SCP-6500 Fragment 14
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After Life and Death


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She awoke as from a deep sleep, perhaps a nightmare — her breathing was fast and laboured. She was on her back, but her lungs were ragged and her muscles ached as though she'd been running. The wind teased her hair, and the sand beneath her labcoat was…

Wind? Her quarters at Site-43 were fully one kilometre beneath the ground, yet a breeze rolled over her naked torso like a cool blanket. Labcoat? She was definitely wearing her labcoat, and absolutely nothing else. She could feel the seams against her shoulder blades, pressing into the…

sand?

Udo Okorie opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was the moon. It was far too big, so she stopped looking at it. The second thing she saw was her body; it was indeed naked, so she closed the labcoat over it and started doing up the buttons. The third thing she saw was a second moon, also far too big, and in the process of confirming that there were in fact two moons in the sky — the pale green sky — she accidentally saw a fourth thing, the third moon, and was forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth.

She sat up in a measureless, undifferentiated plain of orange desert just in time to see a sooty cloud dissipate on the horizon. She felt a pang in her heart, and she didn't know why. She only knew she had brought that thing here with her, here to…

"Corbenic." Her voice was surprisingly calm and clear. "I'm dead?"

Let's put a pin in that.

She reached into her breast pocket out of habit, and was surprised to find her Coke bottle glasses there. She put them on, and winced; there was something wrong with the lenses. She tapped them, and winced again at the dull response. Plastic. Oh, dear. She clambered to her unshod feet.

A rhythmic thumping greeted her, and she turned to see — What else? — a kangaroo loping toward her. "Oh," she said. She knew what this was, she'd read the low-clearance parts of the Operation Galahad dossier a few years back. It was called a Flame Bearer, and she wasn't sure if there was more than one of them. They didn't live in the Great Desert, though. Where…

It was getting close. She took a step back, and it took a giant leap forward as if to demonstrate the futility of this gesture. It peered down at her with judgemental black eyes, then reached into its pouch with one clawed paw. She saw the paw clench into an almost-fist, and reached for her own pouch — the reagents on her belt — before her complete lack of pants caught up to her.

The kangaroo withdrew its paw, held it between them, and opened it.

It was empty.

kangarooSmall.jpg

The Flame Bearer stared morosely at its own empty pad for a few moments, glared accusingly at her, then turned and loped away again.

"Okay," she said.

Lacking any particular reason not to, she followed it.


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Foundation Mission Control


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"Any change?"

Although FMC at Area-08 was presently monitoring over one thousand extraterrestrial objects, Director Richard Barnard didn't need to specify which one he meant. He started every duty day with this same question.

"No, sir." The lead ground controller gestured vaguely at the big board. "179 is still pointing directly at the Earth."

Barnard frowned. The restoration of anomalous equilibrium had brought the self-styled 'lookout' out of her foetal position more than a week ago, and she had immediately aimed one long finger at humanity's pale blue dot. This had initially occasioned some debate about what threat she might be detecting, but that was over now.

She was pointing at the Foundation. Everybody knew they had caused the Impasse — though nobody knew how everybody knew — and they also knew that the O5 Council had taken a vote on what to do about it. Until that vote passed, all anomalous life in the universe was potentially at risk.

The vote had been six days ago, and yet… Sauelsuesor was still pointing.

"Should we ask her what's up?" the controller suggested.

Barnard considered it. "Have to call Site—"

A loud beep from the control console cut him off. "Sorry, sir. We're getting a new contact… oh. Of course. It's 2578-D."

Barnard nodded. SCP-2578-D was a horseshoe crab in Earth orbit, a bizarrely-shaped drone spacecraft belonging to Corbenic's militant Three Moons Initiative. They used it to lase holes in fascist dictators. It had disappeared during the Impasse, either fleeing through a dimensional aperture on the dark side of the moon or else activating some sort of cloaking mechanism. The latter now seemed much more likely. "What's it doing?"

"Uh." The controller blanched. "Pointing its stinger at Site-01."

"Okay." Barnard nodded again. "Well, I was already going to say, let's call—"

A second beep, this one more insistent. "Getting a message from them," the controller reported. "2578-D, not Site-01."

"Well, let's see it."

While he waited for the printer, Barnard examined the big board more carefully. He saw what he expected to see, sighed heavily, and massaged his temples.

"Here you go, sir."

Foundation,

You will allow me to congratulate you on the successful (?) resolution (?) of the recent pan-multiversal crisis which you alone precipitated. I believe I speak for all other affected parties when I say we're sure you did the right thing for you yourselves personally. On the back of this triumph (?) I am pleased to offer you a second opportunity/obligation to clean up a mess of your own making!

Whilst engaged in unlikely superheroics, agents of your organization have deposited one (1) warlock and one (1) eldritch abomination within the temporarily mortal bounds of the multi-sovereign plans of Corbenic. I would like to ask you kindly to remove them at your earliest convenience, but will instead ask you harshly: do the thing but fast, or we will laser literally all of you.

If you can't get them both, the eldritch abomination is basically 99% of the issue here. We have enough of those already, and we like ours much better.

You are watched, you are protected, you are in deep shit my son.

— Girard Niang, President, "Don't Make Us Fourth Moon You Prematurely" Initiative

ThreeMoons.svg

P.S. "literally all of you" refers to the Foundation and the O5 Council, not what you (erroneously) think of as the entire human race. We're not (that variety of) monsters. You still have the O5 Council, right? Are there still twelve of you? We've heard rumours of a thirteenth, and maybe even a fourteenth (zeroth?) but you've never returned our mailers.

"Well," said Barnard. "That makes sense. Now let's call Site-01."

SCP-179 was pointing directly at the three-metre metal crustacean hanging high over their heads like the sword of Damocles.

"It's nice to know she cares," he mused.


Moons.svg

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The chilled sand insinuated itself between Udo's toes as she paced the endless desert, all sense of time irretrievably lost. Corbenic was an afterlife; you were supposed to have to die to get there. She couldn't remember having died, yet here she was. You were also supposed to arrive there bare as the day you'd been born, and yet she'd somehow kept her labcoat and the general gist of her eyewear. The lenses even seemed to be focusing; she wondered if they'd sound like glass, now. What did it all mean?

It means Corbenic is affected by the Impasse. That wasn't really news. All contact between the lands of the living and the dead had abruptly ceased months ago.

The Flame Bearer looked back at her occasionally, nodding when it saw she was still there. That made her feel a little better about her decision to follow it, if only a little. She noted that they were moving in the direction of the strange black cloud she'd seen on awakening, and wondered what the connection was. A faint starry light shone in the pea soup sky, beneath the cluster of moons; they were moving toward that, as well. Been a hell of an interdimensional pub crawl, she mused. From Kayaköy to the Wanderers' Library to… to…

Oh no oh no oh no

She remembered it all in a rush of terrible understanding. Her flight through the Palace of Alagadda, the billowing, bellowing shade in pursuit, knowing she'd saved her friends but doomed herself, her wards failing, flinging the last of her power behind her at the encroaching black, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel…

She closed her eyes tight. I brought the Hanged King to Corbenic. She opened her eyes just in time to avoid running into the kangaroo.

It was looking down at her with an expression of intense concentration, its huge brown eyes squinting, its jaw set, paws clenched. It shuddered in place, and she took a step back just before its head burst briefly into brilliant flame.

BEHIND, said a voice in her head as the fire went out and the kangaroo staggered to its knees, panting heavily.

She didn't want to look.

FACE THE FACTS, a second voice clanged through her mind like ball bearings in a blender. LOOK UPON YOUR TRUTH, AND ACCEPT IT.

She turned around. Miles away, a striking figure was backgrounded by the alien sky. It was swaddled in an immaculate white cloak which blew in a stronger wind than she could feel, and it was approaching with slow, deliberate tread. She felt certain she could outrun it, and yet certain it wouldn't matter.

DELAY, DELAY, DELAY, it droned. I CAN WAIT. I AM THE END, AND THE END IS INEVITABLE.

She forced herself to look away. The kangaroo gave her a sympathetic glance, then bounded off again.

With a sense of renewed urgency, she headed on after it.


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Site-19


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Chief Delfina Ibanez preferred to lead from the front. Where her Mobile Task Forces went, so did she. That meant she split her time between Site-43 and various hot-spots in Canada and the United States, which in turn meant she spent virtually no time at other Foundation facilities. She therefore hadn't been here in years, and there were changes on every scale. Obvious lines in the sod where Broken God gear-renders had torn up the old grass; obvious rebuilding where the Chaos Insurgency had flattened the exterior walls; obvious shutters on one entire wing, shut down in the wake of the mass die-off. Site-19 had suffered the one-two punch of the Foundation Elimination Coalition last October and the horrors of the Impasse, and like everywhere else it had been profoundly changed. There was even fresh gravel on the path from the helipad…

Hm. Maybe not so fresh; some of the grains still carried traces of black or red spray paint. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

The Director's office was spartan and tidy, as was the Director herself. Tilda Moose had an organized mind, so this meeting would be formal but no mere formality.

"When are you going to Alagadda?"

The words were out before Ibanez even sat down. She took the opportunity to collect her thoughts. "I don't like Italian food."

Moose blinked, and pursed her lips. Ibanez shrugged. "Olive Garden. Joke?"

Moose flicked a file on her desk with a neatly-clipped fingernail. "You're going on leave to Site-91, where you'll tell Dr. Okorie's parents what happened to her. Then, when you think nobody's looking, you're going to go AWOL at the Tower of London."

There seemed little point in lying. "I don't think I put that second part in my itinerary."

The other woman smiled tightly. "You lost a friend in the Nevermeant, and you're going to get her back. It doesn't matter what you say your leave is for, it's in your nature to play the hero."

Ibanez let a moment pass, to simulate consideration, before responding. "I've spent a month fixing this mess. I'm not playing at anything."

Moose sighed. "Poor choice of words." That was bullshit; Moose always chose carefully. You wanted to see how I'd respond. "I'm not trying to scuttle your plans, Ibanez. In fact, with how impetuous you are, I'm probably doing you a favour by calling your half-baked notions 'plans'." She raised an eyebrow. "Instead I have a few, shall we say, suggestions to make."


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There was no sleep in the land of death and dreams, and there was no night because there was no day, so Udo could have been walking for weeks for all she knew. She didn't need to eat, she didn't need to drink, and she didn't need to stop and rest. All she needed to do was move, head for whatever destination the Flame Bearer had in mind, and keep ahead of her pursuer.

ALTERNATIVELY, YOU COULD STAND AND FACE ME.

She stole a glance back at it. It wasn't gaining ground, but neither was it falling behind. As if in response to her attentions, the toneless voice came again: ALL THINGS MUST PASS. ALL MOTION MUST CEASE. YOU ARE BUT AN INTERVAL.

When she faced forward again, her heart leapt into her throat. "Dad?!"

The kangaroo had halted its progress, but continued to stare at the peculiar point of light on the horizon and the atramentous halo forming around it. Dr. Obi Okorie was standing between them: barrel-chested and slightly overweight, healthy dark skin, bald, with a neatly-trimmed white beard. He was ankle-deep in the sand, completely nude, looking at her with a mirthful mask over eyes filled with sorrow.

She stepped forward, relief and terror fighting for control. "Dad? How! Why?!" She peered into his dark eyes, and kept talking to prevent him from answering. "How are you here?! Please tell me you aren't… tell me you didn't…"

He reached out to take her hands, smiling reassuringly. He did not himself seem reassured. "I'm fine. Good diet, lots of exercise, regular checkups with the Site physician. Your mother wouldn't have it any other way."

Relief, then. She marked the transition with a flood of shameless tears. "Then how are you in Corbenic? And why?"

He pointed over her shoulder. "Walk and talk, wunderkind."

She didn't look this time, but nodded. It had to have gotten closer — AND CLOSER AND CLOSER AND — since she'd stopped moving. The kangaroo resumed its hops, and they fell in behind it.

"I came to pass on a message." Obi's face was grim and determined. "Delfina Ibanez visited us yesterday. She's coming to collect you."

Udo laughed, and wiped the tears away with her labcoat sleeve. "Of course she is. Hero."

Obi placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. "You both are, and that's damn lucky. Something followed you here…" He sighed. "Two things followed you here, and they absolutely cannot stay. There's been something of a diplomatic incident between us and Corbenic because of it."

She cringed. "I'll bet. But what can I do? I've got no reagents, and anyway I'm no match for… nobody is a match for…"

He squeezed her shoulder tightly. "If there's one thing you are, Udo, it's a match. These bastards cloud on up around you, you'll burn them clean away."


YellowLord.svg RedLord.svg WhiteLord.svg

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Ibanez stepped across the threshold, and the world fell apart. A different world fell together in its place, and she shuddered at the profundity of the change. She was sitting on a grassless, blasted hillock, back against some gnarled and twisted thing, gazing at a turbulent sky of charcoal grey and pus yellow through a pair of almond eyeholes. A vulgar metropolis of black and gold spread across the plain below, pulling the dead soil tight like a scab on the skin, an ocean of opaque jet surrounding it. There were whispers on the wind, and the wind was gentle. She smelled burning roses and boiling blood.

A voice of dripping treacle sang:

A JAUNDICED FIRMAMENTAL POTION,
UNMIXED INTO AN OIL-BLACK OCEAN.

"Plagiarized?" she asked, taking her feet.

PARAPHRASED.

She removed her mask. So far, so good. It wasn't supposed to be possible to do that, which meant the magic hadn't wholly returned to Alagadda. She turned the thing over in her hand, and scowled when she saw what it was.

"Charming." She frisbeed the tragedy mask sideways down the hill, watched it pinwheel along the dusty rocks. "Hell-world has a sense of humour." She reached down to check her service weapon…

…and cried out in sudden ecstasy. "What the fuck?!" Her gun was still there, holstered in a fine black satin pouch, but she barely noticed it. She was wholly preoccupied with the incomparable silky smoothness of whatever she appeared to be wearing now. She shuddered with involuntary pleasure just rolling it between her fingertips.

She didn't like wearing dresses, and not for some clichéd tomboyish reason. She preferred to attract attention with her actions alone. This particular dress was sure to occasion some comment: a high neckline and a low, split hem, shimmering saffron and glittering gold, catching so much light that it had to be somehow luminescent itself. She stretched, and felt the familiar pull of the rayon jumpsuit she knew she was actually wearing; she fingered the fabric again, and once more endured the rush of tactile delectation.

She suddenly understood what was so dangerous about Alagadda.

JUDGE NOT, LEST YE BE JUDGED. A throaty cackle. ESPECIALLY HERE, AT THE JUDGING PLACE.

The Kevlar backpack she'd been assigned at Site-19 was now a lovely red linen bag with silver brocade, one strap over her bare (but actually not bare at all) right shoulder. She lifted the flap and examined the contents, sighing with relief when everything checked out. She felt itchy all over, and she didn't know how to scratch it, and it worried her how much she wanted to.

THAT'S THE THING PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND ABOUT CORRUPTION. NOT ALL ROT SAVOURS SOUR. Something loomed up behind her, and she felt an inarticulate urge to behold it. HE LEARNED AS MUCH, TO HIS SORROW. AND OURS.

She waited just a moment, to assert her own free will, then turned around.

WHAT BRUTAL BEAST BENEATH THIS TREE,
WAS CHANGED BY SUDDEN GRAVITY.

It was indeed a tree, or once had been. It was blackened and bent into a tortuous corkscrew of broken bark and seeping yellow sap, leafless and plastered with wreaths of nasty white thorns. A long, red-rusted chain hung from the broadest branch, resolutely failing to sway in the wind.

THE KEY TO THE CITY'S FATE, the voice mused. AND THE KEY TO THE CITY'S GATE.

Ibanez pursed her lips. "Speaking literally?"

DIG IN THE DEAD EARTH WHERE YOU ARRIVED. The smarmy tone took on a lecherous tinge. YOU LEFT BEHIND QUITE THE IMPRESSION, AS I IMAGINE YOU OFTEN DO.

She bit back a retort, if only because she could in fact see the disturbed ground where she'd been sitting moments prior. She worked her right boot into the bleached soil; she saw a dull glint, dipped her toe beneath the offending object, and kicked it into the air.

NICE CATCH.

"Lousy hiding place." She brushed the dirt from the black-flecked key, and wrinkled her nose. It stank like a septic wound.

THE PEOPLE SHUN THIS PLACE, the voice explained. It chuckled deep and low. MOST OF THEM.

The hairs on her neck perked up, and she followed their example.

The tree was now filled, crown to trunk, with a murder of black-eyed crows. They glared silently, balefully down at her as she carefully descended the crumbling hill.


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The endless desert had finally ended, the landscape trading in stark sanity for something wilder. They were now trekking across a glimmering sea of gel, an expanse of tiny turquoise balls which squirmed beneath their cautious tread.

The once-interminable march had become measurable, almost pleasurable in the company of Udo's father. His plan was lunacy, and she shuddered to imagine how she might set it in motion, but at least it didn't take long to outline. They had plenty of time for less stressful conversation, for catching up, for AVOIDING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.

She shot their diligent stalker a dirty look.

"It was a brave thing you did," Obi was saying. "To draw the Hanged King away from your friends. Perhaps the bravest thing I've ever heard of anyone doing." His obvious pride was warmth in the chilly wastes.

She shrugged. "Without magic, I die. If they hadn't made it home, there wouldn't have been any more magic. Pretty simple math, so I don't…" She paused, though only vocally, then shook her head. "No, actually, you know what? Fuck it. I was brave."

Obi laughed. "Do you know why it worked?"

She opened her mouth to respond, and found she didn't have a response. She shook her head.

HE KNOWS, AND I KNOW, AND YOU TOO WILL KNOW IN TIME. THE PAST IS DEAD, THE PRESENT IS DYING, SO RELEASE THEM! EMBRACE YOUR EMPTY FUTURE.

She waved dismissively at the spectre. "I don't like this guy."

Obi ignored her. He was visibly trying to hold on to his smile, and visibly failing. "The Hanged King should have been attracted to the sword. The Ambassador was. It's a potent source of power, it was the only font of magic in Alagadda, and it should have pulled him like a moth to the flame. Yet, he followed you."

She glanced sideways at him. "This feels like an oncoming train. I mean, revelation." He didn't laugh, this time. "I mean train," she finished miserably.

YOU PAUSE AND PREVARICATE, AS INCONSTANT THINGS DO. If her father heard the voice, he gave no sign. THE DIRECT ROAD IS ALWAYS BEST, TO RUIN SWIFT AND SURE.

There was a pit in Udo's stomach, and the voice in her head had nothing to do with it. "Come on, dad. Spit it out."

Obi exhaled in obvious frustration. "A moth to the flame," he repeated. "Perhaps he sensed a brighter fi—"

The gelatin in front of them shifted suddenly, and the Flame Bearer halted. It shot them a meaningful look, then rested back on its haunches.

"Hey." Udo waved a hand in front of its snout. "This where we get off?" She looked behind her at the…

…at the White Lord of Alagadda. She could see the contours of the alabaster tragedy mask, its eyes mere slits of concentration, its mouth a cruel scar. YOU DIDN'T NEED TO WAIT FOR ME, it crowed tunelessly. I'M NOTHING IF NOT PATIENT.

The kangaroo snapped its teeth at her as it slowly sank into the moonlit muck. It squinted. It clenched its paws. It yelped in pain.

She staggered towards it, pulling her father along, digging in her pockets for the sand which had accrued there in her slumber. She drew out a handful, let it trickle between her fingers. It's not vim harenae, but it might just do the trick…

Her father brushed it away. "You don't need that."

She blinked. "What?"

"You don't need reagents. Make the motion, centre the energy, call down the magic. Forget the sand. Don't think, just do it."

The white shape in the distance was now not so distant at all, so she traced a triangle in the air — did the blowing sand really follow the path of her finger? — and pressed her hands to the Flame Bearer's snout. She closed her eyes, she spoke the Words, she focused, and…

A brilliant light snapped her eyes back open. The kangaroo's head was ablaze, and it reared back to shout to the heavens: ARISE, O LORD BENEATH!

The gel rose up around it, and it was gone. The wastes were shifting madly, teal dunes barrelling back and forth with a sound like a leviathan gargling Listerine, walls of jelly smashing against their legs and breaking around them. Udo fell to her knees in the wobbly gunk, and as a blue-green horizon reared up over the White Lord, she felt her eyes lock to the black spaces where its own eyes should have been.

A MINOR SETBACK, GEOLOGICALLY SPEAKING.

The wave crashed over it.

Something exploded behind her; a hail of glutinous aquamarine peppered the back of her labcoat, or pinged off the back of her head.

"Oh," said her father in a very small voice. "Well, that's something."

Against all reason, she rolled back over to see what it was.


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"If I walk through here, won't I get turfed back out to London? Isn't that how doors work in Alagadda?"

ONLY CLOSED DOORS, AND GATES DON'T COUNT. GATES ARE SPECIAL.

There were no guards, and there was no portcullis. Where the beaten cart path met the endless limits of the black city, Ibanez found only two unadorned columns of flush pig iron bars set deep into towering walls of tourmaline. The lock was far, far larger than the key, and she felt positively idiotic sticking it in there. Her hands shook, and the clank of metal on metal felt like mocking laughter, and for just a moment she doubted everything — THE MEREST OF MORTALS — before the pervasive wrongness of Alagadda overwhelmed her and she turned the thing in the empty air with a loud, defiant "FUCK IT."

The key vibrated in her hand and she backed away, dropping it into her satchel as the gates swung open row by row. A pair of hands spread wide, beckoning her to enter.

HOME, SWEET HOME, the voice purred.

"Jesus Christ," she breathed.

She had expected the spires of burnished, ink-dark stone flecked with gold, the limp black banners woven with symbols she couldn't read in colours she couldn't identify, the hint of a tune that was fascinatingly foreign and intimately familiar and maddeningly elusive, the way the walls and cobbles pulled away from her like the background in a dolly zoom shot, the odour of rot and vigour. She had expected the mass masquerade, but she had not expected the massacre.

They were everywhere, the porcelain-veiled Alagaddans, laying prostrate in the street, slumped over in shadowed arcades, face down in reflectionless reflecting pools or simply sitting down, breathing low, holding their masks to their faces like they needed them to breathe.

THE LIVING ARE LOST, AND DEATH COMES FOR THE DEAD.

"What's wr—"

I CAN HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS, YOU KNOW, the voice chided. AND THE OTHERS CAN'T HEAR ME. DO YOU WISH THEM TO THINK YOU MAD?

She shrugged. A little madness goes a long way to blending in. When in Alagadda?

The voice rolled its unseen eyes. THERE IS MADNESS, AND THEN THERE IS FOOLISHNESS.

She picked her way through the mass of twisting bodies, suddenly wishing she'd kept her own mask. Every face she faced turned away, every mask was wet with tears or blood or vomit, every pair of eyes was haunted or rimmed with red.

What is wrong with them?

NOTHING WHICH HAS NOT ALWAYS BEEN SO. THE GLAMOUR IS FADING, THE SCALES ARE FALLING FROM THEIR EYES, AND THEY ARE LAID BARE BEFORE THEMSELVES. She passed two naked bodies propped against each other in an open doorway; they were loosely embracing, and moaning, but looking away from each other with obvious shame and disgust. ALAGADDA IS PEOPLED WITH THE MEMORY OF PEOPLE, THE SPACES LEFT BEHIND WHEN WHAT MAKES A MAN A MAN IS DEAD. THE REMAINS WHICH REMAIN, IF YOU LIKE. BEREFT OF THE CURSES, THEY ARE NOTHING AT ALL.

She swept across the avenue, head swimming, wishing she was wearing something that didn't sweep by default. She had almost identified the music in the air when it cruelly shifted to something unfamiliar. The curses?

THE FIRST CURSE WAS MAGIC, the voice spat. THE CURSE WHICH BINDS US ALL. THE SECOND CURSE IS THEIRS ALONE, THE REWARD THEY REAP FOR THEIR RIGHTEOUS TREASON.

Deeper in the city she passed the occasional ambulatory Alagaddan. To a man/woman/other they were holding their masks to their faces and whimpering softly, like an enraptured audience with opera glasses. Why are the masks so important?

MASKS ARE PROTECTION. The voice was flat and direct. FOR OURSELVES, AND FOR OTHERS. THEY DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE. THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW. That cruel chuckling again. PERHAPS THEY'RE AFRAID THERE'S NOTHING LEFT TO LOOK AT.

The sky was somehow yellower now. They ought to get on with it. Better to rip off the band-aid, you know?

IS IT? I WONDER IF YOUR FRIEND WILL FEEL THE SAME WAY.

She stopped. What's that supposed to mean?

WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HER? ABOUT WHY SHE IS THE WAY SHE IS?

She felt suddenly exposed in the street, in her outrageous dress with her unmasked face, so she ducked into a colonnaded sidewalk before proceeding. Udo's a natural-born Type Blue, literally a wiz kid. The recitation came easily, she'd typed enough clinical variations on it in threat assessments over the years. Father studies thaumic gunk, mother was with the Hand before she turned Foundation mage. Magic rubbed off in the womb. The air here smelled different, a sort of sulphur-tinged cinnamon. If her parents hadn't been researchers, she would've ended up in a box.

The voice laughed, a deeply dishonest burst of mirth. SHE MIGHT END UP THERE YET, it sneered. WHEN THE TRUTH OUTS.

"What tr—" she snapped, irritated out of her caution. A gloved hand immediately closed over her mouth, and another pulled her by the waist deeper into the shadows. She caught a glimpse of a long, white beak and beady glass eyes before the last lingering light slipped away.


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It was, in one word, an octopus. One word was misleading, however. It was in actuality an eight storey tall translucent octopus, containing a seven storey tall translucent octopus, containing a six storey tall translucent octopus, et cetera. Six of its tentacles dipped down into the gelatin, and when they moved the landscape shifted dramatically. Two of them were free; they stretched away to practical infinity.

Something, presumably the octopus, suddenly spoke in a high and querulous tone. WHO SUMMONED ME?"

Udo traded a glance with her father, lying beside her in the bed of gel. She crossed her legs. "Uh. My name is Udo? This is my dad." This felt somehow insufficient. "His name is Obi." Still not quite enough. "Hello?"

HELLO! it trilled back. I AM THE EIGHTLIEGE, THE AFTER-JUDGE OF THE MOLLUSCARI, THE PRINCE OF SUNKEN CREPUSC. MY TRUE NAME IS THBBBBT THBBBBT THBBBBT. MAYHAP YOU HAVE HEARD IT SPOKEN?

Udo reckoned she'd heard no less than three separate toddlers speak the name of the Prince of Sunken Crepusc on at least three different occasions. She also reckoned it unwise to say so. "I come from a wretched, benighted realm," she said instead, "where even the light of one so immensely… immense as yourself cannot reach." If she'd been standing up, she might have curtsied — though she didn't trust the length of her labcoat. She did smile demurely as she attempted to stand up, plunging one arm into the sparkling surface.

The octopus-thing clapped the butts of its two free tentacles together excitedly. OH, WOW, THAT WAS GREAT. WE DID THE FANCY SPEECH THING! I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO THE FANCY SPEECH THING.

Her smile became manic as she stumbled to her feet. "Yeah, that was neat. Very Ben Jonson." She helped her father up.

BEN WHO? THE SPRINTER? I DON'T GET THE REFERENCE.

Her cheeks hurt now. "No, ah, the playwright? Spelled different." She blinked. "Okay. Are we cool? You and me, and him?" She made a complex 'you and me and him' gesture, as if it would help. Lord, don't let that be a spell.

YEAH, OF COURSE WE'RE COOL. The skyscraper-sized cephalopod listed wildly to one side. WHY WOULDN'T WE BE COOL?

Udo shrugged, and looked at her father again. He shrugged.

IT'S THE GIANT OCTOPUS THING, RIGHT? RIGHT, OF COURSE IT IS. Several of the interior octopi grew noticeably smaller, then noticeably larger; she wondered if they were breathing, and if they were really an 'it'. She decided not to think about it.

Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt was still talking. RULE OF THUMB FOR CORBENIC: YOU'LL KNOW YOU'RE NOT COOL WITH SOMEONE WHEN THEY STRAIGHT-UP MURDER YOU. AFTERLIFES WITH NEAR-INSTANT REGENERATION ARE GREAT FOR PEOPLE BEING VERY HONEST AND EXPLICIT WITH THEIR FEELINGS.

"Mm." Udo furrowed her brow. "Not sure I'd like to test that regeneration during, you know, the death of magic."

OH, DO THEY HAVE THAT WHERE YOU'RE FROM? I WAS GONNA SAY, IF YOU DON'T, GIVE IT A PASS. IT'S BEEN PLAYING MERRY HELL WITH MY SINUSES.

"Your sinuses," Obi repeated.

YEAH, THERE USED TO BE A THAUMATURGIC MEMBRANE KEEPING ALL THE GEL FROM GOING UP MY NOSE WHEN I BREATHE. PART OF THE WHOLE 'SURE, WE'VE BANISHED YOU UNDERGROUND FOR A FORTNIGHT, BUT WE'RE NOT TRYING TO ACTUALLY TORTURE YOU' DEALIO.

Udo looked down at the gel. She could swear she saw the refracted silhouette of the kangaroo, bounding downward into the depths. "You were banished? Why?"

DON'T REMEMBER. Somehow the giant octopus gave the vague impression of a shrug. BIT OF INTER-PANTHEONIC INTRIGUE, BIT OF BACKSTABBING, HAVE YOUR AVATARS DUKE IT OUT, AND WHAMMO. SOMEBODY GETS SENT TO THE DEPTHS OF THE GELATE WASTES TO RUMINATE ON HIS OR HER FAILURE. The voice yawned, somehow, in their minds. I WONDER IF THE TERM'S UP YET. YOU HEAR FROM THOSE LUNAR DAWN GUYS RECENTLY?

Udo's eyes widened. "Lunar Dawn? You mean the Three Moons Initiative? They haven't been called that for…" She frowned. "For like… forever."

OH. LONGER THAN A FORTNIGHT?

"Yes," Obi said. "Longer than a fortnight."

WELL THAT'S BULLSHIT. The ground quaked as the angry octopus thrashed helplessly. I THOUGHT FOR SURE THEY'D REMEMBER AFTER A FIFTNIGHT AT THE LATEST! I'VE HALF A MIND TO GO GIVE THEM WHAT-FOR IN THEIR SKY FORTRESS. It wriggled back and forth in the gel, trying in vain to free its remaining six limbs. MIGHT TAKE ME A CENTURY OR TWO, MIND YOU.

Obi placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "I know someone who can help with that."

She stared at him. "You do?"


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"The fuck are you doing here?!"

Ibanez preferred actions to words, as a rule, but she had to admit that these particular words produced a striking effect. Her attacker retreated deeper into the gloom, and cocked its head to one side in distinctly birdlike fashion. This was considerably facilitated by the long, beaked mask obscuring its face. Which might very well be its face.

"Are we acquainted?" The tone was thin and strident. The creature was swaddled in robes of every possible colour, and perhaps a few impossible ones. "I heard your racket in the street, deduced you were not a local, and thought it prudent to warn you that you walk into a plague zone."

She snorted. "Sure. I'm gonna trust you about plagues. I'll bet you've got a cure that's most effective, too?"

The creature squawked in protest, recoiling, raising one limp-wristed hand in front of its face. The hand was mottled and rough. "From where, might I inquire, did you collect that vile turn of phrase?"

Reconsidering her initial assumptions, Ibanez replied carefully. "We've had… experience, with someone like you. Where I'm from."

"Where you're from. No, I think not." The long face waggled back and forth emphatically. "Not very like me at all. If we're speaking of the same individual, I deeply regret your misfortune. That one arose from, and occupies, a place of great dishonour. We do not speak of him." It lowered its hand and drew itself up to its full height, easily towering over her — from less than six feet off the ground. "I am Ickis the Wayward, wandsman of Kul-Manas. Scholar from beyond, pursuer of mysteries and wonderment, trapped in this gilded cage by the Great Dispersal."

She nodded. "The Impasse."

"The Impasse, yes. I thought your aura seemed familiar." The wandsman gently grasped her shoulders with its talons. "We have more pressing business to attend in the here-and-now, however. I do not know why you came to this place, but if your goal is the Palace, your way is twice-shut by the Yellow and Red Lords."

OH, WELL. Ibanez nearly leapt out of her skin at the return of the black-lacquered voice. GUESS WE'LL HAVE TO MURDER THEM.

Ickis fished a second, smaller beaked mask out of its robes and pressed one talon deep inside. There was a sudden spark, and a rush of incense. "The way forward is coated in miasma most foul. If we are to progress, you will need this." It passed the mask to her, and cocked its head again. "Should make you less obtrusive, in the bargain. One should not go unadorned in Alagadda, lest one draw attention."

It was hard to concentrate on anything but the ironically sickly-sweet scent as she headed back onto the street, the wandsman close beside her. There was indeed a thin yellow mist on the cobbles, wending in and out of sewer grates carved with scenes of orgiastic chaos moving jerkily or frozen like a flock of fornicating deer in a full convoy of headlights, through splintered doors and shattered windows, and into the gaping mouths of masqueraders gasping on the ground. Hunched figures in black robes moved door to door, knocking, waving wrought iron censers and further deepening the xanthous mist. Their masks were golden, their expressions gleeful.

"What are they doing?" One of the door-knockers met with the pale, frightened face of a man wearing half a shattered cat mask, drew him out onto the sidewalk and pressed the censer to his face. It chuckled over the sizzling of his flesh as he breathed deep, began shivering, fell to his knees with a sickening crack of bone and soiled his tattered finery.

"This is the demesne of the Yellow Lord," Ickis muttered. "He has decreed that if death is come to Alagadda, it will remain on his terms only. The terms of the Three Lords. He and his Dissonants therefore race the reaper with their noxious fumes."

HE ALWAYS DID KNOW HOW TO CLEAR A ROOM.

Ickis flicked its gaze to her. "There is something about your aura, little one. I thought you like Narváez, of the Foundation, yet there is a distinctly Alagaddan aspect to you now and then."

He can hear you.

No response. She shrugged. "Where are we going?"

The street was sloping downward now, and the structures sloped with it, so that she could see a massive jet rotunda in a circular plaza ahead. The mist was thickest there, flowing out in great gaudy plumes, whipped by the wind that roared from the heights.

"To the Odion," Ickis hissed.


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OH, NO, IT'S NOT THE MAIN FLYING CASTLE CITY THINGY. WHO KNOWS WHERE THAT IS. Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt waved its tentacles vaguely. DICHOTOMY IS KIND OF SPECIAL? IT'S WHERE THEY HIDE THE HUGE SPACE PORTAL THINGY.

They stood at a precipice before the abyss which had opened to swallow the White Lord. A rain of teal progressed downward into infinity. Udo stared at her father, who wouldn't meet her gaze. "Tell me what I am."

IT'S LIKE A GIANT CLAM, Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt rambled. ONLY INSTEAD OF A PEARL INSIDE, IT'S GOT A THIRTY TRILLION GIGAJOULE MATTER-TO-SPIRIT-TO-MATTER TRANSPORTER INSIDE. CLAMS DON'T HAVE THOSE, I'M PRETTY SURE. WAIT, DO CLAMS EVEN HAVE PEARLS, OR IS THAT OYSTERS?

Obi's face was pained. "You know what you are, Udo. A child of magic."

THE TOP HALF IS FULL OF CORBENIANS, OR WHATEVER WE CALL US, AND THE BOTTOM HALF IS FULL OF MOON-PEOPLE. THEY REALLY MISS THE MOON, SO THE SPACE BETWEEN THEM IS CHARGED WITH MOON-MISSING AND NON-MOON MISSING IN EQUAL QUANTITY. It rolled its recursive eyes in a spiral. THAT'S HOW YOU GET MOON PORTALS.

She felt her cheeks flushing. "I'm a child of Obi and Anjali Okorie, as far as I know, and that doesn't explain why I can do magic with my bare fucking hands."

DON'T MIND ME, JUST EXPOSITING OVER HERE.

His eyes were swimming now. "Do we need to do this right this minute? Who knows when our friend will climb back out?"

EVENTUALLY. The voice in her head was faint, but not faint enough by half.

She ignored it. "I do need to know, dad. And I'm tired of waiting."

He blinked away the tears. "What?"

She stuck her hands in her labcoat pockets to hide their trembling. "I've always known something was wrong. Something was off. Your story doesn't add up; Ilse Reynders was exposed to more esoteric gunk than both of you combined, and she isn't some human goddamn unicorn. Tell me the truth, right now, or we might as well wait for the man in white to catch up."

I WAS HOPING TO SEE YOUR FACE, WHEN HE TELLS YOU.

Obi reached down and plucked a handful of gel from the ground, barely steadying himself as he straightened. "Your mother was a hell of a catch for the Foundation, though not quite as much as she was for me." He smiled sadly, and flicked a glistening teal sphere into the general gel-fall. "She was a Hand librarian, familiar with some tiny, immeasurably small percentage of the Library's collection. That is to say, she knew more books of magic than we even knew existed." He squeezed one nodule between his thumb and forefinger, as if trying to make it burst. "She even knew something of the Athenaeum of Severed Tongues. How to get there. What we might find."

"The library of Alagadda." Udo grimaced. "The safer one, rather."

"Not that safe, as it happened." Obi let the last of the spheres roll off his fingertips, into the emptiness. "We were engaged to be married when I went through the Janus Gate with my armed escort. She had to stay behind… they didn't trust her, yet. They trusted me. She trusted me." He shook his head. "They were wrong, all of them."

THEY USUALLY ARE.

"We emerged in the Athenaeum. I think Alagadda knows what you want, where it needs to take you; maybe it just knows where you'll do the most harm, or the most harm will come to you. In any case I was inches from my prize, a book whose name I honestly can't remember now, when I saw her." He swallowed. "I saw her, and I was ruined."

CARELESS AND PROFLIGATE. MAN IN MICROCOSM. The voice was getting closer. They needed to move. She couldn't open her mouth.

"She was short. About as tall as Ibanez. Smooth, dark skin. Long, curled black hair. Amber… amber eyes." He looked into hers, just for a moment. "I could see them behind the mask. A mesmerizing tigress with an alabastrine face." He shook his head, and shut his eyes. "I never found the book. They pulled me out of there three days later, me and my men and women, all of us spent and wasted and stark raving mad. Anji… when I came to my senses, I told her everything." He opened his eyes again, gazing into the depths. "She was so clinical about it. She told me what that place did to the mind, to the body, to the soul. She told me she'd known, intellectually, that something like it could happen. Might happen. Was likely to happen. But she'd hoped it wouldn't." He seemed to lose an inch in height, deflating with each shallow breath. "I only saw… the other woman, one more time. When she came to our home in Sheffield, and delivered you to me."

THE TRUTH CATCHES UP WITH US ALL, GIVEN TIME.

Udo didn't feel like screaming. She didn't feel like weeping, or wailing, or gnashing her teeth. Mostly she felt tired, so she didn't strike out and she didn't shout. She instead placed a hand on her father's shoulder, and asked: "What was she, dad?"

He turned to face her, eyes lowered and unfocused. "Alagaddan. I don't know more than that. She… I don't know."

She gave him a moment, but all he could manage was a sad stuttering sound. She squeezed his shoulder, as he had done for her earlier, and nodded through the tears she hadn't realized she'd been crying. "A demon, by any other name."


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Ickis declined to enter the theatre, promising instead to watch her back. Ibanez was amenable; the ramparts of the Odion were festooned with the same gold-masked figures they'd seen prowling the streets, as many and as ominous as the crows in the hanging tree. She didn't fancy meeting one up close.

The broad oak doors were unlocked and open wide — Which is good, because I'm not ready to go home just yet — the encircling foyer beyond devoid of both life and smog. Her heeled boots dug into the rich saffron carpet, which emitted small clouds of yellow; the fire in her mask still burned, and the incense deflected the dust with reassuring efficacy. There were arches and cupolas and lunettes and oriels in a cacophony of architectural styles, and row after row of soaring columns. She followed them up, up, up, before forcing her eyes back down. She'd realized there was no end-point to the vertical space.

This whole damn city is a trap.

MIND YOUR STEP, MOUSE.

She reached for her service weapon as she crossed the hall to the next set of open double doors. There was an inscription over the lintel in a language she didn't… a language she couldn't…

TRUE ART IS SUFFERING


The Alagaddan script melted into Latin and then English before her eyes, and she grimaced. They'd have an easier time defining what isn't a cognitohazard here.

IF YOU'RE WORRIED ABOUT THE STATE OF YOUR MIND, YOU CAME TO THE WRONG CITY-STATE. There was a tremendous atonal crash, and then another, and then an only technically musical pattering of notes in frantic discord.

She walked in.

The theatre space was a cavern of dark stained wood and yellow curtains mouldering with black. She had expected it to be empty, but it wasn't; nearly every seat was filled. Hundreds, no, thousands of Alagaddans stared transfixed at the performer, their eye and mouth holes clotted up with bile, pus and blood. Many of them were unmoving. Many more were shuddering, coughing, sneezing and weeping. Gold-masked attendants walked the aisles, attentively pressing the uncongealed matter back into the masks to a litany of strangled protests. Fuck.

STAY YOUR NO DOUBT APPRECIATIVE HAND. APPLAUSE IS FORBIDDEN IN ALAGADDA.

The yellow carpet was virtually spotless, and produced no mist. The air in the theatre was instead filled with raucous unmusic pouring from a tremendous black piano on the stage, where a figure in flaxen robes hammered madly at the keys. She couldn't see its hands, but its robe was bunched up where they should be, slamming into the piano as fists or picking out the anti-melody with mummified fingertips.

DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE VIROLOGY OF IDEAS, CHIEF IBANEZ?

She walked down the central aisle, passing one of the solicitous Dissonants. It leered at her invitingly. If you're talking about memetics, I know enough to get by.

The Yellow Lord's laughter was strained, unhinged. THERE WAS POISON IN THE WORLD BEFORE THE FIRST WORD, BUT THE FIRST WORD HERALDED THE POISONER'S GOLDEN AGE. The music was now threatening at every turn to become tuneful, to resolve into something with meaning, but at the cusp of sense it pulled the rug out from under its unwilling audience over and over and over again. Ibanez was getting a headache. DO YOU KNOW WHAT GOLGOTHA MEANS?

It means "don't quit your day job." She was halfway to the stage.

IT MEANS "CRANIUM." SKULL, IF YOU LIKE. CAN YOU FEEL THE CRUCIFIXION NAILS IN YOUR BRAIN, MOUSE? CAN YOU SENSE THE BETRAYAL OF YOUR SENSES?

In one practiced, effortless motion, she drew her service weapon and fired three times. The bullets struck the soundboard, treble and bass strings, and the music died in a burst of splitting wire.

The bearer of the odious mask looked up at her appraisingly. I DIDN'T KNOW YOU PLAYED.

"Enough with the bullshit." The crowd was stirring now, choking, pulling at their masks and clawing at their eyes. "Give me your key."

Again that demented laughter. I ALREADY GAVE IT TO YOU. COULD YOU NOT FEEL IT WORMING AROUND IN YOUR GREY MATTER, UNLOCKING THE RECESSES OF YOUR—

"NOPE." She hopped up onto the stage, nearly tearing her ridiculous dress in the process. "No more metaphors." Back on her feet. "No more scary stories. Give me the key, the literal piece of metal that fits in a literal lock, and I won't have to cancel your perverted recital."

The Yellow Lord drifted back, away from the piano, and rose beneath the proscenium arch — carved to resemble a ridge of bone, covered in sores and pustules. NO MUSIC, AND NO WORDS? WHAT'S YOUR POISON THEN? It cocked its head to one side, looking less like a bird and more like a cat. AH HA! I HAVE SETTLED ON BOILS! Its black eyes narrowed. OR PERHAPS BOILING. MY MERCURIAL MOOD DOES NOT SETTLE LONG.

She shrugged. "Do your worst. Disease is meaningless, where I come from."

ARE YOU TOUCHED? YOU'VE SPENT TOO MUCH TIME IN ALAGADDA. The demented tone was tinged with doubt. DISEASE IS A LANGUAGE UNIVERSAL.

She sat down on the piano stool and leaned back, elbows on the keys. They clanged in protest. "You've been trapped here a long time, I guess you don't know. My Earth is gripped by a disease that never ends. It eats us away, day by day. And we don't care! We go about our business. We don't worry about getting sick, we don't worry about getting other people sick, we pretend like it isn't happening because we're bored with it. It's just no fun, you know?"

The robed figure wavered in the air. THIS IS A THEATRE OF MUSIC, it protested. IF IT'S COMEDY YOU WANT, TRY THE AGONAEUM OR THE GLOBE.

She chuckled. "The globe is right! A global pandemic, and we just can't be bothered to give a shit. Not about ourselves — we know we're invincible. Not about others — because they're not us. Disease holds no meaning when you're touched in the head like we are." She leaned forward, hands on the bench between her legs. "We once imagined a world without disease, and you know what? We could have had it. But we found something better." She smiled. "We found apathy."

WORDS ARE LIKE A VIRUS, FRIEND. The Yellow Lord shuddered, looking around frantically for the source of the leaden tones. THEY GET INSIDE, AND EAT YOU UP.

A thick black ooze poured out of the Yellow Lord's eyes and mouth, and its rictus reversed into a gawp of horrified realization as it plummeted to the stage. It struck the boards like a burlap sack full of rotten produce, its brilliant robes stained sable.

"You work slow," she remarked.

ROT IS A PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT.

She stood up, kicked the bench aside, and picked the piano notes one by one. Plink plink plink plink click. She stomped one leg off the bench, held it high over her head, and brought it down on the dead key, hard.

In the scattered mess of black and white, she saw a glint of metal.

ONE DOWN.


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DO YOU REALLY THINK YOU CAN DO THIS?

"She can," Obi said.

"I don't know," Udo sighed.

OF COURSE YOU DON'T.

She set her jaw. "It's getting closer, so I have to try." She reached up with her right hand and traced a sigil in the air. She could see a faint triangular outline of sparks, and slashed her left pointer finger across it sharply. There was a rush of wind, a scattering of gel-balls, and a pleasant whooshing beneath her labcoat.

"That's it," her father whispered.

Now she drew a ring around the giant octopus, then a series of jagged lines beneath and another bifurcated circle. There was a rumbling deep in the earth, and Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt began to rise.

I HAVE NEVER FLOWN BEFORE. The octopus snapped its beak with pleasure. I AM UNLICENSED.

"I think the air traffic controllers have bigger fish to fry today." She glanced at the light of Dichotomy on the horizon, and the black gloom enveloping it, before returning to her work. A circle with spokes, like a wheel. Two arrows, one pointing up, one pointing down. A series of crosses, row on row. She was now standing in a dazzling platinum light, a veritable alphabet of alchemy shimmering above the reflective field, and Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt was torn from his prison of jelly with a tremendous sucking sound. His tentacles broke the surface of the wastes as six far-reaching mountain ranges burst into temporary being. Udo and her father retreated from the new waterfall of greenish-blue matter, watching as the miles-long tentacles snapped free and glistened in the moonlight.

I FEEL I COULD TOUCH THE FIRMAMENT! The octopus was spinning in the sky, tearing itself looser by the second as it rose. TO THE THREE MOONS, UDO!

"To Dichotomy instead, if you would?" Her arms were over her head now, and she marvelled at the ease with which she held the diaphanous god aloft.

OH. YES. The black-slit eyes peered down at her. ALLOW ME TO BRIDGE THE GAP. It dropped its fore-tentacles, slapping the scenery flat.

Udo took her father's hand, and stepped onto the rubbery surface as Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt reached for the far-flung star. The spell was holding, even without her concentration. She couldn't begin to comprehend what she had done.

EVER CLOSER, the White Lord chanted. It was nearly upon them now. TO THE FINAL REVELATIONS.


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Ickis took its leave at the Villain's Gate, and Ibanez returned the mask. "Appreciate the assist."

The wandsman shuddered, like a parrot shaking out its feathers. "The same to you. I may yet save these benighted souls, with their persecutor absent."

"Do you think he'll stay that way long?"

It shook its head. "I do not know. I can feel the mystic airs returning, day by day. But it matters not; there is time enough to do right, now, and I must set to it." A pause. "If you mean to confront the lord of this place — whoever or whatever that presently may be — I would give one final warning."

She spread her palms wide. "I'm open."

"I once had the misfortune to attend a performance of The Hanged King's Tragedy. I am cursed to remember each word that was spoken, and I feel these in particular might serve to gird you for the struggles ahead."

THE AMBASSADOR
He is our lord, but lieges greater still
Reside beneath our feet and long to sup
On mortal hearts emboldened by the lie
That there exists a thing we call free will.

THE KING
You might be driven thither with one clap,
So test me! And decline to shut your trap —
I'll open mine.

She frowned, but nodded anyway. "Alright, I'll… keep that in mind."

"I would. And take care, Delfina Ibanez, that you leave this place better than when you found it. Not a high bar to clear, I know, but perhaps more difficult than you imagine."

She shook its clawed hand — though the skin was like sandpaper, the grip was gentle — and walked through the open portal.

OPTIMISTIC IDIOT, the voice sang cheerfully.

The coward speaks! The streets here were paved with gold, the ruby windows set in garnet frames, the banners bold and printed with lascivious scenes.

PERHAPS I JUST DON'T LIKE DOCTORS. I'VE HAD SEVERAL DECADES WORTH OF BAD EXPERIENCE, YOU KNOW.

You gave as good as you got, I hear. The Sanguine Quarter seemed abandoned, its doors shut, its gutters and stoops empty of the groaning half-corpses littering the rest of the city. Where is everyone?

INSIDE.

Inside what?

YOU'LL SEE. The central boulevard led to a mammoth structure of gilded bloodwood, the heart of a plaza with countless other streets running to and fro. It looked for all the world like a brothel.

"Shut up," she said aloud.

I WAS ONLY GOING TO SAY THAT YOU'RE WELL-DRESSED FOR THE OCCASION.


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It was a staggeringly beautiful view.

They were staggering because of the rough, uneven surface of the octopus god's tentacle, their bridge to the distant bastion in the sky. It was beautiful because they could see it all, all of Corbenic stretched out before them as a flat plane of gorgeous nonsense. Mile-high apes wielding snapped stalagmites or impossibly tall tree trunks as clubs, a mountain piercing the clouds like an angry fist, a throbbing sea of gunk and gristle ebbing into an almost motionless grey-green river, a colossal stone cube surrounded by a mass of indistinguishable human figures cavorting obscenely with one another. None of it made a lick of sense, and Udo desperately wanted to know more about it.

BUT YOU ARE THE STUDENT TODAY, the White Lord reminded her. AND THE STUDENT DOESN'T CHOOSE THE LESSONS. It was following them with ease, gliding along the endless cellophane limb, untroubled by suckers or syrupy skin. Deliberate and inexorable.

"How did you get here?" She still hadn't had the courage to ask again; just the fact that he'd brushed the question aside was enough to fill her with dread.

Obi Okorie regarded his daughter with obvious misgivings. "We have ways and means. You know I can't tell you everything."

There was a tremendous burst of displaced air, and they nearly fell from their high perch. Two polished metal shapes blew past them, aircraft bristling with high-tech weaponry. Brilliant blue lanterns hung in front of their tessellated cockpits; they were built in the image of angler fish, she realized.

She helped her father to his feet again, then prodded him in the chest. "We're in what you might call a strenuous situation, Dad. A little clarity would go a long way."

HOW FAR YOU HAVE COME. Their chalky stalker was only a few hundred meters away. AND YET STILL UNPREPARED…

Obi seemed to reach a decision. "We have only one way of reaching Corbenic. It's not terrific. They call it Procedure 42-Humbaba, and it involves putting perfectly healthy people into comas."

She stared at him. "You let them put you into a coma?! At your age?!"

He shook his head. "I asked them to do it. Nobody else could be sure of meeting you in the desert. Corbenic has a way of making you face… the things that you've done. Who you are, the mistakes you've made. I hadn't told you something you deserved to hear… and that let me tell you what you need to know."

She stared up at the verdant sky, biting her lip.

"We have MTFs over here, but no contact with them. There's a phone app, if you can believe it, but you didn't take a phone to Alagadda." His tone was light, and he was obviously fishing for a smile. She decided not to give him one. "It's the only way you get home, wunderkind, and that's all that matters to me. Niang can bore holes through the whole damn Foundation, so long as I know that you and your mother are safe."

She finally spared him a glance, and half a smile. "Don't take any more risks with my dad's life, and maybe I'll forgive you."

He winced. "No more risks. I promise."

They passed the remaining miles in silence. The far-flung pinprick became a towering two-tone crystal citadel floating in the sky, listing crazily to one side as the mass of black which was part and parcel of the Hanged King strangled it. The anglerfish craft were pelting the cloud with barrage after barrage of rainbow-hued light, blasting it away and then suffering its return like pebbles dropped into a deep, dark ocean.

"Perhaps one more," he muttered.


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The inlaid maple door was mostly ajar, which was good. She wrested it the rest of the way open, and was rewarded with a rush of thin red liquid. It trickled down the marble steps to pool around her stitched leather boots. Her first thought was that it was blood. Her second thought was more sensible.

AT THE TAPS AGAIN, I SEE.

There was a stirring in the candle-lit murk. CROSS THE THRESHOLD, a burst of liquid lasciviousness demanded. AND SHUT THE DOOR. YOU'RE LETTING ALL THE CLARET OUT.

She walked into the brothel, and obliged enough to stop the flow but not enough to trigger Alagadda's ejector seat when she eventually left. The floor was panelled with redwood, the widest boards she'd ever seen, as though the better part of California had been chopped down to finish this single tremendous space. There was a polished bar as long as… as long as her gaze could travel, functionally endless like the columns in the Odion. There were hundreds of upright tables, hundreds more upside-down on top of them or flat against the wine-dark floor, shattered glass and porcelain everywhere, scattered barrels and tablecloths and chairs. The ceiling was a mirror of the floor, minus the wrack… although even as the thought occurred to her, she watched a single metal fork fall down to splash in the pool of plum.

GRAVITY IS SUCH A BITCH. The telepathic drunkard actually hiccoughed in her ear. SERVES US RIGHT FOR WALKING ON THE CEILINGS, I SUPPOSE.

The Red Lord was seated across the boundless saloon at a large round table with a stained red cloth. A veritable mountain of varnished barrels, all of them slowly leaking, were piled up behind it. Its grinning mask beamed blearily at her as she approached.

HAVE YOU COME FOR THE FUN? I WISH YOU'D COME EARLIER. It ran its ink blot eyes up and down her dress, nodding in shaky approval. OH, YES, I WISH YOU HAD COME EARLIER.

"Drinking alone?" She affected a haughty pose, hands on hips, right leg stuck provocatively out of the obscene dress. Her mind, in the end, was a tactical one. "Hardly suits your reputation."

The Red Lord laughed in her face, or rather in her head, a deep and throaty baying like a hound in desperate heat. YOU'RE A DELECTABLE LITTLE BALL OF CURVES AND MUSCLE, AREN'T YOU? MAYBE I SHOULD LET YOU TAKE THAT PENT-UP ENERGY OUT ON ME. IT'S POSSIBLE WE'D BOTH ENJOY IT. It growled, and the image of a hungry wolf solidified in her mind's eye. IT'S POSSIBLE ONLY I WOULD, BUT THAT'S A RISK I'M USUALLY WILLING TO TAKE.

She flipped over an upended chair, tossed away the wine-soaked cushion and sat down. "I'm very particular who I party with."

It waved its sleeves dismissively. THE JUBILEE IS ENDED IN ALAGADDA, MORSEL, AND ACROSS THE REALMS OF MEN AND MADNESS BOTH. It paused. WHAT ARE YOU, ANYWAY? YOU LOOK HUMAN, BUT THEN, I'M SEEING DOUBLE.

She shook her head. He's plastered. If he didn't have a key, we wouldn't even need to roll this asshole.

The Red Lord's grin widened dangerously. WE. WHO IS WE? The mask squinted. MY MEMORY'S NOT WHAT IT ONCE WAS, THANKFULLY, BUT I REMEMBER HUMANS AS A NON-PLURAL FORM OF LIFE.

"Sure, I'm human." She returned the lascivious grin. "How about you? Where it counts."

That uproarious, untrustworthy laughter leaked out again. I HAVE MY WEAKNESSES, IF THAT'S WHAT YOU MEAN. WINE, WOMEN, SONG. Its eyes flickered scarlet, just for a moment. HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE ODIUM? I HAD TICKETS, BUT THEN, I ALSO HAD STANDARDS.

She laughed, and it wasn't entirely an affectation. "Happy to hear it. Do those standards extend to your cellar?" She pointed at the barrelfall. "I wouldn't mind a drink, assuming that's wine and not blood."

The Red Lord shrugged, plucking a pair of flagons off the floor and staggering to its invisible feet. IT'S WINE, it slurred. BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT ISN'T ALSO BLOOD.

She rolled her shoulders as it poured out a copious quantity. "Where do you find enough…"

It smirked, ear to bloodless ear. ENOUGH RUBEDO? COME NOW, SURELY YOU ALREADY HAVE THE ANSWER.

The barrels, she suddenly realized, were much larger than they needed to be. The silence of the streets outside oppressed her with their ugly import. She swallowed, and stood up. "I don't suppose you have anything in here which started out life on a vine?"

The Red Lord shrugged, and dropped the second mug to the sopping boards. I RUN AN EQUITABLE ESTABLISHMENT. THERE'S SURE TO BE WEAKER SPIRITS IN STOCK, FOR WEAKER SPIRITS LIKE YOURS.

She found a black bottle with white stencilling behind the bar: Cháteau Lafite, 1787. "You weren't joking."

NOT ALWAYS, BUT OFTEN.

When she returned to the table, the Lord was already hunched over its mug. She sat down again and ripped the top off the bottle. "To your health?"

HARDLY. It glared at her. YOU WANT SOMETHING, WHOEVER YOU ARE, AND I AM NOT THE GIVING SORT. I TAKE, YOU SEE, I TAKE, AND I TAKE THAT WHICH IS NOT OFFERED MOST OF ALL. It leaned back, and she could see the leathery darkness beneath its robes expanding and contracting with rapid breath. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, YOU IMBECILIC BEAUTY, AND WHAT DO YOU FEAR TO LOSE? It clasped its robed hands around its drink.

She lifted the bottle to her lips. "I want your key," she said, and took a swig. She was surprised and relieved to find that the bottle of red wine contained, in fact, red wine. "Give me that, and you can take what you want. After you drink." She wiped her lips off on her dress sleeve.

The lord was virtually vibrating in its seat as it placed the flagon to its sneering graven lips. WE ARE GOING TO ADORE YOU. Its eyes burned wine-red as it downed the rubedo in one gulp. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO ENJOY IT.

POOR, STUPID RUDY. The Red Lord froze as the loathsome murmur swelled. YOU'VE SUNK TO THE OCCASION MAGNIFICENTLY, HAVEN'T YOU?

It staggered to its feet, looking down at her with a complex mix of mocked emotions. OH. OH, I SEE. THE BILL HAS COME DUE AT LAST. It pushed past her, nearly upsetting the table in its haste. MY CUE TO LEAVE.

ALWAYS THE LAST TO QUIT THE PARTY, OLD FRIEND. The Red Lord stumbled, slipped in the roseate plashet, and looked back at her with an expression of confused terror.

IT'S MY NATURE, it gasped, before its orifices ran black and it fell forward into the wasted drink.

HE KEEPS HIS KEY IN THE TILL, the cruel voice yawned. DRUNKS ARE SO PREDICTABLE.

"You could have told me that at the start," she groused, heading for the bar again. "Saved me a bit of tension."

TENSION? PAH. THERE WAS NOTHING TO IT. The gilded register did indeed conceal a red-rusted key. SLAUGHTER INTO WINE, AND BACK AGAIN. BASIC AS ALCHEMY GETS.


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Udo's mind boggled. The scene around the fortress in the firmament was as far removed from the stark nothingness below as could be practically imagined: a polyglot array of impossible vessels, sleek designs of colourful metal kept a loft by repulsors glowing with the heat of at least several suns, unfathomably vast capital ships looking like something out of Star Wars or the bastard child of a model collector's bits box, and so many smaller fighter craft of a dozen different descriptions that merely trying to keep track of their movements nearly sent her spiralling to the distant sands.

Like the Great Desert before it, Thbbbbt Thbbbbt Thbbbbt's seemingly interminable tentacle finally terminated, leaving them stranded high in the sky with a view to end all views. Dichotomy offered two soaring skylines, one stretching toward the trio of moons and the other hanging over the wastes like a melted cake. The upper hull was orange and the lower hull was blue, wrapped around a central cavity lambent with radiated white. The light, however, was dying as a sentient charcoal nebula roared through the immense luminous spires, enveloping them, pulling them down and apart or sending coruscating spiderweb cracks through their trunks. There was a constant musical tone like the shattering of wine glasses, and every science fiction laser sound effect she'd ever heard (plus several novel ones) rang out as the Three Moons Initiative tried in vain to pierce the Hanged King's shroud. She almost fancied she could see him standing in the glow and gloom at the citadel's core, drawing down the artificial sun.

A SIGHT TO DIE FOR, DON'T YOU THINK? YOUR FATHER CERTAINLY DID.

The White Lord was still approaching at a leisurely gait, and they were at the end of their road. She was about to suggest levitating them across the gap when a sudden explosion of concentrated sound heralded the arrival of a polished chrome carrier, which hovered at the tentacle's tip and dropped a long landing ramp into its flesh with a wet thwap. A lone, dark woman in simple military dress strode down to meet them, and for one horrible moment of narrative auspiciousness Udo thought she was going to meet her mother.

The woman was too tall, her eyes too dark, and her expression too displeased for that to be the case. She stuck out a hand, and Udo took it without thinking. "This is your fault," the woman declared, jerking her free thumb over her shoulder. "Thanks so much."

Udo nodded. "Yeah, well, I don't know how scientific your spaceships are, but if they're even a little bit magic they're only flying because of me."

The woman suddenly smiled, a gesture at least partially predatory. "Hell of a thing to take credit for. The Foundation kills magic stone dead, you D&D it back slow as molasses, and I'm supposed to be thankful? No thanks." She backed back up the ramp. "Anyway. The Impenetrable thinks you might be useful, said I should dump you in Dichotomy if you somehow found your way here. Didn't think there was much chance of that, I'll admit." She shook her head, resting one hand on a telescoping strut. "Not sure I want to risk getting close to that thing — not a word I use lightly in Corbenic — just to watch another catspaw get eaten."

YOUR FATHER'S SACRIFICE, FOR NAUGHT.

Udo shut the voice out. "We risked a lot to get here. We can help."

Udo didn't expect the burst of harsh laughter. "Risked? More like sacrificed. You might have walked in on your own two feet, lady, but your friend clearly came feet-first."

Udo suddenly felt weightless, all the doubts she'd suffered in the past few hours… days… weeks? burning up the oxygen in her brain. She looked at her father, who looked back at her with an expression of calm resignation.

The other woman raised an arm, pointer finger in the air.

MY WORK HERE IS DO—

She dropped her arm, and a battery of guns pelted the White Lord with a fusillade of rippling fire. The mask and empty robe dropped off the tentacle like a stone and feather, side by side.

"Get on board," the woman snapped. "Let's see if you're worth the ammo."


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Unlocking the Wastrel's Gate was a simple matter, and the final stretch of city between them and the Palace was even quieter than the last. Here the streets were clean, the sumptuous apartments free of flowing fluids, the layout simple and direct. Too direct; every line seemed to terminate before its time, every angle was too acute, and Ibanez felt a panic attack coming on as she made her way towards the black stronghold squatting severely on the horizon.

The Alagaddans in this quarter walked through the streets in soundless procession, marching in neat rows stretching from one end to the other, heads bowed, breathing laboured. They parted around her as she moved; she felt like a trout swimming upstream.

I REMEMBER THE PARADE, the voice mused. THE JOY IN THE EYES OF THE ASSEMBLED THRONG, THEIR HOPEFUL FACES EXPOSED TO THE HEAVENS, THE MADNESS IN THEIR TWISTED SMILES, THE MARCH OF THEIR NAKED FEET UPON THE CORPSES OF THEIR BETTERS.

Yeah. Sounds like a real Mardi Gras.

THEY FELL ON ME LIKE A PACK OF RAVENING ANIMALS. It was thoughtful, almost reverential. BRED TO DOCILITY, BUT SPURRED TO VIOLENCE BY FEARS AND HATREDS WHICH COULD NOT SUBSIDE BUT ONLY FESTER AND GROW. THEY GROUND ME TO DUST AGAINST THE COBBLES I HAD LAID, LAID IN THE KNOWLEDGE I WOULD ONE DAY BE GROUND AGAINST THEM.

Okay, that's a little weird, even by your standards.

YOU HAVE NEVER RULED A CITY, PLEB. YOU HAVE NEVER KNOWN WHAT IT IS TO OWN THE LIVES OF MEN, TO WARP THEIR MINDS, TO BOIL AWAY THEIR PRETENSES AND ACCRETIONS AND THEIR HOLLOW PROJECTIONS OF WHAT THEY WANT TO BE UNTIL THE ROTTEN CORE OF WHAT THEY TRULY, IRREVOCABLY ARE IS ALL THAT REMAINS, IN THE KNOWLEDGE THAT IT WON'T BE ENOUGH. THAT THEY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO HANDLE THE REVELATION OF THEIR SELVES. THAT THEY WILL RISE UP IN ANGER AND TEAR YOU DOWN. YOU HAVE NEVER GIVEN ANYONE A GIFT SUCH AS THAT, I THINK. YOU HAVE NEVER KNOWN TRUE LOVE, DELFINA IBANEZ.

She could see the final gate ahead. It was already yawning open to accept them. These people killed you. Because you were horrible. And you feel nostalgic about that?

YOU DENY YOURSELF SO MANY PLEASURES. WHEN YOU HAVE LIVED AS I HAVE, SO LONG AND SO FULLY, YOU CULTIVATE MORE SENSITIVE TASTES. THERE IS NOTHING, NOTHING SWEETER IN ALL THE WORLDS THAN KNOWING YOU HAVE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR A CRUEL, VICIOUS, BLOODY REVENGE ON THE ONES YOU HAVE LED TO WRONG YOU.

Alright, well, that's a lot. You're a lo—

I SMILED AS THEY DASHED MY FACELESS VISAGE AGAINST THE STONES AND TREAD MY INNARDS THROUGH THE STREETS OF ALAGADDA-THAT-WAS, BECAUSE I COULD ALREADY TASTE THEIR VISCERA IN MY MOUTH, HEAR THEIR CRIES FOR MERCY IN MY EARS, FEEL THE RISING WARMTH IN MY BOSOM AS I PRONOUNCED THEM DOOMED AND DAMNED. OH, YES, I HAVE AGED MY ANTICIPATION TO A FINE VINTAGE, AND TODAY I WILL DRINK DEEPLY OF THE SORROWS OF MY FRIENDS.

They walked beneath the Tyrant's Gate, and into the shadows of the Hanged King's home.


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I WILL BREAK THE FULCRUM OF WORLDS. The swirling atrament hollered in the heart of the sparkling citadel as Udo and her father stood a mile away on the burnished teal surface, watching it. I WILL SIT NO THRONE, BUT FLIT BETWEEN THE CRACKS.

"He's chatty," Udo remarked. She was barely able to choke the words out; her levity had no lift in the airless space around the Hanged King's wroth.

"He's spent who knows how long chained to a chair." Her father, now dressed in Three Moons military attire, gazed at the chaos with obvious wonder. Lightning flashed in the inky cloud, illuminating the multiversal aperture which Dichotomy had been built to produce. Udo fancied she could see stars, and perhaps the surface of the moon, but only in flickering instants. "You'd be chatty too."

She looked up at the far hull; the two halves of the fortress were not connected, the aperture ring floating between them on the strength of their metaphysical surface tension alone. She could see orange-robed monks standing on the bottom of the orange half, on the ceiling from her perspective, all of them staring into the core of the Hanged King's maelstrom. Their counterparts in blue stood in a circle around the portal, similarly captivated. Two small cities worth of living thaumic anchors, all enraptured by the spectre of death as it beat fruitlessly at the door between dimensions.

I WILL NOT BE DENIED! A spray of fume in the shape of a tremendous clawed hand swatted at a pair of passing interceptors, clipping their right wings off. They cartwheeled through the darkening sky, disappearing below the artificial horizon. I AM MYSELF DENIAL, AND FINALITY.

The Three Moons fleet was still pelting the cloud with its esoteric arsenal, but the battle seemed hopeless. Tendrils of rippling piceous flesh tore through windows, doors and walls, probing, searching for something to soothe the once-man presumably raging at their source. APPEASE ME, AND YOU WILL BE THE FIRST TO FALL. RESIST, AND I WILL SHOW WHAT I HAVE LEARNED OF SUFFERING SINCE AGES BEFORE YOUR WORLDS GLIMMERED IN CREATION'S EYE.

Udo sat down on the riveted surface of the flying fortress. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do about this. There's an unchained god tearing reality apart, and I'm just a demon-spawn with no underwear."

Her father sat down beside her. "You've never been just anything, Udo, and you don't need me to tell you that. You're stronger than anyone I've ever known, and you're good. You think Corbenic bends over backwards to help just anybody? That Flame Bearer walked out of the Croaking Cave for you. They don't do that. A god crawled out of its tomb for you! An ex-Foundation Three Moons general just gave you the time of day. Game recognizes game, Udo." He clapped her on the shoulder. "You'll meet the challenge. You know you will. So what's the matter?"

Her eyes were blurred with tears again. "You know damn well what the matter is," she whispered, and heard the voice of the White Lord once more over the din of the Hanged King's fury: FOLLOW THE THREAD. UNRAVEL IT. PULL IT TAUT AND MEASURE IT END TO END. KNOW THE AWFUL EXTENT OF WHAT YOU LOSE. She shook her head. She shook her head.

He obviously wanted to say something, but had no more words to speak. She finally spoke for him. "Humbaba." She'd grown up in the copious library of Site-91, she knew the Epic of Gilgamesh off by heart. "I remember Humbaba. When he looks at someone, it is the look of death. They always… damn." She rubbed her eyes vigorously, and they came away wet. "They can never resist putting clues in their euphemisms, can they?"

"Everyone dies, Udo."

She stared at him.

"In our beds, in our cars, in hospitals or the shower or the side of the road. Everyone dies, and it usually doesn't mean a god damn thing. We die alone, our minds lost, our loved ones far away even if they're right there beside us." He reached out to take her hands in his. "I had a chance for something better. Something nobler. I could speak to you, I could tell you… what I told you. I could even spend one final day beside you. If I that wasn't a good enough death, wunderkind, what kind of a life must I have led?"

She was tired, so very tired, in a way Corbenic's energizing magic couldn't touch. She wanted to tell him that. She wanted him to make it okay.

She stood up, pulled him into a rough embrace, and said instead: "Wait here for me. This isn't goodbye."

Then she released him, painted the air with a complex digital dance, and strode into the impenetrable thunderhead.


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The halls were empty of life, and her footsteps rang hollow on pitted stones. The echoes didn't travel far, swatted down by the oppressive gloom which cloaked each iron stanchion, the rows of blank, moth-eaten banners and the yawning arches to empty rooms. The Palace of Alagadda was a monument to a monarch who had failed, then fallen, then fled, and the dying people who had once been its thralls now shunned these collapsing corridors.

HE IS STILL HERE.

She stopped, barely keeping herself from crouching down defensively. Who?

ME. The repulsive murmur wormed its way into her skull, and this time she nearly dropped to her knees from the sudden burst of pain. YOU CRAWL BACK TO MY TOMB, DESERTER? ONCE YOU HAD THE SENSE TO RUN.

She passed two tremendous iron doors, wrought with whispering sigils and legions of faceless soldiers. She could feel their nonexistent eyes upon her as she crossed into the throne room. She had been here before, and she had not; there were two Alagaddas, one dim and one dark, umbilically connected by a pit of rot in the shape of a dead god at the core of the palace. The empty throne was covered not in rusted chains or spikes or blood, but simply the dust of long centuries of neglect. The shadows were merely shadows, not the unnatural extensions of an unnaturally extended unliving beast that called itself a King.

A staggering, stumbling shape emerged from those shadows. She didn't like the way it moved. She drew her weapon.

THE CURSE FLOWS THROUGH THE SPACE BETWEEN SPACES. The shape was bundled in white bandages, black skin peeking between the creases. FIRMAMENT AND NEVERMEANT ALIKE AGLOW WITH STOLEN LIGHT. LIFE RETURNS TO THE DEAD CITY, BREATH BY BREATH.

"I really hoped you were dead," she said. She checked the safety, mentally counted the rounds, knowing none of it really mattered.

I WAS, AND AM, AND ALWAYS SHALL BE. A brave shaft of grey light streaming down from a lunette in the throne room ceiling illuminated the Ambassador of Alagadda, and she realized why it was moving so erratically.

Its head was still twisted 'round, and it was walking backward.

"I have a gift for you." She reached across her chest for the bag, whimpering slightly at the feel of her skin on the sensual matter of the dress. "A tribute to the new king of nowhere."

The Ambassador didn't laugh, but it did wheeze as it jerkily closed the distance. I'LL TAKE EVERYTHING YOU HAVE, ASSASSIN, AND THEN I WILL TAKE YOU. It looked her up and down with its blank black face, and she heard the bones crack in its shattered neck. FIRE YOUR WEAPON. SPEND THE OPPORTUNITY. YOU WILL NOT SEE ANOTHER.

"One is plenty," she said, pulling the payload out of the bag and snapping off a single shot. As the high heel on the Ambassador's right boot shattered and it lurched forward in surprise, she tore the bandages off its head and slammed SCP-035 over the empty, trembling visage.

SWALLOW MY TEARS FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS, the amalgamated monster blubbered in her mind. Its glower suddenly twisted to an ear-to-ear rictus. PERHAPS ELEVEN THOUSAND.


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I WILL CROSS THE DIVIDE AGAIN, OF MY OWN UNBROKEN WILL. The Hanged King's hoarse voice deafened her as she approached the nexus of churning limbs. MY CHAINS ARE BROKEN, MY FETTERS SHATTERED. I AM NO SLAVE!

"And this is what you're doing with it?"

The smoke parted, and a hovering figure in rotted black robes appeared before the flickering aperture. I WAS TORN FROM MY HOME, FROM MY PEOPLE, FROM MY VERY BODY, it hissed. I WILL HAVE THAT WHICH WAS STOLEN FROM ME, AND ALL THE EARTH BESIDE.

"Living your best half-life, huh?" The horror drifted closer, and she saw its ragged face: a clotted mass of scars and boils and burns and bleeding gashes, a mass of twitching feelers like maggots crawling beneath cadaverous skin, a face no mask in creation could hide. "All that power, all that strength; to even be able to form a complete sentence after what you've been through, you must have an iron trap for a mind. And yet you're stuck in a single moment."

I AM FREE! Two plumes of smog swatted at the hulls of Dichotomy, and a third reached out from the King's pitted chest towards her. I WILL WREAK FREEDOM ACROSS THE LANDS I HAVE LOST.

She crossed a circle in the air, and the grasping smoke burst mere inches from her. "Do you really not grasp why the aperture won't change for you? Why you can't make it show you anything but static?" She glanced up at the inverted crowd. "You know it isn't them doing it. I can see you've sunk your hooks in, they're focused on the Earth like they've never focused before, and yet the door still will not open. Why is that?"

The Hanged King's voice was like a buzzing of cicadas in her mind; she wished above all else that it would break the monotony with laughter, or song, or anything but that endless drone of despair. THE KING OF ALAGADDA DOES NOT ANSWER TO YOU, WITCHLING! RATHER ALL ETERNITY WILL ANSWER FOR MY SUFFERING, AND THIS OBSTRUCTION ONLY PILES THE PYRE!

She shook her head, amazed at the serenity which had settled over her. She was talking to the Hanged King. The Hanged King. It somehow didn't matter. "Your suffering, sure."

DO NOT MOCK ME! YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY TORMENT. A TEACHER FROM A FOREIGN LAND HAS SHOWN ME WITH AN AEON'S TENDER AFFLICTION THE LIMITS OF FLESH AND SPIRIT. It caressed the empty air in front of her. THEY TORE ME FROM THE DROWNED FASTNESS OF MY SOBBING VAULT OF IRON, AND RAN ME THROUGH WITH THE CRUEL LANCE OF HOPE. I DANCED AT THE END OF A CHAIN FOR THEM, AND GAINED ONLY IN UNDERSTANDING. THERE IS NO LOVE. THERE IS NO LIFE. THERE IS ONLY THE BREAKING, THE CREATIVITY OF UNCREATION.

She scoffed. "You sat in darkness for how long, and this is your follow-up move? Raging in the light, but still going nowhere?"

Her brain withered under an assault of humid density as the King's wrath boiled over. I AM GOING EVERYWHERE. EVERY CORNER OF EVERY EARTH WILL KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE SILENT, BE STILL, BE STATIC IN THE FACE OF CHANGE. I WILL WALK AMONG THEM, AND I WILL LAUGH.

She laughed herself, and the effect was marvellous: the black billowed back behind the portal, and the wretched unhappy thing in front of her seemed to wither for the space between two seconds. "Change! What the hell do you know about change? You fucked up, you fucked up bad enough for an entire city, ruined all their lives, damned their souls, charred the humanity out of lord knows how many thousands of people who loved and trusted your sorry ass, and then… what? Not a damn thing, since time immemorial. You talk about your pool of tears? They've gone stagnant, your high-and-lowness, and you're still drowning in them." She pointed at the aperture. "That's why you're going nowhere, don't you get it? There's no tension within you. You're still chained to that throne. You're still in Alagadda, and you're never going to leave. You have no hopes, no dreams, no soul… you're just a dead husk with a city-shaped accretion of hate built up around it. There's nowhere to go for you, but back in the cage."

I WILL NOT RETURN TO ALAGADDA! The darkness pressed her back, shoving her roughly to the steel, and her glasses fell from her face. THERE IS NOTHING THERE. IT IS FINISHED. IT IS THE PAST, AND I AM THE FUTURE.

"You're a broken thing," she gasped. "And you're fleeing the things that broke you. All your power, all your strength, and you're using it to lie to yourself? To hide from the horrors that even you fear?" She held her hands in front of her face, carving a veritable zodiac in front of her to spare a few final moments from the rushing tide. "The Lords of Alagadda have fallen. Your city is waiting for you."

I SPIT ON MY CITY. IT OFFERS ME NOTHING.

She hoped, against all hope, against the turbid warning that hope was futile which closed in around her from all directions, that the answer she had to give was correct. "It offers you closure," she whispered.

LIAR.

The White Lord stood on the edge of Dichotomy, the science fiction battle raging behind its billowing cloak, its thin mouth twisting to an almost mirthful grimace. The Hanged King stared it down across the steel plain, then with a sound like the rustling of dead leaves, abandoned the portal.

Forgotten, Udo crawled to the aperture.


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"She should have opened it by now. Something must be wrong."

EVERYTHING IS WRONG WHERE THE MASTER IS CONCERNED. MAYBE I SHOULD CUT MY LOSSES. The Black Lord sneered at Ibanez; it hadn't worn its tragic expression since taking full possession of the Ambassador. MAYBE I SHOULD CUT YOU.

She stuck her tongue out. "Call me back when you're not moonwalking everywhere."

With a sickening crunch the masked head swivelled around, and the Black Lord popped its neck experimentally. YOU REALLY DID A NUMBER ON THIS BODY. YOURS, THOUGH, IS IN FINE SHAPE. SUCH A FINE, FINE SHAPE INDEED. WHAT DO YOU THINK, SHOULD—

A corona of grey sparks ruptured the murk, and a wall of static the size of a swimming pool burst into existence behind the throne. The static resolved into a nonsensical image: a tunnel of orange and blue, black smog in a green sky, two robed figures approaching one another, and the haggard vision of Udo Okorie.

"Help," she said.


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TURNCOAT, the Hanged King seethed, motes of acid black pouring from its robes to sizzle on the azure hull. PAY YOUR OBEISANCE.

The White Lord was indomitable. I COME WITH GOOD TIDINGS. I COME WITH THE NEWS THAT YOU ARE NO LONGER NEEDED.

The dead god spat, and the spit was a swarm of dusky hornets. They washed over the White Lord, who did not flinch as the edges of its robes began to fray. I WILL RETURN YOU TO DUST, QUISLING, AND THE WIND MAY TAKE YOU.

Obi Okorie settled back into the crowd of blue-robed monks, watching as the dimensional aperture dissolved into static again. He watched his daughter approach the confrontation.

I AM THE WIND, the White Lord howled. I AM THE BREATH OF CHANGE, SLOW AND DELIBERATE. THE RUSH OF KNOWING. THE WHEEL THAT TURNS. It spread its arms wide. YOUR GESTATION ENDS TODAY. TODAY, YOU TRULY ARE A GOD! TAKE UP YOUR MANTLE IN THE STARS. SPREAD YOUR WILL ACROSS THE COSMOS. TARRY NOT IN ALAGADDA.

The Hanged King swiped at the air, and a fist of gaseous slate knocked the spectre to the deck plates. I AM NOT THE CREDULOUS FOOL WHO DINED ON HEMLOCK IN THE FEAST OF WORDS. YOU HAVE NO TRUTH FOR ME, AND NEVER—

It suddenly fell, past where its knees should have been, and briefly burst as a mortar shell before reforming at a breathless kneel. WHAT IS THIS?!

DOUBT. The White Lord rotated back to an upright position, and loomed over its former liege. THE WARLOCK GIRL HAS CRIPPLED YOU WITH HER PERFIDY AND DECEIT. DESTROY HER, AND LEAVE THE DEAD TO THE CROWS. THE CROSSROADS OF THE UNIVERSE STANDS BEFORE YOU. CHOOSE A NEW PATH.

The King was wreathed in ash and cinders, obscuring the portal from the White Lord's view. It hammered at the fundament of Dichotomy, its fists exploding into dust over and over and over again. YOU CUT ME, AND YOU BLED ME, AND YOU CUT ME, AND YOU BLED ME… The voice was thin and reedy, the resolve almost spent. I BLEED, I BLEED…

THEN BLEED, the White Lord rasped. AND—

"With this, your blood, it is the Hangéd King's." Udo flung a goblet of viscous black into its face.

The White Lord shrieked, and tore at its eyes with sleeves now stained with pitch. It howled, and raged, and crashed to the deck as the Hanged King rose again. It turned its nightmare face upon her, and asked: WHY?

She shrugged. "Because the choice wasn't his, and it isn't mine. It's yours." She gestured back at the aperture, which still showed the silent throne of Alagadda. "Your servants await you. A second chance. Is that what you want?"

Obi emerged from the crowd, headed for the convulsing shape of the transfigured White Lord. He picked up speed and kicked, and the mask skittered across the riveted surface of Dichotomy. He tore the robe from its back, and left it shuddering in a pool of spreading ichor. The Hanged King plucked the mask from the deck plates, then fixed its gaze on Udo. THE FAITHFUL EXILE IS RETURNED?

She nodded.

THEN I WILL GO TO ALAGADDA, AND SEE WHAT CHANGES I MIGHT MAKE. The cloud of ash obscured its loathsome form, and it glided towards the aperture. I HAVE FINISHED WITH YOU, WARLOCK.

She didn't see it move through the portal. She only saw her father standing before her, holding the soiled white robe, eyes shining. "Told you," he said.

She made a noise halfway between joy and despair, a loud ungracious outburst of emotion. "I opened it," she said. "I opened the goddamn thing myself."

He smiled. "Of course you did. The ways you've changed, the things you've changed, you're twice the spirit that empty husk could ever be. You know who you are, Udo. You're not lying to yourself, and I'm not lying to you either. Not anymore." He shook out the impossibly bright fabric, spattering the deck with flecks of gunk. "But that's not the only reason it opened for you. You're torn between two places, like those monks above and below. You want to go with your friend, and you want to stay here with me. You can't do both, you know."

"I know," she whispered.

"You have to go."

"I know."

"You have to go now, while you're still unsure, while you still don't want to, or the gate will close." He handed her the robe and pulled her into a rough embrace, and they held each other tightly for not nearly long enough. "Go home, wunderkind."

He wrapped the shroud around her, and she understood; living matter couldn't pass through the veil around Corbenic, but like the goblet of black blood the wrappings of the White Lord exuded an impervious shield of un-life. This, then, was goodbye.

He walked her to the portal, and smiled in the face of her tears.

"Will you be okay?" It was a stupid question, but she had to ask. She had to hear him lie to her, if only one more time. She hoped he wouldn't mind.

He laughed. "You found me in the desert, and you brought me to the end. That's the hard part over."


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The aperture remained open as Udo dropped the filthy robe on the filthy floor and embraced her friend. Her father watched for a moment, then turned and walked away.

"Stupid plan," Udo sobbed. "Stupid, stupid plan."

"Was that your dad?" Ibanez didn't know what else to say. "Why… why?"

Udo shook her head. "Not now. We don't have time."

OH, YOU KNEW? I WAS HOPING TO SURPRISE YOU.

The Black Lord stood beside the throne where the Hanged King was slumped, unresponsive. A myriad of tiny, faceless creatures were pulling chains and singed ropes across its motionless body. DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL IS SO VERY DRAINING. MY LIEGE-LORD NEEDS HIS REST.

Udo sneered as they approached the daïs. "I thought you were the faithful one."

The tragedy mask affected a look of wounded dignity. I AM, I AM! THEY WOULD HAVE LET HIM ROT FOR ALL ETERNITY. I ONLY PLAN TO TAKE THE LEAD FOR, OH, SHALL WE SAY AN AEON OR TWO? Two quivering figures stepped into the light, standing behind the Ambassador's stolen body. One in red, the other in yellow. Their masks were caked in opaque ectoplasm. WE'RE ALL ON THE SAME PAGE, NOW. LET'S DO SOME EXPLORING. It eyed the portal hungrily.

"Well, you're welcome." Ibanez kicked at the grime on the floor, exposing cracks in the mortar. "Don't call us, yadda yadda."

WHY WOULD I NEED TO CALL YOU? The tragic scowl returned. YOU'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE.

"I could seal the aperture," Udo growled, stuffing her hands into her pockets. "Don't test me."

I HAVE WORN ENOUGH MORTALS TO KNOW BETTER, the Black Lord laughed. YOU WOULD LOSE SO MUCH IF YOU SHUT THAT DOOR. YOU WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO OPEN IT AGAIN. THAT WHICH IS DEAD—

"Everything dies," Udo snarled. "Go fuck yourself."

"That's not very poetic," Ibanez chided. "I think you mean 'shut your trap'."

The Black Lord lunged, and Udo chucked two fistfuls of Corbenic sand into its oily face. The aperture snapped shut, Ibanez clapped her hands, the door in the floor under centuries of dust and dried tears dropped open beneath them and they fell into another world. Theirs.

The Black Lord wiped its face clean, then flicked a mass of bituminous sand onto the walls. OH, WELL. BRAVO.


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Foundation Mission Control


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"Any change?"

The lead ground controller smiled. "179 is pointing at a potential impactor near Mars, now, and 2578-D is gone."

Dr. Richard Barnard smiled back at him. "Guess they've got bigger fascists to fry."


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The Royal Astronomer nodded, palpably excited behind her pallid hawk mask. "That's right! She didn't really shut it, she just moved it to the sky! Take a look!" She stepped back from the ornate black telescope, then frowned thoughtfully. "Ah, can you actually…?"

LET'S FIND OUT. The Black Lord pressed its mask to the eyepiece, and grunted with pleasure at what it apparently saw. The aperture to Corbenic, sizzling in the yellow sky, promising the imminent conquest of a thousand unwitting worlds. Now that she knew it was there, the astronomer could see it with her (almost) naked eye, and the possibilities had the wheels in her mind spinning overtime.

WAIT. THERE'S SOMETHING ELSE. A moment's pause. DO YOU KNOW THAT CODE WITH THE FLASHING LIGHTS?

As it happened, she did. The complete absence of heavenly bodies in the Nevermeant had given her no end of time to spend on other esoteric subjects. The Black Lord recited what it saw, and when it was done, the astronomer recited the message back.

"CHANGE YOUR WAYS. THIS IS A WARNING SHOT."

A beam of intense energy arced from the aperture, which vanished in the instant before a glowing red hole was punched through the Black Lord's forehead. It fell to the observatory tiles, bleeding black blood and melted porcelain, gurgling softly.

Without being sure why she did it, the astronomer knelt over the eyepiece again. There were more flashes; she picked up a journal from her nearby desk, and dutifully transcribed them.

"CONSIDER YOURSELVES WARNED."



<END LOG>
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