watching with the kind of rapt attention usually reserved for ongoing natural disasters.

“The church called Our Lady is over there, on the river. If you look between it and where I’m standing, the highest elevation in the surrounding land bisects the line segment connecting the two. When I spoke with Target, he gave me a demonstration in addition to the description.”

He pointed at the hilltop.

“Thanks to said demonstration, I saw the outline of both that cathedral and that hill essentially tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, Target went over them so much. Don’t know exactly how long the thing’s been there subjectively, but objectively I learned that ‘France is the key,’ and it was necessary to ‘arrive outside the region and then approach on foot to avoid disturbing automated defenses.’”

A scratch at the top of the head.

“Apparently, that’s why Niall’s taken so long to get the prize himself; however, he wasn’t as interested in avoiding the defenses as circumventing them.”

He gave off a snort, gesturing vaguely as he hopped down.

“If there’s aught else which might be drawn from any of that, I’d love to hear it. What I do know without question is that until your hail went out, I planned to go straight to sifting this area here in a twenty kilometer radius. It turns out the Maker doesn’t like people just wandering up and taking his creations unless the people in question know where to look and precisely what it is they seek.”

A couple of the elf agents looked to Christopher for direction. When the knife-clothed man gave them an affirmative, they proceeded to a free standing piece of hardware, and began debating something quietly while one of them manipulated the inputs of the device. Meanwhile, a flock of cursors fluttered over the refractor projection, reams of debug output distending from a couple of them. The focus of the cursors lay in or near the region Sebastio had demarcated.

“Jumpy they might be,” commented Christopher from his vantage with monumental sarcasm, “but nobody does arbitrary search-and-sort like the twins. If there’s any evidence of that deviant to be found, they’ll find it.” He sounded troubled, but said nothing more for a few breaths. Then, he asked: “Supposing we did contact the authorities over the Monolith, what consequences do you think we’d invite?”

Sebastio had given that topic a lot of thought. A combination of what the Being of Old named Target had said and not said, and context clues, was the sum total of the available data. He couldn’t even rely on hints from body language, since Target (despite his apparently human form) represented the most alien persona he’d ever encountered.

“The basis for this is a good deal of inference, keep in mind. It was… about five standard months ago that I met Target, just inside eHanril Park. This happened after he - I mean Count - went and…”

Sebastio broke off, incensed grief binding his throat and chest until his cerv-mesh performed suggestion therapy and helped de-cripple his speech centers.

“After Count snapped, I needed someplace quiet. My best friend Bugbear proposed and married his paramour at the park. I used to join hoop-hook games there sometimes when I was younger. It’s beautiful, and not too overcrowded. On one of the benches there, I saw a man with striped clothes, a scarf about his neck and another at his waist, and round burn scars on his face by his eye.”

Sebastio made a breathless wheeze, gripping his compressed lodestaff. He kept himself from jittering, then chortled.

“According to that man, who claimed to be of an age on par with the Parsed City-State of Rhaagm, there’s an ensemble of Olds who would love to induce chaos throughout the gem. A sequence of distractions on scales that dwarf words as simple as ‘cosmic.’ A sword which can supposedly rupture facets makes for a very effective distraction. If we draw particular attention to this facet, it will…”

Listening to Target’s percussive voice in his head helped bring the memories back verbatim. The man had given the impression he was quoting someone else off-and-on, and he unconsciously emulated the Old’s voice in his recounting.

“... it will ‘bring a terrible eye’s attention to the play, ready or not.’”

He met Christopher’s eyes.

“I gathered that would be bad.”

“Crazy,” Christopher half moaned a moment later, “but not delusional.” Again, one of his knives had found its way to his grasp, and he idly twirled it in tight intersecting rings. The flat of his free hand rested against the face of his vicious axe like a lover. Some indeterminate number of breaths went by with the other Cambrian fixated on something in the middle distance. Eventually the man allowed the blade he held to flutter home to its bandolier and started across the makeshift intelligence hub.

“Time permitting, I’d love to hear about your meeting with Target. As delightful as it would be, though, there’re more important matters.” An eyebrow rose. “There needs to be some discussion on procedure, but our little family won’t let awareness of our prey show just yet. Don’t go anywhere.

He threw a glower up over his shoulder at Sebastio. Sebastio didn’t respond except to strangle the lodestaff attached to his palm even harder, the dermis slightly damp and warm.

“Hello!”

He jumped as though stabbed, twisting to observe that the metallic and almost toneless exclamation’s source was a stubby forithka woman. She had walked right over to him, keeping undetected all the way until she watched the newcomer from no farther than a single step. It was the kind of stealth that had to be either innate or part of one’s muscle memory libraries. Her triple pupil eyes danced over him as she shuffled inside a thick personal environment coat.

“Yes?” He pulled his loose cloak about him more firmly. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to mask his discomfort.

“I studied atypicals for some time at Weguerreguwregerr,” the woman stated, again making Sebastio feel odd and foreign with her un-forithka speech patterns. Upon seeing his expression, the forithka added, “Weguerreguwregerr is a Bequast-affiliated school with campus allotments across many different facets. As you might expect, based on the name, it is a very forithkaish school.”

Sebastio shook his head to clear the fog, and berated himself before he could unthinkingly ask about her dialect.

“Sorry; I’m acquainted with the place - one of my old classmates was a transfer. They offer a program on atypicals?”

“No, I and several friends had a club of sorts.” Her jaws worked like a human’s might if they wanted to pantomime chewing. Sebastio was shocked; Sagp had been friends with him for years, and he had never, never been nervous enough to exhibit that tic where his human friend might have witnessed. The human in question surreptitiously took stock of himself. He was taller than the woman, but aside from that and his broadened profile lent by his cloak, nothing about him came across as intimidating. At least, not to his quite limited understanding of her species.

“I have never heard of a ‘security consultant specializing in atypical-related matters.’ What, out of curiosity, does that entail?”

Sebastio had another moment of confusion. After reeling in his skull for a heartbeat or two, he came to the realization that the forithka was asking about his occupation. Well, not the most appropriate time, but “appropriate time” probably wouldn’t roll around for a long, long while.

“Ah! Well, I’m a bit like those interfacers who get paid to try and compromise a company’s digital security. The difference is that I look at other aspects, and, based on heuristic and metric data, determine where they would suffer the most inconvenience from an atypical plying their skills toward mischief. Offensive pedagogy, if you will.”

The look on the forithka’s face became something close to worshipful.

“That must be amazing. Does that put you in contact with atypicals or Olds often?”

Sebastio made a so-so gesture. “Olds? Hardly. Got really lucky and met Target a long time ago, and then again now… I mean, recently. He gave me this as a gift the first time - he called it a ‘lodestaff.’ Have no idea where it came from, but I can make it longer or shorter within certain limits.” He lifted the lodestaff. “Don’t know why he felt so chummy, myself. There are just a few trillion Rhaagmini out there who probably think he’s a complete hermit.”

He scratched his nose. “About atypicals, now, I’m usually the only one who can be on-site to facilitate direct testing, if that’s what you’re asking.” When she was about to query for clarification he grinned, and recited his registry index. “Artaxerxes, Sebastio. Affinity for electromagnetic current, specialization in bioelectric generation. Unfortunately, it’s an atypical attribute coming of a lot of Hiek confluences that aren’t gestalt-bound, so it’s stuck to this body as far as I can tell. No interruption and coming back to a fresh start for me, if I want to keep the questionable benefit.”

“So… you can stun people who rely on bioelectric current to function?”

“I can do a good bit more than that.” His mood dipped, remembering when he’d had opportunity to use his talent with lethal consequences in his college days, and then forced himself to brighten. “Usually I show up clients who think magic inimical fields and time-locked circuits are sufficient to keep biologicals out of sensitive areas. Faster nervous impulses and such, and I can screw about with electrical systems in case I ever have a job for the three or so buildings that actually use them in Rhaagm.” A bit more serious, he brought to mind some of the more interesting people he’d met over his career. “Since an atypical is formally defined as any person with either quantifiably comparable characteristics which lie more than one thousand twenty four standard deviations from the mean or traits not seen more than once in a billion-”

“Trillion.”

“-like s… yes, you’re right, sorry.” Stupid eidetics. “In a trillion like samples, so I’ve probably met more of them than I realize. One guy - Korys ‘Bonesmith’ Mbembe, elf-human lineage - has a talent involving variable weight; he can punch through just about anything short of redmetal.”

“Bonesmith! I studied his records in special depth, and hope to write a paper on the physics of his mass allocation soon. The court records have a stupendous amount of data on the effects and also include speculation about the mechanism. You have met him?”

Sebastio felt oddly snubbed. The woman knew atypicals well enough to produce Mbembe’s self-bestowed nickname, but hadn’t shown the slightest sign of recognition when he’d named himself, even with his far more conspicuous position in the public eye. Then he slapped his mental wrist. That disconnect between professional life and personal life was one of the things he’d really hoped to achieve following his short jaunt through the headlines in his youth, so of course he would complain after reaching his goal. Complain, for that matter, about having less notoriety than Bonesmith, a multiple-offense criminal whose entire personality could be summed up with the words “big, dangerous, and loud.” Well, Sebastio’s emotions had always shown the decisive surety of a pot of greased noodles.

“Yeah,” he replied, “and he’s well-adjusted for an ex-convict. Really weird dress style, though.”

The forithka was drawn to something over Sebastio’s shoulder. He flinched when a low timbre spoke to his questioner.

“Respesedrpers, have we a lock on whether the Nightmare is one of our observed local candidates?”

The naufer woman was standing just behind him, and her address jostled the forithka out of her demi-stupor.

“No, ma’am. It seemed a good idea to check, but based on what we already know…”

“Excellent.” The taller woman’s nose twitched. “Whatever you do, make sure to take your time in running your compares. Maybe rely on one-law or even non-quantized retrieval algorithms. And if you should find yourself getting close to a match for the Nightmare, start incorporating peripheral information until the results are ambiguous. After all, the results from final-stage processing sample data of candidate targets across all the facets presently hunting for him are transferred directly to Central in Rhaagm. We do not want any illicit prying minds catching the scent that we have actually found the man we pursue.”

“Ma’am?”

Sebastio was as curious as the forithka sounded like she felt. The naufer’s sideways figure eight pupils met the triple dots of the forithka before sliding over the human. A broad palm waved over her shoulder at Christopher, busily taking council with other members of the little gathering.

“My colleague names three explanations of our guest’s story. Either he is completely right in what he says, he is completely wrong, or some amalgam of the two. We both agree that the second is quite unlikely. Even assuming that there exist mistakes or plain untruths in his tale, there is exactly one eventuality where the costs of maintaining the illusion of unsuccessfully searching for the Nightmare are outweighed by the comparative benefits. Specifically, if Artaxerxes were conspiring with the man to thwart efforts at his apprehension.”

The naufer’s ears pulled back on her skull, and her teeth showed momentarily.

“In that case, Christopher Leffikan values him as one of the coldest and most ruthless people ever seen by a unit leader in the Rhaagm Minutemen. I also agree with him that, my lack of familiarity with his species aside, the skill to completely mask such duplicity does not smell terribly plausible.”

The forithka was silent. Her large foot patted the floor in time to an inaudible song.

“I believe I understand, ma’am. The search will be unsuccessful, I am sure.”

She started off to a console at the far end of the room, throwing a backwards look at Sebastio once. After the forithka swung around the Toothskin refractor’s projected French hillside and began jotting something down on an interpolation paper, the naufer shuddered, and turned to the Cambrian. “I dislike prevarication. It stinks of dishonor. But at times, sacrifices must be made.”

The way the slightly taller woman looked at him made him feel for a moment like a parasite whose species typically lived in the lower intestine. Her hand extended, and her lips pulled back from her teeth in an exaggerated snarl. “Otris mot Ganauche mot Elesph mottin Ienn the Grand. Naufer residing in Bequast.”

For reasons beknownst to God and her alone, she proffered that archaic and provincial human greeting known as the handshake. Her snarl, for that matter, represented an attempt at a smile from a jaw unused to the idea of showing teeth as a sign of levity. The human felt insulted at first with the forced nature of the greeting, then - on more mature consideration - decided it wasn’t some carefully-planned slight. She had… interesting ideas of cultural sensitivity, but if that was the worst of her faults then she probably qualified as some kind of generational role model.

In the end Sebastio shook with her, her lesser-hand digits curled back to mimic his own four-finger hold. As he did so, the branded symbol on her shoulder drew his focus. He remembered Nessro saying that those tattoos meant something very specific to naufers, but the “what” of it escaped him. “Pleased to meet you, I think.”

Her lips flowed shut with the barest of nose twitches.

“If you hold the confidence of both Minuteman Leffikan and Respesedrpers, however freshly, your advice may qualify as worthwhile.”

“That depends on what the advice is supposed to accomplish, and the topic in question. Among many other things.”

Otris scowled. Her head tilted toward the knife-pregnant figure of Christopher, who strode in small laps back and forth as he thought out loud about something. He was scratching at his cerv-mesh, and the reduced speed at which he walked, almost invisible except to those looking for it, suggested he was overclocking a far greater portion of his brain than most people allocated.

“The topic is how one might incapacitate or kill the Nightmare, and success is quantified by any scenario in which accomplishes that goal.” She released Sebastio, who had thought that she’d done just that several seconds prior. “Regardless of the nature of the weapon he seeks out, or whether he truly has the support of some unseen third party, we cannot allow him free reign any longer.”

She squinted at him, one eight-digit hand brushing the bottom of her lengthy jaw.

The human felt his eyes become opaque and dead, and Otris - up to then, doing her level best to convey her severity through a melting-hot gaze - pulled back, clearly disturbed.

Sebastio had to work to dredge up the words, and when he spoke, it was a sibilant growl that sank even lower than Otris’s earthen tones.

“I couldn’t possibly agree more.”

Two hours later, a Paris square had been converted into a killbox. Metrics confirming the presence of Niall “the Nightmare Count” Bennosuke on the facet’s French hillside received taciturn and thorough examination, though his position did not correspond to any of the locations they’d been monitoring. With a bit of thorough examination, it became obvious that the collection of phenomena, specific chemical and thaumaturgical events, represented something roughly on the level of a man who’d been crossing and revisiting a nearby area every so often, every few days, until recently. More specifically, the nearby area definitively lay in the proximity of the dread weapon’s speculated location. Yet more specifically, thorough examination revealed the man-shaped detections had stopped, and remained in place, for more than a day in that particular region - contrary to all previous patterns.

Sebastio Artaxerxes waited impatiently on the roof of the Great Mountain, twirling the shape of his lodestaff’s compact form between deft, determined fingers. Waited for Count to return, as he knew the man would, searching out more objects, more targets, more meat.

He looked across the dingy and deteriorating square, deluged with broken carts, broken people, and the kind of filth that pre-industrial societies display when their citizens’ spirits as well as their bodies have been beaten, to the roof opposite his vantage. Otris held a wide-bore quadratic accelerator, lip curled as she rested with her feet crossed, scanning the region she overlooked. Two roofs over waited the elf twins, who were very adept magi in a host of combat disciplines. Outside ground level of that house, in the shadow of a rickety trellis overhang with ambitions, stood Christopher, enshrouded in a stealth field. He was carrying a belt of flashbangs in addition to his blades, and before his stealth field had swallowed him the teeth of his axe were glowing and shaking every so often as though alive.

The other members of the scouting team with combat experience entrenched themselves in similar positions. Once they had observed Count’s indicators were no longer mobile, it was assumed that he’d reached Caladhbolg’s defensive perimeter. If Count had gotten to his destination, the assistance of those benefactors whose existence Target had betrayed meant he would soon possess Caladhbolg, whatever the sword truly was… and then he would go hunting for game upon which to test out his toy.

When he did, Sebastio meant to see his one-time friend brought to heel. Death was something he’d avoid inflicting if circumstances permitted, yet the prospect stirred far weaker objections in his soul than he might have felt a scant year past.

The haggard face of a young man named Louis came to mind, and Sebastio felt a part of his spirit ossify.

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