Jun 05, 2020 7:38 AM

Milliways lurks. 

The bar is vacant at the moment except for a tall, broad-shouldered bald humanoid who looks to be made entirely of a substance like polished quartz. Its features are male-ish, heavily muscled (or at least a crystalline impression thereof) and move more fluidly than crystal should, especially the face; he currently wears an expression of deep satisfaction whilst spooning at a bowl of dense blue glop. A brown cloak riddled with rips and tears drapes down from his shoulders. A tapering tail of the same crystalline material can be glimpsed, occasionally swishing from beneath the cloak. He wears a sword in a thin scabbard at his right side and a long dagger at his left. Both are simple and unadorned. 

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Someone walks in.

This someone is gaunt and pale skinned with deep shadows surrounding their eyes. Raven hair falls just past their shoulders and upon their brow is a circlet bearing a half filled curve as insignia. They wear a black cloak adorned with a clasp of steel. Beneath the swirling cloak can be seen hints of a close dark leather outfit, adorned with some strange gray metal in which the swirls and eddies of forging seem to have left the uncanny impression of pained faces. A thin blade of the same metal is at their hip, and a staff of warped and twisted ebony is in their hand. Surrounding them at a distance of several paces is an aura of decay wherein the wood of the bar creaks in protest and some silverware on a nearby table tarnishes. From the doorway behind, the cawing of crows can be heard.

The overall effect is honestly quite a bit past ominous and well into melodrama.

The newcomer approaches the bar, taking a seat a few stools over from the current inhabitant.


The current inhabitant takes another slurp of glop. 

"That's a damn good ensemble you got there," he announces without turning his head. His voice is slightly deeper than average, but otherwise entirely human. He's likely speaking a language the newcomer doesn't recognize. This doesn't matter; Milliways does translation. "But don't you think it's a bit much? The aura of decay and all. I hope it doesn't mess with your food." He looks down at his own bowl. It doesn't appear messed with, so he shrugs and slurps another spoonful. 


"Regretfully," comes a voice that sounds as through it got stabbed at midnight and then lain for three days on bare gravel, and at the time of the unfortunate assassination had been clambering out of the sepulcher, "the aura is the one component of this ensemble which is not optional. Since I have an aura of doom, I find it helps not to mix messages."

The aura stops, apparently deliberately measured, close enough that the bald fellow could stick an arm into it, but not so close that a wayward elbow would wind up within. It makes for a near perfect circle centred on the newcomer, and despite there being no visible sign of it except where it produces changes in materials already present, there's something awful about the space. You'd never just not notice where the boundary was.

"How does one acquire food in this establishment? Have the servants taken ill?"


At "mix messages", Bald Crystal Guy snorts blue glop into his bowl and dissolves in laughter. It takes a little bit to subside. 

"Sorry, sorry," he chuckles. "Can't exactly blame you. To answer your question," he gestures expansively with the hand opposite the newcomer, indicating the bar. Close examination may reveal that the joints on the arm are covered in a very fine set of crystalline scales, allowing them to bend like armor. "This establishment is evidently called Milliways, the bar itself is sapient, and it will take pretty much any currency that exists and supply pretty much any imbibable substance in exchange. It can also supply menus, though I'd advise being specific about what interests you. This is only my second visit, but I haven't seen a servant yet." 


The ominous figure considers. "Strange magics. Perhaps script, to start-" and several pieces of paper with ornate writing on them are drawn forth and placed on the bar. They look like small contracts or deeds. "Three strips of jerky, a bowl of dried fruit, and a drink of ale or beer." As an afterthought, as though of long disused habit, they add "please."

Seeing the food arrive in a plainly magical fashion and change made of the script, the newcomer is pleased, and begins to eat- the preserved food undergoing no harm for being within the aura, proof against the obvious results of rot or neglect. 

"By what appellation are you called, stranger?"


"Blastralion Protos, Blastralion for short," he answers, pronouncing the name so as to rhyme with medallion. "Yourself?" 


A long sigh. "The Last Red Ring Before Eternal Lightlessness." There's a damned echo on the words, a quiet chorus of lost souls which intone the words alongside the newcomer. Meanwhile there's no sign of humour or pride in their face, just an expectation of either bemusement or terror from their audience.

"For the sake of brevity, you may call me Lightless. This is not my name, but for reasons relating to my aura of doom it would be best that my name were not spoken here."


He's ready for it this time, and there is no snorting of blue goop. "That sounds...deeply unfortunate. I'm sorry for whatever saddled you with that constraint, Lightless. I take it that speaking it once isn't a problem? Or is it only a problem if someone else speaks it? Does writing count? If my questions bother you, incidentally, feel free to change the subject. I confess to being intrigued." 


"That sequence of syllables, or any representation referencing them, being used to refer to me causes some issue. Any way of singling out the specific individual who once used that title and who became the entity you see before you causes worse problems. Acknowledging that name as referring to me is worst, and gets worse each time the reference happens. This can be best modeled as being based on intent, and trying to get around it except by some means more esoteric than the process or entity which caused this can comprehend just makes them mad."

"If you happen to have an appetite for indiscriminate destruction, then their wrath could be vented, but I prefer discriminate destruction myself."


"That seems like an oddly specific curse," muses Blastralion. "Your phrasing also suggests there was some kind of...transition? From being merely a title to something else, and from person to...entity? Indirect references won't trigger it, as long as the actual words aren't spoken aloud? That part's just so I don't have to worry about my phrasing, by the way. And that still doesn't tell me why you said it the first time, if it's so dangerous. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the indulgence of your answering, but 'I can't really say' seems a reasonable response in your case." 


Lightless laughs, starting out as a chuckle but soon joined by that unearthly accompaniment. "I can speak freely of the general case. There is a transition. From common mortal to something both more and. . . less, in some respects. The greatest part of the sacrifice is that the mortal is no more, in saying that the mortal is no longer me. As long as you do not know who that mortal might have been, there's little danger of an accidental reference, and if you by misfortune stumble onto that identity I will simply lie to you and the worst of the effect will be averted." Shadowed eyes look over Blastralion. "There are more than one of what I am, but the odds against attaining this state are unlikely."


"Hmmm. How much of the mortal's goals, motivations, and personality are preserved by the change? To what degree is it a willing one? Does it involve a bargain with the entity who is so preoccupied with identities? And forgive me if I misunderstand, but it still seems like in uttering the phrase when I asked for a name, you definitely acknowledged it as referring to you. Why didn't that cause problems?" 


"To my knowledge, all of the goals, motivations, and personality are preserved. Some are refined or altered by the clairity found on the other side- improved cognition or prowess are extremely common, and newfound power has a way of changing a person. Some would say this means the change makes us monsters. I prefer to think that most would be monsters, if they thought themselves invincible."

"My new title may be freely used. It is references to the identity I previously held that is verboten."

"The bargain is simple. Death reaches out. How do you answer?"


"I've known folks to debate whether killing someone but transferring their memories and personality to a new container is really killing them," comments Blastralion, finishing his glop and facing Lightless. "Doesn't seem like much of a loss to me, but opinions vary greatly and I'm something of a special case anyway. I've also known a lot of folks who thought they were invincible."  He smiles. His crystalline face has remarkable range of motion. "They all turned out to be wrong, but you never know. Still, thank you for clarifying." 

If he looks, now that Blastralion has turned, Lightless can see that the crystalline man is wearing short leather trousers under the cloak, in much better condition than the cloak itself. There's presumably a hole in back for the tail. His chest is bare and smooth, with the appearance of human musculature carved in that strange crystal, but no nipples. 

Blastralion continues, "That's not really a bargain, though, is it? Not a whole one, anyway. How does the process depend on what one answers?" 


Lightless shrugs, continuing to eat his meal with precise yet unrefined movements. "I was being somewhat concise to the point of poetry. The core of the bargain is, if you agree to serve death, then you will never die." The resulting grin would be called terrifying and gleeful by turns. "Death is nonspecific, and there are some edge cases where interpretation may fall in your favour. Not anything regarding your past self, but fortunately I found that one of the benefits." The last of the dried fruit vanishes into pocket. "In any case, I believe it is the same container even."


"'Death is nonspecific', huh?" muses Blastralion. If he notices the grin, he shows no sign of it. "In what regard is Death nonspecific? Is Death a coherent entity where you're from? What does its service entail? If it involves killing things and you have, I don't know, a quota or something, I could cheerfully point you in the direction of many things that need to die. It comes with some risk, but immortality renders most of that risk moot."  


"Where I come from. . ." The grin loses the gleeful angle, becoming macabre. "Where I come from, the gods rose against their makers- the primordials- but found themselves bound by oaths and prophecy. They gave their powers to mortals, choosing those who achieved mighty deeds or excelled in rare virtues. You might think that attempting to achieve immortality would be worthy of such an honour. You'd think wrong. I was not one of those." The cadence of Lightless's speech takes on that of someone who has recited a story many times, if only in their aggrieved internal monologues. "After the gods' victory, their defeated and abased opponents were bound themselves- and like the gods, found the loophole to exploit. They chose champions who had also failed, who also raged at what the gods chose to withhold. You might think that a ruined body, burned by caustic reagents and toxic inhalations of incense, who had failed, had in fact shortened their lifespan by decades, would be considered. I was not." Now the edge of a grin quirks into an expression of dark humour, a bitter sarcasm. "The slain primordials did not truly die. Something that titanic, that fundamental to the world, that important on a cosmic scale- it doesn't die even when you kill it. They drive through their own private haunts, touching on the world above only to spread the gift of death that treats them so differently. They choose the dead. They especially choose the stupidly, pointlessly dead." The capital letter on the final word can be heard audibly. Something in the enunciation. "I am an Abyssal Exalt, of the Daybreak caste, chosen champion of the Deathlords beyond names and beyond Creation. I am walking proof that the gods beneficence is not as strong as their desire for dramatic irony." 

"The deathlords want their chosen to spread death. Kill things. Preferably people, preferably lots of things, preferably the most full of life, preferably in ways that cascade and go on to cause more death. The linchpin of a defense force keeping monsters at bay, the first to fall from a new plague, the speakers and singers who keep hope alive in their audiences. Ultimately it doesn't matter too much to them, because if they don't feel you're doing enough or if you offend them, they reach through you and kill whatever is around you or whatever you care most about. In exchange, you life forever or until something very specific and usually very powerful rips you into tiny pieces, and you gain unnatural skill and characteristics."

"So I make a habit not to care about anyone, and I ply the trade of an itinerant abortician. It's a hobby."

"If you have something in particular you'd like killed for your own amusement I can see what I could do, but killing a warlord or even the sort singular serial killer doesn't usually put me in the black."


"Hmm," nods Blastralion, having listened with rapt attention. "So if I understand you correctly, the gods of your world uplifted some mortals they judged worthy so they could beat the primordials who made them. This war happened during your mortal lifetime. Being the usual kind of hideously indifferent to mortal tragedy, these gods didn't bother handing out immortality when they won. The not-really-dead primordials decided that your attempt to conquer mortality meant you died ironically enough to suit their tastes as a champion, and the gods - I'm not sure if you're making a distinction between the gods' sense of irony and the primordials', here, but the victorious gods specifically - either approved or couldn't do anything about it. 

"The primordials are also called Deathlords, now, and you're using the terms interchangeably?

"In a rather ironic twist of your own making, you came up with a masterful exploitation of loopholes yourself by choosing a trade and way of life that technically meets the broad criteria assigned to you." A grin accompanies this, more fierce than dark but no less savage. 

"None of what I've heard thus far rules out my own proposal, though it's less "warlord" and more "army" and I don't know your limits, combat-wise... How aware are the Deathlords of your day-to-day interactions? Can they hear conversations? How do they measure your...quota? Specifically, how do they gauge the knock-on effects? And might any of this change if it took place in another universe?" 


Lightless waves a hand. "To a scholar of the occult and divine where I come from, a primordial, a yozi, a god, an incarna, a neverborn, a deathlord, and a least god are all important distinctions. At a layman's level, they all mostly mean 'powerful magic thing that will either ignore you or use you as a tool.' The first war happened long before I was born, but something in the nature of the choosing means that more mortals ascend as the previous Exalted die- I believe this was a way around any individual exalt dying and the gods being ordered not to create any more."

"I am not utterly incompetent with a sword, though it is not an area of focus for me. Given a moment's preparation, I can turn most of an auditorium to gore and mangled limbs with sorcery. The source of my power is aware of my actions, but is also stark raving mad. They can reach me in Creation, the Underworld, and Hell, but I do not know to what extent these are separate universes." Lightless shrugs. "The worst that would happen is they would kill more things if they thought I was killing things wrong."


"That sounds promising. As much as can be expected, anyway." Blastralion folds his hands in front of himself and his carven face adopts a thoughtful expression. "To explain, I suppose I must first describe my own capabilities. I and many of my allies possess a form of magic which lets us travel between universes. To visit a particular universe, we must identify a target universe and 'anchor' to it. As a general rule, anchoring converts any accompanying magic to match the...physical rules...of the destination universe. If no such conversion is possible, such as when anchoring to a world which contains no magic at all, then non-travel forms of magic cease to function while anchored there. Usefully, and sometimes annoyingly, our method of travel also tweaks skills and experiences to be relevant to the destination universe. As an example, some universes I have visited possess advanced nonmagical weaponry. Traveling to such a world would convert my skill in swordsmanship to a skill with those advanced weapons. Since I am currently anchored to a world with less advanced mundane craftsmanship, I know that advanced weapons exist but not how to make or use them." 

"Whatever world I'm in, I retain a few core skills and abilities. Among these are the ability to anchor-and-travel elsewhere, the durable and versatile crystalline form I wear, and the accumulated combat experience of centuries spent fighting various threats. I come from a species that takes great joy in combat, and I am no exception. The majority of us choose to leverage our combination of power, prowess, and patience for grueling training to helpful ends, typically by locating worlds in danger of hostile invasion and thoroughly crushing said invasion." There's that savage smile again, perhaps tinged with a touch of wistfulness. 

"It may sound difficult for a roving band of warriors to find easily-justifiable targets. But it turns out, the cluster of universes reachable by anchor-and-travel magic include a lot of variety. And somewhere in the multiverse, there's usually some form of demonic invasion or hideously oppressive regime to be fought. 

"My allies and I recently encountered a collection of species we dub 'Netherlings', which range in power from 'small biting insect' to 'eldritch star-eating monstrosity.' The few things they seem to have in common are a shared origin universe and a desire to violently expand into others, killing, torturing, enslaving, or eating the inhabitants as suits their fancy. They have a form of anchor-and-travel magic of their own, a portal-based one, but it is enormously energy-intensive to open a portal. The more powerful the entity who wishes to travel, the more energy it takes to send them, and any given entity usually cannot muster anywhere near the power required to move themselves across universes. So their invasions tend to be numerous weaker Netherlings sponsored by one or more powerful Netherlings who hope their minions can establish a foothold on their behalf - by butchering the locals, of course. 

"Naturally, we are at war. 

"My alliance includes beings who can deal with star-eating monstrosities, but their time is valuable in proportion to their strength. It is important for us to resolve any given incursion with the absolute minimum expenditure of resources, for the Netherlings outnumber us on a vast scale. We have largely succeeded in thwarting their expansions thus far, through a combination of better coordination, elite training, brilliant strategic leadership, tragic sacrifice, and sheer blatant cheating with exploitable magic and advanced weaponry. 

"My current assignment in this multiversal war has placed me in an odd and awkward position. My usual approach is to anchor-and-travel to an imperiled world, learn how to best use their local magical and martial advantages, and cajole or coerce their leaders into cooperating to destroy the Netherlings' portal.

"Unfortunately, the universe where I'm currently anchored seems to be lacking in exploitable magic. I'm having to fight off armies of monsters with little more than archers and men-at-arms for support. I was beginning to fear that I would have to either call in reinforcements from elsewhere or abandon this world entirely - and then I opened a door to an interdimensional bar." He gestures expansively to encompass the current locale. "Milliways seems to operate on different rules than anchoring does. If your magic carries over into my anchored world, then any help you can offer would go a long way. I can guarantee you the time to work, if needed. We can do quite a bit with magic of the 'erase an auditorium' variety, and we may even be able to close the Netherling portal. That would set them back tremendously, and it's likely that whomever sponsored this little invasion would give it up as a bad job. I could handle cleanup from there. 

"For quota-meeting purposes, the Netherlings tend to outnumber their victims significantly, and many of them are demonstrably people. Unsalvageably evil people, mind, but people nonetheless." 


"I have never tried sorcery outside of the worlds which are the result of Primordials, but I hear that it works within the deepest wylds. All of my other powers are fueled by the Exaltation itself, a third soul grafted on to my own. If those other powers work, then I am a passable combatant who might expect to learn the height of mortal prowess in weeks or months of practice."

"If sorcery does work however, then I have a better question. Has anyone ever tried to turn a Netherling into any sort of undead or necrotech? If that works, then I can start changing the numbers in your favour. The largest thing ever reanimated by the Abyssal arts stood tall enough to touch the clouds, and that was built out of lots and lots of humans. It would be an interesting artistic challenge to work with raw materials that started as large as Juggernaught, and see what I might combine them into. Outside of the Underworld I may not naturally regenerate motes- the unit of measure for my magic- but the wonderful thing about life is, wherever it exists I can usually make it bleed, and blood will do as well."

"If you really dislike these netherlings, then I might actually suggest I attempt to create a portal to the underworld on their side of the portal. Don't do that anywhere you don't want death and the Neverborn to spread to however."

Lightless leans back in the chair, considering Blastralion. "I'm merely bored however, not an altruist. I gather your association does this for the joy of a good deed done for others? I would be curious to learn your magic on many worlds, if you would be willing to trade lessons."


"A third soul? What's the second?" asks Blastralion. "As for necromancy, no, I'm not aware of it ever working on Netherlings, but my experiences there are limited. They have a strange sort of feature where their body and soul are the same. Kill them and they tend to disspate rather than decompose. Only some of them bleed, but the ones that do ought to serve your purposes, motes or no motes. Necromancy may be worth trying. Perhaps you could get temporary forces, hold them together somehow. I certainly haven't tried it myself, necromancy is rarely an option for me in any world and never was my strength. 

"The Netherlings are powerful in their home. I fully expect they would defeat even an invasion by undying eldritch gods with self-replicating death magic. I've seen many universes, and not one of them could match the Netherlings alone, not if all their factions worked in tandem. The Netherling universe is simply that massive, the abilities that varied, the power cap that high. There'd be an answer somewhere among the various Netherling powers in their universe. But I see no drawbacks to inconveniencing them this way; in the worst case it takes them time and resources to fight back. It certainly won't make our fight any harder. And if they wanted to launch a counter-invasion, that too would take a massive investment of resources to even attempt. It's hard to fight gods in their own domain. 

"My association, as you call it, can be neatly summarized by 'if we don't, who will?' The Netherlings are a grave threat to all universes, or at least all they can reach, which is many. If we didn't fight them they'd eventually kill us all. Myself and my kin sooner, because we have a history of opposing similar attempts at multiversal conquest. Retiring quietly isn't really an option even if we wanted to. But yes, altruism was part of what motivated the initial decision. Our founder saw wrongs inflicted, and possessed the will and the power to end it. For what it's worth, I agree. 

"Aside from all that, I personally relish the challenge. But most of my species is just sort of insane that way. The less combative of my alliance are just trying to keep their homes from being overrun, or else are very, very altruistic. Most are composed of allies we've made in the course of rescuing various universes from invasions and apocalypses, and who we've taught to travel and fight. 

"I can teach my travel-magic, if that's what you ask. It takes years of study, the energy cost can be prohibitive, and it can be frustratingly obtuse at times, but I get the sense this would not stop you. I would consider it a reasonable trade for help fighting the Netherlings in my current anchor-world and a portal to the Underworld in theirs. It just so happens that Milliways can pause time in both our respective universes while we prepare, so there is little urgency there. 

"If you find yourself...unsatisfied with your status as a servant, I can also potentially offer resources capable of removing that status entirely, coupled with alternate ways of getting what you want that don't involve or require servitude of any kind. But such a solution would likely take decades to become available in full; our best options are currently tied up in the war. Still, mastering my form of travel-magic could help." 


"Oh, many of my species relish challenges for the sake of them. I just tend to think they're idiots. An existential threat to everything is the sort of problem that I'm inclined to act to fight, though hardly without arranging for as much extra benefit as I can from the effort. There was perhaps a time when I acted as the hero, but I eventually found more enjoyable pastimes."

Lightless's eyes catch momentarily, cold calculations apparent in slight shifts in stance and expression. "You say this place pauses time? What are the mechanics of this? I entered while you stood here, so the possibility exists of action outside this place. Is it truly paused, or simply slowed to an incredible degree? The bar can summon food for coinage, does it have a limited supply?" Bony fingers grip the countertop in anticipation. "I remind you that I am immortal, and also inform you that the two primary constraints on my magic are time and death. I accept your bargain, my aid in defending your current anchor-world for the period of no more than ten years, in exchange for learning your travel magic as well as all you know about this Milliways place."


"No altering the deal in the process of accepting it," chuckles Blastralion. "And I can't actually tell you everything I know about Milliways, on account of a promise to Bar. What I can tell you is that you can find out all you want to know before you leave this room, merely by asking Bar. Bar will helpfully answer questions, though you need to ask them rather thoroughly.

"Time spent in Milliways prepping does not count as part of the ten years - clock starts when we first visit my anchor-world. And you made no mention of the portal to the Underworld, I'd like to confirm that's part of the deal. I'll absolve you of that if it proves impossible to do or vastly more dangerous than just fighting Netherlings; I doubt it will. Though if you're unkillable as well as unaging, that makes the danger mostly irrelevant. 

"Bar, do you ever run out of food?"

A napkin appears, tastefully embroidered with the word No

"See? Helpful. Time pausing: based on what Bar has told me, and on some experiments of my own, time doesn't pass in your universe while the door's closed. You can spend as long as you like in Milliways; when you next open that door," he nods to the entrance, "you'll be back in your own world with zero seconds having passed. I checked, and it's frozen, not slowed. According to Bar, time passes in universes that don't currently have locals in Milliways, but asynchronously. Could be a hundred years in one, twelve seconds in another. 

"Also, fair warning," here he grimaces, "the magic that causes seemingly random people to get doors to Milliways is not under Bar's control, and it interacts a little weirdly with my travel-magic. I haven't been able to get Bar to give me books on anything more advanced than medieval metallurgy, even though in theory it can also sell anything ever written anywhere. Maybe you'd have better luck, not being anchored yourself. Bar can also supply clothes and nonmagical objects, rent out rooms, and guarantee the security of its guests inside Milliways, and there's a nice greenspace outside. 

"Incidentally, I'm not sure if your death-quota counts as a nutritional need, but if it does, it wouldn't surprise me if Bar has a drink for it. Bar is ridiculously good at its job." 

Blastralion notes the question Lightless hasn't answered, but doesn't probe further. 


Lightless waves a hand. "No slight of hand was intended, merely a counteroffer. If Bar will answer questions, then I retract that piece." A small shroud of dark smoke pools in the hand, now upturned. "The deliberate creation of a shadowland- a place halfway between the underworld and someplace else- is a complex process, but if you can supply me with sufficient lives and sufficient time, it is a reliable process. A few hours and a few dozen souls, and you'll have a portal to the underworld that will be miles wide. From there, it will spread as things die within it or near its edges. A shadowland would allow transportation from wherever it was opened to the underworld of my- you called them dimensions? To my dimension then. I am not particularly worried about things invading the underworld, as it is innately incredibly hostile to life. I agree to your bargain as you stated it, with the understanding of what resources I would need."

"It provides books you say?" Here a gleam appears in those dead, shadowed eyes. "Hrm. Bar, provide me with a copy of the Broken Winged Crane." 

Nothing happens.

"Damnation. Perhaps that tome is considered magical. Blastralion, is there a distinction between a book which is magic and a book which is about magic? I am promised I shall not die from the forces of the Deathlords, which is not quite absolute invulnerability. If you sawed me in half, for example, it would mostly serve to make it personal when I shambled after you upon some dread abomination I would use as a steed. Killing an abyssal is possible, but takes some doing. Tomes of necromancy which currently only exist in my rivals collections are not crucial to your deal, but many are trapped and the traps perhaps come along? Getting my hands on one or two volumes in particular would be a delight."

"Sadly, the deaths are not nutrition so much as they are propitiation. I am, however, willing to depart for your first battlefield at whatever time you desire- depending on how truly the bar wishes to protect the safety of those within it, and it's definition of 'person', it may be wise that I not remain here for long."

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