Çrom poked at the bowl of soup with the spoon she’d handed him.
“Are you looking for eyeballs and dead fairies?” the Black Lotus asked him sweetly.
“It is mostly root vegetables and rabbit,” she said. “The fairy is fine-ground as a cheap substitute for stim-pepper.”
Çrom was almost certain she was joking, but raised the bowl to her in a toast. “If this kills me,” he warned, “I want the record to show that I haven’t actually agreed to a price yet so all you get is the right to add ‘and a Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph’ into your opening speech.”
“And some would argue that is more than enough,” the Black Lotus said, “for a professional bringer of death,” she slurped her own soup directly from the bowl, possibly because she’d given Çrom the only utensil in the hovel.
“I suppose you could turn it into a joke,” Çrom ventured. “When you say you’ve killed three Gods and one Çrom, and they say ‘one what?’, you can say ‘aha, you see, nobody cares about Gods anymore’…” the Black Lotus didn’t look as though making light of her life’s work was amusing to her. “Nobody would believe you,” he continued. “You’d just have a difficult-to-explain human carcass in your…” he looked around, “…conference room.”
“There is no such thing as a difficult-to-explain carcass in my line of work,” the Black Lotus pointed out. “You signed the waivers.”
“That’s true,” Çrom said, and resisted the urge to ask if the two Alien Gods she’d killed had signed waivers. “Still, hard thing to prove, that you killed Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph.”
“I do not need to prove it,” she said. “I would know it to be true. Alas, the soup will do nothing but improve your health.”
“And yours,” Çrom toasted her an unnecessary second time, then busied himself with the food to cover his embarrassment. The soup was actually quite awful. Anything as unpleasant and oily as the Black Lotus’s concoction really should have tasted unexpectedly good, but this mess was exactly as disgusting as it looked. Maybe worse. “Mm.”
“Your worldly possessions,” the Black Lotus said, studying him far too closely and very clearly aware that he was hating every spoonful of the soup with a blistering intensity, “I was wondering. A man such as you would either have untold hoards of amassed trash and treasure, or else nothing at all as he has realised the futility of possessions.”
“Bit of a mixed bag,” he replied. “I’m sure I have a ton of stashes and troves and vaults all over the place, but I’m damned if I remember where any of them are – certainly I never remember them at any sort of opportune moment. As for the futility of possessions, that’s true – but it also turns out to be really hard to conveniently live a life without collecting at least a small bow-wave of … just shit, really. One pocketed knick-knack at a time, one scribbled note here and one age-tarnished amulet there, it’s amazing how it snowballs.”
“Then you perhaps carry with you some items of special significance,” the Black Lotus said, “small things that you have deemed worthy of keeping close.”
“I carried a tooth from a pet dog, and the piece of shrapnel that killed her because she was trying to save me during some civil war or other,” Çrom said. “I had both of them on a necklace, it must have been two hundred and fifty years. I don’t remember the war, but I remember that mutt. She was a good dog,” he shrugged and forced down another spoonful of the awful soup. “One day I realised the clasp had worn through and the tooth was gone, and I never found it again. I carried the shrapnel piece for another twenty or thirty years, before losing that too. Life happens. But whatever shit I’ve managed to amass in the past few decades, you’re welcome to,” he scooped up another spoonful. “Mm,” he said again.
“You like the soup?” she asked slyly, and slurped down the last of her own.
“Needs a pinch more fairy.”
The Black Lotus rewarded him with a cackle. “Still,” she went on, “the issue here is not that you cannot be killed. It is not that the soup might kill you, had I but mixed the right poisons into it. Killing you is easy, after all. What is difficult is that after your death, you come back.”
“That’d be the crux of it.”
“Do you have video footage of the phenomenon as it occurs? Detailed medical records and accounts? Other hard data?”
“All of those things,” Çrom said, and patted his pocket. “Some of it’s pretty fragmented, but I sniffed around a few of the old agencies and recovered what I could without reminding them that I was still around.”
“That is well,” the Black Lotus said. “I know you would not wish to experience futile death and rebirth simply to supply me with empirical data.”
Çrom looked around. “Do you have a mica reader in here?”
“Do I look like I have a mica reader?” the Black Lotus asked reasonably.
“It is enough that you have this information, should we need it,” the Black Lotus said. “For now, I can learn as much as I need to from talking with you, and confirming which of the myths of the ballad are true. Have you tried replicating or cloning yourself?” she asked with unexpectedly clinical abruptness.
“A truly psychotic number of times,” Çrom replied, “practically as soon as the technology was invented or rediscovered on three – no, four separate iterations of standardised human civilisation, and two non-human allied civilisations even though they were hilariously bad at humans. And I attempted three other so-called non-tech variants. One pure bio, two magic-based.”
“Where is the line between these disciplines?”
“In my experience?” Çrom sucked in a breath. “Tech has interface screens that go bleep, bio has a lot more leaves and suggestively-shaped fruit pods, and magic has approximately three hundred percent more dufuses in robes pretending that unreality really, really wants to do what they’re chanting about if they could only get in close enough harmony. Also ley lines for some reason, but that might just be because dufuses in robes have a lot of spare time to sit around looking at maps.”
“I sense that you did not come here for a philosophical discussion of the physical and aphysical sciences.”
“You’re good,” Çrom said, and sighed. “But no, cloning never works. They always want it to work, almost as much as I do. Imagine it! If you could isolate a cellular or atomic trace that causes my condition, you could replicate it. Commodify it. Fill the urverse with poor idiots who thought they wanted to be immortal,” the Black Lotus looked shocked and strangely affronted, and Çrom shook his head. “No. It’s nothing that simple, I’m afraid,” he said. “You know the only benefit of trying it?”
“Occasionally the result would be a perfect copy of me,” Çrom said, “except when both of us were killed, only I would wake up again. So a couple of times I got to look down on a dead body that looked exactly like me, and probably felt exactly like me when it was alive, and I got to be glad that he, at least, had gotten what he wanted. Even if it was a shitty meat illusion, some Çrom Skelliglyph had finally managed to die. Do you think clones and duplicates have souls, Lotus?”
“I thought you were not here for philosophical discussion.”
“True,” Çrom held up his half-finished soup, “and this is disgusting. Please kill me before I have to finish it.”