Mirror Universe Evil Twin
Joined: Jul 2011
Location: Disembowelled in a Ditch
Eureka had never really been one for The Arts; there was too much of people saying things and meaning other things for her taste, too much misdirection and metaphor and making it up as you go along. Too many of the kind of people who always seem like they're lying no matter what they say. Still, there were worse things in the world, and it's not like they were really here for the opera anyway. It was just a place to weather the round in safety until the bad things this place was full of happened to someone else. Besides, how bad could The Arts make something as straightforward as a revolt and a big battle?
As it turned out, pretty bad. For starters, she had no idea who any of the people this thing was about were. That would have made it hard enough to follow on it's own, but it was an opera, not a play; almost everything was sung and metaphorical and repetitive. It managed at the same time to be incomprehensible and dull, but from the look of the people around her everyone else was eating it up. Eureka briefly considered comparing the presumably pro-rebellion retelling with the boxes' book as a way to pass the time, but it was too dark to read. Idly rubbing the scales on her shoulder, she decided it was unfair that she was slowly turning into some kind of crazy shadow monster but didn't even get cool night vision powers for her trouble.
As the opera wore on, Eureka found herself sinking further and further into her seat. At least it was comfortable. And safe. It was just boooring. Boriiing. Boring was kind of a weird word, really. Boring boring boing boing boing. It was as she had begun giving herself a back massage by sending the cushion on the back of her seat rolling up and down in waves that things changed, if not for the better at least for the more interesting.
Up until that point, the opera had mostly been kings and magistrates handing down selfish or cruel laws or verdicts, interspersed with handsome and virtuous heroes gradually coming to the conclusion that something had to be done. There was one character, a mysterious masked figure that came and went in instants and goaded the other characters into action, that Eureka would swear was supposed to be that pirate guy from the battle. That was… weird, but it made some sort of sense. If they had been changing things, people in the futurepresent would remember them. Would there be a scene where she and Syvex were captured at the party? She didn't know how she'd react to that. Either way, the story progressed in front of her, and it eventually reached the assault on the palace.
Even silly, prancy stage fighting was better than people she didn't care about eulogizing or soliloquizing or whatever. The definitely-the-pirate (she-was-pretty-sure) was showing up a lot more now, leading the charge along with some kind of giant lizard priest. It looked like a tyrannosaur in a miter, really. Not the sort of thing she expected to be a Glorious Revolutionary Hero, but this place was pretty weird. There was a big dramatic conflict with some immortal guy on a bridge, but after that there didn't seem to be much resistance. Somehow, the opera was even managing to make a violent, bloody battle boring. The rebels just walked all over the unprepared royal forces and approached the castle itself. Eureka stretched and screwed up her face in a huge yawn; when her eyes opened again, it was as though she was watching an entirely different production.
Rebels and royalists alike lay on the stage in very dramatic, hardly visibly breathing at all death. Wasn't-his-name-Ripper? was rallying the survivors with some sort of speech about heroism and tyranny, but Eureka wasn't paying attention anymore; she was shaking one of Syvex's shoulders.
"Did everything just change just now? Just nod or shake your head."
Syvex nodded, his posture indicating he'd been about to try to ask the same. A quick glance around the other operagoers confirmed that they were the only ones who seemed to have noticed anything. More stupid time nonsense, she supposed. At some point in the process of taking their seats she'd been handed a program that explained the story (what kind of Art is it if you need a supplemental pamphlet to have any idea what's going on?); it was printed on some kind of fancy, faintly-glowing paper that made it readable in the dark without being distracting. Knowing what she'd find before she looked, Eureka nevertheless confirmed with a quick scan that the summary had changed pretty dramatically as well. Everything ended the same way, though.
She watched the actor pretending to be one of her opponents rallying troops and fighting guards for a while. These people seemed to consider him some sort of hero, and he was definitely firmly on the rebels' side. Why had everything gone from a rout to a hard-fought victory? It had to be that priest guy's doing, although what he was doing and why was a mystery. He'd never seemed to do much of anything at all. Maybe he just thought the rebellion was stupid too? Who cared. He or the pirate was going to die. Unless things changed again, probably.
One thing was certain: definitely-probably-Ripper took the whole history changing thing seriously. The whole opera was practically about him now. He was some sort of folk hero. She really wondered how much of this was accurate. Probably close enough for her purposes.
First strolled the opulent halls with the air of a man with nowhere to be, no goal at hand, and nothing on his mind. None of these things were remotely accurate, but it was an air he generally tried to cultivate. Likable and agreeable. Canny and ingenuous. It was how he'd managed through the eternities not to end up entangled in the bitter rivalries and mutual loathing that characterized the other Gentlemen, and how he'd maintained his position on that damnable pocketwatch. Power could get you what you wanted, but it was pleasantness that would keep it.
The goal he didn't have approached, and he was very surprised to find exactly who he'd been expecting was there too, surrounded by quietly-groaning tomes bound in leather and flesh and things that First even now preferred not to think about. Of course, the room they had coincidentally encountered each other in happened to be the bar, so his comrade of circumstance also had a frankly-unladylike amount of brandy in a gilded snifter at her elbow.
"Feeling a bit nostalgic? It's almost quaint to see the old grimoires again. Like an old friend from childhood you're a bit embarrassed to have known showing up at a party, really. Doing a little light, aha, dark reading for old times' sake?"
"The thing we forget, and more importantly the thing that he's forgotten, is that there are things the old magic can do that even we can't on our own. We wouldn't be able to recreate the results of the ritual without the ritual."
Victoria took a gulp of her drink and snapped the book in her hand shut. It yelped, albeit muffled, and she snatched another one. First was careful not to show it, but he was surprised to see her like this; behind the impassive magpie's beak was an obvious scowl, behind her every jerked movement was simmering resentment, behind her carefully-level tone was a tension that threatened to snap. Seventh was certainly volatile and prone to rage when provoked, but this kind of sustained, calm fury was uncharacteristic. Unsettling.
"You're right, of course, but what does it matter? We've moved past the need for those things we can't provide for ourselves now, surely."
"If we had, then we'd have moved past the need for the watch. We'd have moved past the need to cloister ourselves in this plush little side-dimension and make bets to distract ourselves. Sixth–" and here her voice cracked, though whether it was with icy rage or burning despair, First couldn't tell "–would still be… with us."
He didn't respond, preferring to sedately pour himself a more reserved measure of the same liquor Victoria had selected and take a seat a few stools down from her literary tomb. He watched himself in the mirror for a time, considering the elegant swirl of his drink as he sipped it, and considering her furious scribbling in margins and on a notepad almost as an afterthought. Eventually he spoke, but it was directed at no one and had the air of merely musing aloud.
"I seem to remember we spent centuries of research when it became clear our resources weren't as unlimited as we thought. Centuries of ultimately-unfruitful study and experimentation, if memory serves. Traditional immortality just isn't compatible with what we've become. Necromancy is for the living." He paused. "Or the dead, I suppose. The distinction is arbitrary, which is why it works at all. Not for us, at any rate."
"My memory serves just as well as yours. You're not here to patronize me, you're here to help. And you'll be helping yourself just as much by the end."
Another silence, further sipping, further scratching of pen on paper. "As always, of course. Foolish of me to assume you'd pursue dead ends any farther than we already have."
There was no response, and First wasn't one to push; it was usually better to let things unfold without interference before making a move. Unless making one was more interesting, which certainly chagrined his companions who had wagered, or played, more poorly. Eventually, though, he felt compelled to nudge things along; they didn't have forever, after all.
"I could probably help more, though, if I knew what I was assisting with."
For the first time since he'd entered, Victoria locked eyes with him. He shuddered internally, his quietly-iron-hard willpower the only thing preventing the shudder becoming external. "I'll tell you when the last details come together, but know that you're already too far in with me to back out."
The rebel army poured through the sundered gates over the limp body of the palace's staunchest protector, yelling and singing and crying as they went. Their cause was just, and their will was strong, and with the God on their side there was no way they could fail; their thinning numbers and the attendant corpses that fell behind them wasn't a dire warning of their impending demise, but a grim reminder of why they couldn't afford to lose. Every man and woman and thing among them was determined to see the king hanged, and to see five palace lackeys cut down for each of their comrades that lay bleeding and motionless on the bridge.
The phalanxes of guards and mercenaries (and the more gung-ho sort of party guest, as there always were in these situations) that met them as they entered the courtyard would certainly give them the opportunity to meet those numbers, if they were able to overcome the superior numbers, equipment, and organization. The minimal warning the royalists had had before the attack meant there was much less to muster and less time to do it in than there otherwise would have been, but it was still a military that the rebels faced. They weren't cowed, as filled with righteousness and the sort of self-correcting bravado instilled in men who were too far committed to back down as they were, but their attention was certainly fully drawn to the army they were about to face.
That was probably why the darkened carriage that suddenly turned off its path towards the gates and quickly disappeared into the thickening gloom managed to escape everyone's notice.
The conundrum of Not-Riko Riko was hurriedly filed away for consideration at a less dangerous time, and Laguja projected its awareness out of and above the carriage. By all rights, what it witnessed should have been a slaughter, or at the very least nothing approaching a fair fight. But against all odds and for no reason or pattern the pincushion could readily discern, the rebels were holding their own, and then some. It was slow progress, but were making headway and losing fighters more slowly than their opponents. It didn't seem right. It certainly didn't seem promising. Laguja was about to wonder where the magical support it had surely brokered by now hadn't materialized when the sky turned red.
The hubbub of battle dampened a bit as both sides suspected the other of doing something game-changing, and rebels and royalists both backed into more defensive positions. It wasn't long before the reason for the change became apparent, though: within moments, streaks of heat and light and half-molten stone were hurtling towards the rebels. They broke rank and scattered, despite the apparent futility of trying to outrun a meteorite. Surprisingly, few of the falling rocks met their mark; not only did many of the targets dodge them, but quite a few of the meteorites simply disintegrated in midair. Laguja was also quite certain that some of them winked out of existence only to reform behind a terrified rebel, and was pretty sure some suddenly turned at right angles in midair to avoid killing anyone. Either some wizard's heart wasn't really behind the cause, or something else was interfering.
By the time the earth had reached up to swallow many of the insurgents, only to regurgitate them or stop halfway through, a solid suspicion was forming in the godling's fractured mind. Surely only one being had the power to so effectively nullify the magic of a whole cabal of the country's most powerful magi, and only one being had such motivation to prevent the future from changing. A figure emerged from the highest of the palace's towers and began hurling spikes of ice and bolts of electricity at the ragtag army far below, but Laguja came to accept her magic's lack of accuracy and efficacy very quickly. It couldn't affect the battle directly, but no amount of countermeddling would be allowed to derail its plans.
Laguja would not give the Prestidigitator the satisfaction of another victory.
Eureka glanced down at the program again. She'd completely lost track of the story the opera was trying to tell; apparently as the pirate and the priest fought for control over history, everyone else around her was changing with it, and she (and Syvex too, she supposed, even if he couldn't really tell her about it) was the only one who remembered the opera as it had been. Sometimes scenes would radically change as she watched, and sometimes they would simply become entirely different scenes with no transition at all. It'd always been that way, except for her. It made it impossible to understand anything. Not that she'd been able to understand too much through the Arts-iness of it all. For the fourth (fifth?) time in a few minutes, the program clued her in to what she'd missed.
People were dying very dramatically up on stage, consumed by special effects she had to assume were actual magic. That seemed to line up with the current summary, and from what she could tell it was mostly the "righteous" rebels hamming it up into their graves. But if the rebels won (and presumably they still had to have won, since the play was changing but the palace wasn't, and a quick glance up at the balcony confirmed the smirking president was alive and not a monarch), then why were they losing? She scanned down a bit. Blah blah tragic deaths, blah blah heroic sacrifices, blah blah blah ah, they ended up losing the battle (which they hadn't before, right?), but the masked hero rallied the survivors and blah blah etcetera. And thennn… Okay, there, the queen was found escaping and was caught and executed with one of her daughters. That was… sad. And it was weird that they'd glorify or even include it. Even if the royalty was corrupt (which Eureka wasn't convinced of), the princess was just a little girl. How was that fair?
That couldn't be all, though. There was still the king, and if only "one of" the princesses was with the queen, then there had to be more. So… Okay, yeah, the rebels created a distraction with what they had left and a few of the more combat-trained ones (including the pirate, she noted), to infiltrate the palace. They managed to slip in and assassinate the king and the rest of the heirs (except one maybe? But if the opera was propaganda it wouldn't include that, she supposed), and that was pretty much that. The state was destabilized with no leader and no claim to legitimacy without an heir, and the pro-rebel portion of the church essentially purged the now-unpopular royalist priests and wrested control of the state from all the other factions. Or something, it didn't really matter what happened afterwards as far as she was concerned.
The whole thing just made her even more uncertain about trying to change things. Not only was it maybe not fair to the people around her now (how many of them would even exist if everything was different? Did it count as killing them all if she made them unborn?), but it really seemed like history refused to change. By all accounts, the rebels really should have lost. There was an army and some wizards and all kinds of things between them and democracy, but they just kept winning even when they lost. Maybe it was impossible.
Actually, it probably was. After all, what had the Prestidigitator said about the round? Something about how this night was linked to that one because of the events or something? If there was no successful rebellion, there wouldn't be a stupid time-thing, would there? Or maybe it was a coincidence. She really wished she'd paid more attention to the description, but as she was constantly reminded by the way her new shoulder scales kept catching on her clothes, she'd had more important things on her mind.
Ugh. Who cared about all of it? Everyone was stupid on every side, probably. Why couldn't anyone just talk things over? And if the constantly-changing history and tide of battle was being caused by the spider priest dude who hadn't ever seemed to do anything important before (which was weird the more she thought about it, surely he had to be up to something at some point. If this whole thing was some sick game for the entertainment of "higher" beings, why would they pick someone who just wandered around and stayed back?), then why was he so intent on fighting the rebellion? He didn't seem like the sort to just do it on principle or anything. What was the point?
She had nothing but questions and no answers. None were forthcoming from Syvex, obviously, and even fewer from the circuitously-singing actors on the stage. Stupid opera. So stupid.
Time was a tricky thing to measure in the bar, or in the entire realm that housed it; it was trickier still to compare it to the cyclical or tubular mess that was the Ambitus phenomenon. In the absence of a special chronometer like the one omnipresent in the gentlemen's minds, it would be impossible to say how much time First and Seventh had spent not-quite-co-conspiring without relying on visual cues like, say, the buildup of bottles or at least the draining of glasses. Of course, pedestrian physical qualities like volume and quantity held little sway in the realms of the grandmasters, so it could have moments or weeks before Victoria spoke again.
"Do you want to die, First?"
He chuckled. "Well, no. Of all the people in the multiverse, you've picked someone least likely to say yes."
"Then why have you let someone decide not just that you will, but when you will?"
A mortal might have begun sweating. "I suppose we didn't have much of a choice. Certainly not for lack of trying. Did better than most, too."
"I'll live far longer than you will, though. You know that."
"That's a justification."
"Fine, yes, it is. But there's nothing I can do about it. All the research we did, everything we tried, it was futile."
"Because we were attacking it from the wrong direction. Thinking too rigidly."
"And you've discovered some sort of lateral sorcery that's going to solve it?"
"Still too rigidly."
First sighed. This wasn't really a conversation anyway; he waited for her to finish.
"There may be a way we can sustain ourselves indefinitely. There may not. But there's certainly a way to buy ourselves more breathing room, and maybe destabilize the cosmic pattern that's bound us to our fate. More importantly, though, we'll be fixing inequities we've suffered for far too long."
It had been a long time since First had allowed himself to feel the prickle of jealousy of his companions who had received more of the Prestidigitator's favor. It had been a long time since it had been safe to, linked as they all were. But now it crept up again, Victoria's blunt reminder and artless prodding stirring things best left buried.
"So we're to have justice in our dying days? You'd give up your own years to the likes of, what did you call them, "sniveling Third" and "spineless Fifth"?"
"I would. I know you felt it when Sixth passed. Part of us went with him. Do you want to watch yourself drain slowly into the abyss, dying by inches over the years? Do you wonder how much you would lose with each successive death, or what you'd become as the others pull you piecemeal into the grave?"
Silence again. He did remember the sensation, even though he hadn't known what it was at the time.
"But our lives aren't the only things at stake. I've tired of the subordinance, the slavery to whimsy and pomp. We let our "grandmaster" take control because of his perversion of the ritual, because we thought we had to. We couldn't wrest it from him if we tried, in our minds."
"And in reality, I suspect. Even the seven of us together have nothing like his power. He made sure the only one that could redistribute it was him. You must know all of us privately looked into ways of… evening the field."
"We looked in the wrong places. We weren't willing to sacrifice enough. We were content with what seemed at the time like close enough to infinity. But now we're reaching the end, and who knows what awaits something like us?"
"Mmm. What have you found, then? Something that will reset the balance of power and invigorate us equally?"
"No, nothing that easy. We still have to do the work, still have to fight for what is ours." She slid her notebook and a handful of tattered folios towards him. "But I've created something that, though it won't win the battle for us, will give us the chance to win."
With a quiet sigh, First began to read. It was slow going at first, reacquainting himself with the trappings of arcana, but it wasn't long before he was taking it in at speed. It was funny how you never really forgot, and how just a little bit of familiarity will bring it all rushing to the fore of your mind again. He almost smiled, recapturing a tiny fragment of the feeling of those lazy evenings under the oil lamps, sedately discussing Black Theory over coffee and biscuits.
As the spell's components unwove themselves under his gaze, though, he was slammed back into the present, warmth and security and innocence forgotten.
"You call here for a significant measure of his flesh and soul, Seventh. Even if I were to entertain this fancy of yours, it's a solution that requires that the problem be solved before it can be applied. We'd need even more powerful sorcery than this to get what we need to cast your spell."
"And that, First, is where you're wrong, and what we've forgotten for far too long."
He looked up, but she was already standing, already had her fingernails digging into the air until it tore.
"Surely you don't mean–"
"I do. As far as reality is concerned, we're all the same person."
Space was straining under her grip, and the tear was widening. It was almost her own height as First tried to speak again.
"I seriously doubt–"
"I do not. Even the numerology is right; we've only got one name between us. There's nothing to distinguish any of us from the others!"
She was shaping the hole now, gross tearing giving way to fine manipulation. The nothing at her fingertips was becoming a man.
"This is hardly justice!"
"Blood for blood. The only justice there is. One more sacrifice, and the rest of us can survive in equality."
He stood up as quickly as he could, striding towards her with urgency and an outstretched hand, but it was too late. It was as though he was moving through treacle. Before he'd taken two steps, the hole had resolved itself into Second.
The second gentleman was understandably shocked to find himself in the bar, and clearly disoriented and confused. It only took moments for bafflement to solidify into livid rage as he recognized Seventh; he snarled, pointed teeth glimmering dangerously in the soft light.
"You… bitch! This is the last Goddamned straw! I've had it up to here with you acting like you can do whatever the hell you want just because you're fucking the boss."
Second's voice quickly drowned out First's; he moved to shove her aside, not noticing the obsidian implement that had formed or appeared in her hand.
"Just you wait. Just you wait! When I'm through with him, when I'm through with you, you'll show me the Goddamned respect I deserve. I swear, I ought to break your arms right now just on principle."
He shouldered her aside, and as she staggered she spun, driving the lightless knife into the nape of his neck. She turned her stumble into a wicked downward thrust, tearing through flesh and bone with efficiency and strength no normal implement should be able to achieve.
"Readings are consistent, and within normal baseline levels. I can detect no countermagic, nor flux interference."
[hollycolor]"It can't be nothing
. I'd say someone had come down with mana dropsy, but it's all
"I am well aware. Nevertheless, the readings are consistent."
"There has to be something wrong with your equipment then!"
"I would postulate that given none of our other diviners have successfully identified the problem, it is not a failure of my equipment, but a case of not knowing what to look for."
The president drummed her fingers on the table. She didn't like it, but she was forced to agree; something was preventing the entire College from bringing its full power to bear, but as far as any of them could tell, nothing was preventing anything. Everything just happened to not be working. It meant something none of them had ever encountered before was at work, which was unsettling enough given the collective centuries of experience her council had, but terrifying given that whatever it was was in the hands of a group of malcontents trying to topple the government. For all she knew, organized magic would be next.
"There's nothing out of the ordinary? Nothing at all? I'd rather hear something you're not sure of than miss a solution because you've dismissed it."
"I have noticed… not a pattern, nor an anomaly, but… Something curious."
The president had never seen her chief techmaturge look so uncertain. "Display it for us, then."
"I'm not certain what to display. It's less an actual phenomenon and more an underlying trend towards the possible but statistically unlikely."
"Were I to analogize things for convenience, I would liken this to the flipping of ten thousand coins, some sequentially, some simultaneously."
The techmaturge fiddled with the device on her wrist for a few moments, filling the air with columns and columns of figures and graphs that most present didn't even know where to begin deciphering.
"Probabilistically, with a figure of that magnitude, it would be likely that the numbers of heads and tails would be close to one another. Some shift in favoring one or the other would be unlikely, but unsurprising."
"And you're saying we're seeing eight thousand heads?"
"It is closer to all ten thousand landing on their edges and staying there."
There was silence as the bizarre magnitude of the statement sunk in.
"These are all very subtle, some subatomic, trends, and I would hesitate even to hypothesize that most were related under other circumstances. I doubt I would even notice were I not actively looking. I do not know the cause, nor truly the full extent of the effects. My own methods and equipment cannot discern more."
There was a question hanging on the end of that statement, and the President's hand reflexively snuck to her eyepatch. "But you think there is more to learn with more power or finesse?"
"Had I access to equipment more advanced or suitable than my own, I would begin my examining the n-folding of the nested material dimensions. Depending on the results, I would likely have an answer, or know where to look next."
"Alright. I'm going to need concentration, then." The president waved her remaining councilors off. "See to the defense of the castle. Without our full abilities, your priority isn't the destruction of the rebel force, but the protection of the royal family and the guests, in that order. Needless to say, keep yourselves safe. I may have to recall you to discuss our next move, so stay alert."
As her wizards left, the president turned to her most stoic advisor. "I can see whatever you need me to see, but I don't know what to look for."
"I believe that I have made sufficient progress to be able to interface with you and your artifact and guide the search. If you are comfortable making the attempt."
She wasn't. "I am."
"Good. I will prepare."
The president slid her patch off hesitantly, revealing the black-and purple sphere embedded where her eye should have been.
"Contact will not be necessary."
She would have said "Oh." if she'd had the chance, but before she could she felt the spell take hold and heard her techmaturge's voice in her mind.
"You will forgive me if it takes some small amount of time to acquaint myself with the artifact's function and use."
The president had little time for pleasantries in general, and even less so in the privacy of her own brain. This was not helped by the dizzying sea of images that swam in front of her unbidden as her unseen rider experimented with controls. It was unsurprising a gracious "Of course." was not forthcoming.
Nevertheless, it was not long before things stabilized and the search for whatever was dampening the College's magic was on. It was very rare that the president viewed things as minuscule or abstract or theoretical as whatever n-folding was or meant, so it was difficult to maintain focus on whatever she was looking for. Fortunately, it didn't take long for the techmaturge to settle on something; she just wished she could tell what it was, or even describe it.
"I believe I have discovered the root of our problem."
"Great." Apparently the root of their problem was some sort of morass of colors that didn't exist moving through each other without any kind of rhyme or reason or even the vaguest relation to shape and form. "What is it?"
"I do not like to speculate without evidence."
"Well, that's all we have time for right now. What is it?"
"What it is is fairly straightforward: it is an extrarecursive signature. It is essentially a self-contained packet of universal "information" that forces matter and energy around it to reshape its own "contents" to match. It is why it is that is more troubling: these typically are only found during the formation of planar entities or the crossing of dimensional boundaries. Further, they almost universally self-annihilate in microseconds. Otherwise, everything would eventually become everything else. This one's longevity is exceptional enough, but its extreme subtlety and apparent self-alteration are not simply unusual but all-but-theoretically impossible. Moreover, there is a temporal element to this one that I have neither encountered before nor even heard mentioned as a possibility."
"I know you don't have an answer, so I'm not going to ask you for one. Do you at least have a theory?"
"I believe… It may not be inaccurate to say that the universe itself is actively suppressing our ability to manipulate it through magical means. Although this may erroneously ascribe motive to–"
"What, reality itself doesn't want us involved in this battle?"
"That may be an oversimplification and an overanthropomorphization of the phenomenon."
"But you're certain that this is a natural occurrence, not the result of interference by another group of mages?"
"If it is, their power is so great and their finesse so astonishing that I have difficulty believing we would have had no inkling of their existence until now."
"I don't… I don't like the idea of trying to interfere with what may be existence's way of saying "thus far and no further". But I also don't like the idea of simply giving up and allowing people to die because I was afraid."
The two considered the situation for a long but timeless moment.
"I have always been of the opinion that the ultimate goal of magic is the understanding of all reality's laws, and through that understanding creating new ones rather than the brief exceptions we normally create through spellcraft."
"That's a very bold belief. Almost apotheotic."
"Perhaps. How would you like to proceed?"
Well, the president thought, a leader is sooner forgotten for inaction and mediocrity than vilified through decisiveness and failure.
"Destroy it or dispel it or undo it, or whatever one does to whatever this is. I'm a wizard. I've never let reality tell me what's real, and I see no reason to let it now."
She couldn't see it, but she heard the techmaturge's device being adjusted beside her. There was a brief sensation of being inside-out coupled with the smells of twelve and itchy; she wasn't sure what happened next, but when she could see again she was on her back and her advisor was unconscious.
Outside, there was the sound of a hundred spells blazing to life, and soon the screams of those they'd been turned on. A rallying cry of the royal motto rose as the emboldened palace guard pressed their advantage; the president pulled herself up and towards a window.
"Well, we did it, whatever we did."
It was getting weird at the opera. Well, weirder than it already was, which was pretty weird considering it kept changing and she was stuck in a time loop and a battle to the death and turning into a shadow snake monster thingy. All in all, extra weirdness was pretty impressive. Maybe it wasn't getting weirder, just more incomprehensible.
She was barely bothering to look at the stage anymore, and had stopped trying to follow all the arias and ballads and blahs and blahs and blahs a long time ago. She was fixated on the program, watching it flick rapidly between versions and stories and plots before her eyes, often too quickly to even allow her to read a full sentence. That probably didn't matter, though, because the sentences she was reading barely made any logical sense. It's like someone was just stringing events together without any concern for which ones were causing which other ones. It was all getting… weird.
Even if he couldn't really discuss it with her, Eureka felt like it might help to tell Syvex what was going on. Misery loves company, so maybe confusion liked a visitor too.
For the first time, she noticed how much his head was whipping around, and how tightly he was gripping the arms of his chair.
"Shush!" The voice came from somewhere behind her and to her right, and she was gripping by twin urges to hiss back "You shush!" and to sink into her seat and be forgotten. She settled for leaning closer to him and carefully shaking one of his shoulders.
Syvex, for his part, was only vaguely aware of Eureka and her requests for his attention. The lowered house lights in the auditorium meant that he could see just about everything happening in it, but the brightly lit halls and kitchens and backrooms around it effectively hemmed his vision in. What had caught his attention had been a number of figures skirting the very periphery of his awareness; he wouldn't have noticed them at all if there hadn't been so many of them and if they hadn't been so stubbornly sticking to the areas he could only just see them as blurry silhouettes. The more he concentrated, the more worried he got; what if they somehow knew about him, knew about how he worked, and were specifically avoiding letting him catch them?
As if on cue, they moved inwards as a group. If they were coming for him, they were doing it in a ludicrously circuitous way, which was a bit comforting. Rather, they all seemed to be making their ways as stealthily as they could to the plushest areas of the theater; the concentration was greatest near the boxes and balconies, and there were quite a few apparently specifically targeting the one with the president in it. That was… probably not relevant to him?
As they slunk deeper into his circle of shadows, though, it became very clear, sharply clear, that they were all carrying weapons. He put two and two together and decided that he and Eureka probably weren't on the hit-list for tonight, but that he also really didn't want them to be around for an assassination. He almost rose from his seat, but stopped when he realized he wouldn't be able to explain himself. Why couldn't she understand him anymore?
The she in question had returned her attention, for lack of anything better to turn it to, to the opera and the program. She'd noticed that there was one section that seemed to stay approximately consistent: How-could-it-not-be-Ripper, fleeing from the tyrannical mages, encounters and kills the queen. If nothing else, it should be exciting, finally. The special effects were impressive too, even if they kept altering themselves as the details of the scene changed.
Ignoring Syvex's fidgeting, she watched as the pirate fought through guards and dodged lightning bolts (or were they meteors or were they bolts of necrowhatsit blackness?) to approach a carriage at the far end of the stage. Eventually, its door burst open dramatically, and Eureka immediately lost track of the scene and her train of thought; she was too fixated on what the emerging figure had gripped in its left hand. She took some satisfaction in this evidence that her theories had probably been proven correct, although she did wonder a bit about where the priest guy actually was. She didn't think she'd ever seen him without his pincushion, or it without him. Or maybe she had; she didn't see much of either. Nevertheless, it was worth sharing, she felt.
"Psst!" She poked Syvex and hissed at him, determined to be noticed this time. "Syvex, psssst!"
He turned to her, gesturing to be quiet. "Eureka, do'sta knul mor."
"I still can't… What are you even saying? And did you see that thing on the stage?"
He kept pointing at things, but she couldn't tell what. "Idrolimen, al jor-na wex. N'gasta! Kvata! Kvakis!"
He was clearly getting agitated, tripping over his tongue trying to make her understand. Eureka watched his breathing get faster, and it dawned on her that that was probably a bad thing.
"Syvex, you need to calm down a little, okay? Maybe we can find you something to write with, that might help us talk. Okay?"
"No! There's not time!" Syvex utterly failed to say. Instead, he grabbed her by the hand and bolted upright; he might as well not have, though, because before the people behind him could voice their displeasure at him for blocking their sightline, his panic over the situation and his inability to speak and everything in general made him disappear.
Eureka sighed. Nothing could be easy, could it? No sense dwelling on that, though; she quickly made the decision that even if it meant going back to the war-torn past, she was probably best sticking with Syvex.
It didn't take long ruminating on her impending transformation before her seat was empty too.
Different facets of the mirror displayed endless views and perspectives on the battle, and the Prestidigitator took great pleasure in taking them all in. He'd been truthful when he'd professed to be impressed with his battlers' performance; he couldn't have predicted that they'd be so entertaining, nor the paths they'd take to become so. For a being that had spent uncountable ages seeing everything that millions of worlds had to offer, it was all very refreshing.
There was a particular brand of amusement to be derived from the efforts the contestants made towards escaping or foiling him; Seventh's champion was a particularly good source of it, and never failed to provide satisfying, if cheap, entertainment whenever its plans crumbled through its own mistakes or the others' interference or through simple circumstance. The grandmaster couldn't truly be said to be focusing on any aspect of the battle more than any other, his attention and consciousness being less concrete and linear than that, but through mortal habit difficult to break even in immortality, his eyes certainly flicked to the shards of glass depicting the pincushion's unfolding plot more than any other.
Those same eyes narrowed more the further it unfurled. Partly through its maneuvering, and largely through luck, it looked as though the bitter little quasi-divinity actually stood a chance of destabilizing the round. The Prestidigitator didn't like the thought of interfering directly with the battle – it was more proper that he turn a blind eye as his subordinates did or did not to various degrees – but if the confluence of events that was threatening to occur got much closer to fruition, his hand might well end up forced.
Before that decision could be made, though, something about the air changed. He tried to focus part of the mirror on finding whatever the source of the disturbance was, but his vision clouded over. An ugly burgundy tint crept over his skin, and he began convulsing, bilious liquid creeping from the corners of his mouth and the edges of his scars.
Behind the opulent armchair he lay in, alternately limp and twitching, a door slammed open. In it were First and Seventh, she with her fists balled at her sides, he with his hands folded demurely behind him. The stricken grandmaster clawed his way to a position approaching standing.
"I'm not sure what the nature of this interruption is, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist it wait while I attend to a potentially-pressing concern."
"I assure you," came a growl from behind the magpie mask, "you have no concerns more pressing right now."
Without warning, her hand shot up and a lurid explosion of nothingness burst into being where the Prestidigitator's heart might have been had he not dissolved into a cloud of scattering butterflies. The man himself slid quietly out of the shadow of the door and gripped her wrist. Behind him, the largest fragment of mirror shimmered and began displaying the image of two mages in some sort of trance; one gripped the apparatus at her wrist, while the other slowly stroked the one that took the place of her eye.
"I may have underestimated the importance of what you have to say, my dear, but there really is no time to address it at the moment."
His hands were shaking as he began twisting her arm behind her, but they nevertheless held unnatural strength. He might have been able to subdue her, or even pull her shoulder right out of its socket, if First hadn't appeared at his back.
"This really isn't how I would have chosen to go about this," he said, a tinge of moroseness at the edge of his voice. Nevertheless, there was no hesitation as he plunged his hand towards – and ultimately straight into – the Prestidigitator's back. Victoria was quickly released, and an elbow went flying into First's gut; he was launched back into the armchair with a sickening crunch.
It would be impossible to say when the sword-cane had appeared, or where it had come from, but none of that mattered as long as it was gripped firmly in the grandmaster's hand, its unsheathed edge glittering irrespective of light sources.
"I really am very disappointed. Of all people, I expected you to stay civilized no matter what."
Heeded by no-one, the women in the mirror were knocked to the ground by an unseen shockwave.
"Whatever happened to talking things out?"
The shockwave seemed not to affect the world around them, but the mirror itself began resonating with it.
The rest of that sentence would never come; it was drowned out by the sound of the room filling with flying shards of shattered glass.
Everything had gone to Hell. It was bad enough that this place had immortal palace guards and a corrupt monarchy, but that the very sky and land had turned against the rebels through the meddling of witches went past unfair into brutal. The force Ripper had lead was all but routed; she'd watched Triumphan scorched to nothing at the hands of a grim-faced mage in blue, and hadn't even been able to retaliate against the hovering bitch without fuel for her jetpack. Dozens of other freedom fighters, all of whom probably had families they just wanted a better life for, had fallen, to the wizards' somehow-renewed onslaught. All seemed to be lost.
She should probably just retreat. Most of the rest of the survivors had. This wasn't even her fight, not really. It was tyranny, but not tyranny she'd experienced; people were oppressed, but she hadn't been. Belay the righteous fury and make way for prudent security.
But she couldn't.
Maybe she was just too far committed, maybe this place represented too much of what she hated; maybe it had been the only thing she'd felt like she could control since the battle started, or maybe she just couldn't stop, couldn't stop, wouldn't stop because if she did she'd see that she couldn't breathe, couldn't feel her extremities, was losing the edges of her vision. Something compelled her to keep going, keep fighting, keep stoving in the heads of every unfortunate soldier that got between her and the carriage she'd become fixated on. Something about it represented something. Something she had to crush.
Righteous, or perhaps unholy, strength and agility filled her, filled her veins and her head and her heart. She was going to die here, but she wasn't going to do it alone. She couldn't die until she'd done something, anything that would be remembered, that would improve things for the people. The People. Downtrodden masses. God save the people, God damn the king.
She wasn't even consciously aware of the graceful, almost superhuman way she dodged every projectile the man leaning out of the carriage sent hurtling towards her. It was just what was happening. She couldn't even tell if she was still fighting any more, or just running, just chasing. It didn't matter. This was right. She was doing the right thing, and she'd know what it was when she got there.
Without warning, her attacker ceased his onslaught, a blank look coming over his face. At the same time, a voice pierced the haze inside her mind
Enough. Do you know what you're doing?
Of course she knew what she was doing. Fighting the royalty, saving the people. Tear down the crown.
Why? This isn't your war. You have nothing to gain here.
Her dash was quickly degenerating into a stumble, but it kept going doggedly. Of course she had something to gain. She had freedom, she had equality, she had warm fuzzy knowledge that she'd done the right thing.
The right thing, in this case, has gotten hundreds killed and injured. The right thing will destabilize the local power structures, leading to a civil war that will kill hundreds or thousands more.
Eggs, to break an omelette. Everything right in the end. Hard to get there, sad, worth it.
Laguja would have sighed if it had had lungs. There was no chance of reasoning with the crazed pirate, and it had already revealed itself more than it had wanted by preventing the queen's battlemage from killing her on approach. Might as well commit; it was past the time for subtlety.
Ripper's vision was still tunneled in on the carriage, but something was different. She realized she couldn't move her eyes, and even though her limbs were still moving, it wasn't in a way she was directing them to, or particularly wanted. She was actually quite upset when she lumbered to a halt just outside of her target, and more distraught still when she found herself drawing all her weapons only to drop them into the mud at her feet.
She wanted to scream as the occupants filed out and moved around her; she wanted to kick and bite and scratch and kill the nervous, gangly woman that even in disguise could only be the queen. She wanted so many things, but all she could manage was a wheezing little exhalation.
Do not injure yourself. You must stay alive until I am certain we have escaped our tormentor's clutches.
She clambered into the carriage, locking the door behind herself with a key she found on a seat, then bending the same key into uselessness against a boot. She sat, and sulked, and watched the retreating backs of her targets as they fled to the safety of the castle. It was some minutes before she realized her body was her own again.
Around the time Laguja's influence was becoming too weak to exert itself over Ripper, it felt the subtle but pervasive sensation it had been hoping for hours now to achieve. The temporal snarl it had been trapped in was unwinding, and not just fading but quickly disappearing. For once, when it really mattered, everything was coming together perfectly.
Everyone was screaming, and even though Eureka could sort of understand why, it was really, really annoying.
"Look! We're not rebels, we're not going to murder anybody! I mean, I know he's scary-looking, but he's not even the worst thing here! Look at that guy, he's pretty freaky."
They'd found themselves in what was probably the great hall of the palace, and the immediate assumption had been, probably prudently, that anyone apparently teleporting in was one of the people they'd heard killing each other outside.
"Do I look like a peasant? This suit is much too nice for me to be a rebel. Look, this is cashmere. Stop it!"
Oh, and here came the guards. Awesome, awesome.
"Come on, we're just trying to escape from them out there! We're here for safety, just like you!"
Ugh, this was all nonsense. Look how stupid and scared these people were. Hard to believe she'd thought about involving herself to save them. Not worth it. Why wasn't Syvex portaling them somewhere not-here? That would solve a lot of problems. Maybe his brain was broken in more ways than she thought.
As the litany of self-pity and frustration was playing out in her head, Eureka became aware of an odd sensation in one of her hands. She looked down to see the boxes' book, which she'd still been clutching even when it was too dark to read; at first, she couldn't tell what was making her feel all tingly in the palm, but then she realized that the book itself was sort of turning into some sort of beige, sandy substance and trickling between her fingers. As she watched, the individual grains disappeared before they hit the ground, and in seconds the entire book had changed, crumbled, and vanished.
That kind of sucked. Maybe it hadn't ended up being all that useful, but she still felt responsible for it.
Muriegro nodded, a rasping moan forming at the back of his throat. He was still muddled, still lacking enough will and consciousness to really form full thoughts, but what this strange woman was saying resonated with something within him. He reflexively tried to form words, but the thick twine binding his lips dug cruelly into the scarred tissue. Failing that, he gestured helplessly at the empty pouch on his hip.
She peered closer, quickly catching sight of the motifs the bag shared with her beloved and reviled heirloom.
"Oh! You know it! Maybe you can help me, then."
As the two of them were trying to figure out how to communicate and what they could do, the assassins were taking their final positions; as one, they raised their knives. Too late, many of their victims caught the glint of metal out of the corner of their eyes; they never even had time to scream.
However, this wasn't because their lives were cut too short by the plunge of a dagger. Rather, they were simply gone, along with their assailants, along with their surroundings, along with everything.
The woman started to speak again, but only managed a single, unintelligible syllable before the lips that spoke it, the throat that voiced it, and even the air that carried it vanished.
Suddenly, Muriegro was the only thing in an endless void of less than nothing. He tried to inhale, but his lungs found no purchase; he tried to move, but without gravity or a point of reference he couldn't tell if it changed his position at all. Without light he couldn't even tell if his limbs were moving or if he simply thought they were. Few living things ever have to face the full brunt of nonexistence, and none should have to. Fortunately, they never did for long, and the high priest was no exception.
Whatever consciousness he'd regained when freed from his god's thrall was quickly snuffed out as his matter diffused infinitely into the hungry abyss.