And The World Felt Like Nothing, Amen

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The bionic hand of Iris Dark was an impressive piece of anomalous hardware. Outwardly, it resembled a dark purple gauntlet of exquisite craftsmanship. It connected at the elbow where the original limb had been severed, embellished with calligraphic thaumic runes in gold inlays. Beryllium-bronze filaments perfectly mirrored the nerves in her original arm, which had allowed her to control it effortlessly from the moment it was installed. Neodymium magnets in the fingertips allowed her to sense magnetic fields, and a small Philosopher's Stone in the palm let her feel aetheric currents.

The mechatronics were largely based on Mekhanite designs, but a set of seven concentric runic dials on the back of the hand, which Iris could configure into spell circles at will, rendered it heretical. It also had the more modern addition of a micro-USB neural port which she most often used for a smartwatch, controlling not only it but anything it was synced with like it was a part of her nervous system.

Though the alchemical alloy was several times more durable than bone and the hand had improved grip strength, it lacked superhuman lifting power as it was still integrated into her natural musculoskeletal system. The only real downside to it was that the tactile feedback felt like she was wearing a metal glove at all times, but she considered that a more than reasonable trade-off.

But now, for the first time since she had donned it, it was off, leaving a useless stump and a loose sweater sleeve in its place. Percival Darke was examining it on his electro-thaumic workbench, peering through concentric lenses and assessing the damage it had taken at the hands of his treacherous brother. Iris merely sat by sullenly, uncharacteristically idle, her one remaining hand holding a chalice of strong wine instead of her usual cocoa.

"The good news is there's no trace of the vile Rust, but the nerve filaments have been corroded and at least six gears have been broken," Darke reported. "I can have a replacement calibrated in -"

"But can't you fix that one?" Iris interrupted, her tone demanding and desperate at the same time. A slight chortle escaped from Darke's wizened lips.

"It's not like you to be sentimental," he noted. Iris hung her head dejectedly, staring into her midnight dark wine.

"It's been part of my body for five years. I don't need to justify myself," she muttered.

"No. You don't," Darke agreed. He carefully placed the prosthetic into a vat of green liquid, judiciously setting dials and striking buttons, then finally flipping a switch that sent the liquid bubbling with an electric current. "The thaumo-electric plating will restore the nerve filaments along with any other minor wearing. We ought to do that once every five to ten years anyway. Once that's done, I'll change out the damaged gears, and it will be good as new."

Iris nodded gratefully, but said nothing. Darke raised his hooded head, slightly tilting it as he gazed at her inscrutably.

"Iris, you know I'm not mad at you for -"

"I'm mad at me!" she snapped. "I, I honestly started to believe my own bollocks. That I was an invincible, cyborg sorceress whose name was only spoken in hushed whispers. That there was no moonshot project I couldn't accomplish, no adversary I couldn't vanquish, no ruler or magnate who would not be forced to humble themselves before my greatness. I walked right into the bloody Factory, thinking I was untouchable!"

"And you walked out after unleashing a swarm of Netherous Shoggoths on them as payment for their crimes against you," Darke reminded her, rising from his workbench and gliding over to sit beside her. "Iris, I don't know if you feel this way because you're the only woman on the board or if it's something else, but you don't need to be better than everyone and everything to prove your value. None of us, not even me, expect you to be omnipotent or infallible. You can't expect it of yourself."

"I should've realized what Manny was doing. I should have been more on my guard against your brother," she insisted.

"Nominative Magic is so dangerous precisely because of its insidiousness. Anyone could fail to notice being given a name," he countered. "And as for my brother, he's lucky he's dead after what he tried to do to you."

"And I'm lucky Isabel Wondertainment was there, and I shouldn't be lucky!" Iris claimed. "I should have been able to avoid or fight the Rust on my own, and the only reason I'm not chained up in a breeding pit right now is that someone who was actually prepared to fight The Factory happened to be there. I was in a torture chamber. I could have grabbed a blade, cut my arm off the moment it was infected and impaled your brother, but the Rust was just so… excruciating. I couldn't think clearly, I just collapsed screaming. I was helpless, and I don't know how to process that. I just, I feel weak and I hate it."

"You are many things, Iris, but weak is not one of them. The mere fact you survived such an attack proves how remarkably strong you are," he assured her.

"Grandsire, please. I know you're trying to help and I do appreciate your being sympathetic, but I don't want platitudes right now," she said with a shake of her head.

"Very well. Let me ask you this then; why didn't you feel this way after you lost the arm the first time?" he asked with a quick gesture to the missing limb.

Iris paused, the question seemingly having not occurred to her yet.

"Well, in my mind – and I realize this is debatable – I lost the arm on my own terms. I chose to sacrifice it to survive. It was a simple cost/benefit analysis, not a failure. And, even though I wasn't exactly humble back then, I still didn't expect to come out unscathed against some humanoid abomination. And if nothing else, I can always blame it on Ruprecht. None of that applies now."

"Are you sure? I find that with enough effort, Ruprecht can be held responsible for nearly any calamity," Darke suggested with a droll chuckle.

"I'm sure," Iris smirked. "This was no one's fault but mine."

"But you acknowledge that you're holding yourself to unreasonably high standards?"

"No, I acknowledge that five years ago this might have been acceptable, but not now. It's been a long five years for me. I'm barely even the same person I was back then. I've learned a lot, experienced a lot, accomplished a lot. It seems like the only thing I didn't do, thought that I couldn't do, was fail. I'm going through some pretty bad ego-shock right now, and I'm not sure how to move past it."

They both sat in contemplative silence for a moment, each unsure of what needed to be done.

"Well, if nothing else, let's take advantage of this rare lull in your schedule to work on that side project of ours, shall we?" Darke suggested. Iris half-scoffed at the idea.

"Now? I'm shell-shocked, missing an arm and half-drunk," she reminded him, draining the last of her wine. "…three-quarters drunk."

"You're still the only person I would ever entrust with the task," he assured her, taking the chalice and handing it off to the Alagaddan servant that always appeared exactly when needed. Darke rose to his feet, holding out his hand to help her up. She reluctantly accepted, forcing herself to stand and follow him through the halls of his Sanctum.

He led her to the main Occult Laboratory. In one corner was a large, copper contraption for distilling Aether into ichor, divine blood useful for any number of practical applications. Darke slowly turned a creaky old faucet, releasing an ichorous rivulet to flow into a spellcasting array carved into the floor. The raw philter circled over and over again, accumulating more occult energy each time.

In the opposite corner was a small, portable server rack of bespoke electro-thaumic computers, hooked up to a high capacity Everhart resonator for power, an omnidirectional ectoluminescent projector for casting spell circles, and a rather ordinary laptop for a control interface. Darke had entrusted Iris with producing the hardware and software required to emulate the large scale and complexity of rituals needed for their project, and today seemed as good a day as any to find out if that trust was well placed.

At the center of the room, upon a stone altar and under a glass dome, laid a small sample of anomalous biomatter that had once belong to Yaldabaoth Incarnate.

Iris bent down to examine it curiously, noting the changes from when she had seen it last.

"You were able to get His Tears to work on it then?" she asked.

"Oh, the little devil put up quite a fight," Darke smirked as he lifted the glass. "It took longer than I had hoped to create a formulation of sufficient potency and amplitude, but this scrap of unholy mummia is now exactly what we need it to be. You showed remarkable bravery and cunning acquiring His Tears, you know."

"It's only bravery when it works," she lamented, flapping her empty sweater sleeve. "When it doesn't, it's just reckless."

She walked over to an enormous spool of thread spun from Morgana Silver. Pulling off a length, she plunged the thaumically conductive alloy into the Flesh on the altar.

"The Fairy Silver was your doing as well. Who else could not only survive an abduction attempt, but intimidate her abductors so terrifically that they would agree to buy her wares at ten times the going rate as contrition?"

"I was actually just going to kill all of them and walk out with the small sack of coins they'd already given me. In hindsight, that was probably an overreaction," she claimed, sitting down in front of her computer and booting it up while hooking herself into the Everhart Resonator. "I was so furious with Lolly at the time, but she probably did us an enormous favour by getting me to spare the council. She, she saved my life during the Unclean mission, and I didn't thank her. I don't think I even acknowledged it. She's been a better friend to me than I deserved."

"Yet befriend her you did, and there are few who can claim to count a Bozomorph among their allies," Darke said, pulling down the black Daevite greatsword to use in case the Flesh started growing out of control. "This was a kingly gift, and should be taken as proof that even otherworldly demi-gods regard you as someone who must be appeased."

"No. She's just nice like that," Iris claimed. "Alright, the thaumaturgical emulator is online, Erikesh program loaded. Aetheric resonance imaging and Kant Counters are active. I need you to drop the Hume Levels in here as low as you can without anything falling apart. Once the threshold for Aspect Radiation is low enough I'll start the emulator."

Darke nodded, and the doors to the lab slammed shut and were automatically sealed by a complex locking mechanism, sundering the chamber from the rest of reality. With another gesture, the Spectral Flames in the braziers suddenly intensified to a roaring, white-hot brightness to gobble up what little reality remained.

"The ontological seal is now set, and the Flames are as ravenous as I can make them," he informed her.

"Confirmed. Hume readings are dropping. Stand ready with the sword and recite Keshpeth's Objurgation of the Dread Devourer."

Darke posed himself directly in front of the altar, both hands on the hilt, head bowed, powerful words of a dead language reverberating from deep within his throat. Iris kept her gaze fixed on the Kant Counter, watching the ambient Hume levels slowly but steadily fall.

"Seven Seals, Seven Rings, Seven Thrones For The Scarlet King," she whispered along in English as she patiently tapped her finger on the laptop. When the Hume levels were finally low enough, she hit enter.

The electro-thaumic computer hummed to life, its inner workings reproducing the EVE manipulation of a hundred mages, at a hundred times the pace. Incredibly complex spell circles of smouldering blue-green Aspect Radiation rapidly appeared on the walls, constantly shifting to accommodate the now fluid laws of nature. Iris kept her eyes on her screen, turning certain values up or down and even swapping out entire modules to get the results she wanted.

The Flesh upon the altar began to quiver and pulsate, the ichor on the floor flowing upwards to feed it. Finally, when the surrounding reality was weak enough, when the right combination of spells had all been cast, the Flesh shot upwards along the thread of Morgana Silver at an explosive rate, greedily encasing it in a strange leather carapace as the spool spun round and round to feed it more. Faster and faster it spun, until the very last of the silver was spent, and the newly formed leather chain dropped limply to the floor.

The Spectral Flames suddenly died out, leaving the backlight from Iris's laptop the only illumination.

"And The World Felt Like Nothing, Amen," Iris said, adding her favourite mantra to the ancient poem.

The door creaked open, letting air, light, and reality seep back into the laboratory. Iris and Darke both rushed to inspect their creation; long looping coils of braided, crocodilian leather chains, midnight blue with a strange metallic lustre.

"How much Akiva is it giving off?" Iris asked softly.

"A lot," Darke smiled. "Stand back."

He clapped twice, and his servant immediately appeared and picked up a length of chain, holding it tautly between his hands. With one swift motion, Darke brought the Daevite greatsword down upon the chain. Forged in the Darkness Below, imbued with the primal chaos magic of the Scarlet King to destroy anything its infinitesimally thin edge touched, the sword did not so much as nick the leather chain.

"Brilliant!" Iris exclaimed, the spark returning to her eyes and a proud smile spreading across her face. The servant extended the chain to her, letting her hold it in her right hand. "I honestly didn't expect this to work the first time."

"Humility does not become you, Iris," Darke praised her, coiling the chain up upon the spool. "You have, through your own genius, created a device capable of emulating the work of ten thousand Erikeshan mystics, lost for nearly four thousand years. You have reproduced Apollyonic bindings, capable of restraining even the mightiest of incarnate primeval gods. Literal Titans now have cause to curse your name, and you did all of that on your worst day; not unscathed but still undefeated, bloodied yet unbowed, with only one hand, and three-quarters drunk."

Iris actually blushed, though it was more out of embarrassment of having ever doubted herself than at her Grandsire's excessive praise.

"Do you still think your reputation as an unstoppable cyborg sorceress is bollocks?" Darke asked.

"No," Iris smiled. "I think that we should have the Foundation, Coalition and Chaos Insurgency try to outbid each other for exclusive rights to this stuff."

Darke tossed back his head in a joyous cackle.

"That's my girl."

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