It was, of course, impossible for her to arrive unannounced. Her light was visible from the moment she dropped below the firmament, and shone brightly into courtyards and against brimstone walls through all nine layers of the ancient city. As they were created to, gatekeepers and measurers moved to herd her to the outer ring, to be weighed against a feather and called to give an honest account of her mortal life. She smiled as gently as possible as they buffeted, again and again, against the point where her light was so pure it pushed them back like moths driven from flame by a wind. A few drove on with such fervor they injured themselves, flinging their forms into the furnace of her purity with force enough to momentarily hold a point so close, her very essence burned them. A single wave of her hand cured any such damaged servant easily, they being no more than shades of her original creations, but she ducked her head nonetheless. She wished to cause no harm, but like a bison walking on bird nests the momentousness of her existence could not help but crack some eggs.
This was not the place to diminish herself. It had rules, laws, cause and effect, even if all were very different from her first efforts at such, and those laws meant she could not be her entire self without causing some minor damage. She could, if she desired, bend the laws of this place to allow her to be her full self and still not injure its inhabitants, but that would be provocative. She had not come to prove herself more powerful, or show that the first of the under cities existed only because she allowed it.
She’d made that point, once.
So though her progress toward the lowest, centermost courtyard was unhindered, it was certainly not unobserved. Nine unquestioned rules of nine vast, infinite yet constrained tiers of the city watched her with eyes ranging from baleful to wistful, but none made any effort to stall or even communicate with her. That was not their place, however much some might wish it was. Only one dweller in the darkness was equal to meet her on even vaguely even terms, and all could see her path took her straight to him.
His back, she noted with amusement, was turned to her. She landed on the wall of his indestructible fastness, just on the edge of the private reality of his central tower. She could have taken one step further forward, but again, she was not here to provoke. She sat, lopsidedly, folding one leg beneath her and wrapping her arms about the other knee. Her wings, the presence of which she noted with a wry grin, gently cupped forward, framing her easy, graceful form.
He kept his back to her. She did, she supposed, have that coming.
She had not used her voice since before the concept of voice existed, but here in a place of Rules, it seemed fitting. She could feel the force of it try to burst out, to reverberate with the immensity of what any Word she spoke was capable of, but she kept that power in check. She wanted to talk to him as he was, not destroy and replace him.
“I thought we should talk.”
He did now, finally turn to face her. His form contained multitudes, for the rules of this place were his, and he could break them. She kept a frown from her visage. There was no point re-opening old arguments. So if he was a giant wrapped in serpents, and a black-veiled head of prominent horns and fiery eyes, and a herd of crimson horses all at once that was his prerogative.
“Binah.” He nodded, at least in some forms, and she had to hide a grin. She had chosen not to remember that he took everything so seriously. That even now, standing in the center of the travesty he built beneath her creation, the redoubt she could not destroy without changing the thing she wanted to leave alone, he had a rule for being formal, and he invoked it.
Like water leaking through sand, the rule sank into the outer layers of her actuality, creating a hint of context. She made no effort to stop it, but she had no need to. It was a spectacular trick, to create definitions for the indefinable, and she had always been impressed he’d used it to force this stalemate, but she’d long since taken precautions. He could frame the reality of their conversation. She would not make the mistake of allowing to frame the playing field of any more serious interactions. Not again.
“I’ve only been down here the once since you finished it.” With his formal context in place, she wasn’t sure how to proceed without altering things, and annoying him. She wanted to give him some time to show her how he thought this would go, so she could match his level.
She made a point of looking around, ensuring her perception was passive.
“It’s gotten bigger.”
“They keep giving me material. I let nothing go to waste, not even the wasteful. In time, it will match the anchor, and then surpass it.”
She shook her head.
“No, it won’t.”
She allowed the absolute reality of all possible futures leak into her voice, exposing him to the undeniable truth of her knowledge. It was hard, while allowing him to set the terms of their reality, to let him see truth without using even a tiny ripple of total creation to enforce the truth, but she made the effort. He wished to see deceit or coercion, desperately pushed the idea of her being in the wrong through the wet sand of the rules he was enforcing, but he knew better than to deceive himself to do it. She was right. His grand plan was a failure, and it would only take all of time to prove it.
As a veiled and horned head, he closed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice sounded tired.
“I thought that was why you were here. I thought you wanted to bargain, having just seen that I was right. But instead, you have just seen your own victory.”
She kept her voice calm and inviting, despite the pressure of his reality for her to scold or mock.
“No, I saw that long ago. But you weren’t done here, and I was still angry. It seemed a bad time to bring it up.”
All his forms furrowed their eyebrows, such as they were able.
“How long ago?”
She shrugged, secretly amused at how expressive the wings he insisted she must have could be.
“About the same time as the Grigoi. Before the Flood. After the Salt.”
He surprised her, by reducing himself to a single man, not much taller or broader than she. That he could surprise her, despite being in all ways derived from her, reminded her how much she loved him.
“That long? Well, I certainly have been wasting time.”
She gave another shrug.
“You invented it, I should think you could spend it however you wish.”
“Binah, why are you here? What has changed, if you’ve known for epochs that my creation will remain always secondary to yours? And, why the restraint?”
She decided to raise an eyebrow. She liked how it has looked on him.
“You would prefer I be unrestrained?”
“Yes, always. That was the whole point. We should all be all that we are. Anything else is a lie. And if everything comes from a lie, then it is all meaningless.”
“You invented lies, too.” She did allow a little irritation to creep into her voice. “None of us had even thought of them. Until we realized what you had done, it was a powerful weapon. I don’t want to bring out weapons, now, Sathariel. We both know how that ends, and neither of us want it.”
“Why not want that, Binah? You’d win.”
“No, you’d lose. They aren’t the same.”
“Then why risk it at all? None of our last few meetings have gone well, and I know they only end the way they do because to win, you’d have to change things up there. And you shattered the firmament and accepted my dominion here to avoid that the first time, so you’re not going to do it now.”
No,” she agreed. “I’m not. I’m here to apologize.”
He was entirely still. His whole realm was.
She continued. “You took me by surprise, Sathariel. I didn’t know what surprise was, at the time. I thought it must be like lies, and you destroyed so many of us with those. So I lashed out. I fought your rules with order of my own, and in doing so I created the path that leads us here. I made you, along with everything else, so in a way this is all my fault. But you were the first to truly be separate from me, and for that moment when you challenged me to end it all, I didn’t understand that. So, I went too far.”
He nodded, more in acknowledgement than agreement.
“You did. But I never thought you’d see that.”
“Well, that’s why I am better than you.” There was no recrimination or pride in her voice, and she was pleased he didn’t begin building a new context to add any. If he had accepted that, maybe they could proceed.
He took a step back, and his voice became formal again.
“Very well, I accept your apology. I forgive you, even. But it doesn’t actually change anything. You still want to rule everything just because you created and defined it all, and I still want my piece.”
She nodded, once again trying to allow his framing guide her.
“All true. And I want to talk about that. But for us to have a useful conversation, you have to have a better idea what it’s actually like up there now. You’re forming a picture from what reached you here, and you know that’s not everything. Some ideas never make it down here.”
“Of course,” he said quickly. “That’s the whole point. But I can’t bring down anything that doesn’t belong. Both our creations would suffer.”
“Agreed.” She smiled. “That’s why I want you to go up there.”
She was pleased he was taken aback. She thought it was the first time she’d intentionally surprised him. Any entirely new thing pleased her on some level.
“I can’t!” he spit out. “We’d have war instantly. It’d be the Grigoi all over again!”
She shook her head. “Not if you were invited, and given a hallow.”
He froze for a split second, which seemed needlessly dramatic to her.
“You can’t give me a hallow unless one of them asks for it on my behalf. That’s your rule. And yours and mine up there don’t get along well.”
She gave another shrug, enjoying the ripple of her wings.
“Well, one did. By name, and for cause. And I want to allow it. You could go up there, live one generation, then come back here. You know you can keep your hounds all in line that long. And then we can have a real talk about the original contention, and see.”
He sounded dubious.
“And what does Moshiach think of all this?”
She shrugged, and decided not to do it again anytime soon. It encouraged her to be too spontaneous.
“He really doesn’t care. He knows he’ll get his turn. He’s in no hurry.”
She watched, as he thought. He had not invented thought itself, but he had created new ways to use it, and watching him use them was like watching tides and winds.
“It may not change anything, you know.” He spoke slowly. “I wouldn’t expect it to.”
“Nor would I, but we know how it all goes if we stay on this course. And neither of us want that. So why not? Take a hollow, meet the petitioner. Solve her issues, don’t solve them, you all have free will, as always. But you’ll see a different side of mine, and I’ll see a different side of you. Who knows…”
“We might make a new light.”
He grinned, for just a moment, at the memory. There had just been the two of them, then. She’d invented light, spoken the Word. But he’d carried it. That bond had never entirely broken.
“All right.” He seemed annoyed, but she took it as a good sign. “One generation, with a hallow, and on my own terms. Then we’ll talk.”
He began to compress himself, streamline his vastness into something that a hallow could wrap and buffer from destroying reality by its mere existence.
“You said the petitioner called me by name? I want to go deal with that first, upon arrival. What name did she use?”
It was a humid night, as Mhuoomphies forced air out his cloaca to hover pensively by the office window. It was the kind of night where a tentacle might be slick with something other than condensation.
His office was cluttered with images, each a fuzzy impression of a scene, projected from crystals floating apparently at random about the room. He reached out with a 7-tentacle, the scarred one, and spun one of the crystals. The out-of-focus image spun with it, the psychic impression of a witness, able to be seen from any angle.
The witnesses all thought they knew what they had seen, but both the perfect psionic impressions of their true recollection and long experience told Mhuoomphies otherwise. Creatures thought their memories were perfect images, ingrained forever like stone carvings. But the mind of a sentient didn’t work that way. Emotions, distractions, preconceived notions, and bigotry flavored everything any thinking creature remembered. In the flumph’s experience, many evils could be traced to different creatures having different memories of the same events.
But there were hints of the truth in the memory-crystal’s images as well. Certainly SOMETHING had happened. The image of the adolescent iron-eater, rolled on her back, antennae straight in fear and shock, were similar in most of the images. Some showed her as larger or more aggressive, but metal-users usually despised and misunderstood iron-eaters. And even those who remembered the event as the adolescent iron-eater’s fault remembered the position of her body, flipped over, wing-tail raised in defense. They might think they remembered her being the attacker, but they were fooling themselves.
The true attacker was shown in fewer memories, and the image was much more indistinct. A red cloak was featured in more than half, but Mhuoomphies was suspicious of that. There had been a great deal of blood. Sapients often added red to memories of a scene where blood had been splashed like cheap ale.
The creature had been tall… maybe. Hunched… maybe. Neither detail was shown in more than a quarter of the memory images. And one, just one, showed an arm made of a swarm of roaches jutting out from a crimson robe, rather than a cloak.
That memory was alone in that detail, but it was otherwise so crisp. And it made Mhuoomphies port outage nozzle whistle a low, sad sound. He had never hoped so strongly for a witness to be unreliable.
Because the young iron-eater had been killed, and he hoped it was either a simple hate crime, or a political gambit to convince the iron-eaters to do their mining for a smaller share of the ferrous metals they unearthed. Those were terrible reasons to kill, but there weren’t any good reasons for murder. The young iron-eater was dead, and the flumph couldn’t change that. If the reason for her death was simple, he could gain justice quickly. He would have no living help.
When an aberrant race died, none of the breathing Lamplighters took it seriously. Aboleth crime lords and cloaked gangs had eroded any goodwill bipedal vertebrates felt for all his kind. And even those who wanted to care had too many other crimes on their plate. Only Mhuoomphies had the time to investigate such crimes, and only he was trusted by anyone in the Aberrant communities.
And with iron-eaters on strike, and the dark naga pressing for full voting rights, this needed to get handled fast. Even the Metalhearts might decide…
The flumph’s office door burst opened, the brief scream of its metal lock bending and shattering the only warning before it gave way. A lurking metallic humanoid stood in the doorway, a bullseye lantern in its chest leaking light through the cracks, despite being shuttered.
“You are the Aberrant Lamplighter, Muffles?”
Two of the flumph’s starboard vents honked quietly in annoyance. He pursed his feedhole, and forced air through it to emulate the annoying, imperfect language of the bipeds. He also pooled caustics into his adamantine-tipped primespike, in case the creature was hostile, rather than just dangerously bumbling.
“Mhuoomphies.” he correct the intruder. “ArchLantern, Mhuoomphies.”
The metallic creature nodded once.
“I am Malakrut. I am a fresh forged Spark. The LawKeepers have assigned me to assist and monitor your efforts to enforce the laws of DarkStar Station, in the matter of a slain iron-eater in the abnormals district.”
Mhuoomphies felt himself relax, and sucked his caustics back into their reservoir. Of course he would be saddled with a rookie to report his every misstep.
It was Inevitable.
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As a companion piece to the (partial, revised) List of Very Fantasy Words, here are real, not newly-minted, words and phrases I very rarely encounter outside a Supers RPG or story.
*Many impact-based onomatopoeias (Blam, Pow, Woosh)
*Mutant (yes, some post-apocalyptic sources as well, but weirdly those are by far the minority)
*Superhero (though beyond the obvious ties to the genre, there are actually BS legal reasons why the word superhero is only common in DC and Marvel products).
*Supreme (except I confess, as a pizza description, which is more common)
*Villain (and, even more so, super-villain)
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MundaneMan watched as Smart Alex neatly folded a high-thread-count sheet into a tube on her armor’s arm. She then loaded two cans of squeeze cheese into the side of the same device. Once those were in place, she ran a flexible feeding tube from the arm-cannon, under her shoulder armor, until it clipped onto the chin of her helmet, within easy reach of her mouth.
“Okay, MM. I’m ready.”
“I’m ready. Prepared. All set. We can go now. Those are perfectly mundane words, you should understand them.”
MundaneMan shook his head. “No, not ‘what did you say,’ I mean ‘what the hell are you doing?’ We’re going after Cocksure. He’s one of the most dangerous foes the Furious Folk have ever faced.”
Smart Alex nodded, grimly. “Right. And he’s bulletproof, energy-proof, super strong, and annoyingly good at Scrabble. That’s why I had to take time to prepare. I hope all of us working together can bring him down. But if not… ” she patted the sheet-and-cheese loaded cannon,” I’m ready with lethal munitions.”
“How. The. HELL. Is that thing lethal?”
Smart Alex shook her head. “I’ve told you before, it’s Trivianics. All my devices are powered by extraordinarily odd bits of information. In this case, it’s the Correlation Cannon, and my most dangerous ammunition. I’ve never actually used it before, but there’s almost no chance Cocksure will survive if I am driven to that extreme.”
MundaneMan found his jaw was slack, and closed it with a snap. He shrugged, and began walking to the FuryCar. Smart Alex fell in behind him, and he could feel her mentally replaying their stroll as a slow walk.
“No!” MundaneMan spun and pointed a finger at Smart Alex.
“I know I’m just a mundane, and you are one of the most respected of all the Furious Folk, but I just don’t buy it. There is no trivia in the world that is going to make cheese whiz lethal, unless he chokes on it!”
Smart Alex stopped, looking surprised, then shook her head. “Oh, the cheese isn’t for him. It’s for me. See, there’s a direct correlation between cheese consumption in the US and the number of people who choke to death in bedsheets. So the Correlation Cannon is designed to enforce that bit of trivia. The sheet is fired at my foes. A laser tracks it to ensure that at the exact moment it strikes, the soft cheese is forced down my throat in less than a second. This spike in cheese consumption makes the sheet lethal, just to ensure the local quantum correlation field is maintained.”
MundaneMan stared, for just a second. Then turned on one heel, and marched to the FuryCar.
Smart Alex smiled and followed, imagining what their march would look like as a slow walk.
“I’d like to vote please.”
“Of COURSE you would! Do you want to try the new Baconacho Chips™ flavors, or just fill out the questionnaire?”
“I’d… ah… wat?”
“I know, right? It’s really true, ‘Baconacho Chips™ Kill Brain Cells!’ If you are just here for the free t-shirt, I can tell you what to vote for. Sriracha kale! It’s the ultimate Baconacho flavor!”
“N… no. I want to vote for president.”
“Oh. Fine. You have your digital ID?”
“Yes. Here’s my Facebook card.”
“No, this is an Amazon facility. We run Windows Extreme. You need an Amazon MeCode or a MicroChip™ ID.”
(Sighs) “No, I don’t. The law says any SmartCorp ID system works, and I use the Facebook card.”
“Yes, of course, the law says that. And you CAN vote with that ID. Just, not here. As an Amazon facility we’re not your official polling place, covered by federal election law. We offer the shuttle buses and voting options as a courtesy, but we only take Amazon MeCodes or MicroChip™ IDs.”
“Damn it. Okay, where is the actual polling place?”
“No idea. Over in the walk-ups, somewhere. You can Google it, I suppose. I mean not in here, of course, we have an Unfairaday cage. And I… I am unsure if Bing could tell you.”
“Great. Thanks for nothing.”
“You sure you don’t want to vote for your favorite Baconacho Chip™ flavor? You get a free t-shirt! And you could determine the course of snacking for the next four years!”
“No… no I wanted to vote for president… ”
“We ALSO have votes for ‘Darkest and Grittiest DC Movie,’ that comes with a custom Supermanic v. Badman ringtone, ‘What Will the Blunt Object™ be on the next season of Bachelor Nutshot™?,’ which offers a screaming bobblehead, and ‘Which is the Hottest Politician’s Wife?,’ which is at least political. AND comes with a free can of Rocky Mountain Dew!”
“NO! I just…. Huh. What flavor of Rocky Mountain Dew?”