For the overwhelming majority of the history of the urverse, Nnal had been imprisoned like any self-respecting Dark God myth demanded. For brief periods – the Dominions – He had walked free, and these had typically not been happy times for anyone involved. With the possible exception of Nnal Himself … but only possibly.
The Firstmades generally remembered it best, although they preferred not to. Most mortal species of sufficient seniority had subsumed their memories of the Dominions entirely – not just on the scale of history and myth and legend, but on a level approaching genetic knowledge … or in this case genetic ignorance. Only the Elder Races and some other notable exceptions, or extraordinarily educated or inquisitive members of lesser species, even suspected the dread Ghåålus existed. The majority of the urverse’s life-forms, mortal and immortal alike, actively pursued a state of blissful obliviousness – and they achieved it.
Until the day came when He emerged from His captivity and subjugated reality all over again, bending and twisting creation itself to His whims in the most dark and horrific ways. Visiting vengeance and destruction on His foes that only an infinite mind could encompass, and which made mortal minds devour themselves in sheer revulsion.
Ludicrously overblown hyperbole was the only way to even attempt to do justice to the foul deeds of Nnal.
And His foes were everywhere. Even those civilisations – including the self-styled Master Races of Damorak, Time Destroyer, Deathmite and Dark Realmer and assorted others – who attempted to ally themselves with the dread Ghåålus found that it was no protection. He wrought His will upon them no less disgracefully, rewarding their loyalty with defilement and pain. Oh, some He raised up, like the Lapgods and other fortunate worshippers … but it ultimately made no difference. You don’t strike bargains with the burning fire. You don’t worship the gathering dark. Enemy or friend, Nnal trampled them all into the dirt.
And yet, despite this, He continued to have adherents. The allure of becoming one of those favoured few, to escape His Dominion unscathed and even enriched by the calamity, proved too great to resist. And the fear of the punishments awaiting open enemies to the dread Ghåålus and the Lapgods … that fear was the death of reason.
That was the thing about being an Infinite. It didn’t matter if every finite being in the Corporation stood with You or against You. They still basically added up to a zero on either side of the equation.
The little folk knowledge that remained about Nnal seemed to agree that this time around, He was imprisoned somewhere in the deep cold bowels of the Basements of Castle Void. Not far from where Çrom and the Black Lotus currently sat, indeed, on Earth above. At least in physical terms it was the same universe, just a few billion light-years away … the ideological and logistical gaps were significantly greater.
The only problem – well, one of the problems – was that Nnal wasn’t actually imprisoned in the Void.
Nnal had been relegated to Castle Void at the end of His last Dominion, much to the horror of the Firstmades who lived there. But at some point, He had been relocated. If this relocation had been precipitated by an escape, it had been a very brief one and no Dominion had accompanied it. Now, Nnal’s prison was rumoured to be somewhere out near the Boundary of the Corporation. Çrom didn’t know where and he didn’t care to know. He suspected that was the point of the relocation, anyway. Because sooner or later there would be a mad Time Destroyer or a fanatical Damorak or a Lapgod wannabe bent on freeing their vile saviour.
“You’re suggesting I approach the dread Ghåålus and try to get His help,” Çrom said. “Do you mean help with killing Him, or help accelerating my training and takeover of His role, or just His help with lifting His own curse and letting me die?”
“Such sarcasm,” the Black Lotus murmured.
“You have to admit it’s warranted.”
She shrugged again. “Free Him. Make yourself useful to Him. Offer Him something He cannot have, in return for your mortality.”
“I already told you, you don’t understand Him,” Çrom had to work to harshen his voice. “That wouldn’t even work for a Lapgod, like Leviathan or Karl. Let alone Him.”
“And yet you have not tried.”
“No, I haven’t,” Çrom shook his head. “Logic. There is nothing I, a finite being, can offer to the dread Ghåålus that He can’t provide for Himself,” he said. “I can’t offer Him any power to mutilate or unmake the urverse that He doesn’t already possess. I can’t destroy or imprison the other nine Ghååla for Him. I certainly can’t free Him from His prison – and I wouldn’t if I could,” he went on, “because there are more people in the Corporation than just me, and I hardly think I’m being heroic and noble by saying that one man’s eternity of sequential mortality is a small price to pay to protect all those quintillions of innocent beings from another Dominion.”
“It seems quite noble, if you’ll not take offence at my saying so,” the Black Lotus said, still with a little smile curling her lips. “More importantly, it suggests to me that the extremity of your desperation has not quite taken you to this point yet.”
“Oh, the extremity of my desperation has taken me further than this,” Çrom said. “If trying to unravel the entire urverse were enough to grant me the rank of Ghåålus, I’d be there already.”
“Oh yes?” the Black Lotus tipped her head. “And what happened to the quintillions of innocent beings on the scales while you were making this grand attempt at omnicide?”
“Nonexistence is preferable to Dominion,” Çrom mumbled. “And I told you I wasn’t noble.”
“But your attempt failed.”
“Well, of course it did,” Çrom laughed. “I’m just a human being. I can’t destroy the urverse. It’s an urverse, Lotus.”
“And yet that, you tried,” the Black Lotus seemed insistent on this point, her eyes wide and fixed on his face. “You tried, and without a care for all things that would be unmade with you.”
“You’re damn right I did,” Çrom snapped. “I’ve stood in a Dimension that ceased to exist – may have ceased ever to have existed – when I could probably have stopped the experiment that brought the Vultures down for their final feast. At least,” he faltered, “sometimes when I wake up in the night, it’s from a confused dream where there was something I could have done, to save that universe. A universe, Lotus!” he reached towards her briefly, helplessly yearning.
She simply watched him, inscrutable within her nest of rags and junk. “But you didn’t save it.”
“But I didn’t,” Çrom agreed wretchedly. “Because I wanted to see if that would kill me.”
“And it didn’t,” she said, her voice softened with awe. “Not even the Relth have the power to end you.”
“I woke up on an observation craft in the white,” Çrom bitterly recounted. “One of the main reasons I suspect simply flinging myself into the Liminal won’t work, by the way, even though it’s a slightly different prospect. The Relth are only an extension of the will of Limbo, after all – and finite at that, if not exactly mere mortals anymore. And Limbo already refused to help me.”
“Have you considered what a boon it might be,” she asked, “to have nothing to fear from the Vultures?”
“Nothing to fear from them?” Çrom laughed. “No, I’m sure there are plenty of ways they could punish me – more than they probably could to a being only capable of dying once, actually. On this particular occasion, there was simply less effort and more benefit in maintaining the eternal punishment already in effect, and letting me resume my journey with the knowledge that even the death of the universe in which I stood wouldn’t free me. If I went around trying to mess too much with the laws of reality and unreality, I’m sure they’d come up with something to make me regret it for a very long time. And that’s what ultimately convinced me not to bother trying to erase creation.”
“Logical,” the Black Lotus allowed.
Çrom laughed again. “I’m a logical guy,” he raised a hand solemnly. “No more destroying the urverse,” the Black Lotus laughed too, and Çrom was warmed by it. “My desperation has always been tempered with some degree of logic,” he continued, “to my lasting regret. Maybe it’s a failing of my rebooting meat brain. I’ve never quite gone mad. Not the sort of mad where I get to stay that way, and be happy. I always get dragged back to clarity whether I want to be there or not.”
“Some would argue that attempting to unmake the urverse is a kind of madness,” the Black Lotus ventured.
“Yes, well,” Çrom muttered, “I’d like to see some psychiatric credentials from those people before I go listening to their high and mighty judgements,” Lotus laughed again, but Çrom went on in as serious a tone as he could muster. “The simple truth is, even approaching the dread Ghåålus would provide Him with all the validation and entertainment He requires,” he said heavily. “That is all I can offer Him. To reveal that I have exhausted every other option and am now flinging myself on the mercy of the very Being Who conceived and executed my punishment – mercy that I know He will not show me.”
The Black Lotus nodded slowly.
There was silence in the hovel. It was warm, Çrom noticed, despite the gathering chill that he knew was just metres away outside. Warm, and pleasant-smelling in a musty barnyard sort of way.
“There was a fourth method,” she said suddenly, “for lifting the curse. Potentially. Aside from Ghåålus, Fweig or Maze.”
“I did not mention it before now, but it may be worth pursuing.”
“Alright,” Çrom said, “might as well hear it.”