It was said, of the infinite turning urverse and the ten million universes in its centre that the Ghååla administrated, that it was a game.
This was by no means a novel or shocking idea, and it was in any case practically impossible to prove. Only the Infinites were in a position to know one way or another, and They didn’t generally go around explaining things to any mortal who wanted to know what the point of it all was – which, generally speaking, was all mortals of a certain level of complexity.
There was, however, a certain logic to it. DaRah – the highest and greatest of the ten Ghååla, however inapplicable and illogical as the concept may be – could certainly be seen as an observing All-Being taking part in some unimaginable entertainment. And the construction of the urverse, from the largest to the smallest scale, offered a number of supporting phenomena.
The Great Maze wasn’t really one of them. It was just an ancient and enigmatic structure among hundreds in The Centre alone. It was ancient enough and enigmatic enough to have earned itself a seemingly unassailable place on the vaunted Ten Mysteries of the Urverse list, but so had nine other big dumb things nobody knew anything about. Some people said it was a protective structure surrounding another Portal – one that led to a mysterious Elsewhere place outside of the urverse itself, perhaps even to the higher fractal level of DaRah’s own plane. But some people said it was Zerf’s snuffbox.
That was the thing about people. So many of them were just giant idiots.
“I’ve been to the Great Maze,” Çrom said. “Stood in front of the mirror. Pushed against it, banged my head against it, kissed it, recited the ritual wossnames at it, the works. I’m sure if it’s the back door of the urverse I could free myself from the dread Ghåålus’s curse by finally leaving the urverse where His power is infinite. Only problem is, back door’s locked up tight.”
The Black Lotus studied him for a long moment. He studied her back, surprised yet again at how intrigued he felt by this unquestionably crazy woman of dark science.
“Have you considered,” she said eventually, “simply flinging yourself into the Liminal? Surely you have traversed the Highroads many times. Have you never been tempted to eject yourself into extra-Dimensional space and simply drift, lost, for the rest of time?”
Çrom stared at her, hastily re-evaluating his recent conclusions. Not the ‘unquestionably crazy’ part, but the ‘intriguing’ could certainly stand a little further scrutiny. It did not pay to get too close to crazy of a certain temperature.
“That wouldn’t kill me,” he replied carefully. “I’d eventually die of exposure or nuoll-madness out there, but I’d just come back for another round. And another. And another. Until the end of days.”
The Black Lotus looked quizzical. “Have you not even considered the angles?”
“What angles? If you mean, am I usually low-key shitscared every time I travel the Highroads – yes. Yes, I have considered that angle. I like to think I’ve considered it with a clearer head than most one-life-is-all-you-get Highroads travellers. And I still manage to fly out there without physically manifesting my howling panic. I think that’s quite an achievement.”
“What I mean,” the Black Lotus said, “is that there are two very significant differences between an eternity in reality and an eternity in the Liminal. Three, if you wish to include the endless variation in methods of death available to you here, as opposed to the single-figures selection available to you in the white. I suppose that depends on whether the concept of monotony applies to one’s means of death.”
“Let’s stick with the two very significant differences for now,” Çrom suggested. “Carry on.”
“The first,” the Black Lotus said, “is that there is nobody and nothing else out there.”
“That’s not actually a point in favour…”
“Is it not, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph?” the Black Lotus asked challengingly. “Is a great part of your sorrow not that you walk through empires that rise and crumble, make friends who die in the flicker of an eyelid, fall in love only for the object of your affection to become forgotten dust, time and time again?”
Çrom squinted at her. “Ye-e-es…”
“You would be spared all of this, living and dying through the same stretch of aeons in the Liminal,” the Black Lotus pointed out. When Çrom just sat and continued to squint at her, she carried on. “And the second difference, quite simply, is your entertainment value.”
“My excuse me?”
“Don’t be coy. You are enduring an eternal punishment. The knowledge that you are persisting, in this brutal way, through the Ages of Gods and Men is part of the enjoyment the dread Ghåålus and His minions must take in it. And even if that were not the case, you were – according to the tales – quite literally the subject of an illustrated saga. What value would that saga have had, I wonder, had it just been ten thousand pages of Çrom against a white background, screaming into the void and then dying of thirst?”
“Quite a lot of value to certain people,” Çrom said feebly.
The Black Lotus ignored him. “Slip into the Liminal, and you rob them of anything remotely interesting,” she declared. “The Ballad of Sorry Çrom has but a single, massive final chapter,” she leaned forward. “I would not be surprised if, faced with such a tedious epilogue, the dread Ghåålus did not simply unmake you.”
“That’s because you never met the cunt,” Çrom snapped. “It’s just possible that, in however-many centuries and millennia it’s going to take for Him to get free of His latest prison, He’ll tsk about how boring I’m being and either arrange for some fortuitous traveller to drop off the Highroads directly into my Liminal volume – or else simply reach in and pull me out Himself. Possibly by way of the ten Lapgods’ personal realms of torment and misery and poking things into things that aren’t necessarily for being poked in and certainly not with the things that are currently doing the poking…” he took a breath, before concluding, “just to teach me to try to be clever.”
“And so you trap yourself in a cage of your own devising,” the Black Lotus said.
“No, it’s a cage of Nnal’s devising,” Çrom said. The Black Lotus flinched upon hearing the name, and Çrom took pity on her. “Look,” he lowered his voice, “if you think I should try stranding myself outside of Dimensional space-time for all eternity, that’s fine. I’ll take it under advisement. But you’re not exactly doing what’s in your brief,” he paused, then went on when the Black Lotus offered him a surprisingly sly, and actually shockingly pretty, smile. “Except you would be, wouldn’t you?” he contradicted himself in a tone of grudging admiration. “I’d be gone from reality, vanished from this sphere forever, never to interact with another soul. I would be in unreality – okay, a different aspect of unreality to the one dead souls normally go to, but close enough.”
“Correct,” the Black Lotus said. “My brief would be fulfilled, and the point of your curse – if not the curse itself – would be rendered void.”
Çrom pondered the possibility, doing his best to see past the instinctive creeping horror of the very thought of being stranded in the Liminal between Dimensions. Eventually he shook his head. “For all I know, I’d die in the Liminal and return to the nearest Portal reality-side,” he said.
“Is it not worth considering?” she asked.
“Oh, worth considering,” he said, “absolutely. I’m putting it in the back pocket. Definitely worth a look later. The problem is, if I try it now and it takes as little as one or two hundred years to show itself to have been a futile effort, I will have died ten thousand-odd times for no reason and I will have missed out on my shot at you – at your God-slaying all-killing expertise of doom, I mean,” he added in acute embarrassment. “So while I appreciate the suggestion, I think I’m going to sit right here until I’m sure you’ve exhausted every possibility in that brilliant twisted brain of yours.”
The Black Lotus lowered her eyes and smiled again, and her cackle was almost a giggle. Almost. It was still definitely a cackle. “You flatter me.”
“Sure,” Çrom said, and shuffled back until he could lean against the hovel wall. “I always compliment people I want to kill me. What else have you got?”