“I was contracted to kill another true eternal once,” she told him. “You are aware, of course, of the many different kinds of immortality that may be bestowed upon an organism.”
“Sure,” Çrom said easily. “All the various kinds of undeath, all the way up to deification – and all the shitty ways Ghååla and Gods and sorcerers and scientists can force a piece of meat to go on being fresh in between.”
The Black Lotus looked uncomfortable, and Çrom wondered if he had once again stumbled into some sort of professional slight, or uncovered a wound she had been hiding. Perhaps in her quest to become the Corporation’s most renowned yet unsung killer, she’d consorted – or perhaps even cavorted – with killers of entirely darker and stranger orders.
He tried to dismiss the mental image of the Black Lotus cavorting, and found it remarkably difficult.
“This was a human who had been granted everlasting life by the Din,” the Black Lotus said. “It was … the most perfect immortality I have seen in a being of flesh. And that includes you, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph. I am sorry if this bruises your ego,” she added, with another little lopsided smile.
“My poor ego,” Çrom said vaguely. “I think I know the guy you mean. Has a great big ghastly mansion in the Greater ‘Urbs? Very hard to reach without an appointment, basically impossible to actually get an appointment?”
The Black Lotus nodded. “Have you sought the Din?” she asked.
“Of course I have,” Çrom said, then blinked, and pointed – at himself, then at her, in mounting amusement. “Wait, were They your fourth option?”
“Oh,” he cast about for a way to salvage her feelings, but it didn’t seem necessary. This was just another opening, another avenue to explore, a launching pad for more ideas. She had, he was suddenly certain, already known he’d sought out the Din. It stood to reason, since there were few legends more famously based around all-powerful Entities capable of defying even the laws of the Infinites. And Çrom had investigated every one of these legends – those with the merest scrap of credibility, and those without. “Um, well, yes. I went looking. But the Din – while there is certainly evidence of Their existence, and of Their power – are even more of a dead end than the Fweig.”
Yes, Çrom was aware of the story of the Din. How could he not be?
Some centuries previously, the Din had appeared out of absolute flat-balls nowhere. They’d granted wishes – any wishes, to anyone fortunate enough to encounter one of Them – in seemingly total disregard of the rule of the Infinites and the integrity of space and time. And then, as suddenly as They’d appeared, They had vanished again.
They’d left behind an urverse that was pretty much the same as it had been before … but then, given that many of the wishes had apparently had and it was always this way baked into them, how would anyone know? Maybe the urverse had been a bunch of glittering motes suspended in a glass of zolo before. Maybe there had only been three Infinites. Maybe reality and unreality had been identical except everyone in unreality had beards. Nobody knew. For the most part, the obvious changes that had been wrought were along the lines of a petty thief who suddenly owned a Fhaste original spacecraft, or a homeless beggar who suddenly had a bowl of stew that never ran out … or a disreputable human vagabond who suddenly had eternal life and a mansion in the most exclusive residential area in Capital Mind.
Fortunately, it seemed as though most of the wishes had been offered to people who weren’t particularly bright or imaginative, and so – the inability to ever really know for sure notwithstanding – their impact on the aforementioned integrity of space and time had been minimal. And most of the poor bastards had been murdered and their things taken off them within hours of the Din vanishing. That was The Centre for you. But it had been a Phenomenon worthy of proper noun status, and had found its way into Capital Mind folklore before the mangled bodies of the mugged and robbed wish-recipients had found their way into the city’s morgues.
Of course, it was said that Limbo had ended Them. Formed an accord with Them. Wished Them into captivity. Take your pick. And Çrom had investigated every rumour, chased down every thread.
He’d missed the Din, when They had come to The Centre. At the time, it had seemed obvious that he would. Nnal would never allow him to wish himself mortal again. That would be … stupid.
“Most of the academic work dealing with the Din in any serious way insist that They must have actually been some manifestation of Fweig,” the Black Lotus said. “Singular or plural.”
Çrom nodded. “That, or Infinites-plus-one from the wild deeps of the Elsewhere beyond the urverse,” he said with a portentous waggling of his fingers.
“The majority of the stories place Their prison somewhere on the Dark Paths, or in the Imp’s domain at the centre of the Dark Paths,” Çrom went on. “So – basically the Seven Hells, which is one of the most dangerous places Beyond the Walls. Which is already plenty dangerous.”
“Yes,” the Black Lotus agreed.
“Not the sort of place you just wander around, looking for lamps to rub or rings to turn thrice on your finger,” he added. Then he tilted his head, not realising he was mimicking Lotus’s mannerism until it was done. “Did you kill him?” he asked. “My embarrassingly financially successful immortal associate?”
“No,” the Black Lotus smiled. “I do not believe I was permitted to. Reality rewrote itself to uphold the wish and preserve his life, perhaps. The commission was withdrawn, and I opted not to risk my perfect record by pursuing the contract on a freelance basis.”
“Freelance,” Çrom chortled. “Well, I’m sorry to inform you that the Din aren’t the answer we’re looking for here.”
The Black Lotus’s smile widened yellowly. “Never mind,” she said. “That just means our search continues – and that we must dig deeper, you and I.”
Çrom watched her as she pondered what she had learned so far. He answered her questions untiringly – and unhesitatingly – when she continued to quiz him in relentless succession about the specifics of his many deaths, his vague and disjointed memories of long-gone lifetimes, and the studies that had taken place regarding his physiology. He watched her, and worry – no, not worry; fear – began to worm its way coldly up through his intestines.
He was beginning to realise that it had been a terrible mistake to come here … but not for the reasons he’d originally considered.
No. He was beginning to think that maybe this was a woman he wouldn’t mind dying for. And not because he thought it would stick. Not for the data it might provide. Not for the possibility it might bring them one step closer to his final death. Not for any of that.
He’d do it, he realised, just for that look of bright blue curiosity in her eyes.