Black Lotus, Part 9

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Or that.”

“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.

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Black Lotus, Part 8

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.”

“Oh?”

“I did not mention it before now, but it may be worth pursuing.”

“Alright,” Çrom said, “might as well hear it.”

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Black Lotus, Part 7

They talked long into the night, throwing hypothetical scenarios back and forth and letting them branch off into story exchanges on the subject of their respective speckled careers – Çrom Skelliglyph in staying alive, the Black Lotus in bringing lives to an end.

Even after it became apparent that she had nothing new to offer him aside from a couple of horrifyingly novel loopholes and means of redefining death in ways that would probably just annoy Nnal rather than outright defying Him, Çrom had to admit that even that much was impressive. He was surprised at how unexpectedly enjoyable he was finding the conversation.

Of course, they kept returning to a single unassailable sticking point.

“You were made this way by a Ghåålus,” the Black Lotus said. “That means that not only is infinite power required to even hope to break the curse, but infinite adaptability and creativity must be bent towards finding an escape method that cannot simply be unravelled or undone, or that has been accounted for in some infinitely imaginative way. Which is why I find myself resorting to the most monolithic solutions. You could, for example, kill the dread Ghåålus.”

“Oh I could, could I?” Çrom smiled.

The Black Lotus shrugged her angular shoulders with a slithery rustle. “It is obvious that your curse remains in place despite His imprisonment,” she said. “Clearly, some measure of His power still permeates the Corporation, if not the urverse. That makes sense, since the ten Infinites are the founding pylons on which creation rests, and imprisonment is not erasure. Removing one would topple reality and unreality alike.”

“You just said I could kill Him,” Çrom said in amused exasperation.

“Naturally, in doing so you would have to replace Him.”

“Naturally,” Çrom chuckled. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me there, Lotus.”

“I am calling on a particularly obscure tract in the Liber Tenebris,” the Black Lotus said, then shot him a glance that was equal parts apologetic and defensive. “A foolish name for what is actually a book of recipes and bawdy jokes,” she added.

“You’re looking for an answer to my problem in a humorous cookbook,” Çrom concluded flatly.

She raised an eyebrow. “Has such ever been attempted before?”

“I withdraw the comment.”

“The book speaks of Bharriom Mystics as Ghååla in retirement,” she went on, “a well-worn and long-discredited myth … but also of Ghååla grooming Their replacements for the next iteration of the great game. It was said of the dread Ghåålus that He might do so by elevating one of the Lapgods in His thrall, or else by tormenting one of His enemies to fill them with the same all-consuming hatred and destructive will that He Himself possesses.”

Çrom shivered, pushing down hard on a memory that bubbled and seethed unbidden towards the surface of his thoughts. Cold and vast and lonesome, it insisted on brain-space. And he denied it. “And you think that might be what’s happening here?” he asked, keeping his voice level.

“The earliest copies of the Liber Tenebris had panels from the Ballad,” the Black Lotus said. “The connection – and the implication – was not actually that difficult to draw.”

“Even if the thoroughly debunked myths of Ghåålus retirement and turnover were true, and even if it didn’t sound like a really long-term plan,” Çrom said, “it wouldn’t be helping me die, so much as become a different sort of eternal soul trapped in a miserable situation.”

“But with infinite power,” the Black Lotus said. “There are those who would envy you.”

“There are those who are morons,” Çrom retorted.

The Black Lotus didn’t seem upset by this. “Perhaps, upon supplanting the dread Ghåålus, you could immediately name a successor and finally meet your own end.”

“That … still seems like a long shot, as well as long-term,” Çrom said. “And how would I even go about killing a Ghåålus anyway? I don’t suppose that’s something you’ve ever been contracted to do.”

“I fear not,” the Black Lotus said. “Although the distance between killing a human cursed with eternal life by an Infinite, and killing an Infinite, is but a small step. It may in fact be no step at all.”

“A moot point if it’s an impossible step,” Çrom remarked. “If none of the other Infinites were willing or able to lift the curse placed on me, I doubt any of Them will be willing to help me try to kill the dread Ghåålus. Those sorts of confrontations are typically something They try to avoid, as it could lead to a perpetual conflict that would cancel Them both out…” he paused. “You’re not suggesting that’s what we try to do?”

The Black Lotus shrugged. “Perhaps another idea for the back pocket,” she said.

“Oh, I’ll grant you that,” Çrom smiled grimly. “It’s been there for a while already. Cancelling the dread Ghåålus out is basically one of the most foolproof ways of cancelling out my curse, after all. But it falls back on method number one of lifting the curse: another Ghåålus. And like I said, I’ve tried Them all.”

“And an entertaining tale it made,” the Black Lotus said. Çrom had told her as much as he remembered of each of his adventures seeking out the Infinites, and admittedly embellished the parts he didn’t remember particularly well. “Perhaps we can think of a way to get Their help without asking, you and I.”

“Sure,” Çrom snorted. “Maybe we could trick one of Them into flinging every scrap of Their infinite power at Him forever.”

“Maybe,” she replied, and Çrom found himself caught off guard all over again by how captivated he was by this dirty, scarred, malnourished spectre. “But there is another possibility. You yourself admitted that you have approached only nine of the ten Infinites.”

Çrom sighed. “Back to that again?”

“And why not?” the Black Lotus grinned. “Do not tell me you have explored every avenue, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph, if there is a highroad yet untravelled. Who better to release you from your cursed existence but the Ghåålus Who put you there in the first place?”

 


– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while carparkin’. Not in a sexy way.

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Interlude: The Fairy Tree

Over the Christmas break, I undertook a little creative project that I’m rather proud of.

Now, I suppose I need to first offer a little background. My daughters, who I have nicknamed Wump and Toop for the purposes of this blog and most other online communication, have this little letterbox stuck on the side of a living room cabinet. It’s a “fairy post” box, where they can write tiny letters and then (notwithstanding the unreliable nature of the fairy post, because the fairies are often really busy and tired and can only come out after Wump and Toop are asleep and Wump at least doesn’t goddamn sleep) get a tiny letter in reply.

This usually occurs in Swedish, because Wump and Toop are within the Finnish fairy union jurisdiction and specifically the Finnish-Swedish subsystem. But over Christmas, Wump and Toop built a little picnic area and playground from doll house materials for the fairies to play in (during their breaks from important Christmas-related fairywork), and in gratitude the Finnish fairies got in touch with the Australian fairies and asked them to send a special surprise.

And because Wump and Toop had been mostly good all year, they didn’t send a spider.

What they did send was a special magic fairy tree seed:

fairy_tree_01

This, according to clear and impeccably-written instructions that the Australian fairies seemed to be particularly good at writing, Wump and Toop planted in a little pot and sprinkled some sugar on top.

Then, over the course of the next few nights and random afternoons, the fairy tree began to grow:

fairy_tree_02fairy_tree_03

And grow:

fairy_tree_04fairy_tree_05fairy_tree_06

And grow:

fairy_tree_07fairy_tree_08

It finally began to sprout some sort of leaves, which (after another communication from Wump and Toop and an instruction to add a bit more sugar) became a bud:

fairy_tree_09fairy_tree_10fairy_tree_11

Then the bud opened and the tree began to produce candy.

fairy_tree_12fairy_tree_13

I have a pile of candies prepared, and am considering dropping the seed back into the bud at some point so they can start over again. But it’s a fun, and fairly low-effort project, and of course Wump and Toop were massively excited by each new development.

I’m not sure if we’re instilling a sense of mystery and wonder to an otherwise mundane world, or committing a very intricate hoax that will set back our children’s credulity by months if not years.

Actually, I don’t know that we’re not doing both.

– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while on the bus.

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Interlude: Greyblade release February

I’m not sure when I promised this book but I think it was January 2019 (happy new year all, by the way!). Out of pity for my editors (except for BRKN who managed effortlessly) and the fact that they can’t all be remorseless reading machines, I’m going to most likely bump to February – but that is as far as my self-publishing arbitrary deadline creep will go.

To keep you happy in the meantime, here comes the cover!

greyblade13

So pretty. And apparently there doesn’t seem to be any way to depict a knight holding a sword that doesn’t make the sword look like a penis, but wasn’t that the whole point of knights and swords anyway?

Well, there you go.

– Posted from home in the wee small hours of the morning.

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Black Lotus, Part 6

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.

Of sorts.

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?”

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Black Lotus, Part 5

“Oh,” Çrom said, feeling a little more certain of his footing. “You mean, can I be transformed into a Vampire or a Werewolf or a Ghast or a Bojunkle? Stuff like that?” the Black Lotus looked interested, so Çrom shrugged and nodded. “Sure, I’ve done my share of all that.”

“Really?”

“It’s not as fascinating as you’re making it sound,” he said regretfully. “Most flavours of undead are natural state-changes, like you were saying – they’re basically next-level diseases for next-level civilisations. Or for civilisations that have just gone and gotten themselves in a big nasty mess,” he added judiciously. “Let’s see. Zombieism basically just kills me and I wake up normal. Lucky me. Vampirism is a bit nicer, I don’t degenerate into the shambling drone-type so I get to flash my teeth and look cool but after a couple of weeks unable to digest food and apparently unable to live on blood, I die in unspeakable gastric distress and wake up normal. Same for the Ghast and Ghoul and Gh’miscellaneous varieties, their dietary requirements are…” he glanced automatically at his bowl of soup. “Werewolves live about as long as it takes for them to exuberantly rip out the plump pulsing throat of somebody remotely important. I could go on, but the short version is pretty much all the different ways humans can be turned undead are shitty. It is a malady, after all.”

“What about the higher forms?” the Black Lotus asked intently.

Çrom chuckled. “Never found a God willing to turn me into an Angel,” he said. “Maybe I should take you with me and threaten a few of Them, eh?”

The Black Lotus pursed her lips. “You were cursed by the dread Ghåålus,” she said, suddenly all business as though she had gathered all the information she needed and was now ready to deliver her findings, “and there are but three things that can undo the work of an Infinite.”

Çrom raised one finger wearily. “Another Infinite,” he said. “Tried Them all, except the fucker who actually did this to me because why would I waste my time crying and grovelling to Him? Next.”

“Two,” the Black Lotus raised two fingers. “A Fweig,” she continued.

“Only certain Fweig,” Çrom replied. “I’ve spoken to Them, and only a few have any capacity to rival the Infinites. And they are all very specific abilities, not general power or authority. Of that tiny fraction, only a tiny fraction again have Infinite-rivalling abilities even remotely relevant to my needs. I didn’t, for example, find a Ghåålus-curse-removing Fweig during my delightful stay on Zentar.”

“And They are not willing to go against the Master of all Adversity and Atrocity,” the Black Lotus guessed.

“Wouldn’t you know it, they’re not,” Çrom said. “On account of Him being Their Master and all,” he twirled his hand. “And three?”

The Maze,” the Black Lotus replied in a low, portent-addled whisper.

Çrom sighed. “Right. Of course.”

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