Orders of Magnitude, Interlude: Strange Loops

“The Tortoise begins to play: B-A-C- – but as he bows the final H, suddenly, without warning, a shattering sound rudely interrupts his performance. Both he and Achilles spin around, just in time to catch a glimpse of myriad fragments of glass tinkling to the floor from the shelf where Goblet G had stood, only moments before. And then … dead silence.”

Douglas R. Hofstadter
Gödel, Escher, Bach


The Dark Lord had won.


Hogwarts Castle
June 13, 1992. 20:43:24

The Stone instantiated in Lord Voldemort’s hand, glistening coldly in the reflected light of the mirror, free from any imperfection.

A quick flick of the wrist.

A swift twitch of the finger.

A deafening crash of a pistol firing.

Harry’s eyes barely had a chance to widen before the bullet entered his forehead.

The Boy Who Lived was dead.

The entirety of his being; his mind, unprotected by Horcrux or ritual or saved state, was currently settling onto the ground, a red mist of gore, bone, and brain. The remainder was stuck to the walls behind the Mirror, (the Mirror itself being perfectly unblemished), or still clung desperately to the inside of his ruined skull. The chamber still echoed with the discharge of the weapon, but Lord Voldemort was already gone, willing to take no chances with what might happen upon the Boy’s death.


Sagittarius A*
Now, Before, Later

Dumbledore emerged from the tunnel. His world was all worlds. His world was fire. His world was void. His world was formless nothing. His world was stagnant death. He focused all his being onto the two worlds that mattered. In one, the star burned, rendering the world insane, its very soul raging with white plasma that rendered such abstract notions as space and time irrelevant in the face of the heat.

He looked across the span of eons into the other world, wherein the Boy Who Lived was dead.

He had all of eternity to rehearse the ritual, and yet, he still felt the slightest bit of nervousness. He began, using the Line of Merlin to harness the magic of all worlds into this one final act. He was Dumbledore, destroyer of worlds, creactor of life. Everything that ever was and everything that ever will be in the universe had led him to this moment. This moment that must come to pass because it already has.

All worlds had narrowed to two, and from those two all worlds would be born. When the Line of Merlin could bear the strain no longer, it glowed white, and began to fray apart at the edges. Dumbledore could feel the eyes of prophecy in the heavens upon him, about to be torn apart by the ritual of Harry’s creation. The Headmaster connected the nodes in his mind, and it was done.

Sagitarrius A* collapsed in less than a second. It folded in upon itself, and distorting the very fabric of reality as it did so. In the final moments of its life, the Headmaster flitted through some dimension that only exists in the minds of addled physics professors, and emerged to the place Beyond Time, where he was connected by the power of the ritual.

In the world he left behind, a galaxy was born. A galaxy where the balance of the world was held in place by a single thread of time, a universe where the only means by which the Crux could succeed was to seek the path of the Scorpion and the Archer. The fires of prophecy would burn with the white light of truth; they had come to be because they had come to be.

He entered a world that was already born, a world where the balance of the world was held in place by a single thread of time that had, until now, been snipped. It was at this very moment that he emerged. He was outside the Mirror. No, he was inside? It was a curious sensation, experiencing time backwards. He took a brief moment to consider the runes that had once been incomprehensible to him. He smiled.

Inside and outside the Mirror, the world was hazy, a confounded miasma of abstraction, like some sort of halfway lucid dream that someone had pressed the rewind button on. His brother took the stone from him. Not from him. From his shadowform. It was not him?  He was talking to his brother. But it wasn’t him. He was saying the war was over. They had won. That was true, no? It was Time. Time to stop holding on to the stone. Give away the stone. Yes.

You could change the past, you just had to think about it at the right time.

As he moved further backwards in time, he considered the tools of his craft that he still had upon his person. The Line of Merlin. The Stone of Permanence. The Elder Wand. A curious glass bottle.

A curious glass bottle of viscous black ichor.


Mid-Fall, 1998

Wilbraham, Massachusetts

“Everett, was that you?”

Sarah Snipes was cleaning dishes in the kitchen when she heard the crack. Or was it a pop? It was probably just her husband playing around in his lab. He was a compounding pharmacist, and owned his own store, so he often experimented with different formulations of various creams or pastes to sell.

As it were, Everett Snipes was not in his laboratory. Rather, he was in his study. “Yes, dear. One of my vials popped a cork,” he yelled a blatant lie back to her.

“Okay, well make sure to clean it up before you let Lily in there. She’s at that age, you know?”

As if on cue, Lily burst in through the study door, her hair all fire and curls, her eyes an angry emerald-green. She had all the energy of a five-year old, and all of the precociousness as well. She stared at her dad who was sitting on the Comfy Chair, and the strange man sitting on the Chair That Mom Yells At Me When I Climb On. “Hi Daddy. Hi Mister Man. Guess what? I learned what a Quine was today in school. I bet you don’t know what a Quine is, Mister Man.”

She glared at the stranger. He considered for a moment, then replied, “If I did not, then this statement would be a lie.”

She paused, thought for a moment, then giggled. “You’re funny, Mister Man. But you’ve got a girl’s hair.” At this, he self consciously adjusted his ponytail. To break the ensuing silence, he reached over and grabbed the thick glass bottle filled with viscous black ichor, and placed it into his suit pocket. It created an awkward lump in his figure.

“I hope that you know, ah, ‘Everett’–”

Lily cut in, “His name’s Daddy, you know!”

“Well, I hope that you know, ‘Daddy’, that I truly understand the gravity of this intrusion. And I hope that you understand that my need is proportionate.”

Everett nodded.

The stranger spoke again, “I would tell you that what you have done today would honor my mother’s memory more than anything else you’ve done in your life. But,” he looked at Lily who had already grown bored, and was splayed out on the floor, playing idly with the rug. He smiled, widely, “I see that this is not true.”

Everett smiled, genuinely. “Thank you.”

“Besides, I have a gift for you in return. A bottle of my own magic that will hopefully aid you in your life’s quest,” at this, the stranger produced a plastic bottle from an extendable space within his robes, and handed it to Everett, who looked at the label.

Head and Shoulders

Everett laughed. “Drop dead.”


Early Fall, 1998
The Tower

Harry had informed the Shichinin that, especially considering to whom they were delivering the message, that they were to not under any circumstances, read its contents. Which of course, meant, especially considering to whom they were delivering the message, that they absolutely were going to be reading its contents. In fact, they didn’t even wait to leave the Tower before they ripped open the envelope.

It had been quite some time since they had a good old fashioned, film noir-esque missing person search. And the person that they were looking for? Oh, this was going to be spectacular. Unfortunately, they were slightly underwhelmed (although a bit intrigued), at the contents of the message.

“Bahl’s Stupefaction. 1 week.”


King’s Cross
Outside Time

“No,” said Albus Dumbledore. “No, no, NO! ”

The building sense of power rose to an unbearable peak, and then disappeared.

And then, there was nothing.

He lay facedown, listening to the silence. He was perfectly alone. Nobody else was there. A long time later, or maybe no time at all, it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought, because he had a sense of touch, and the thing against which he lay existed too.

He sat up. His body appeared unscathed. He touched his face. He was not wearing glasses anymore. His beard was gone. As were the wrinkles.

Albus turned slowly on the spot, and his surroundings seemed to invent themselves before his eyes. A wide-open space, bright and clean. He was the only person there, except for–

He recoiled. He spotted him sitting on a bench, idly reading a curiously thick book. Tom Riddle. He seemed thoroughly unconcerned with the situation.

“He cannot hurt you.” He spun around. Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres was walking towards him, sprightly and upright, wearing sweeping robes over a Muggle suit.  “Prophecy has proven true. I have come to rescue you, Headmaster.”

“Harry. You have… You have aged. How long has it been?”

“Oh, about 20,000 years, objectively. Subjectively? Well, for you, it’s been but a few seconds, has it not?”

“It has, but I am trapped outside of Time. I would fear for you, but you are The Crux, the Once and Future King. You do not carry the look of sadness about you, which lightens my heart greatly. Dare I ask if you have succeeded? Did you tear apart the very stars in heaven to save its people?”

“Ah… Well…. Not quite.” Harry tittered on his feet a bit, “In fact, we’re not really out of the woods just yet.”

“I confess, I do not understand. But then again, that is more than fair turnabout. Would you do an old man the honor of explaining what I must do?”


King’s Cross
Later

The Headmaster’s head was still reeling from the enormity of the plan. But, then again, it fit with all the prophecies. For the first time since Nicholas Flamel had bequeathed upon him the Words of the First Enchanter that unlocked the keys to the entire Web of Prophecy, things began to make sense.

“We have a final pair of gifts to give you, that I suspect you will greatly need.” Harry removed from his robes a thin stone rod, “The Line of Merlin Unbroken.” Harry handed the Headmaster the wand with reverence.

Tom Riddle stood up from the bench, put down his book, and strode forward. “And, Headmaster, my old enemy and future friend, I also have a gift for you.” He produced a thick glass bottle filled with viscous black ichor, and handed it to Dumbledore.

Dumbledore understood.

“Headmaster,” Harry spoke, “You need to understand something. You have a choice at this moment. All worlds, ultimately, have narrowed down to this one choice. Although I am, as you say, the Crux, you still must make this choice of your own volition. You would be sacrificing your Life, and your Time. Truly.”

“Harry. You know my views on this matter. I have already sacrificed my Life and my Time once for your sake, for the sake of the world. Besides, you are the Boy Who Lived. I’m sure you’ll find a way to rescue me again.” He smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “Now, how do I leave this place?”

“Oh yes,” Harry smiled at him. “We are in King’s Cross, are we not? I think that if you decided to move on, you would be able to… Let’s say.. Board a train.”

“And where would it take me?”

“Beyond.” said Harry simply.

Silence again.

“Goodbye, Headmaster. And thank you, truly.”

“Do not pity the dead, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres. Pity those who live without love.” And with that, he boarded a train, and disappeared into the tunnel.


estlaC strawgoH
72:34:02 .2991, 13 enuJ

The Boy Who Lived was dead.

Harry’s eyes barely had a chance to widen before the bullet entered his forehead.

A deafening crash of a pistol firing.

A swift twitch of the finger.

A quick flick of the wrist.

The Stone instantiated in Lord Voldemort’s hand, glistening coldly in the reflected light of the mirror, covered in a viscous black ichor.


The Dark Lord was laughing.

Orders of Magnitude, Interlude: Egnart’s Spool

Britain
Another Time
Another Place

The Dark Lord had won.


The end had come without noise or notice. One by one, he individually visited his Death Eaters, revealing his return. He spoke of power beyond reckoning, and a new era for Wizardkind. His most loyal lieutenants, he bestowed great gifts upon. His more erstwhile followers were set to other tasks, such as serving as permanently transfigured simulacra of various political figureheads; Scrimegeour, Bones, Thicknesse and the like were as easily replaced as they were murdered.

Alastor Moody was only slightly more difficult to deal with. The following morning’s Daily Prophet read: “THE DARK LORD RETURNS:  Dumbledore, Boy who Lived Dead”  and beneath the menacing headline was a picture of Not-Amelia-Bones and Not-Alastor-Moody kneeling at the foot of Lord Voldemort who was giving the Hand of Benediction. The message was as clear to the true Moody as it was inscrutable to everyone else: No one can be trusted. You are not safe. Recant. Relent. Retreat.

Moody had long ago learned the tactical value of a complete and hasty retreat. You did not live to tangle with as many Dark witches and wizards as Moody if you made it a regular occurrence to charge headlong into almost-certain death. So with a dull pop, the true Alastor Moody disapparated to a safe house whose location was known only to him, and was never heard from again.


Tom Morfin Riddle was the master of life and death. His True Horcrux gave him mastery over life, enabling him to travel freely from vessel to vessel, body to body, soul to soul. His Deathly Hallows gave him mastery over death: The Spirit Stone, rightfully passed from heir to heir. The Elder Wand, forcefully wrested from the hand of his foe. And the True Cloak of Invisibility, bequeathed to him by his mirror self, his shadowform. He was truly king, and God, and as such had abandoned his previous moniker of Lord Voldemort, and chose the simple epithet: The God King.

The majority of the Wizarding public simply counted themselves lucky: although the God King was quick to mete out punishment, he was also quick to bestow favors, and as long as they kept their heads down and toed the party line, life was actually not so bad. In fact, it was better in many respects. Gone was the bloated, impotent Ministry of the past, whose sole purpose was to maintain the outdated hegemony, not to better the lives of its subjects. The God King did not need to resort to mean, petty politics in order to extend his reign. Any challengers were simply killed. As such, there were no challengers. But also as such, it freed the Ministry to actually do some good every now and then.

More shrewd members of the Wizarding public recognized Voldemort’s change of identity and methods as a brilliant political gambit: history has taught us that tyrants rarely rule longer than a generation or two before being replaced by an ostensibly less tyrannous tyrant. Furthermore, history has also taught us that hope is like a virus, and will take root in the most unlikely of places, breeding and growing until it can no longer be contained. A lesser tyrant will try to quash all hope, and thus allow hope to proliferate: the hope of revolution. A shrewd ruler knows that hope must be accounted for and allowed to fluorish in a controlled fashion. A brilliant ruler will be the very person who provides hope to his subjects. The God King was cruel, yes, but he also brought great wealth to Britain, and His advancements in the realms of health and medicine were staggering. His subjects could live in hope that one day the God King would bestow His blessing upon them.

No one in the Wizarding public knew the true method behind the madness. The truth was that the God King was a man obsessed. Obsessed with a small prophecy he had heard from the lips of a sherry-soaked Divination professor. A prophecy that upon further research was The Prophecy, the one prophecy upon which all others hinged. A prophecy whose fulfillment was the crux of everything. The God King spent most of his days deep within the Department of Mysteries, trying to salvage what he could from the ruined Hall of Prophecy. He sought out and met, under many disguises, with many students of deep, hidden knowledge.

After years of collecting lore, and countless days spent poring over the ancient text, The Transmygracioun, the thought of a ritual began to grow in the mind of the God King, the Ritual of the Starfire, a ritual by which prophecy could be fulfilled and the world be saved.

There has always been a Crux upon which the web of prophecy circles itself around. However it is not strictly accurate to say that there is only one Crux. In every world, the Fate of All Things hinges upon a single choice. Who makes the choice? What is the nature of the choice they must make? Only those Outside Time know for certain. But what is known is that the Choice must be made, and the mere death of one possible vehicle of prophecy would not stop things. The God King knew this much, and he knew that the mantle of the Crux had been passed to him.

What he did not know was that there was another named by prophecy, one who was Fated, in a time of great strife, when all worlds narrow to two, to bring down a great house. A Slytherin boy who had read tales of The Boy Who Lived, who combined the Muggle knowledge of science with the Wizard knowledge of magic and whose legacy was cut tragically short by the God King himself. A Slytherin boy who, emboldened by being Named by Prophecy, took it upon himself to experiment in secrecy, utmost secrecy, with the deepest laws of magic and nature, just like his idol Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres. He made great strides in the field of transfiguration, and had such a fine command that he could manipulate the Form of things on an atomic, even subatomic level. A boy who was desperate enough to overthrow the God King that we would resort to desperate, even insane means.

He was, however, alone, unlike his idol. He had his companion, but unlike his idol, he chose not to seek her counsel. She knew as little of Muggle physics as he did: that is to say, she studied a pair of purloined physics books for a few weeks. She grasped the broad strokes of quantum mechanics without any true understanding. However, she could have been what he needed: a staying hand, someone to shape his curiosity, someone to guide his intellect, someone to tell him, for the love of Merlin and all that is holy, do not try to find out what happens when you transfigure a cubic millimeter of up quarks, just the up quarks, without any down quarks to bind them!

As it was, a young boy’s choice to trust his own flawed intellect over all else was the Crux of that world, and so it was that he fulfilled the final legacy of Atlantis in the worst possible way, tearing apart the very stars in heaven and bringing about the end of that world.

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 3: Methods. Chapter 3: Saturn Ascends

“Naught shall avail him that he should not fall, fall shamed, an intolerable fall. For he himself against himself prepares a foe, a portent irresistible, devising fire to outflash the lightning-fire, and might sound the thunder to outroar, and shattering old Neptune’s trident spear; that oceanic plague which shake the earth. Yes, stricken by this evil, Jove shall learn what difference lies between a king and slave.”

Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus


August 1, 1899
Alderney

“Please, Master Flamel, please!” Dumbledore held the broken body of Ariana in his arms. He was a handsome young man, barely come of age, and surrounded by the aura of prophecy so blindingly bright that even the least sensitive of minor seers would have noticed. “She is still alive, I feel it! Give her a taste of the Elixir. Please! You’ll have my undying loyalty. Everything I can ever give you. Anything. Everything. It’s yours! Gellert, he has already uncovered great Lore, I can wrest it from–”

Nicholas Flamel raised his hand for silence. “Mister Dumbledore, I understand your pain. But the Elixir of Life cannot be doled out lightly, nor at the whim–”

“WHIM? She’s DYING! Mrs. Flamel, please, talk some sense into him!”

Perenelle stood toward the window, for she couldn’t bear to face the conversation.

Mom, Dad, please. Please. Do something. You’re healers. She’s breathing now, look she’s breathing now. The water is gone, now do something. Do something!

“Look! Look at her face. Mrs. Flamel, she knows this is the right thing to do. You can see it! Why are you letting my sister die?”

“Mister Dumbledore, need I remind you that you are a guest in our house?”

“This is a house of fools! A house of tyrants! You could change the world with what you have, and yet you hoard it. You stand there imperiously watching my sister die, how can you live with yourself? You have the riches of nations,” he gestured to the pots filled with bubbling lead and gold. “And yet you do nothing. You have eternal life! And what have you done with it? What have you–”

“Silence. Speak no more. For you speak of things of which you know nothing. Now, you will listen to me.” Nicholas Flamel’s hand darted out and touched Dumbledore’s shoulder faster than he could have ever hoped to react. “Egeustimentis.”


Dumbledore existed as slightly more than a fraction of consciousness within his own mind. It was laid bare before him: an automaton of levers, gears, bubbles, slicks, and whorls, and among them all, a scene coalesced. His sister and himself. His sister, young, beautiful, glowing. Himself, old, with half-moon spectacles and a ridiculous hat that looked like nothing more than a squashed mushroom.

They were in Godric’s Hollow. The cemetery. Albus laid flowers at a grave that he knew without looking was the grave of his brother Aberforth. As the flowers touched the ground, the scene shifted. Ariana held the flowers now. There were two graves, side by side. Albus and Aberforth. Ariana stood, still young and beautiful, her eyes stained with tears. She was tortured.

In those eyes. There were husbands, friends. There were children, students. There were lovers, enemies. They were all coming into her life, they were all leaving. In what felt like a mere moment. All those that she had ever loved and all those that she ever could love, gone. And yet, an entire world of people for whose sake she must exist. The pain was palpable in her eyes, it was beyond tears, it was a fundamental part of her being. She was tortured.

The fraction of consciousness that was Albus resisted this. “Love will always find a way, there are always people to love, people to give meaning to the world. You and Perenelle have loved each other for centuries.”

Flamel sensed this opposition. “We are companions, yes. But I confess that often I find myself longing for my… next great adventure.” At this the scene shifted once more.

Now Albus was with Ariana, outside of Time. Although her body was young and repaired, so too was her soul. She was surrounding by all those she had ever loved, all those that she ever would love. It was bright, clean, pristine, like the Platonic ideal of King’s Cross Station.

The train that was Albus Dumbledore’s mind pulled in through the tunnel, and Nicholas Flamel was the conductor. He adjusted a switch or two, turned a few gears, and finally, with a warm, kind smile, pulled a lever. A gust of steam billowed from the train’s whistle, and a wave a great peace washed over Dumbledore.

“You are young, Mister Dumbledore, so you do not understand the curse of age. Although I cannot help your sister in the way you request, I hope you see you now that I have truly helped her. And I hope I have given you some measure of peace.” The tears had stopped, and the look of a righteous anger and Albus Dumbledore’s face was gone.


Dumbledore stood, knee deep in the calm ocean waters outside the cottage of the Flamel family. He held Ariana’s body, and he had no tears. Although Ariana was gone for now, she was not gone forever. It was sad, for certain, that she would miss out on this brief flicker of a moment of this infinitesimal facet of the universe. But she would persist. They all would. Sooner or later, he would venture into eternity and they would be together, forever.

The waves washed around him, lapping gently at his waist. The ocean called to him, The voice of Neptune gently whispering, “Let go, let go, let go…”

Dumbledore let go.


“I envy him, in a way, Nell.”

Meldh’s voice broke the silence. Perenelle was still fighting back the tears. The entire proceeding hit her in the gut on a visceral level. Of course, Meldh was right. Sure, it wasn’t as pretty and clichéd as a pure white train station that took you “beyond”. And yes, the ethics of mind manipulation were questionable at best, even if the manipulation was subtle and ultimately beneficial.

But ultimately, the conclusion to which he led the child of Percival and Kendra was correct. She had seen enough of magic, had enough of the theory worked out. Horcruxes. The Bone of the Father. The Ritual of the Starfire. The True Cross. All of these pointed to one single truth:

No one was actually gone.

How could anyone who considered themselves rational doubt this? Both she and Meldh had died! And yet, they were still here. Sure, the rituals were complex, and they were enormously costly. But that was just an optimization problem. The information was there. What made up the entirety of a person’s being, whatever that may be, existed in some form, beyond the death of their physical body.

She had some theories which she never got around to testing. Many of them involved Time. Many more involved the absurdly complex and anthrocentric nature of Magic itself. Right now, it didn’t really matter one way or the other. What mattered is that it was possible. Time was no longer her enemy, as it was in her youth, when every wasted minute was a tragedy. She was no longer filled with the unflinching anger of her youth.

A very small part of her looked back in regret, to a time when the Old Ones had called her Æsahættr, a name which meant “God-Killer”. She was young, so young, and yet, even then, she had accomplished so much. So much more than that ridiculous nihilist from whom she took the Stone: boredom was so absurdly bourgeoisie that even now it still made her sick. Even he, her, it, was not gone.

But.

Pain… Pain still hurt. Even though Death did not matter. Pain… Pain was still bad. She understood very well the pain of thinking that one you love is gone, lost forever. Nell was still a healer at heart, and wanted to spare people that pain. She still remembered–

please, Master Payens, please. I’ve heard the rumors. I know you know people, I know what people say about the Cross,” she gestured violently at the plain-looking wooden cross adorning the nave of the temple.

“And what can you offer me in exchange for such a gift,” spoke the man, who once was tall, proud, and fit, and was now overweight and sallow.

“Everything I have, and more. Anything. everything! Just please, please. Help.”

“Everything you have?” Hugues de Payens laughed, mockingly. “Your family are healers, are they not? Not exactly a wealthy profession.”

“DONT MOCK ME!” Perenelle screamed, the desperation apparent in her voice as she could feel her hold over her magic slipping. The only thing keeping her sister’s lungs from being liquified from the inside out by de-transfigured water and muck was that thin thread of magic which was being stretched farther and farther beyond its limits with each glib remark.

“Oh? Or what?”

“I… I…”

“I know you, child. I have seen your personality before, in so many others. You see a problem in the world, and you burn with righteous rage. You hate the world for not fixing the problem, and you take the responsibility upon yourself, which you think justifies your impudence and rashness. Mark my words, child: it’s easy enough to ask big questions and make big plans. But to follow them through? What have you done with your short life besides angrily make demands of someone greater than yourself?”

She was already turning to leave. This was useless. Just another jaded power-hoarder. Damn him, damn his entire Order, damn his Knights, damn his Cross. God damn every last one of them. She would tear the world apart. She would rip apart the gates of Heaven, tear apart the very foundation of Christendom to pull her sister back.

 


August 10, 1979
Alderney

“These words,” said Nicholas Flamel, “Are not called the Words of Power and Madness lightly.”

“Legend says they have been lost. But this is not the first time you have surprised me with hidden lore,” Dumbledore examined the words in the Pensieve with keen interest.

“Ah, but they are lost. They exist not in my mind, or the mind of any other. I could not recall them even if I wanted to. Nor could you. Go ahead, try to tell me the words you just heard spoke. Try anything you can to recall them.”

Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak, but could not. Faint echoes of the words swirled around in his head but there was nothing concrete for him to grasp. He understood the abstraction but couldn’t complete the metaphor. Interesting. He entered the Pensieve, listened to the incantation, and hastily wrote down the words as he saw them.

…ogeai dacra, nitesh taps, sorc mareht’d nataog….

Nothing. He saw the words, heard the words, but still, nothing. There was no comprehension. “Power and Madness, indeed, Master Flamel.”

“They are the Words of the First Enchanter. As with everything, there are levels upon levels of meaning to them. Legend has it that their true power was as an incantation that would lift the shackles of the Interdict. And yet, the Interdict has ensured that such knowledge could never pass from anything but one living mind to another. You will be using the words their meanest of purposes: a mere passcode to Merlin’s web of prophecy.”

“So I shall speak Merlin’s words in the heart of Merlin’s tower while holding Merlin’s line bequeathed to me by Merlin’s successors in order to access the knowledge that has been hoarded by Merlin’s web… It seems to me that you possess quite a great deal of knowledge and lore that once belonged to the Prince of Enchanters,” Dumbledore smiled with a twinkle, and yet there was a strange tone to his voice, a hint of warning. “Take caution, my old friends. I know that we have had words about your non-intervention in the past. A great deal of lives and pain could have been spared if you were to directly intercede on my behalf. And not just with this matter of mine, but with others, and with other heroes who have come before me.

“But I know you are no cowards, and I know you both to be good, decent people, and that you truly believe one death is too many and one minute wasted is one minute too long. You would not suffer such losses or make such sacrifices lightly, if not for the greater good, a higher cause, a deeper plan… A hidden hand, guiding things, if you will.”

“Choose your words carefully, Albus,” Nicholas spoke.

Perenelle held her hand up. “Peace, Nicholas, peace. Let our guest continue his speculation.” Inwardly, she rolled her eyes. Who actually says ‘Peace’ like that?

“It is not my intent to speculate, only to observe. You have done me and mine many great favors over the years, in exchange for lore that most would consider paltry in comparison to the magnitude of the aid. I am truly in your debt. However, you are not accustomed to fighting your battles directly, or dealing in overly complex plots. You are not used to being, as they say, ‘in the trenches’, and I know all too well how it can be much easier to see a pattern from the outside but not the inside. So I will offer the following advice:

“When there are Three, there is always a leader, a trusted confidante, and a disposable lieutenant. I have come to know and love the both of you and it would trouble me greatly if any harm came to either of you. So please, for your own sake and not mine, know that with which you deal. And take caution.”

“Your words are well-intentioned. A lesser person may be inclined to take offense at your presumption, but we are no fools. You do know a great deal more about plotting than either of us, and it’s been centuries since I’ve personally slain a Dark Lord,” Perenelle spoke, softly, and turned to look at Nicholas. I wonder if that was too obvious? I’m not very good at all this mystical, wise talk.

Meldh could sense her apprehension, and he stepped in. “Indeed, Nell, indeed. Albus, this is one task in which you cannot fail. You must listen to the prophecies, and you must truly comprehend them. The world hangs in such precarious balance. The path to salvation is but a single thread that must pass through the eye of a single needle in a rainstorm. There is more than one Dark Lord that you will be defeating in the coming years. Beware εσχατος εχθρος, Albus.”


August 10, 1979
The Department of Mysteries

…THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO DEFEAT THE DA–
…STONE IN THE WINDOW MUST BE DESTROYED AGAINST THE ANVI–
…NEW RISE AT THE SOLSTICE IN THE AGE OF THE GOA–
…CHOICE FOR ONE MUST BE MADE FOR THE TE–
…TEAR APART THE VERY STARS IN HEAV–
…STARS SHALL COME BY THE ONE MARKED BY LIGHTNI–
…SOLSTICE AND NONE WILL COME AFTE–
…THE DE-ARMED SERVANT SHALL BE FOUND WHEN SHE COME–
…REX QUANDAM, REXQUE FUTUR–
…PATH SHALL THE CRUX SUCCEE–
…THE CHOICE TO FOLLOW THE PHOENIX OR SOLVE THE RIDDL–
…PROPHET DIES THE PRINCE SHALL RIS–
…LIGHT SHALL PLANT A SEED IN THE DARKNE–
…IN A TIME OF GREAT STRIFE WHEN ALL WOR–
…DOWN ON THE SERPENTS’ CROWN THE STONE SHAL–

The words crashed in Dumbledore’s mind, an unceasing battery of waves breaking against the walls of his sanity. And yet, despite their fractured dissonance, when put together, they sang a song of such beauty, order, and righteousness that he could not deny the path he must walk.

He saw that all prophecy was true, and all prophecy had levels upon levels upon levels upon levels. The layers of meaning forked, and forked again, and bound back upon themselves. There was the Crux, he was the Crux, so was the boy, so was his mentor, so was his enemy, so was the boy’s enemy. And there was The Enemy, the Dark Lord, not just Grindelwald, not just Voldemort, but the One True Dark Lord, the enemy who had menaced all beings since the dawn of time. He Who Went By Many Names:

Mot. Thanatos. Uncle Hendrick. Yambe Akka. Shaitan. εσχατος εχθρος.

It went by many names, and came in many forms, and they were all warriors in this final battle. Even his true love was a warrior, in his own misguided way. Dumbledore would fight as well. He would not fight against the Death of the Body, for he knew that those before him had already conquered that foe, and he looked forward to the day when he would reunite with Aberforth and Ariana and all those who had come before him. He would not fight against the Death of the World, for another even greater warrior would soon rise to wear that mantle.

No, Dumbledore would spend his last days fighting against the Death of Love. Hate had no place in Arcadia, and an eternity without love would be nothing so more than Hell. As he stood in the ruined chambers of the Hall of Prophecy, he was filled with an intense love, a love for all of life and all people and all things, and he knew that for their sakes that not another minute was to be wasted in his task.

He began.


Early August, 1991
Alderney

“It’s time, Meldh.”

Meldh paced restlessly back and forth in the cottage. The report was as clear as day: The Parselmouth who wears the Crown of the Serpents could locate the Stone, infallibly, and they were in grave danger. The evidence was so thorough, so overwhelming, so convincing that it simply had to be true.

Which meant, of course, that it was a bold-faced lie.

After a time, Meldh spoke. “The banished father has returned, and he has laid for us this new Path. We must follow it, and we must make it seem as though we are acting according to his design. It must be convincing, both to the Riddle boy and to Albus.

“One of us must go to Hogwarts. The Mirror cannot leave its grounds, we cannot risk that. We must visit in person, and we must maintain the ruse,” Perenelle was packing their things as Meldh was speaking, “Once the Stone is gone, we must be seen to age and wither and eventually die. Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel will be no more.”

Perenelle stood and faced him. He was tired. And he always spoke in that ridiculous, affected tone, like he was a character in a play, when he was tired. Really, they both were tired. She had been fighting for centuries. He had been fighting for centuries longer. But it was all coming to a head now. The final battle would come soon and the conduit would soon be destroyed, for good.

She stared at the eyes of her companion. She had deep love for this man. There was, of course, no Eros. The difference in age was far too great, even now. Meldh would have called their love Philia, but he always was a bit ceremonious and used big, fancy words when everyday terms would suffice. After all, he started calling himself “Meldh”, which was just silly, in her opinion. There wasn’t anything wrong with Heraclius.

But regardless. To Nell, Meldh was her friend. And she loved him. It would pain her to be away from him, after they had spent so much time together as Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel.

But one day, pain would be a thing of the past. Just a childish thing that humanity had outgrown, like Death and War and everything else. But until then, she had work to do.

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 3: Methods. Chapter 4: A Song For You

Borley Rectory
February 27, 1939

Hugues de Payens was tired. He wanted to go home, he wanted so desperately to be with his brother, and his husband, reunited once more. Soon. So soon. His wet, bulbous eyes watched as the Hungarians ransacked the place. As the minutes passed, their anger became more visible. The plain wooden cross on the wall seemed to mock them as they searched in vain. He did not move from his armchair when he finally spoke.

“Keresitek ember akit a villám megjelölt és ő kioltja majd a csillagokat.”

The commander of the Záh Kardja stopped. His subordinate looked at him, warily. “A kövér ember túl sokat tud . Meg kell ölni őt,” but the commander shook his head.

“Azt, hogy könnyen kitalálja , öreg. Mondja el, hogyan működik az Igazi Kereszt, és akkor lehet élni.”

Hugues laughed. It was an undignified, wheezing laugh, wet with rheum and phlegm. They were here to finish that girl’s work, what she had started in Sontag. He stood up, prompting the death squad to raise their blade-wands. He dismissively waved his hand and walked to his desk. He closed his eyes, and let his Magic flow into the room. A small metal plate materialized on the table. As it did, the wooden cross transmuted into cold, chilling iron.

Soon, Ignotus. Soon.

He reminded himself that, despite different methods, they all fought on the same side against the same enemy. He walked over to the commander, and presented him with the plate. For a moment, he looked into the man’s eyes.

“Láttam az előrejelzések is. Most van itt az ideje . Vedd ezt , és vele együtt legyőzni az utolsó ellenség.”

The commander was young, perhaps in his thirties, with eyes that had seen far too many atrocities, won far too many Pyrrhic victories. He understood, though, and he nodded, taking the tablet. As soon as he claimed it, Hugues whirled around, whipped his wand from his robes, and with a flourish: “AVADA KEDAVRA!”

The men stood, astounded as the bolt of green light shot from Saint Payans’ wand into his own chest. A palpable burst of power was felt throughout the room, and the crop of strange plants in the nearby greenhouse undulated wildly, as if in response. Immediately, the commander jumped into action.

“Vegyük a Kereszt. Eget a hely a földön . Győződjön meg róla, ezek mandragórájából elmúltak , minden utolsó. Ezután hagyjuk.”

As his men set to work, the commander stared at the tablet. There was much he did not understand. A set of instructions on one side, which was straightforward enough. But, on the other side, there was simply a drawing and an epigram, and it was hard to say what was more disturbing. The drawing: the mark of Lord Grindelwald. Or the epigram:

AFTER THE LAST ADVERSARY,
NIHIL TOLLIT IN SANCTUS


Hogwarts
Centuries earlier

It was the scandal of the century. It had happened plenty of times before. Hogwarts was a hotbed of pheromones and poor decision-making. The penalty of course, was instant termination, and they had lost a handful of Herbology professors, Potion masters, and Care of Magical Creatures professors just in the six years that Helena had been there. But a Battle Magic professor? This was unprecedented. The victim though, was still officially unnamed, as of right now. It was Hogwarts policy, of course. And because it was Hogwarts, it always came out sooner or later. As Helena wandered past the portrait of Barnabas the Barmy, she wondered who–

CRACK.

What?

It sounded like someone was slapping a steak against a wall. Over and over. She was on the seventh floor, and it was coming from behind a door that she had never noticed had been there before.

“You… Fucking… BITCH!”

What… The…. Hell?

The door was slightly ajar. Her curiosity was too much. She peered inside, and instantly regretted it. Something she had wanted to see for so long, ruined in an instant, made ugly and terrible and horrifying.

Nell was naked.

Covered in blood.

Holding a stone?

Helena couldn’t help herself. Like a stupid character from one of those stupid plays her father always took her too, she screamed, and immediately clasped her hand over her mouth. Nell’s head whipped around and they locked eyes.

Helena ran. And ran. And ran.


Hogwarts
Months earlier

Festivus pushed the bag of gold across the table. “Nell, my dear, you insult our honor.”

“We should be paying YOU for this wonderous opportunity,” Ollie exclaimed.

Nell took the sack of gold. She knew it was a token gesture. They knew it was a token gesture. She knew they knew it was a token gesture, and they knew she knew it was a token gesture. Had they accepted the gold, Nell would have felt no ill-will. Nor would Festivus and Ollie had Nell not offered. Nonetheless, the dance was appreciated by all parties, as it was the dance of trust and friendship.

Nell spoke. “I’m not an expert at plotting or pranks–”

“–Neither are we.”

“We are masters.”

“Well. Okay then. I’m not master at plotting or pranks. But I do have enough clout to where I can make sure that there won’t be any consequences.”

“Not for us, at least.”

“Well, there won’t be any lasting consequences for her. I’m just trying to… Ah… Prove a point.”

“I won’t even ask.”

“Good. As usual, I’ll pay for any supplies or expenses.”

“And as usual, we shall be honest beyond reproach.” Ollie held his hand to his heart.

“It’s so delightfully lurid. Who should the other victim be?” Festivus inquired, half to himself, and half to Nell. Ollie and Festivus had a quick sidebar conversation, and suggested a few names between the others.

“I’m sure you’ll have a score of volunteers. I mean, you’ve seen her.”

“I know for sure that I wouldn’t mind!” Ollie grinned. “Me neither. You know what they say about Dark Witches…” Festivus nodded as his imagination wandered. Nell rolled her eyes, sighed dramatically, and smiled inwardly.


Hogwarts
The previous day

She was unearthly beautiful. A perfect, symmetrical face with pale, icy eyes flecked through with veins of violet. Snow white skin, smooth, taut, and unmarred. A figure both voluptuous and athletic, hugged suggestively by the multilayered, flowing dress, leaving just enough to the imagination, but revealing enough to give the imagination a place to start from. She was entrancing, and it was almost enough to make Helena forget.

Baba Yaga stood at the front of the class, arms folded behind her back, waiting patiently for the final students to trickle in. Of course, the last two were Ollie and Festivus. The twins sauntered in with that casual, smirking look about them that telegraphed to the world that they simply did not care where they were supposed to be or when they were supposed to be there. That attractive, carefree confidence, charming by virtue of its sheer naïveté.

The moment they sat down, Baba Yaga began to speak without preamble. “Good morning, class. You are in your sixth year of Battle Magic, which means you have reviewed and presumably mastered tactics, strategy, wandwork, footwork, and martial arts. You have learned offensive spells, defensive spells, crowd control spells, anti-personnel spells, and utility spells. Out of all this, who can tell me what is the most important lesson of Battle Magic?”

An anonymous Ravenclaw boy raised his hand, “Never use a complicated way of dealing with an enemy when you can just Avada Kedavra them?”

Baba Yaga considered. “A valuable lesson, indeed. However, observe. AVADAKEDAVRA!”

The class screamed. The Ravenclaw boy ducked as the bolt blazed towards him. Students behind him dived out of the way, and the curse smashed into the wall behind them, leaving a black scorch mark and a shower of green sparks.

What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck??

“Please elaborate on the error I made, class.”

“Are you insane??” Nell shouted.

“Child, do you rea–”

“I don’t CARE if you THINK you have things under control! Things can go wrong! Things DO go wrong! What were you thinking??”

“Child, come to the front the class. Now.”

The class was silent. This wasn’t the first time that a Battle Magic professor had done something fabulously dangerous, with the potential to go horribly awry. But Avada Kedavra?

Nell did not move. Festivus whispered under his breath, “Nell…”

‘Child. Now.”

Nell did not move.

Baba Yaga rolled her eyes. She sighed, annoyed, and with a single thought, Nell flew up out of her desk. In an instant, she was carried by some unknown force to the front of the room, and came to stop in mid-air, feet away from Baba Yaga, her arms and legs splayed like a grotesque Vitruvian Man. As soon as she stopped, Baba Yaga drew her wand. “AVADAKEDAVRA“.

A bolt of green light shot into Nell’s chest. The class screamed again. Three-fourths of the Gryffindors had drawn their wands. Festivus and Ollie had both fired defensive spells which were obviously neither fast enough or powerful enough to stop the curse. Several Hufflepuffs had ducked behind chairs. Slytherins watched, amused, and considered how to play the situation to their advantage. Only a few of the Ravenclaws had enough presence of mind to notice that Nell was still alive and breathing.

“The terms laid down by the Cup of Dawn, which you have all agreed to, prevent me quite forcibly from harming any of you. Even the Killing Curse has no effect. Even if my first Killing Curse had hit, no harm would have come to her.” As Baba Yaga was speaking, she idly gestured towards Nell who floated back to her desk. Once she was positioned over her chair, the spell’s effects ended and Nell collapsed unceremoniously to the floor.

Damnit, she told herself, Damnit, Nell. That was costly.

“But, the spell would not have hit. The most important lesson of Battle Magic is not to simply indiscriminately cast Avada Kedavra. Avada Kedavra is slow. Avada Kedavra is obvious. Avada Kedavra takes entire moments to cast. Everyone knows Avada Kedavra and its distinctive incantation and green light. Every knows to dodge, and only the slow, the infirm, or the stupid are unable to dodge. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half a dozen curses that would easily cause instantaneous death, all of which could be cast in half the time, with half the wand motion, and move at twice the speed. So now, we shall have a brief side lesson. What then, is the purpose of Avada Kedavra?”

A random Gryffindor chimed in, “Because it can’t be blocked?”

Silence.

The class would quickly learn that silence meant your answer was so stupid as to not merit a response.

“It’s a tool. A means to an end,” Nell had resituated herself by this point. A bit humiliated, for sure, but she still held her head high.

“Correct, Ms. du Marais–”

“–you can just call me Nell, all my friends do.”

“But I am not your friend. I am your teacher. You are correct, It is a tool. Now, how did you come to this conclusion?”

“Avada Kedavra terminates the life of the victim. But it also has the unique effect of reliably creating a Death Burst, which suggests that this effect is intentional. Thus, given the sheer redundancy of a spell solely designed to kill people, this suggests that the creation of the Death Burst is its primary purpose.”

“Correct, more or less. Avada Kedavra, stemming from the Hebrew ‘אברא כדברא’, which roughly translates as ‘What I say shall be’. Which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Latin phrase of power, ‘Et quod dicitur erit quod’. It is a Transfiguration spell, of sorts. It transmutes the victim’s Life into a different Form, free of any earthly binding. Pure Life is powerful stuff, and can be made to do powerful things, if harnessed correctly. However it is very unstable without a physical binding and typically lasts no longer than the span of a few moments before dissipating, lost to the Beyond.

“This is why only fools use Avada Kedavra in combat. It is akin to bringing a butcher knife to a sword fight. Crude, and effective in a pinch, but ultimately lacking. Yet, it was the first thing that came to mind, simply by virtue of the fact that it is called the ‘Killing Curse’. Now, class, knowing this, can you tell the most important lesson of Battle Magic?”

Silence.

“Know that which which you deal. I was able to subdue and manipulate one of the more powerful witches of this year, and I expended no more than a thought. I would ask if anyone knows the nature of the spell I used for this purpose, but I do not make it a habit to ask questions of which I already know the answer. And that, children, is the point. You do not know what I am capable of. If any of you were to attempt any sort of attack on me, you would be eviscerated before you even had a chance to blink.

“I say this not to brag. I say this because all spells have their counter. In fact, there is ample evidence in Magical Theory to suggest that the more powerful and complex the spell, the more trivial the counter. The Touch of Truth, the most perfect means of mind control that Wizardkind has devised, is dismissed by a mere syllable. You can see now why those with great power rarely deign to share their secrets. The world would be a very different place if ‘Egeustimentis Ba’ were not common knowledge.

“If you do not know the weapons in your opponents’ arsenals, you cannot hope to win. If you do not know the proper counters to the weapons in your opponents’ arsenals, you cannot hope to win. I am not the greatest Dark Lady of a thousand generations because of my reflexes or my aim. No, it is because I know spells and rituals whose very names, let alone their counters, have been lost centuries before this castle was ever built.

“Now. Based on this, what is the most important question you should be asking me right now?”

Nell spoke, immediately. “Why are you teaching us?”

“Why indeed? If you know enough to ask the question, you should know enough to divine the answer. And if you know enough to divine the correct answer, you should know that you will not need me to confirm that it is correct. Now, let us begin our lesson in the practical application of specialized spells and their counters.”


Hogwarts
Near midnight.

Nell knocked on the door, tenatively at first. “Enter.” Baba Yaga’s voice rang from the other side, and the door swung open of its own accord. The Cup of Dawn flickered ceaselessly on the table, casting undulating shadows across the room. Nell did not even have to touch the Goblet to know that it would be impossible for her to remove it, much less steal it.

“So late in the evening, Ms. du Marais? I assume students need a chaperone at this hour to be wandering the halls.”

“I can go a lot of places, Professor. Look. I’m pretty sure, no, I’m certain that I know the answer. But I can’t stand unsolved puzzles. Can I just tell you the answer, and you can tell me if I’m right?”

Baba Yaga stared at her, amused.

Nell took a few steps closer. “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but it’s not often someone gets a chance to pick the brain of a Dark Lady who’s a hundred thousand years old.”

An unspoken conversation, one filled with assumptions upon assumptions upon assumptions, had already taken place.

That was a clumsy attempt at fishing for information, child. Don’t you know never to ask a woman her age?
I know. But you should know that I knew that.
And conversely, you would know that I would know that you knew that.
And you would know that I would not confirm nor deny my age.
And you should know why I asked.
Indeed I do.
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us with a silly girl that cannot stand an unsolved riddle.
Bingo.

“Well then, what is your guess?”

“You’re bored.”

“That is a facile answer. You’ll need to elaborate further.”

“You’re playing solitaire. You’re obviously powerful enough to have and do anything you want. And I’m guessing, for as old as you are, however old it may be, that you have. So clearly there’s a reason why you aren’t living some hedonistic dream and instead are teaching impudent sixth years like myself.

“Frankly, I feel the same way. I own this castle. I can do more than just walk around the halls at night without a teacher. I could have you fired. In an instant. That’s not a threat, I have no intention of doing so. It’s simply the truth. And I didn’t even have to try hard. I look at these ridiculous Slytherins, with their convoluted plots, vying for power, trying to jockey their way into a better position on the game board. Frankly, it’s just depressing. I own the game. I am the game board.

“I know what it’s like to amuse yourself with tittles and jots. I know what it’s like to challenge oneself with ridiculous constraints just to prove to yourself that you can do it. I have friends my own age, sure, but it’s not really accurate to say they’re ‘friends’. They’re my wards. I protect them. I protect everyone. That’s why power has always come natural to me. But I have no peers here.

“If I could ask you any question, it would simply be this. Why haven’t you killed yourself? Because I can’t imagine dealing with this, for thousands upon thousands of years. I would ask you, what have you done to give your eternal life meaning?”

A long silence followed.

Please buy it please buy it please buy it please buy it please buy it

“You amuse me. But you’re lying.”

Ice water, running down her spine. Shit.

“And yet, you truly believe much of what you said. You genuinely think you could outmaneuver me, and it is not the idle, overconfident boast of a bully. I confess, this, I would very much like to see.”

The chill withdrew. In its place, well, Nell wasn’t sure what to think. Her mother had always taught her that the best way to bluff was to make sure that everything you say is true, from a certain point of view. She didn’t actually feel all superior and bored like that, but she’d certainly considered the notion before. So it wasn’t too hard to just continue that line of thinking, and apparently it was convincing.

“OK… So?”

Baba Yaga stood. “I propose a wager. One enforced by no magic, other than our own honor. You have me terminated from my position before the end of the year, and I will grant you one wish, anything that is within my considerable power to grant. Should you fail, I will take something from you, anything that I may ask, anything that is within your power to get.”

“And what is it that you would take?”

“I believe that I have all year to decide.”

“Very well.” She stepped closer and extended her hand across the desk.

Baba Yaga clasped Nell’s hand. They were both beautiful. Baba Yaga, unearthly so. A vision of manufactured perfection, almost cruel in her beauty. She was the result of eons of calculated creation, a marble statue. Nell, by contrast, was a majestic landscape. Organic, natural, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring. The random emergent byproduct of a thousand generations of patterns mixing, combining, persisting, mutating, evolving. Beautiful not by conscious design, but simply by virtue of what it is: a reminder, that even from the crudest conditions of disorder, beauty can and will emerge. On the most fundamental, statistical level, if patterns can emerge, they will. And if patterns can persist, they will. Life will always prevail over death because that is simply how things are, and Perenelle du Marais was the living embodiment of the noble spirit of Life.

They were two visions of perfection, touching flesh, staring into each others eyes, each trying to size up the other’s soul. Baba Yaga had gone by a thousand names. Koschei the Deathless. Ma’krt of the Rock. And in a time before Time, an even more ancient name: Max Koschey. He was an electrical engineer, of sorts. He specialized in matter, energy, and the manipulation and conversion thereof. He designed, created, and maintained the System’s power crystals. And although many of his colleagues had had developed rudimentary sentient structures, that was hardly Max’s area of interest, much less his expertise. He had no interest in stewardship. Lesser beings were boring to him.

So it was that after the disaster, when all that remained of Max Koschey was a single power crystal, Bound with his life force, he was forced to use a brain as his template for consciousness. Specifically, a human brain. The human brain has flaws. The human brain can be physically manipulated. The human brain can be swayed by something as simple as an influx of testosterone and oxytocin in response to physical stimulus.

Unconsciously, Baba Yaga’s pulse quickened, ever so slightly. Her pupils dilated, imperceptibly. Nell was not consciously aware of this reaction. But she did know enough about unscrupulous old people to know that most of the time, there was always a certain… something in the back of their mind. So she let their handshake linger ever so slightly longer than most would consider appropriate.

“You’ve got a deal.”

 

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 2: Gods. Chapter 2.71828182845…

Diagon Alley
903 C.E.

He was running in circles. He was bound by a rope, stretched beyond its limits. Or, was it a Line? The rope, or the Line, it was staked into the ground. He was a dog, chained. The Line was staked into something important, terribly important, the most important thing. And yet. It eluded him. It was always eluding him.

Maybe. Maybe if you run fast enough. So he ran. He ran faster. He ran fast, so fast, so fast. Around, and around, and around. He ran so fast that he ceased to simply be a point attached to a Line. He was a blurred circle, jagged around the edges but if you screwed up your eyes it looked like one solid shape. A circle, an endless, strange loop of frustration and exasperation. Twice per go-around, he would cross that… that thing, that the Line was staked it. A Path? A Path that stretched backwards into eternity and forward into eternity. But the Line. The Line took the path to a dark place. A dark eternity.

When he crossed the path the first time, he could see them. Her flowing hair. His strong jaw, a family of his own. He saw happiness. And behind the happiness, only a slight fear, the fear of some great Death that was eons away. But that fear was bolstered by hope. Not the empty wish of a dreamer, but the assured hope of an entire civilization fighting together, gladiators. Fighting the Titan, with hope as their weapon, made sharp by the knowledge that from now until the End, if that End came, they would fight, they would fight, they would fight with all of their soul and all of their being and everything they had and would ever have.

But then they were gone. They were so close. But he only saw them for a brief instant as he ran by them. He could reach out and touch them. He did. But they disappeared as he ran, and he kept running, desperately, to see them again, the feel that hope. But each time, he would cross the Path again. And in that world, it was a desolate, empty place. Stagnant. It didn’t smell like Death because there was nothing to smell. An empty, horrifying Nothing. And he wanted nothing than to run away from that Nothing, horrified.

So he did.

He ran and ran and ran until he reached the Path again, until he could feel that brief instant of hope. He kept running. He had to. He was Bound by that Line. The Line. It was always the Line. He knew, somehow he knew. There was no intuition, it was pure reason, but that reason worked from a premise that was lost to Time. Nonetheless, it was true. True but impossible to prove. As true as this is a lie is false. If he could break free of the Line, he could make everything whole, make everything right. The Line took something precious, something valuable, something of the utmost important, something that was lost. He knew that if he just ran faster, the line would diminish, would eventually disappear.

So he ran faster. Faster. And faster. He poured his entire being into running. He sacrificed everything, everyone, just so he could run, faster and faster. He ran until the Line grew smaller. He ran until the line diminished. He ran, and ran, and ran in circles and circles and loops and loops and circles and loops, and ran until all that was left was a fragment of silver, a fraction of a Line.

(black robes, falling)

…blood spills out in litres, and someone screams a word.

Suddenly, without warning or notice, the line began to lengthen. It grew, and grew, and he ran, and ran, but still, it grew, strengthened, bolstered. It could not stop. It wouldn’t stop. It was out of control.

This couldn’t happen. How could it happen? The equation was too perfect. He had seen to it, he had controlled the inputs to thousands of degrees of precision, had guided the thread through every possible eye of every possible needle, but it went wrong, it all went wrong, how could it go wrong? Input, output, functions, decision trees, logic maps and neural nets flicked through his mind, streaming an infinity of possibilities into the span of a single instant. How?

But, the one inexorable truth of the universe, something deeper than any law of “magic”, held him back, stymied his efforts. There is no infinity. If permitted, a pattern will persist, and persist, and persist. If allowed, the digits will keep repeating. The irrational pattern of the numbers will continue and continue as long as you care to generate them. At some point, there has to be a point where you take action, where you decide the the map matches the territory enough to where you can start your great adventure. At some arbitrary point, you have to decide that you have enough significant digits.

It wasn’t enough.

Those forgotten numbers, that endless stream of numbers forever lost, stuck on the wrong side of that arbitrary termination point. They add up. And after millions upon millions of inputs and outputs and combinations and permutations, they all added up, added up to one choice, one crux. Like a fist with a limitless number of fingers, closing one at a time, until all that remained were the two choices, a finger and a thumb, poised to snap. If they did, all would be lost. The Path would never be made whole. From outside, a woman screamed, long and loud. The scream of a dying woman.Within a moment, another cry joined with the first: the sound of a hundred phoenixes, their call like the birth of a new world.

He turned.

And heard the snap.


Merlin awoke, screaming

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 2: Gods. Chapter 3: Put Your Little Hand In Mine

At the moment the world began to die, few people felt it.

Even fewer knew they could do something about it.

Even fewer still had the requisite skills or knowledge to act on that knowledge.

And even fewer still had the technology that could harness those skills into something useful for this particular situation.

And so there were twelve.


Earlier

It was the ultimate weapon.

It would decisively, conclusively, and immediately end the war, that secret war that had been waged since time immemorial. The enemy would be irrevocably destroyed, defeated in detail, sacrificed to the cause of the righteous. Of course, there were the doomsayers, proclaiming that the hubris of the project would end us all. It was hard to claim John was hubristic, however, when he subjected his system to every conceivable iteration of failure testing.

They had identified thousands of possible failure points, and fixed them all. That left seven distinct failure modes, and although they were fundamentally impossible to avoid, John’s team was able to decrease their probability to roughly one-in-ten-trillion each.

It still wasn’t enough to feel safe. They developed fail safes and response protocols to the failure modes, and John had personally rehearsed them all. Hundreds of thousands of times.

It still wasn’t enough.

A one-in-10^88 chance was impossibly small, but it was still possible. So there was always the ultimate fail safe. The Line. He rubbed his right forearm like a touchstone. An astute observer would note that the system actually had but a single point of failure, and that was John, but John had personally accounted for that, as well. That small portion of his free will was locked away, in a place he could only access if they had really and truly won.

For a brief, bemused moment, he thought that the only flaw in the system was that the activation sequence wasn’t something more dramatic. It should have been a massive switch, or an ominous button, or some incantation. But, as it were, it was relatively unceremonious. A few keystrokes, and it was done.


The world shuddered.


No need to panic, he thought himself as he went through the motions. He had literally rehearsed this exact scenario at least fifteen hundred times, enough to where the movements were rote. His team controlled the outputs and inputs and monitored the status of the buffer. John did the intense series of on-the-fly calculations in order to determine the precise initial vector, and after a few tense moments, the variables checked out, and he rotated the dial.

In short, they would simply roll the system back an hour, and start over. They’d have to triple-check everything. Twice. Each day. It would be at least another year before they’d be confident enough to try again. But, he’d waited this long. A year was trivial.

As the dial rotated past the origin, his forearm, which had begun to ache since the start of the process, now throbbed in earnest.


The world shuddered again.


At this point, it was cacaphony. The team was visibly agitated. Some were even panicked. This didn’t make sense.

One in ten-trillion is tremendously unlucky. But one-in-ten-trillion, squared? Probability analysis goes out the window. The question itself changes. It’s no longer, Is this just coincidence? No, the question on everyone’s mind was simply, What the hell is going on?  The possibility space was endless, but one immediately leaped to mind: Sabotage. No matter, he couldn’t spare the thought. He needed to focus. They had still rehearsed the failure modes. This was still comfortably in the realm of their practice.  But the response protocol was drastic enough that everyone was agitated and on edge.

“The lines, sir. They’ll be–”

“Short circuit the whole fucking physical system if you have to. The whole thing is fucked anyway! DO IT!”

“Sir, this is going to be a destructive read. If we can’t–”

“There’s no other options. Back them. Back them all up.”

“If it doesn’t work, we’re all…”

A pause.

“This is a direct order.”


The world shuddered as the transmigration began.


John looked around. His colleagues were the first to go, their brains literally vanishing from their skulls, then converted into raw data, then pumped back into the system via the γ-class L.E. lines. As he scanned this displays, he saw the same scene playing out across the entirety of the system. If you zoomed out far enough, it didn’t even seem like much had changed. No explosions, no catastrophic crashes, nothing of that sort. After all most of the systems with the potential for catastrophic disaster were managed by the deadminds.

But seeing it up close and in person? He had seen people die before, very rarely. Usually it was willingly, people who had simply grown tired and were ready to “move on”. Idiots. They died as they deserved, peacefully but without pomp or fanfare. But these people did not will it, and they did not die peacefully. It reminded him of a puppet whose strings were cut. All the motive power that was keeping the awkward automatons of flesh balanced, gone in an instant. Billions, all massacred in the span of a moment.

John made the snap decision to pipe the data from the payload back into the system as it was being constructed. If another component failed, he couldn’t risk losing all the data. It would divert a small measure of resources, and they would still have the physical storage structure to recover the payload.  The only downside was the potential for signal degradation; it was almost guaranteed that they would lose a few to noise, which would be a tragedy, for certain. But it paled in comparison to the possibility of losing everything. Besides, you could still recreate them, for the most part. The memories might be tricky to reconstruct, but at least they’d still be there.

No.

Yes, there was noise. There was too much noise. Every signal was being garbled. Warped beyond recognition. There was interference coming from… Somewhere? Only about 1,000 identities were piped through, and of those, the only thing left was raw DNA.  Change of plans.

The payload was already constructed. It existed conceptually, in abstract. Now he needed to realize it. The Line was the most secure object in the known universe, and it had more than enough capacity within its buffer. He did more calculations. It would cut into its capabilities significantly. Maybe six hours, tops? It didn’t matter.

He’d saved the people. He didn’t save the world. The world was done for, but a world could be recreated easily. No. Not easily, of course. Nothing would be easy at this point. The system had failed at three separate junctures. This was not chance. Something, someone, was responsible.

And that’s when he saw him. The man who was out of place, out of time.

He was old.

Old.

No one was old anymore.

This was his doing. There was no question. In pure reflex, he activated his Battle forms. He had even practiced this, fighting against countless unseen enemies. But, what good would it do? What to do? Fight or flight? What would he be fighting? What was the man doing? Those hand gestures were ancient. A past architect? A back door? No, the system was sacrosanct. Besides, the man had a tool. It was–

The old man was holding The Line.

No, No, No, no, NO.

Flight. It was done. There would be no climactic fight to save the world or its people.  It didn’t matter what the old man’s motivations were, how he got there, anything.  Any time spent thinking about it was time wasted. There was no option left but to run, and to rebuild. He’d have to destroy the entire system, every last remnant though, to fully rebuild. He began to–

No. No time.

He didn’t have time. He’d have to do that part later. He’d have time later, but not now. It was time to run. He didn’t know what the old man was capable of, and none of this was rehearsed. He committed to the decision, and it was done. It was out of his hands now, so he had time to think, wonder, and speculate.

Who was the old man? How did he get a copy of The Line? Is it even a copy? How will I recover the payload? How much of the system would survive? How useful would it be? How will I destroy it? What would this new world look like?

Questions, questions, questions. All the answers would be there, eventually.

The system was procedurally generating humans as fast as it could churn them out. It started with the thousand or so genetic patterns it had recovered from the first aborted payload attempt. The rest, it built from patterns. Ten million and change.

And then with all the fury of an exploding star, a new world was born.

John emerged on the back end of eternity.


An Eternity Later
February 2, 1368
The forests outside Череповец, Вологодская область

The stench of sex and blood was thick in the air, affronting the nostrils of the lone traveller. If he were with Muggles, he would be cutting through the wild gorse with his shashka, but it hung, unused, on his belt. If he were with wizards, a few well-placed Reductos would clear the path, but his wand was in its holster on his wrist.

This traveller was alone, and had no appearances to keep up, for now, and as such, the path cleared its own way, saving him also the trouble of locating his quarry. The smell would have been enough, but easier is always better. As he drew closer, sounds began to mingle with the scents to form a two-pronged assault on the senses.

Moans. Shrieks. Wails.

Pounding. Thumping. Banging.

Flesh atop flesh. Bows across strings. Lips upon horns.

He approached the small cabin, and glanced at the awkward stilts that held it above the ground. They were disguised with a small and silly glamour to look like the legs of a chicken. He paused for a moment, deciding how best to enter. Sometimes, dramatics were useful tools to achieving your ends. But sometimes, they backfired. What would the consequences be? And what were the consequences of his hesitation, however slight?

Every decision was like this. Every minute, every moment, was another moment in which his enemy was allowed to persist. Even the fractional amount of time it took to pause and consider the question, “To knock, or not to knock”, was another dread deed, another bit of senseless evil.

Every decision. It was torture. Time, time was of the essence. And so he entered.

The scene was ridiculous. Caligula would have been proud. Or more likely, he would have been envious to the point of rage. Every possible indulgence was being fulfilled. There was sex, of course. Always the obsession with sex. But if it gave them a moment of solace, why begrudge them? Every reasonable iteration of sexual combinations was currently being explored on almost every available surface within the grand hall whose interior was far larger than the simple cabin’s exterior.

There was food, and drink, as well. Food and sex. Drink and sex. Food and drink and sex. Sex with food and drink. Drinking food. Drinking sex. Food and drink and sex and then more food and then more drink and then more sex. A swirling miasma of what should be “pleasure”, and yet, he was struck by the hollowness of it all. Did they truly enjoy this? Did he truly enjoy this?

Then again, if they did enjoy it, what did it matter?

There were important people in this universe. People upon whose actions his plans were contingent. These people needed to be closely watched, guided, mentored, or in some cases, manipulated or coerced, into following the correct path. These people, these cruxes, were few and far between, and he was thankful for that, as he had spent much of the last few centuries guiding them through the eye of the needle. The universe did not permit more than a few kings and queens upon the chessboard.

There were also influential people in this universe. People are resources, put simply. Two people have more absolute potential than one person, but that potential is not always exercised. Those of influence, more often than not, pushed people towards one extreme or another. He saw them at every scale: globally, nationally, locally, socially. And those influential people themselves needed to be influenced, but that was easy enough to do behind the scenes with a hidden hand. A war here. A social movement there. Sprinkle in a few shifts in cultural direction.

Then, there were effective people in this universe. Not necessarily creative thinkers in their own right, but actors, capable of putting a plan into action. These were the pawns, the rank and file that were sacrificed without much thought. But, (as he always reminded his protege), a pawn could always be promoted to something greater, so they were not to be summarily dismissed.

Finally, there was everyone else. People who would live their lives and die without any measurable impact on the course of the universe. What purpose did they serve? He could spend half an eternity converting every single one of them, and it would do nothing. Little would be lost if they were gone. And yet, little would be lost if they remained. He was as a God, but he was not malevolent.

And if this was how some of them filled their small lives, and it brought them pleasure, why begrudge them that?

But there was one, an aberration, someone who, like him, didn’t fit the pattern. It sat at the head of the hall, in an elaborate throne, watching the proceedings languidly. She was beautiful. He? It? He could detect the Glamour, prismatic and ever-changing, attempting to probe his mind. Its intent was to determine what one found most deeply and profoundly attractive, and then subtly present that back to the viewer. But it was still magic, which meant it had limits.

Merlin of the Line was that limit, and he had reached his. “Max.”

The beautiful anomaly raised her head. “John.”

They could have called each other by a thousand different appellations or epithets. But there were no pretenses to keep up, no battles to fight. The battles had already been fought, and Merlin had won them all.

“It’s time, Max.”

At this point, all the Glamours had melted away. The beautiful people who were splayed about the floor in indulging in various ecstasies were dismayed to see their platonic figures melt back into the flabby, second-rate bodies of peasants and adventurers. They looked around, ashamed of their nakedness, and self consciously began to skulk out of what was now a simple cabin in the woods.

The two Ancients ignored them. “I knew you’d come for me eventually. I’ve been expecting it ever since the Interdict. Which, I have to say, I don’t quite understand.”

Merlin cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I never played the game on as many levels as you. I never had the need to, and I never had the want to, either. The games bore me, and if we’re being honest, the world will move on without me. I know you. You’re going to shape the world how you want it to be shaped and there’s not a god damned thing any of us can do about it.” At this, Max idly spat on the ground. “It’s why we’re all here, and not there,” he added, bitterly.

A beat of silence passed. None of what Max said required a rebuttal or response, so Merlin provided none. Besides, it was clear Max was mostly thinking out loud, and it was not long before he continued. “The first level interpretation is that you saw the danger of magic and did something about it. Only a fool would accept that at face value, which is why the majority of the world doesn’t look farther.

“The second level is that, it’s part of a larger plot, the first move in an epic, century-long war of attrition to eradicate magic. Of course, the hypocrisy of that is blatant: using magic to eradicate magic? That’s something that a villain out of storybook would do. And that’s where I’m stuck. You’re not a storybook villain. And tactically, it doesn’t make sense. If you have that kind of power at your disposal, and magic is your enemy, why limit it in this oddly specific, easily circumvented kind of way? There’s another level here.”

Merlin began to smile. It was a slow, sad smile, but it carried with it a hint of amusement. “I thought you said that the games bored you?”

“So it is part of the game, then.”

“Isn’t everything part of the game?”

“Depends on your definition. The game itself bores me. But the meta-game does not. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this for centuries, to see what you have planned for me. It’s really the only thing that I’ve looked forward to, the only thing that has kept me going.”

“Then what I have planned for you will be poetic.”

Another beat. Max spoke, “You want me to die.”

“We all must die, in order for the world to live.”

“You know as well as I do that there’s no middle ground, here. Either everyone dies, always, and forever. Or everyone lives. Always and forever. Infinity or zero. Nothing in between.”

At this, Merlin smiled. This truly was the crux of everything.

“You said you’re bored? Well, there’s your riddle. Figure out what I want, and then do it. Because it’s going to happen, one way or another,” Merlin paused, briefly, and then turned to leave. As he opened the door and stepped out onto the stilted porch, he looked over his shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Max.”

“You too, John.”

And for the first time in millenia, Max Koschey, Koschei the Deathless, Baba Yaga, Ma’krt of the Rock, He-With-A-Thousand-Names and a thousand other names, was interested in something.

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 2: Gods. Chapter 4: The Goat and the Ram

Earlier

Maksimillian Koschey watched the seconds tick by, as the world died around him. Even the end was unbearably anticlimactic.

I wonder how long I can wait before I truly die? That might be interesting. Then again…. Maybe something interesting is on the other side. Might as well give it a shot. After all, I can die whenever.

He requisitioned the necessary mass-energy, created a suitable vessel for himself, and bound it to one of the countless power crystals he had surreptitiously (and quite illegally) stowed away for himself. After all, he figured this day would come sooner or later.

With but a flicker of his Will, the entirety of his being transmuted, and traversed all barriers.

And with that, Maksimillian Koschey awoke somewhere new.


Seconds later

Adnan Nejem was roused, unceremoniously, from his game.

Shit. What a fucking waste of an hour. Almost there, too.

These kinds of power spikes were rare, but not unheard of. He started to reboot. While he waited, he glanced briefly over at his work terminal and–

Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit

He ripped the inputs out of his arms and temples, and with a swift kick, propelled himself in his rolling chair across the polished metal floor of his flat. It had to be a false positive. What he was seeing was just… “Impossible” doesn’t even really begin to cover it.

A few quick keystrokes. Some regression analysis.

Shit.

Adnan’s code was spaghetti. It always was. But it worked. It worked in ways that other people couldn’t fathom, which is what made Adnan so singularly valuable. But it all so made him a liability. He always told himself that he would eventually rewrite everything, make it extendable, add some documentation, all that stuff that he would get around to some day if only he weren’t too busy doing more important shit.

Well, didn’t he feel stupid, now?

The system had begun to fail almost a full two minutes earlier. More specifically, his module had begun to fail almost a full two minutes earlier. The code was fine. It had to be. But, it was failing. And no one across the whole of Humanity was capable of troubleshooting it except for him. And he had waited an entire two minutes. It was over. Even if he had been there when it started, it still may have been over.

It was like a waterfall. Layers of failure, rippling, crashing against the rocks. The weight of it was heavy, too heavy to bear. His fault. It had to be. The system was inviolate. He was the weak link. Everyone dead, all his fault.

Adnan was already preparing. He looked at the various prototypes and experiments in his flat. No. It wouldn’t do. He needed to be anonymous; that ruled out the majority of his options. No, he wouldn’t be coming back from backup. It would be him, in the flesh.

Hmmm… Options, options, options…

His eyes stopped on Dinsdale. He had been experimenting with this particular variety of Chol for centuries. Fire was the constituent element, but that was just another kludge. It was so much easier to just complete the metaphor than to do the hard work of explicitly defining the connections: the Chol judged intent, and the fire purged and purified. Of course, Adnan wasn’t a monster: the fire didn’t do any lasting harm, it was just a means of transport.

He looked at the bird-like creature, perched on the thin glass shelf. As he stared into his creation’s eyes, he formed the question in his mind. Dinsdale looked back at him, and cocked its head, quizzically.

“Caw?”

Judgment was issued. And the conflagration began. A fiery menagerie stampeded into the room, purging and purifying, whipping around with angry lashes, surrounding Adnan and Dinsdale. He was being judged, and he had failed. The fire burned, and burned, and burned; it burned until there was nothing left of Adnan. The sound and the fury had ceased as quickly as it began.

The immolation was complete. And with that, all that was of Adnan Nejem had been burnt away.

Dinsdale idly pecked at his feathers, feeling a distant sense of loss. But for what? It couldn’t quite recall. It seemed so far, so far away. After all, time is the shortest distance between two places.


Seconds later

Natalie Kyros was always amazed at the propensity for the religious to fold modern advances into their belief system rather than update their belief system to account for modern advances. But, people had always been that way, and trying to fight it was a fruitless endeavor. Many of her friends and colleagues had tried. For centuries. And they were perpetually frustrated.

Natalie, on the other hand, had realized early on that some flaws in human cognition weren’t worth fixing; it was better and easier to simply use them to your advantage. That was how the central node of her network had come to take its current form: a three-meter tall cross, crafted of a metal that outwardly appeared to be iron.

The geometry was actually quite convenient for its intended purpose. It could have been a tesseract, but unfolding the cube before extending it into four-dimensional space had quite the same effect, but with a few advantages. The infrastructure was actually more modular and extensible, but that came with a few key drawbacks as well. Namely, it was also more corruptible.

She remembered her conversations with her colleague, Gus. They always argued with each other, but in a respectful way. There was an implicit understanding between them that having a constant Devil’s Advocate was exceedingly useful, despite being exceedingly frustrating. Their coworkers, of course, did not have this understanding, and simply wondered when they were going to get it over with and finally start dating.

Technically speaking, every structure is a four-dimensional structure, he would always remind her. Which, sure, it’s true, from a certain point of view. But it’s an asinine point of view to take, because by that logic, every structure is an infinite-dimensional structure. Yes, and that’s quite the point, isn’t it?

He had an obnoxious habit of being smug and cryptic like that. She never really had patience for the riddles though. The point was that the True Cross was deliberately extended, by conscious design. It was that conscious intent, in her mind, that truly gave weight to a structure.

And it was with conscious intent that she incorporated several elements of the standard mythologies into her design, just to make it more palatable for the masses. If she only had more time, she could have come up with a suitable spin for the events unfolding around her. Apocalypse. Revelation. Rapture.

But she had no time. Her followers would not be saved. Gus wouldn’t be saved. It was hard to tell which was more sad. No time to think though. Action. She spoke the phrase:

‎”אברא כדברא”

As the Cross began to unfold itself in that unseen dimension, its physical form in this Time and Space diminished. The Cross was reducing itself to a point, a single, one-dimensional vertex: massless and volumeless. Natalie’s corporeal form was already gone, her Life and subsequent Death Burst both channeling through and powering the machination.

And with that, Natalie Kyros and her True Cross were gone: nothing but myth and legend.


Seconds later

Christopher Chang stared at his reflection in his mirror. The mirror was the answer after the answer. Reaching eternity was one thing, but once you answered the Last Question, there was still one more: what next?

He hadn’t completed it. Of course he hadn’t. How could he? The risk was so untenable that it did not even need to be articulated. The project itself was, in the parlance of the 21st century, “open source”. Anyone could build upon it, improve it, perfect it. Which of course, meant, that few did. Some things never changed. The producers of the world were far outnumbered by the consumers, in every facet of life.

Which is why it had been so important to cultivate those less productive than oneself. Teach them to become producers. Of course, it didn’t matter now. Well, it wasn’t supposed to matter. But something was wrong. Something hadn’t worked. He could feel it, like some fundamental flaw in the generating function of the universe.

There was nothing that could be done, of course. This was John’s problem to fix. And he didn’t mean that in the defeatist sense: it was just a matter of pure logistics. Even if Christopher had been capable of affecting any sort of real change, he was full minutes away, and that was assuming he used the fastest possible transportation protocols.

So, he stood in front of his Mirror, and allowed it to reflect his deepest, most profound volition. The image of Christopher and the classroom behind him vanished, and in its place, the Mirror displayed Question.

He provided the answer. And with that, Christopher Chang was gone.

The golden oval stood, inviolate, in this world, in all worlds.


Seconds later

Constantine Atreides rushed manically around the lab. The anchoring rods were uniquely equipped to handle, channel, and redirect the absurd amount of power coursing through the system from the network of L.E. lines. Calling them “Low Energy” lines really was a bit of a misnomer. Certainly with the correct state of mind and the proper knowledge, one could access that energy without the aid of tools. But the whole point of Constantine’s rods was to harness the energy from something wild, dangerous and mind-bendingly powerful into something tame, usable, and above all, safe.

For a brief moment, Constantine thought that he might save the world. If he could force everything to channel through the cluster of rods, it could be dispersed safely. He’d have to direct it. He’d have to use it to create something. He’d make…

Damn it.

He never really was the creative type. He spend whole moments pondering, then realized his folly, and simply let his mind drift towards a random series of fractal patterns, maybe that would work?

It did not. Of course it did not. The rods required intent of some kind.

Even if his mind was capable of containing a structure grand enough, complex enough, even if he had taken the time beforehand to plan all of his movements and thoughts to the microsecond, it simply would not have been enough. There was too much. But Constantine did not know this. The system was flitting through failure modes faster that he could keep track of them. He continued to look for an answer. No time, no time.

Nat.

Not enough time. He couldn’t save her. He couldn’t save anyone. What now? Save himself. Save himself. The one grand, complex structure his mind was capable of containing was, of course, itself. Clever self-referencing hacks wouldn’t cut it in this use case. Were he performing a simple transform, he would be fine; the mind would provide the Form ad-hoc as the Substance was being assembled.

But this was a clean write, which meant it had to be done in one fell swoop. That left no room for anything else. Unless… Yes, that actually would work. Before the operation, he sacrificed a small portion of who he was, of his being, kept in reserve to hold on to that one idea, that one hope, that one dream: her.

And with that, Constantine and his hope were gone.


Seconds later

Dexter Charles giggled. As the lead Seer, he was privy to secrets, knowledge, information. Oh yes, he was privy. Things that no one else knew. Things that no one else could know. Yes, of course he knew this day would come. All paths led to it.

All paths led to him, through him. He was the gate. Of course he was. He knew the gate, he was its key and guardian. Past, present, and future were one. His past, the world’s past, a fixed line. The present, a hot white point that encompassed this world and all worlds. And the future, a diffuse web of background noise for as far as the mind could fathom.

But of course, he knew what lay beyond that. He knew. Of course he knew. How could he not? Past, present and future were one. Even as the world died around him, he giggled as he watched the future loop back upon itself, over and over and over and over and over spiraling out and up and down and out and up and down and out of control until all that was left were two paths, and it all went through him, which was so silly, so sad, but so, so silly that he couldn’t help but giggle.

Needless to say, one of the occupational hazards of being a Seer is that it’s not exactly conducive to preserving one’s mental health. Dexter’s mind had been shredded by the enormity of what he was trying to encompass: he had walked down both paths, just to see how it all would end. But, what he saw could not be comprehended by a finite mind.

One path could not permit the finite.

The other path could not permit the mind.

No matter. It didn’t matter, couldn’t matter. For all he knew, all paths led to him. Why wouldn’t they? He was the gate. So, he simply opened the gate, and exited the world.

And with that, Dexter Charles entered the world.


Seconds later

Janus Tucker knew that this was the end. But he also knew that there was a loophole. There always were loopholes. The scales as a metaphor for justice had persisted from ancient times even to today. But it was done now, it served no further purpose. What use was Justice in a dead world? He reached into the metaphor, pondered for a moment, and removed the two cups from the scale.

As long as there were people, things, structures that obeyed the laws, in whatever form those laws would take, the metaphor would hold. Justice. Balance. It was written into the very fabric of Creation, it was the canvas on which the tale of the world was spun.

The question now, was what to do… Ah, yes. He simply inserted himself into that fabric, into the tale. The will of the world was being Bound, regardless, regardless of his own actions. So why not Bind himself to it? Yes, it was a moment of darkness for the world. But it was said that the darkest hour of midnight came just before the dawn. And he would be there for that dawn, to see what we be born.

He grasped the two cups, and smiled for a brief moment as he struck a suitably dramatic pose. If he was to be a God, he may as well play the part.

And with that, the tale of Janus Tucker was written.


Seconds later

Kayla Rahl examined the three boxes. There were only a few moments left, but she had designed the Box for this very purpose. A surprisingly effective failsafe. It was an exercise in pushing things to their limits. An arbitrarily large extendable space. An arbitrarily long connection. In this case, though, about 26,000 light years sufficed.

She knew when she created it that she could never open the Box. The very notion of her opening the Box was a paradox unto itself. And yet, here she was. That small fraction of her mind that did not exist, the part that would permit itself to open the Box, suddenly was there. Just popped into existence, five minutes prior.

She immediately felt it. And she immediately went to check on the Box. And that’s when she saw there were three. It was, in reality, a single Box. The Box in the present. The Box in the past. The Box in the future. Each was its own distinct physical entity. She had heard once that the cells in our bodies were completely replaced every seven years. It was nonsense, of course, that’s not how biology works. But even still, she was always fascinated by Theseus’ Ship. She suspected that is why the Box presented itself as three rather than one.

But, most importantly, she was able to open the Box. For eons, the very nature of the world prevented the Box from ever being opened. But it had changed, everything had changed. This meant only one thing; the world had already passed its own event horizon. The world was already going Beyond.

Which meant there was no harm in going Beyond along with it.

So she willed the Box open. The three aspects obliged, unfolding themselves. Kayla gazed into the gaping maw of the Beyond, and entered.

Once she was truly locked Beyond, the boxes snapped shut.

And with that, Kayla Rahl and the world were gone.


And with that, the new world was born.

The world unfolded, like a fully grown adult emerging from the womb. The new Gods of the new world emerged, as well, shaking off the afterbirth, their eyes sensitive to the intense, penetrating waves of this new sun.

Each knew there were others, for they each knew that they were not the oldest, or the cleverest, or the most knowledgable. And if they were able to do it, someone older, someone cleverer, someone more knowledgeable would have been able to do it too.

But it wasn’t turtles all the way up. Someone had to be the best, the oldest, the cleverest, the most knowledgeable.


Swift River Valley, Massachusetts
January, 1938

Merlin looked out over the valley. The sky was remarkably clear for the early hour, so from this vantage point, he could see “The Two Towers”. Ilvermorny Castle, about 60 miles to the west on Mount Greylock, and the Salem Witches’ Institute, which rested on Sentinel Hill, about 20 miles to the south.

Salem predated its more famous competitor by several centuries, and specialized in Ritual Magic. Few remember its more ancient name, which served to honor the Misqat tribe who formed the school centuries before. Back then it was little more than a stone circle and a curious altar on a small island in the middle of the Swift River. The land itself seemed to swell in response to the power that coursed through the place, and Sentinel Hill was coaxed from the ground over the years.

The eastern line of Merlin’s will ran through the Berkshire mountain range, and cut sharply across the heart of central Massachusetts, before eventually terminating in Boston Harbor. The point where he stood was the future site of the Russell Institute, the newest American bastion of magical knowledge.

The final steps of his plan were coming to fruition. The gears fit together so seamlessly. The Wilbraham Incident had galvanized the Scourers, who had emerged from their decades of hiding. The pressure on the Westphalians was enormous. Exposure simply could not be risked. And when it seemed that matters could not get worse for them, Grindelwald began cooperating with the European muggle dictatorship. Non-interventionism was simply not an option.

The Scourers had disposed of the last of the Old Ones; The Gate had been closed. The Westphalians and their No-Maj counterparts had entered the global theater and toppled Grindelwald and the Third Reich. The Eastern Ley was significantly weakened. And, perhaps most importantly, one more step of the Prophecy was fulfilled.

Born to those that have thrice defied him…

Three schools, formed in defiance of the true Dark Lord.

He smiled, despite himself.

Orders of Magnitude, Interlude. Something to Protect: Bellatrix Black

August, 1962
London

Cygnus Black was not a man who cried.

It was simply not in the Black family nature to reveal signs of weakness. And emotion is for the weak. Thus, Cygnus Black did not so much as weep, even when his firstborn daughter was readying herself for the Hogwarts’ Express for the first time.

“Daddy?”

His daughter looked up at him with heavy-lidded eyes, glittering with an innocent, good-natured curiosity.

“Yes, Bella?”

“What if I AM put into Gryffindor?”

“And what would be wrong with that?”

Bella paused for a moment to think. “It’s the house of the foolish. It’s not a house for the clever, or the cunning. It’s not Slytherin. What if I’m not good enough to get in to Slytherin?”

Cygnus kneeled down and put a large hand on Bella’s frizzy mop of hair. “Bella. Dear Bella. Gryffindor is also the house of the brave, the house of the strong. Two of the best men I’ve known were–”

“Cygnus! What is that ridiculous nonsense you’re filling her head with?”

Druella Black had overheard that one small bit of their conversation, and glowered at them both.

“Druella,” he whispered in a sidebar, “She’s worried. What you have me say to her?”

She loudly directed her next comment towards Bellatrix, “I would have you say that she should see to it that she gets sorted into Slytherin, or else both of her parents will be quite disappointed in her.” She turned her head as she caught the eye of someone in the crowd, waving them over.

Cygnus took this moment to speak directly to Bella. “Dear Bella, you will do well wherever you are sorted. And I want you to know that the Sorting Hat does take your choice into account. That’s not to say that’s the only thing it considers. But I will be proud of you, and will love you, regardless of the choice you make.”

He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, stood up, straightened himself, and pat her on the head. “Now, what you’ll want to do is walk straight at the wall between platforms nine and ten. Best to do it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.”

Later, as Cygnus watched the train pull away, his heart swelled with emotion. But Cygnus Black was not a man who cried.


July, 1963
Coventry

Bella’s 13th birthday party was held at the sprawling Rosier Estate, where she had spent her youth outside of Hogwarts. Although it was deeded to her Uncle Gilles, the current scion of the Rosier family, Cygnus and Druella Black had made it their home. For her part, Bella was surprised when Uncle Gilles decided to attend the party: he had been coming up with flimsy excuses to avoid Black family gatherings for as long as she could remember.

As the night drew on, Bella noticed Uncle Gilles’ eyes growing glassy; he did seem to be drinking quite a large amount of her dad’s firewhiskey. Daddy really favored that particular vintage, and, although they were quite well off, it was still very expensive. That must have been why Bella kept catching him glaring at Uncle Gilles surreptitiously throughout the evening.

As the festivities drew on, Bella opened several fabulously expensive, lavishly wrapped presents. A new pair of cauldrons, a gilded set of Wizard’s Chess from Andromeda, a beautiful sapphire telescope from Cissy (although, neither of her sisters were present at the party; it was tradition that only those who had come of age could attend). After she unwrapped the last of them, Uncle Gilles strode behind her, leaned over, and whispered.

“You haven’t opened Uncle Gilles’ present, Bella.”

“Oh! I didn’t? I don’t think I saw it!”

Gilles chortled. He was a large man, with ruddy cheeks, bushy eyebrows, and stubbly fingers. Currently, those stubbly fingers were resting on Bella’s shoulders. “How foolish of me. I must have left it in my chambers. Bella, why don’t you come with me, and help me find it?”

At this, Cygnus stood up and coughed loudly. “Gilles, that’s quite alright. Why don’t I help you with that? We wouldn’t want to keep Bella from the festivities.”

Druella shot him an angry glance. “Cygnus, sit down. You’re being rude to our guest.”

Gilles said nothing, and simply smiled warmly at Druella. Cygnus shook. “I… No. I will not have this. Not in my house.”

At this, Gilles laughed, humorless and mocking.

There was a beat of silence, then Druella spoke. “Cygnus. Dear. Need I remind you that this is the ancestral home of the Rosiers, not the Blacks? So it is, in fact, MY home. Now sit down. I do believe you are offending my brother.”

Cygnus did not sit.

“Sit. Down.”

He closed his eyes, and slowly sunk into his chair, his teeth gritting. Bella was, well, confused. It wasn’t that big of a deal, Uncle Gilles just forgot to bring the present out. Daddy must have just been upset that Uncle drank all of the firewhiskey.

As she followed Uncle Gilles down the hall, Cygnus turned away. He couldn’t watch. And he would not cry. Even when he heard the muffled shouts and clipped sobs coming from the chambers, he did not cry.


May, 1966
Coventry

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles.” Bella intoned, icily.

“Bellatrix Black, you will greet your superiors with a smile, not with a scowl.” Druella warned.

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles!” She repeated, her voice dripping with saccharine sweetness.

Druella’s hand flew back, and Bella instinctively flinched.

“Greetings, Uncle Gilles…” Bella curtsied politely.

“Greetings, little Bella,” he replied, and he kneeled to cup her cheek in his hand. He lightly brushed her neck with his pinky.

Uncle Gilles stood and surveyed the house. He walked over to the sitting area, eyes locked on the bottle of firewhiskey that daddy had always favored. “I’m pleased to see that you still have some of the 1899, Cygnus. The vintage is truly delightful. Care for a glass, good man?”

“Gilles, it’s barely even noon…” Cygnus shifted, uncomfortably.

“Ha! Nonsense. Don’t be silly. Who is going to judge us?” He filled his tumbler about an inch from the top with liquor, and dipped two plump fingers into the glass. After swirling them around for a moment, he placed them lovingly in his mouth, tasting the firewhiskey with a wet, sucking noise. He let out an exaggerated moan. “Simply delightful.”

He stretched out his hand and waved his two fingers underneath Cygnus’ nose. “Come on now lad, give it a whiff.” He lifted his fingers up a bit, wafting the smell upwards, and Cygnus tilted his head back to avoid physical contact.

Uncle Gilles extended his remaining fingers, and with his open palm, gave Cygnus a hard yet good natured slap, and laughed uproariously. “There’s a lad!” Gilles took a loud slurp from the glass, and stared at Cygnus. “Curious, isn’t it, that some things actually taste better the older they get?”

At this, Uncle Gilles whipped around and smiled broadly. “And this must be little Cissy!”

“Narcissa,” Bella corrected. Druella shot her a warning glare. “Allow me to introduce Narcissa. Narcissa Black.”

“And how old are you, little Cissy?”

“I’m eleven sir. Pleased to meet you.” Narcissa giggled a bit.

“Pleased to meet you, darling.” Uncle Gilles ran his thumb across her cheek and she giggled even more. He was so silly. His round features and rosy cheeks reminded her of those kindly garden gnomes from the stories father used to tell her.

“And I hear another one is about to have a birthday soon… Her 13th, no?” Gilles inquired.

Druella turned away in disgust. “Andromeda will not be joining us for the summer. She has decided to spend her days in less… Desirable company.”

“She’s dating a Muggle,” Bella provided. Beneath the perfunctory tone of disgust, a perceptive listener may have noted a hint of triumph and challenge.

Uncle Gilles choked quietly on his firewhiskey. “Disgusting.” He made a face, worked his mouth a bit, and spit the remaining firewhiskey onto the plush carpet of the sitting room. “A Muggle, Cygnus? Truly?” Cygnus gave a slow sad shake of his head.

“Well, I suppose I shan’t be returning again this summer. I never much cared for the taste of mud.”


June, 1968
Coventry

It was Narcissa Black’s 13th birthday party, and Bellatrix had just graduated from Hogwarts. She was speaking pleasantly with other members of her family and extended family who had showed up for the twin festivities.

“–and I was thinking of picking up work at Burgin and Burke’s while I–

“A Rosier-Black, a common shopkeep?” Aunt Matilda scoffed.

“No, no, nothing of the sort. Their newest purchasing director, he has made some very interesting advances in the field of ritual magic, and–”

As Bellatrix spoke, a flicker of recognition glint across Aunt Matilda’s eyes. “Oh yes, I actually do recall that. I’ll have you know, I actually went to school with him. A good boy, a nice Slytherin. I’ll have you know, I fancied that boy once,” she cackled lasciviously. “Not as handsome now, though, sadly.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I hear he took a curse to the face in Albania. Which reminds me, my husband I were just vacationing in the forests of–”

Bellatrix nodded vacantly. She was not listening, she was too busy staring across the room. She could pick up indistinct bits of the conversation. The words were missing, but the intent was crystal clear.

“But Cissy, you haven’t opened Uncle Gilles’ present.”

Narcissa cocked her head, looking around the dining room. “Oh! I didn’t see it! Where is it?”

Uncle Gilles chuckled. “Silly me! I must have left it in my chambers. It is a bit heavy, though… Do you think you could help me lift–”

He stopped mid sentence at the sound. Clambering footsteps, broken glass, a high-pitched shriek:

“NOT MY SISTER, YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!”

Bella had closed the distance between the two of them in the span of a moment, and she flung herself protectively in front of Cissy. With one hand, she pushed Cissy backward, and with the other, she lashed out across Uncle Gilles’ face.

She was still holding the shards of her broken wine glass.

The jagged edges of the crystal cut deep crimson ridges across Uncle Gilles’ ruddy cheeks. Blood gushed out in angry rivulets as he stumbled backward, crashing into the delicate glass coffee table. He lost his footing, and fell fully over onto the table, the glass giving away underneath with a terrific crash.

Druella stood up, her face ruddy with anger. “Bellatrix Black, what do you–”

“EXPELLIARMUS! SILENCIO!”

Bella flourished her wand, and shadowy black cords shot out, wrapping like tendrils around Druella’s feet and Uncle Gilles’ torso. With a swift motion, she cracked her hand and the cords whipped up, suspending the two mid-air.

It was Judgement Day. Reckoning. Vengeance. There was no one to stop her. No one that could keep her from taking what was hers, no one to keep her from protecting–

“PETRIFICUS TOTALIS!”

Bella’s body stiffened abruptly. The cords winked out of existence instantaneously, unceremoniously dropping both Druella and Uncle Gilles to the ground.

Cygnus Black stood, shaking, his wand out, his eyes filled with tears.

“I’m sorry, Gilles. She didn’t know what she was doing, she’s just–”

Uncle Gilles spoke as he stood up, the wounds already healing with the wordless gesture of his wand. “I’ve seen enough, Cygnus. One daughter who fornicates with Muggles, and another who would dare attack a pureblood superior? I had my reservations when my sister married a Black, but it’s disappointing to see them come true.”

“Gilles, please.”

“You can forget about my support on the Roanoke matter. And Druella: this man is no longer welcome in my house. I expect him to leave, immediately. Druella, you may stay if you wish. I think there is much business that you and I have to discuss.”

Druella nodded, and turned angrily towards Bellatrix, but she was already gone, as was Narcissa.

Bella had apparated them both to the hill, their hill. It was already dark, and they could see the stars through the clearing. She held her sister tightly, openly weeping. “Cissy, I may be going away for awhile. But you go back home. Go back to Hogwarts. I’ll make sure to write, I’ll make sure to visit.” She pressed something into Narcissa’s hand, a small blue sculpture carved of brilliant sapphire. It was a dolphin. Bella’s dolphin.

“Bella, I don’t understand.”

“You will, Cissy. You will.”

And with that, Bella apparated away, leaving Narcissa alone, staring up at the stars.


December, 1975
Wiltshire

It pleased her to know that Uncle Gilles never came to another Black family birthday celebration. If she had only done one thing in her life, that was enough. She protected Cissy. If she was safe, that was all that mattered. Eventually, she forgave Father. But the relationship was never the same. How could it be? She wasn’t Daddy’s dear Bella anymore. She was Bellatrix.

It also pleased her when she received the owl informing her of mother’s untimely death (although she lived long enough to scorch Andromeda off the family tree). Yes, Andromeda had run off with a Muggle. But she too was safe, in her own way.

But, it pleased her most of all,to be with her family and friends to witness the marriage of her Cissy. Malfoy Manor was resplendent and glorious, with the sun setting elegantly behind the Declaration of Intent. Now, Cissy truly was protected. She carried the protection of the Lord Malfoy. And soon enough, she would carry his children. And oh, how Cissy wanted children.

Some of Bella’s most wonderful memories as a child were of laying on the ground in the foothills outside the sprawling Rosier Estate. Due to the various enchantments surrounding the property, the night sky was always preternaturally dark. Cissy and Bella would stare up at the sky for hours, talking about the stars, telling stories about the constellations and thinking ahead into the future.

They talked about their future families and children. They would name them children after the constellations, to remind them of their destiny in the stars. Cissy always wanted a big family. She’d start with a boy and a girl. Draco would be the oldest, the greatest: king of the serpents. And Lyra, she represented the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Bella could appreciate that. If any harm ever came to Cissy, she too would travel to the depths of Hell and challenge the Lord of the Underworld himself to make things right.

For her part, Bella only wanted one child. A little girl who she would call Delphini. The dolphin, Bella had once told Cissy, is one of the most intelligent, most social animals. Oh, how Bella loved animals. She was protective, maternal. And one day, she would have that daughter of her own to protect and nurture. But until that day came, she would see to it that Cissy was safe.

Now, she was. Cissy would have her family. Bella looked up through her heavy lidded eyes, which sparkled like twin stars. She smiled lovingly at Cissy, who smiled lovingly back at her, and she gave the young Lord Malfoy an approving nod.

All was well.


June, 1980
Malfoy Manor

It was dark times, truly dark times. One Dark Lord fell decades before, and another had risen in his place, more terrible and more powerful than any before him. One who saw the Malfoys as an enemy, and therefore saw Cissy as an enemy. A foe that even Bella, with her newfound power and lore, could not protect Cissy from. Bella needed allies, someone worthy of leading an army against the rising tide of Albus Dumbledore.

She found one.

There was something inscrutable about him. He was insane, yes, and powerful beyond measure. But something was off, and she noted a tiny hint of confusion. He spouted ridiculous ideologies, saying openly the kinds of hateful rhetoric that was typically exchanged behind closed doors within the ivory towers of privilege. Bella knew what it was like to speak those words aloud, and knew what it was like to not truly believe them. And she saw that quality in him.

But why? It was not even a means to an end. His power would have been sufficient to cow the noble families into submission. His cunning would have been sufficient to outmaneuver even the most seasoned Wizengamot veterans. The lore he possessed was sufficient to entice even the most erudite of scholars.

He could have easily won over the nobility. And when you win over the nobility, you win over the undesirables. He did not need to appeal to the Carrows of the world. And yet, he did. And so Bella needed to understand, to comprehend. If he was to be the new leader, their new ruler, she needed to know what type of ruler he would grow to becomes. Even a tyrant would be preferable, so long as Cissy was safe. Bella needed to understand.

But those were long term concerns. In the short-term, she needed protection. War was raging. And yet, in the middle of the darkness there was light. She stood beside Cissy’s bed, holding a small, frail baby boy, with piercing eyes and the thinnest wisps of platinum blonde hair. There was light in the world. And she would fight to protect that.


September, 1980
Wiltshire

He’s dead. Albus silly, bully billy, bobbing Albus, silly silly silly silly silly Dumbledore, so silly and wily, why? Why why why did you take her, why why why why why why, now you are dead, dead by little Bella, deary Bella, silly Bella isn’t silly anymore, Cissy. Sweet Cissy and little Lyra, all burnt up. Burnt through, murdered. Burned up and burnt through and crisped up like little flakes of burning burning burning burning burning burning burning burning every last one of you will burn like phoenixes and I will burn you until you die and I will burn you when you are reborn and burn you burn you burn you when you wake up again, you took away sweet Cissy and little Lyra, burn burn burn burn burn burn burn–

The crackling power of Bella’s manic intensity filled the air outside Malfoy manor. She felt the very moment that the sapphire statue of a dolphin that she had given Cissy so many years before was consumed by the magical fire. Immediately, she apparated outside the grounds of Malfoy Manor, and she tore past the wards and jinxes, forcing her body into Mistform and bouncing off the ground in order to go faster.

When she arrived, it was too late. Dumbledore was gone, and so was Cissy. Lucius stood outside with several of the servants and a few members of the family who had been staying the night. He held little Draco in his arms. His face was white, his eyes sullen, the shock of it all rendering him dead to the world.

Once she gathered her bearings, she directed the mist of her body upwards, through the oppressive heat and licking flames, into bedroom of the Lord and Lady Malfoy. If there was even the remotest hint of a chance, she would do anything, give everything.

There was not.

She arrived in time only to see the last bits of ruined flesh bubble and crack, melting away from Cissy’s face. Although her bonds had long since burned away, her position suggested she had been tied to the bed. There were no eyes left to look into, no final shared gaze. Just a flaming, grinning skull, staring lifelessly back at her.

Bella’s scream was one of unending pain, as if all sorrow, loss, grief and rage in the world had condensed into a single point which was then stretched into a sound. With a terrifying crack of power and a whooshing thump, the temperature in the room dropped by about 150 degrees, covering everything in a chill of ice and frost. The heat was gone, but the scream continued.

She didn’t notice when another sound joined the scream: a hiss. That hiss. That cruel, terrible, baleful hiss that masqueraded as laughter. It echoed across the grounds of Malfoy Manor, unmistakable in its source. The laughter penetrated her mind, devoid of any hint of positive emotion. The laughter was a deliberate mockery of the very notion of happiness.

Beneath the laughter were the pops of various wizards and witches apparating. Still screaming, Bella looked up, and saw the Dark Mark burning bright green in the night sky. It was bright, oppressive, and it blocked out the other pinpricks of light. She could not see Draco, she could not see Lyra, she could not see Delphini. She could see nothing, and could feel only rage.

The Death Eaters were arriving, one by one, in response to their masters’ call. Lord Voldemort continued his insane, shrieking laughter, and compelled his dear Bella to return to the ground, where she slumped forward, fists on the ground, body wracking with sobs.

When they had all arrived, the Dark Lord spoke: “Dumbledore is finally learning to play the game as it should be played. He has grown up, and we now finally have a foe worthy of Lord Voldemort’s attention! Today, the battle has truly begun.

“You look somber, my servants. This is a cause for celebration! The game is afoot, and for that, you should be happy. For that, I shall reward you for your loyalty. For that…” His lips curled upward in a cruel smile, “we shall have a Dark Revel!”

He gestured with his skeleton-fingers towards the prostrate form of Bellatrix. She heard nothing. She did not hear the hushed, shocked silence. She did not hear the awkward cheers and forced shouts of celebration. And she did not feel any of what was to come. Her world was pain, and her world was rage, and there was no room for anything else.


June, 1981
Sontag

“HA HAHA HAHAHA HAHA!”

The cruel high-pitched laughter echo through the ruins of Sontag.

“The silly stupid stinking Scottish slut has a sissy for herself!”

It was too late to run. The anti-apparition wards had already been complete. No time to think. Physical escape was the only real option. If they could just get beyond the bounds of the wards. But the city was walled, there was only one exit point and it was sure to be guarded.

Well, it wasn’t the first time that Minerva and Moira McGonagall were going to go have to fight their way out of a sticky situation.

Of course, Bellatrix Black was far more than just a sticky situation. She remembered teaching the girl, she remembered her skill, and she remembered her soft, sad smile, and her quiet, reserved manner. She wondered what the Dark Lord had done to break her so completely.

”Come out, you old hag! Pull the snakes of of yer’ quim and fight us like a true lady!” Moira shouted, angrily.

“I cannot say I approve of my sisters choice of language, but I agree with the sentiment. Enough with the games. You came to fight, so fight you shall have, Ms. Black!”

“HA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHAAHA”

The laughter rang out from behind them now, and they both whipped around. Bellatrix Black, in the flesh, not 10 meters away.

“Quim, Quim, Qualabim, Rastaban, let’s finish them!” Bellatrix sang.

“With pleasure.”

Rastaban LeStrange’s low, guttural voice rumbled from where Minerva and Moira were just looking, a few moments before they spun to face Bellatrix. Moira turned slowly, keeping her back against Minerva’s, as they both stood with their wands drawn.

The ground was flat, there was no cover to be had or high ground to be exploited. Two against two, nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. This was a duel of pure power and skill. You devote exactly as much energy towards constructing a defense as is necessary, and pour the rest into your attack. An infinity of split-second decisions must be made, and any one of them could prove to be the crucial determiner of the fight.

Every shield has its weak point, and every shield can only tolerate so much abuse before its structure is compromised. Do you attack the weak point, spending more time and energy on precision and aim? Do you simply attack with pure brute force, sacrificing efficiency for speed and attention? If it’s your shield, do you take the time to craft false weak points to draw attacks elsewhere, or do you just reinforce the structure as much as you can? Or do you not even bother with shields, and rely on physical prowess to avoid curses?

Bellatrix was, at first, a vision of pure offensive power. She fired curse after curse, putting no effort whatsoever into the creation of any shield. The intensity of the onslaught forced Minerva into a defensive position. Her first shield was hastily assembled, and inefficient. She lost time, and had to make it up. Not seconds into the fight and she was already backpedaling. Not a chance to even fire a counter curse.

Bellatrix pressed the advantage. Sensing the lack of counterattack, she took her focus away from enhancing her physical maneuvers and poured everything into the ensemble of curses. Minerva threw up a Prismatic Wall, to give herself about a second and a half to think. No shields. Too fast, no point curse. No bystanders, use AOE. Limber, can duck or leap versus Line. Need Field. Mental math, look at feet. Bota Lunga, minimal lateral movement. Concentrated Field, 3 meters, Diffuse Field, 10 meters.

A ten foot wide burst of flame shot from Minerva’s wand, quickly followed by a cloud of needles three times the size. There was nowhere for Bellatrix to dodge, she could only counter or shield. Minerva prepared for both. She prepared a brute force volley of multiple weak physical attacks; it was a minimal expenditure of magic, and it would not do much if it actually landed, but it was enough to severely weaken most shields.

At the same time, she loosed an ice blast, in the event that Bellatrix opted for an elemental counter to the fire: ice trumps water trumps fire. Finally, Minerva prepared a single concentrated lance, in case Bellatrix tried a purely magical hard counter. Such a counter would need to be an applied area of magic, which would be easily penetrated by a directed burst.

Bellatrix indeed used the elemental counter, and her wall of water was quickly frozen by Minerva’s blast of ice. But Bellatrix had anticipated this, and directed a flow of magic into the wall of ice to lend it a measure of permanency. The now-physical barrier blocked the volley of blows intended to weaken a magical shield, and it trivially absorbed the impact of the lance. Bellatrix had the initiative now, and used it to withdraw her magic from the wall and turn it inward, rupturing it from the inside out and send an explosion of knife-sharp ice crystals towards the McGonagall sisters.

Minerva sensed the impending destruction, and also sensed an opportunity. Redirecting or blocking the crystals would not be difficult. But instead, she twisted her wand and summoned a vortex of wind, allowing the crystals to simply bypass them and continue their path. A path which happened to contain Rastaban LeStrange, who was ferociously engaged in his fight with Moira.

If Minerva and Bellatrix’s duel was a chess match, Moira and Rastaban’s was a fistfight. There was no elegance, no levels upon levels of moves, counters, counter-counters, contingencies or gambits. It was a knock-down, drag-out battle of who could out-magic the other. The simply fired curse after curse into each other, both opting for the pure brute-force approach. They were swapping shield-and-curse combinations ruthlessly, and one of them would eventually break.

Rastaban’s shield had been dropped by one of Moira’s curses, but he was already in the middle of loosing a curse of his own. As the magic began to flow from his wand, he saw the burst of ice-daggers flying towards him. He hastily attempted to assemble a barrier, but it was shattered by the hex that Moira had fired the moment she noticed the opening.

The shards pierced his skin, ripping chunks of a flesh away and crumpling him into a heap. It was over for him. A quick stunner from Moira, and it was over. She spared a brief moment to perform an Abjuration ritual; one of the links of the fine platinum chain in her pouch disappeared into nothingness. Massive chains, firmly rooted in the ground, sprung forth from the aether and bound Rastaban.

Bellatrix cackled. “SPECTACULAR, SPECTACULAR!”

There was a brief détente, as they all gauged what the next move was to be. Bellatrix was still cackling. Moira whispered, “She’s as mad a shit-house rat…”

“Mad or no, she could still turn you into a pile of blubbering jelly faster than you can say ‘Death Eater’.” Minerva cautioned.

“Sounds preferable than hearing another lecture from you.” Moira smirked, as they both readied themselves.

“MUSICAL LITTLE MINERVA AND MOIRA, MISERABLE MOUCHES! Time to fly, little flies!”

Rather than wait, Moira took the first action, and fired a standard blade volley at Bellatrix. Minerva backed her up with a trio of non-lethal area of effect jinxes with the intent of hobbling Bellatrix’s ability to respond effectively to Moira’s ceaseless attacks.

“SO EXCITING!” Bellatrix cackled. She cast her hand out, and rather than any sort of deadly curse or counterattack, a massive whirlwind of daffodils shot out, like some arcane blizzard of flower petals.

A distraction?

The flowers billowed around them, but they could still see her form so they continued the attack. But at the moment the blows would have struck, Bellatrix dissolved into viscous black smoke, and flickered backwards and then up. She continued to cackle as the flowers continued to rain down from nowhere. And then, the music.

Music?

A familiar tune, from an unknown source, bawdy and uplifting. Another distraction?

“ELEPHANTS, ARABIANS!”

Minerva tried to trace the position of the black smoke with her wand and fire Halting Hexes, but they could find no purchase. The black smoke landed, and Bellatrix instantiated once more. She grinned, baring her teeth, waving her wand. But there was no attack. Just more flowers, and more music.

“INDIANS AND COURTESEANS!”

“What is she blubbering about?” Moira whispered through the side of her mouth.

Minerva was barely paying attention to her sister, she was trying to focus on firing her curses. But as soon as she let out another round, Bellatrix flickered back into the thick black mist, and erratically bounced around the field once more.

“ACROBATS AND JUGGLING BEARS!”

The music was growing louder and louder, and the rain of flowers was getting too thick to see through. They could see Bellatrix in the distance, waving her wand like a conductor, kicking her legs up in time with the music. She wasn’t fighting back. It was almost like she was… Stalling? But what —

Oh no.

“Moira, construct a shield, now!” Minerva shouted, her voice barely registering now over the blaring horns and drums.

“Wha–”

Dear Bella….

No. That hiss.

Dear Bella… Take what we came here for, and depart. I will kill the spares.

No, no, no.

Minerva and Moira McGonagall were going to die.

The music cut out abruptly. Whatever eldritch wind was powering the tornado of flowers had ceased, and they began to drift silently to the ground. Bellatrix was nowhere to be seen.

He was coming. He was here.

She was going to die. And in that cold moment of clarity, she also realized the monumental mistake she had made earlier. It was so obvious, now. Anti-apparition jinxes were always exponentially wider than they were tall. Immediately, she thrust her wand into the air.

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!”

A bolt of white light shot upward. It only took a few meters, and then the form of her Patronus was able to escape.

Why, why didn’t she just think? She should have called for help from the very beginning. Once again, she was too busy playing a role, the plucky duo of sisters who complemented each other perfectly and could fight their way through anything. But where there is smoke, there is fire, and she should have known that the presence of Bellatrix Black most likely meant the presence of Lord Voldemort.

And no one could fight their way through him. Except for maybe…

POP

Alastor Moody appeared directly overhead, and immediately sped downward on his broom, assembling shields and fields and traps and weapons, even as he dismounted. His wand hand continued to cast every manner of protective spell, and his free hand was manipulating the landscape to provide cover, obstacles, and an advantageous position. No one except Dumbledore could ever hope to take on Voldemort in a fair fight.

But Alastor Moody never fought in a fair fight in his life.

“I’ve alerted Dumbledore. He’s bound by a Time Turner currently but he has…” The Eye of Vance whirled in his head, as he took a brief moment to check Albus’ status. “Seven minutes. We just need to hold him off for seven minutes.”

“AND IN THE END SHOULD SOMEONE DIE?” Bellatrix shrieked from somewhere in the distance.

“Quiet, Bella.”

And there he stood. Terrible, powerful, glorious.

It began.

If Moira’s duel was a fistfight, and Minerva’s was a chess match, then the duel between Alastor Moody and Lord Voldemort was… There was no comparison. It was like watching a gunfight where the combatants were shooting each others’ bullets out of midair.

It was an exercise in horrifically brutal efficiency. Shields were raised on a millisecond by millisecond basis, using no more magic than absolutely necessary. And they were dismantled just as swiftly, analyzed for their weak points and ruthlessly dispatched.

The physical element was equally impressive. There were no unnecessary flourishes or wasted movements. Just pure reaction time and power, traded back and forth. Minerva replenished Alastor’s magic with her own, bolstered his shields, and subtly manipulated the territory to their advantage. Moira, who was not as accomplished at battlefield control, desperately fired curse after curse.

Voldemort was still winning. But they weren’t expecting to win. They were doing what Bellatrix had done. They were stalling until their own Champion could arrive. Seven minutes. That’s all they needed.

Somewhere in the distance, they heard Bellatrix shout in glee. “MY LORD! I HAVE IT!”

From the corner of her eye, Minerva could see Bellatrix in her Mistform, hurtling towards them. The mist hurtled past Moira, who deftly dodged, and towards Lord Voldemort. She instantiated, grinning maliciously.

“Time to fly, dear Bella.”

And in an instant, they both were gone.

A beat passed. Minerva stood, wide-eyed, in shock. She had just faced Lord Voldemort and lived to tell the tale. They had all faced Lord Voldemort and lived to tell the tale.

Alastor took no time for such frivolities. He was already layering the entire area with dark detectors, protection spells, and shields. Moody gave a wolfish grin. “A few more minutes and we would have had that snaky bastard. Almost.”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my students, Alastor: ‘Almost’ only counts in Divination and Gobstones.”

She paused, expectantly. That was odd. Moira usually never passed up an opportunity to quip. Minerva glanced over at her.

Minerva’s eyes widened.

Moira was hunched over in pain. She was bleeding out. Fast, too fast.

“Alastor. ALASTOR!” Minerva called. It was unnecessary; he was already rushing over. Minerva was casting as many healing charms as she could think of, and she held her sister tightly. She continued to work her magic, but spared a moment to glare at Moody expectantly, who was still casting defensive spells around their perimeter.

“Damnit, woman. I’m an Auror, not a healer. And this doesn’t look good…”

“Have you no Healer’s Kit? One would think, constant vigilance would dictate–”

“Minerva, for the types of wounds my men suffer on the job, a Healer’s Kit would do about as good as pumpkin juice. Just stem the bleeding. Three more minutes until Albus is here, and he’s sure to bring an army of healers.”

Moira coughed, and a light mist of blood sprayed from her mouth, and trickled down the corner of her cheek. She spoke, weakly. “Why didn’t YOU bring a Healer’s Kit, Minerva?”

Minerva froze, until she saw the small hint of a smile on Moira’s face. “I…” Minerva had been fighting the war for long enough to know how this was going to end. But she needed to be strong. She needed to quip. “I… I assumed that your unflappable sense of self-importance would be enough to protect you from any harm the Dark Lord might have thrown at you.”

“I AM important… You should have been more prepared…” Despite the pain, Moira grinned. Moody was respectfully giving them their distance. Minerva choked out a sob, but still smiled, which prompted Moira to laugh, softly. Minerva laughed too, as best as she could.

Laughter. Cold, dark, hissing laughter, mingled with a mad, manic cackle. That horrible laughter, that mockery, was Voldemort and Bellatrix’s parting gift, and it reverberated throughout the ruins of Sontag. They would not even allow her one final laugh to share with her sister, they took even that from her.

The laughter ceased only when Moira McGonagall’s eyes closed for the last time.


May, 1999
Hogwarts

There was no hope. Cissy was ashamed of what Bella had become. But the shame, it was just an act. It had to be. And, if the Dark Lord were to rise again, Cissy could stop the act, remove the mask. Cissy and Bella could be sisters again. Cissy didn’t need Bella’s protection anymore. A new Lord Malfoy protected her, who was in turn protected by the dark reflection of the Dark Lord, who was in turn protected by the true Dark Lord. There was hope.

Until today.

That man, that ancient man, had burned into her mind and she saw the truth, the horrifying, final, inexorable truth. The Dark Lord was gone. The mask would stay on forever. Cissy and Bella were no more. There was nothing left. Nothing to strive for. Nothing left but combat.

She felt no pleasure, or pain, or anything as she dueled with the boy. She fought without thinking. What was the point? She wore the mask, because why remove it? The mask protected her. The manic, mad smile. The cruel, nonsensical taunts that were as much a part of her combat technique as her curses. The singsong voice, the high pitched laugh, the insane ramblings, the horrible, soul-shredding curses. They protected her.

But the boy, he smashed mercilessly against her mask. With attack after attack, he was the waves and she was being battered upon the rocks. Battered, battered, battered through all of her protection. The mask cracked.

She was afraid.

And in one brief, tragic moment of clarity, she realized something terrible. She did not want to die. It didn’t have to be this way. Although she chose her path, the path of death, many years before, there was no law of the universe stating she had to continue down the path she had lay for herself. She could stop at any time, turn around, and walk back into the light. Back to Cissy.

As she desperately ducked the hundredth attack, and she shrieked with a voice full of fear, “Stop!”

And like a wrathful god, Neville Longbottom, a thousand feet tall and burning with brimstone, roared in return, “That’s what they said to you!  Avada Kedavra!

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 1: Estremoz, Chapter 3: Pure Imagination

Author’s note:
The last enemy took yet another.
The battle continues.
May we never lay down our swords. 


War requires planning. Careful, meticulous, well-thought out and well-executed planning. War also requires the ability to mercilessly discard those plans the second they were rendered obsolete by your opponent. Which of course, they always were. This has led many a glib commentators to suggest that the key to war is the ability to form new plans at a moment’s notice. Which in turn, has led many reactionary commentators to retort that the key to war is, in fact, the ability to create a master plan that is impervious to as many outside forces as possible.

The truth of the matter is that there is but a single winning move in the game of war, for both yourself and your opponent. As with Shatranj, being singularly focused on any one aspect of the game will ensure that you lose. You must consider everything in the context of that one, final, winning move.

The original plan was a variation on one of the classic formations. The core principle of magical warfare is that, assuming both sides execute perfectly, it is identical to non-magical warfare. A magic user is a force multiplier, and thus useless if you have no force to multiply. A single user can easily be overrun by a few hundred determined baselines.

That was one of the first hands-on lessons that Heraclius endured from his former masters, under the tutelage of the famed battle sage, Kobayashi. Hundreds of humans were given the protection of the Cross, and Heraclius was directed to defend himself by whatever means possible. Fire was worthless. It killed many, but it posed no physical barrier. Enough emerged through the wall of flame in fighting condition to force him to fight back with melee spells, and it was only a matter of time before a stray sword cut him down.

On his second attempt, he tried to construct physical walls. They were equally disastrous; the attackers simply poured over them like a river of angry ants. Nothing seemed to be effective. Widespread effects didn’t do enough damage to physically stop the onslaught. Focused, directed damage didn’t affect enough of the army to stymie the advance. It couldn’t be done.

The futility of the task couldn’t be the purpose of the lesson, otherwise they would have ended it hours ago. So he tried getting creative. At one point, he tried simply running away, but this also was not the answer that Master Kobayashi was looking for. His frustration was beginning to get the best of him as he tried increasingly outlandish gambits.

At one point, when they brought in a new regiment to serve as attackers, he decided to take a different approach. If he couldn’t overpower them with brute force, our outmaneuver them with sheer cunning, perhaps he could cow them with pure fear?

It was a new regiment; Master Kobayashi told them the instructions prior to the battle, but this was their first run-through. So Heraclius hastily assembled a crude simulacrum of Master Kobayashi, along with the Rosarius he carried. He hoped that the army was unfamiliar enough with the exercise that they would not realize that Master Kobayashi typically observed, invisibly, at a distance.

When the army began to charge, Heraclius began the show. He feigned an argument with his creation. He artificially magnified his voice so that the first line of soldiers could clearly hear him.

“I will not tolerate this indignity any further. I am one of the Descendents! I have the blood of the Gods flowing through my veins, and you subject me to this?”

The real Master Kobayashi would have said something wise, calm, and collected in response. And he certainly would not have cowered. but these soldiers did not know the real Master Kobayashi. All they knew was that they saw a tall, angry young Descendent towering over a frail, elderly teacher.

“Heraclius Hero, you shall not disrespect your masters with such talk. You will engage in the exercise.”

“I will do no such thing! Damn you, and damn your Cross! You take the gift of our Lady and you desecrate it by bestowing it upon these swine. You shall protect them no longer!”

He cast his hand out. Master Kobayashi’s Rosarius flew up in the air, in full view of the charging army. It imploded within itself, sending a shockwave out in all directions, knocking down the first several rows of the advance. Parlor tricks. Waddiwassi. Confringo. Ventus.

Continue the act.

He cast another hand up, and the frail simulacrum of Master Kobayashi was blasted forward, then engulfed into flames. He could hear the audible gasps of the men who were still standing. They were unsure of what to make of this. For a brief moment, it was silent except for the crackling fire.

Press the advantage.

He address the crowd, who had momentarily paused. “I will have no more of this. Flee now, in peace, and you shall live. Face me at your peril.”

The army shifted, uneasily. Master Kobayashi said they would be protected… But…

Avada Kedavra!

A bolt of green light, tinged with red and flecked with specks of violet shot through the air, striking one of the men on the front line. He fell, dead on the spot. His comrades were, in a way, relieved. The specific mechanics of the protection of the Cross were such that they would shortly know if their quarry was bluffing. They waited. Nothing happened. Their comrade did not move. The signs of the Cross did not come into play. Clearly, he was dead. Their protection was gone. And an insane wizard was now threatening to do the same to them if they did not flee.

So they fled.

As it were, their companion was not, in fact, dead, and as such did not invoke the protection of the Cross. The entire thing was a ruse: a falsified “Killing Curse” wrapped in a stunner, tinged with a Nexus Charm to mask the target’s vital signs. Another minute or so and the deception would have become apparent. But they did not want to wait another minute. And when the last of the army had left the battlefield, the true Master Kobayashi began clapping slowly.

Heraclius Hero breathed a sigh of relief.

The intended lesson was manifold. Firstly: a horde of sufficiently determined baselines could cut down even the most powerful of Descendents. Magic was not magic; it had its limits. But perhaps more importantly was that the will of the people could be easily broken. Even a crude and hasty deception instilled enough fear to turn them away. Fear was their greatest weapon.

“Teach them to fear us, and they shall never raise a hand against you. All that you do must be shrouded in mystery. Even your name must be something that fills them with dread. You need a True Name that inspires fear and raises questions.”

Without pause, Heraclius spoke. “Meldh. It shall be Meldh.”

Master Kobayashi considered this, and smiled. “An old word, yes. Many possible origins, and yet all of which point to the same undeniable meaning. Yes, that name shall do. You have learned your lesson well, Meldh.”

It was for this reason that, in magical warfare, the wizards were always stationed at the back. The front lines were too filled with randomness; a single stray arrow or sword could too easily turn the tide of the battle. From the rear, the wizards could manipulate the battle in relative safety.

Every attack had its disadvantages. Death from a distance was difficult to dole out, and easy to counter. Elemental forces had their fundamental opposites. Physical attacks could be turned aside. And clever gambits could be turned against their intended purpose easily. There were a few tried and true methods, but because their efficacy was so well-known, it was easy to plan against them.

It was Shatranj on a grand scale. You attacked, they countered. They counter-attacked. You countered. You enact gambits , you sacrifice material, you control your positions. And as with Shatranj, the game typically ends in a draw. Which means that the tide of battle is determined by the army, not the wizards commanding it.

The original plan was simple. The enemy was superior in size, so they would concentrate on breaking through a single weak point in the enemy line, in order to gain entrance to the Stronghold. Once achieved, the army parts, like the Red Sea, allowing the wizards and their specialized team of shock troops access to the Stronghold itself. Then the army closes back up, shifting into a defensive position. If successful, the terrain would not allow the enemy to bring the full force of their army to bear, and it would buy Meldh and his team sufficient time to complete their task.

The battle was brutal. The enemy wizards attempted to fill the sky with weapons of death. They were small, frail things, so Meldh summoned a fierce wind to blow them back towards the enemy. This counter had been expected, and the force of the wind cause the weapons to shatter. He expected those remnants had a secondary power unto themselves, and so he and his wizards cast fire into the sky, purging the air of the attack.

War wizards were well trained in turning their counters into attacks of their own, and Meldh’s team was no exception. Even before the fire had been cast into their air, one of the wizards was crafting wards the form of Amber and Lodestone. Once the fire had done its job, the wards contained and compressed the fire into a single, white hot point of nearly unimaginable heat, which was then directed downward towards the enemy army.

There were several fairly trivial counters to such an attack, but it was novel, a rarely seen combination of those three elements. As such, the enemies turned to Void, a relatively all-purpose means of containing an unknown threat. The air above the army crackled with the vacuum, as the fabric of the world itself was rent asunder. The Void was enhanced by the Boxes of one of their masters, and like the gaping maw of some creature that existed beyond space and time, it opened wide to swallow the singular point of energy.

Such a defense was not without costs, however. The Void swallowed more than the magical attack; it twisted the flow of the Ley, and all wizards both friend and foe alike needed to recalibrate. This meant that the defensive Void could not be harnessed into an attack of its own. The Void simply existed, was filled, and then existed no more.

Both sides opted for offensive, physical attacks once repositioned. Two volleys of enchanted arrows. Simple, effective, and ultimately nothing that a sizable team of archers could not accomplish on their own without the help of magic. The arrows were more effective against the defending army who had less freedom of movement. Attacker and defender alike were forced to raise their shields to ward off the projectiles, lending further advantage to the attackers who were not relying on heavy spears.

As the phalanx crashed forwards, the battle continued, a game of magical cat-and-mouse, for upwards of an hour. The enemy line was thinning against the continued onslaught, but it was beginning to compress inward once it had realized the nature of the attack. Time was now of the essence, so they began the second phase of their attack.

From the middle ranks, the men in enchanted plate mail charged forward. They held no weapons, only shields. This disoriented the individual defenders, who braced for attacks which did not come. This allowed the men, despite their limited mobility due to the armor, to slip by. They pushed farther into the ranks of the opposing army, using their shields as battering rams to continue the penetration.

The enemy quickly formed an interlocked defensive line of shields, which could not be penetrated by the handful of charging, armored soldiers, who were unceremoniously cut down. This was, however, the intended effect. The suits of armor, which had been linked together by magic, detected the moment that the last of their wearers expired.

And then they exploded.

It was not a particularly devastating attack, but it was unexpected, and it created a physical clearing which Meldh’s army immediately seized upon. Soldiers fled their individual skirmishes and flooded into the hole that was punched in the line, and pushed forward with reckless abandon. They could see light, grass, and rock. They had reached the back, the end of the line, and drove in like a wedge. The signal was called, and Meldh and his team began their charge.

What Meldh and his army did not know was that their attack would have been doomed to failure. It was filled with too many clever ideas and desperate gambits that had but a fractional chance of success. A well-placed explosion made for good drama, but a true army would quickly regroup and repel the attack with renewed vigor.

The attack was successful because The Three had decided it was time for their decisive strike against the coalition. The attack was successful because it was bolstered by the combined power of Gom’Jorbol of the Rod, and Kri’Xiang of the Glass. Masquerading as pawns, they led the charge into the Stronghold, and in the midst of the chaos, no one noticed the two lone soldiers charging inside before Meldh and the shock troops could arrive.

They were Gods, and yet, they looked like men. On the battlefield, they gave off no supernatural aura of power, nor did they make mere mortals feel compelled to bow before them through some unknown impulse. They were simply men. But once they were inside the Stronghold, it was time to put the masks on.

Gom’Jorbol stood, tall, proud, as his glittering armor instantiated around him. Massive, oversized epaulets crafted of plate were decorated with gilt and jewels. A stylized eagle adorned his chest, and a sash hung from his waist. He had seen the armor once, in a book from his youth an eternity ago, and it caught his eye. In his hand, he carried a two-meter tall spear, tipped with a sharpened diamond the size of two hands clasped together. The diamond alone was worth the riches of an entire kingdom. The combined wealth of a hundred kingdoms was not even a fraction as valuable as the staff which the diamond tipped: the Rod of Ankyras.

And yet, even that was but a paltry curio compared to the mirrored shield that Kri’Xiang carried in his hand. A massive, inviolate, golden oval that did not so much move through the world as the world moved around it. He was smaller than Gom’Jorbol, but no less intimidating when he chose to be. Together, they strode into the depths of the Stronghold.

Although they were prepared for battle, they found none. They were expected. Which was, unto itself, not entirely unexpected. When they reached the main atrium, they stopped, and Gom’Jorbol turned to Kri’Xiang.

“Do you think you can handle Janus and Kayla by yourself?”

Kri’Xiang laughed. “Do you think I’d be here if I couldn’t?”

“Good. Then let’s end this.”

They nodded towards each other, and went their separate ways.

As they walked down their respective halls, Kri’Xiang to the left and Gom’Jorbol to the right, they could hear the clashes of pitched battle begin anew at the entrance to the Stronghold: the shock troops had arrived. The distinctive roar of magic being used in melee combat echoed in the distance.

Gom’Jorbol reminded himself that if he survived this, he owed it to the mortals to help them escape. He pondered this thought, among many, as he walked down the hall. The familiarity of it all and the anticipation made it difficult to focus. What would he say? How could he do it?

He finally reached the tall wooden doors that led to the narthex. With one solid kick, they flew open, and he strode in, an avenging angel in battle armor, carrying the Spear of Destiny.

His heart swelled. At the end of the temple, stood Neirkalatia of the Cross, wearing armor of the same design with a distinctly feminine twist. She was beautiful, of course. He always found her beautiful. Physically, yes, but physical beauty was easy to come by. All of the Old Ones were stunning in their physical perfection, except the ones who deliberately chose otherwise. No, it was her mind and her Will that was beautiful. And the image he carried with him paled in comparison to the truth of her being. For the first time in eternity, Gom’Jorbol felt hope.

In her hands was a four-foot tall, stylized cross, a Masonic blade of supernatural sharpness and legendary unto its own right. Behind her was the True Cross, tall and glorious. Today, it was not wood. It was primed: the True Cross in its true form.

Today, Neirkalatia knew she was going to die.

She stood, her back facing Gom’Jorbol, staring up at the cross. She pondered the eons of time that had passed, and she thought about all the things she could say, all the things she could do. A small smile crossed her face.

“Hello, Gus.”

“Hello, Nat.”

Orders of Magnitude, Arc 1: Estremoz. Chapter 4: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

HAMLET. Why then it’s none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ. Why, then your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow for your 
mind.
HAMLET. O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a 
king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
GUILDENSTERN. Which dreams indeed are ambition; for the very substance of 
the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
HAMLET. A dream itself is but a shadow.
ROSENCRANTZ. Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that 
it is but a shadow’s shadow.
HAMLET. Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretch’d 
heroes the beggars’ shadows.


Meldh was fighting for his life. Which is to say, he was simply fighting. He had died once before, and he was quite sure that he would die again. Perhaps not today, but at some point. He thought back to that first moment; it was after he had proven himself to his old masters, having demonstrated sufficient skill, wisdom, and kindness to be appointed as the regent of Neirkalatia of the Cross. As part of that induction, he was to die and be reborn, which he assumed was a metaphor. He stood in front of the cross, surrounded by the Coalition and their inner circle.

A bolt of green light. A phrase of what seemed like Hebrew origin? And he was no more.

He had no eyes to open when he awoke. His mind simply emerged, unfolded into consciousness, like those wine-fueled excursions of his youth, when consciousness faded slowly into subconsciousness into unconsciousness, and the line between the three was blurred beyond recognition. He simply awoke, a new person. He could feel the bounds of this world. Who he was, his mind, could reach from one corner of the universe to another, but it could find to purchase, no vessel by which to enact its Will. His mind existed in but a single dimension, it was written indelibly into the world line, but it could not escape. He knew that at any moment, he could relinquish control, and he would be no longer. But he did not want to truly die, if that was even possible.

He also felt the magic of the Cross, even in his death. Once he felt it, it gave his being weight, his spirit a connection back to the universe at large. In his current state, he could see the Cross in its true structure: grandiose, perhaps even infinite. Through it, he was able to sense the traceries of energy that pervaded through this world, all worlds. Magic.

When he was a child, a child in the true sense of the word, he was riding in a chariot outside a palisade. He was fascinated by the fact that, as they moved quickly, the gaps in the palisade blurred together to form an entire coherent vision of what was behind those walls. It made him feel powerful. But when the chariot slowed to a halt, it ceased, and again he could only see the posts of the fence.

This reminded him of that; he had lived his life flitting through space and time, unable to see the fine structures that held up and bound the world. But now that he had slowed to a true halt, it was clear to him. So he picked a point on the web at random, and followed a meandering path towards it, darting through one world and another.

He happened to look back, and he saw that the webs did not extend in all directions as he had once thought. He looked back and he saw the line of the world as it was, and the point in time that was the present, and from there, the webs exploded outward. He was exploring branches of possibility, and had to skip farther and farther ahead into order to avoid the webs collapsing as they were folded into the line, into the path.

The further forward, backwards, sideways he travelled, the more fuzzy and diffuse the details. He cast his mind out farther, into the realm of possibility that lived beyond possibility. The circumstances that could only arise by the barest of coincidences layered on top of coincidences. He travelled further still. After some amount of time, he reached a deep void of nothing, like when the calm gradient of a sunset eventually gives way to the burning flame of the sun itself. Beyond there lie possibilities so impossible that his mind could not distinguish them from the truly Impossible.

He sensed, somehow, that he could travel farther beyond that still. But he sensed, rightfully so, that he should be frightened. He had no anchoring, no point of connection, and if he continued into that Nothing he may never find his was back to the Path. So he returned.

After an undefined amount of time, it could have been a year, a decade, or it could have been but a fraction of a moment, he felt it. Structure. Rules. Laws. The delicate traces of energy condensed into something more substantial, like threads of flexible glass. It contained his mind, yes. But it also gave him freedom, power. There was an object of sorts, he could not discern its nature, that represented these bounds.

At first, he had no means of truly experiencing reality, much less interacting with it, and for a few eternal moments, he was impotent, trapped in a prison with only his thoughts. But he quickly learned the subtle language of his new form: the shifts in its constituent matter in response to light and vibration, and perhaps more importantly, the resonance with other nearby minds. He had no time for it now, but he knew that he could learn to reach out, to caress those minds, to tempt them.

But after another eternal moment, he awoke, this time in a true body. His eyes snapped open. His soul was interfacing with a fleshy bowl of seething organic matter, all switches and synapses and simple reactions, which together allowed him entry into the world of life. He was on a stone altar, still surrounded by the members of the Coalition and their regents. He had literally died, and was literally reborn.

Throughout the years, he had an inkling of a hope that this was possible. How else could the Old Ones persist as they did? But at the time it seemed like a foolish hope, an opiate to dull his resolve, to calm him, to keep from the fight of his life, all lives. An empty promise of eternity if in turn, he would only just believe.

He saw now that it was no empty hope. But that knowledge, that hope, it was hoarded, stowed away for only the most elite of elites. He could already hear the arguments, the justifications, the rationalizations. Those damned deathist scholars that made up his peers had been rattling them off ever since they had a sense of their own mortality:

“What would happen to the world if everyone were to live forever?”

“Death is a natural part of life.”

“You cannot have the light without the dark.”

“You cannot spend your life forever running from death.”

And so on and so forth, all spoken with the smug superiority of someone who thinks that to sneer at Death is to defeat it, as if whispering some tired platitude would save them from that horror of horrors. But this, this was worse. They would twist these sentiments, which ultimately existed to provide some measure of solace to dying old men, and use it to enable the tyranny of that dark lord.

He could not stand by this. He understood its structure, the basic theory. He was already reverse engineering the principles of operation. Either everyone could have this gift, or no one could. His current masters were tyrants, and it fell on him to recreate this world in the image of Man, not of God.

His secret experimentation proved that the implementation was far more difficult than he had anticipated. But it was encouraging as well. It was possible, he had proven as much, and that was what mattered. His first iteration was functional, but flawed. It required an untenable, unconscionable sacrifice. He couldn’t understand the recursive aspect of the True Cross’ infinite structure, but that would come in time. But still there were those who wanted to die, there were those who deserved to die, and they could serve as fuel until he could perfect his grand creation. So for now, his ὅρόσταυρός (although it would later become more famously known by its Latinization) would have to be sufficient.

Emboldened by this, he sought to overthrow his masters. The path seemed inexplicably easy. His rousing speeches turned the right ears. His pleas for support went both noticed and unnoticed by the right sets of people. And when it came time to move openly, support for his cause swelled quickly, so quickly. Often times he had to remind himself that, although most of the time, life isn’t like a play, sometimes it is. Sometimes it is.

And so it was that he, in blissful ignorance of the fact that he had simply exchanged one set of masters that operated in the open with another who operated in the shadows, he assembled his forces, put together an army, and led them against the Coalition.

They had battled their way into the heart of the Stronghold of the Coalition, and they were very close to the chamber in which he had died. He had no delusions that they would be able to kill the Gods; his goal was simply to destroy the Third Spire of Shiggoth. Without an anchoring point to harness and multiply their power, their hold and influence would be severely weakened. They would be forced to flee to other lands, easier targets. And if they chose to stay, well, they would be vulnerable, and he could continue to fight.

Currently, Meldh was equipped with his close quarters battle armor and weapons. Unlike Magical Warfare, Magical Combat all but required the wizard to be on the front lines. Their attacks were far too widely destructive to be of any use from the rear; there was typically insufficient time or space to maneuver such long-ranged weapons of death. You could hurl Greek Fire from a distance, but only a fool would dare use the same in close quarters.

As with all things in life, the art of war could be mapped out onto a board of the Game of Kings. The Queen, in the beginning, must be protected. You must establish your position, ensure her safety. But she cannot stay in hiding forever. At some point, she most go on the offensive, she must emerge and unleash devastation. But with insufficient preparation, the Queen will quickly be cut down or sacrificed.

And as with Magical Warfare, more often than not, the wizards fought the wizards and the humans fought the humans. You could certainly focus your magic on cutting down large swathes of the enemy, but this would leave you open to swift and sure counter attacks, from both the enemy wizards and their warriors. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, you would leave your own men vulnerable to similar destruction.

Meldh was equipped with his close quarters battle armor, and he wielded two wands embedded into the hilt of twin swords, in the manner of a διμάχαιρος. Few were as skilled in such arts as Meldh, and like a well-positioned Queen, he was able to cut down a number of pawns while still posing a formidable defense.

They adopted an inverted-claw formation, with Meldh in the recessed center. His men on either side curved outward, engaging the edges of the enemy forces in the wide hallways. The enemy adopted a similar defense, and Meldh exchanged volley after volley of curses with the enemy wizard.

Their goal was penetration; the chamber of the Spire was but a few corridors away. Meldh carefully chose each spell to have a physical component that, even if countered, would force the enemy backwards. Walls of ice were a popular choice in Meldh’s day; they were easy to construct, robust, and impervious to most elemental defenses, except of course, fire. And in this case, that fire could then be transformed from a defensive play into an immediate offense, which would lose him the initiative.

Instead, he drew from the ground jagged, thick spikes of woven branches and thorns, weaving around each other and jutting out towards the enemy forces. Yes, they could be cut down by physical attacks, but that was time consuming. And they could certainly be burned, but the ensuing fire would do more damage to the enemy troops than Meldh’s own. No, the easiest defense was fairly trivial: simply fall back, yield ground. It rendered the attack moot, wasted your opponent’s magic, and took no magic of your own. So this is what the enemy did: if Meldh wanted to continue to waste his magic on such structures, they would allow him. They could continue to fall back, deep into the Stronghold, as there were many advantageous positions and potential traps they could lure him into.

But Meldh was not trying to rout the enemy forces. In fact, the fewer casualties, the better, in his mind. Of course, he was not opposed to dealing death when necessary, but he would not slaughter them simply because they held the same set of misguided ideals that he once did. So he was more than content to fire up spike after spike, forcing the enemy further and further backwards. They were closer to the chamber now, perhaps one hallway away.

The enemy soon realized Meldh’s intention, and took steps to slow the advance. The Butterball Charm that they employed had been expected; it was a fairly standard method of delaying an enemy’s assault when on rocky terrain. But Meldh had already prepared the surface, coating the stone floor with a thin layer of unyielding glass, which supported the weight of his troops even as the stone beneath turned to muck.

Because he had already prepared the floor in such a manner, he was free to devote all of his energy into his counterattack. He transfigured most of the air in the room into a single, tiny, incredibly dense stone. The vacuum and subsequent lack of air disoriented them all, friend and foe alike. An instant later, he cast the rock into the churning liquid.

With a concussive pop, air filled the vacuum in the room, and at that moment, Meldh released his hold on the transfiguration. The rock instantly reverted back to its original, true Form: a room’s worth of air. The liquid stone beneath the glass floor had nowhere to go but up and out, towards the enemy. The result was not so much deadly as it was absurdly disorienting, like being splashed in the face with a massive bucket of mud.

The enemy wizard was unfazed and was already mounting his counter-attack, a volley of diagonally-oriented blades. It would serve the dual purpose of cutting down both Meldh’s troops, and his walls of brambles and thorn.

This proved to be quite the mistake.

Wizarding Combat almost always hinges on one simple factor: who can most cleverly turn their defense into an attack? For example, an elemental attack would have to be elementally countered, dodged, or swept aside: it could not simply be Finited. Granted, Finite Incantatum was rarely an effective tool in battle, as it is a spell of pure magical brute force, and 99 times out of 100, a more efficient tool can be used to achieve the same ends. In this unique case, however, Meldh’s mass Finite was powerful enough to dissipate the incoming blade attack instantly. It had been tremendously costly, but it had the ancillary benefit of also dispelling all the charms in its path.

Including the Butterball Charm.

The enemy soldiers had been soaked with the liquid stone from Meldh’s prior counter. And that liquid stone immediately transmuted back into solid form, encasing the entire front line in prisons of rock, and severely hobbling the lines behind them. It simultaneously neutralized their offensive capacity and prevented the men behind them from engaging in any sort of effective counter-attack.

The enemy wizard was naked, bereft of protection. He tried to retreat back behind his line of men, but it was to no avail. Meldh and his men charged forward, and the enemy wizard desperately tried to hurl blasts of Ventus to repel them. There were only a small number of effective counter-attacks he count have mounted, and Meldh was prepared for them all. In this case, he simply created Void, and sent it upwards so the ensuing vacuum pulled the gust of wind harmlessly away. At that point, it was over. The enemy wizard could not defend against Meldh’s ceaseless attacks and the ensuing rush of troops. He was unceremoniously cut down, and the enemy men, now with no wizard to protect them, were done for.

Not wishing for unnecessary death, Meldh raised his hands upward, this time using wandless magic, and lifted the imprisoned men, turned them on their side, then blasted them backwards. The effect reminded him of a time when he saw a shipment of logs fall off the back of a merchant wagon and roll down a hill, knocking down an entire group of merchants that were behind it. The soldiers who weren’t physically knocked down had the good sense to beat a hasty retreat. A few mass Somnium, and the path to the Spire was cleared.

As he charged into the room, he did not know how much time he would have, so there were no dramatics; he simply launched straight into the ritual. His hand slashed to the left and he cried “Khorne!” Then his hand pointed below him, and “Slaaneth!”, above him and “Nurgolth!”, and then to his right, “TZEENTCH!”

The room started rumbling.

“Darkness beyond darkness,
deeper than pitchest black,
Buried beneath the flow of time…
From darkness to darkness,
your voice echoes in the emptiness,
Unknown to death, nor known to life.

You who knows the gate, you who are the gate,
you who is the key and guardian of the gate.
Past, present, future, all are one in you.
You who knows where the Old Ones broke through of old,
You who knows where They shall break through again.
You who knows where They have trod earth’s fields.
You who knows where They still tread them.
You who knows why no one can behold Them as They tread.

Ogthrod, ai’f
Geb’l-ee’h
Shiggoth-y’wrd
‘Ngah’ng ai’y
ZHRO!
ZHRO!
ZHRO!”

Meldh did not question the source of the scroll that contained the ritual. He had seen darker, more Eldritch incantations, found in much more sinister places. It had been given to him by one of the nine Muses, when he had found her bathing in a spring on Mount Helicon. He had discovered the location to this particular spring in a piece of parchment that was hidden within an innocuous book in an arcane library. The whispers of this hidden parchment had been reported back to him by the beasts of the woods, who heard two dark magicians speaking of it in hushed tones. Further research determined that the two magicians were agents of the Coalition, tasked to inventory and shore up their weak points.

What Meldh did not know was that he was simply a pawn masquerading as a Queen. He had been led, like a rat following a piper, to find that scroll and that ritual. Every move he had made was planned out, the product of a grand design that he was not only unaware of, he was convinced the grand design was his own. The surest path to manipulation, indeed, is to convince your victim that a brilliant idea is their own.

Merlin had wanted the Coalition toppled, and so they would be toppled.

Merlin wanted Christopher Chang and Constantine Atreides out of the picture, and so they would be gone.

And Merlin wanted the Third Spire of Shiggoth, the third “Tower of Atlantis”, to fall, so it would fall.

As Meldh continued repeating the final word of the incantation, the power of the phrase reverberated within the chamber, waxing in power until the very words themselves took on some otherworldly resonance, and the Tower began to vibrate. The very Stronghold began to vibrate.

The fall began.


ROSENCRANTZ: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.


Moments Before

Kari of the Cube, Yanotuk of the Cups, and Kri’Xiang of the Glass stood in detente. One could control the world. One could destroy the world. And one could create the world. Rock, paper, scissors. The first to act would be the first to lose, and so no one took action.

They did not know each other from Before. They had never met, despite their many long years of life. After all, there were so, so many people. As such, they did not know each other’s hopes, each other’s dreams, each other’s wishes. They did not know that, perhaps, if they really, truly, thoughtfully considered each of the other’s information and conclusions, they might discover they were all three allies.

But they did not. They simply know each other’s power, and they knew that this was a standstill that would never be broken. There would be no climactic fight, two Gods with the twin powers of Destruction and Control, against a God wielding the might of Creation. There would be no pithy speeches, glib comebacks, no denouements or monologues. They were simply three unimaginably powerful beings that knew on some level, that they were all about to die, and that the fate of the very world hinged, in part, on this moment.

When they felt the shudder of the Tower, they knew it was time, and they all acted at once.

The all-consuming darkness of the Cup of Midnight erupted forth, filling the room with a void whose darkness could only be matched by the true form of the Boxes of Orden. Any mere mortal would have been driven instantly insane, their minds unable to comprehend the manifold and conflicting commands that spewed forth at random.

The Boxes of Orden contained that darkness, however, and folded them in to their own all-consuming power. The three forms condensed into one: past, present, and future, for all the world’s past had led to this single point in the present that would dictate the future. The Boxes unfolded, the Box unfolded, and in that instant, infinity was in the room, infinity was the room.

The world would have been consumed in that moment. The world was consumed in that moment. There was no past, there was no present. There was only void.

Presently, the only thing reflected by the Mirror of Volition was that empty void. If one gazed into it, they would see perfect, a unyielding, golden nothing.

Presently, the only thing reflected by the Mirror of Noitilov was an empty chamber. If one gazed into it, they would see a perfect, unyielding reflection of itself and the empty room surrounding it, a room which contained only a single, plain, wooden Cup, and a single, plain, jet-black Box.


ROSENCRANTZ: How sweet! I once had a fish… Francis. He was very dear to me. One afternoon, I came downstairs and… it vanished. Poof.
GUILDENSTERN: That’s very odd, isn’t it?
ROSENCRANTZ: Yes, doesn’t it? But that’s life! I suppose, you – you go along with and suddenly… poof.
GUILDENSTERN: Poof.
HAMLET: Poof.


Moments before

A long period of silence passed.

“Long time, no see.” Constantine Atreides finally spoke.

Natalie Kyros laughed. “Long time, no see? THAT’s your line?”

Constantine smiled, sadly. He had thought, dreamed, hoped for this moment, so much so that it was written into the very fabric of its being. And here it was.

And all he could say was, “Long time, no see.”

“I don’t understand it, Gus. Why are you allied with him? You know how close we had been. We were so close. I could practically taste it. A few more centuries. Tops. But he was reckless. Impatient. And we all paid the price. Maybe the final price. You, me, everyone. And now, you’re… What? On his side?”

“Don’t be like that. Yes, we lost a terrible battle, that day. But the war isn’t over. It’s never over. And right now, he’s our only hope.”

“He’s not. You’ve seen what we’ve built. In just an eye blink of time, we’ve shepherded these people, and look what they’ve done. Just think about what they could do in a thousand years. Or ten thousand years. This here, this is the future.”

Constantine rolled his eyes. “You’ve created a society, divided. A society ruled by our Descendents. They don’t know the truth about who they are, who they were, what their birthright is, what their role is… We have to start over. We have to limit them, or else–”

“Or what? They blow themselves up with ‘Magic’? We’ve been through that already. He put us through that already. What he did was orders of magnitude worse than anything they could ever do.”

“It’s not just that. It’s… Look, as long as they’re around, as long as we’re around, we’re all bound to that dead world. All worlds are bound to that dead world.”

“So, what, we sacrifice them? Everything we built? Sacrifice this world so that he can create a new one in his own image?”

“It’s not a true Sacrifice. They’ll still exist. In memory, in hope.”

Natalie scoffed. “Hope?”

“Yes, hope. It’s powerful,” Constantine replied, indignantly.

“For God’s sake. Listen to yourself.”

“You weren’t around for the really old days. You weren’t–”

“You’re not THAT much older than me.”

“Yeah, but it was different back then. You can’t imagine what it felt like. The not knowing. We were close, sure. But, seeing people die at what, 200? 300? Being almost that old yourself and just not knowing. Hope was all we had. Hope that something would happen in our lifetime.”

“You don’t think I know how that feels? You don’t think we all know how that feels? Don’t be so self-centered. I knew what was at stake, the price if we lost, if we lose. I still know that price. But I’m not–”

“No. It’s not the same. Knowing that you can fight until the end, the real end, that’s empowering. It’s life affirming. But knowing that you have 30, maybe 40 years left, and then you’re gone? Think about it. I mean, really think about it.” He gestured angrily at the cross. “Why do you think this has persisted across worlds? I can’t even imagine what it must be like for those people. Hope is all they have. It’s all they can have. You know it’s true. There’s a reason you chose this inverted cube design rather than a tesseract. Somewhere, you know the power of hope.”

Natalie paused, and considered this. “Ok. I can see your point. But what of it?”

“They have to build their own path. We can’t help them.”

“How? And why?”

“We did.” Constantine pause, and corrected himself. “Well, not ‘we’. Those that came before us.”

“No, that doesn’t answer my question. What I’m saying, and what you’re not making sense of, is why we can’t help, why we have to be out of the picture. That’s what’s never made sense about any of this.”

Constantine didn’t have an answer. “Well?” Natalie pressed.

“I.. I don’t know! Because he says so.”

“Are you kidding me? You don’t even know?”

“You don’t… You don’t understand. You and me, we play at being Gods. All of us do. But he.. Everything we do, it’s because of him. We only exist at his forbearance. He is God, and King. He’s the thing we merely pretend to be.”

“Are you listening to yourself? You sound like, I don’t know, like you’re trying to be a character out of one of your video games. Just, stop being ‘Gom’Jorbol’ for a second, and just be Gus.”

Gus smiled at the anachronistic happy memory. After a time, he spoke. “I don’t know how, or why, but this is his world. He knows too much. It’s like he’s had an eternity to contemplate every possible move we might make, every possible path we might go down. If he wants this world to end, it will end. I’d rather shape the things that come, than pointlessly fight to try to stave off the inevitable.”

Natalie considered this. Despite the act, despite the ruse, despite the masks, this wasn’t some work of fiction. He wasn’t just some character arbitrarily representing the hopelessness of the situation, some messenger to convey to the audience just how powerful their enemy was. He was a real person, he was her Gus. And if he had come to this conclusion, it was not lightly.

She thought on this further. She wished they had reunited ages ago. She wished he would have sought her out the moment he came to this realization. She wished so many things. Above all, she wished things could have been different.

“Then let’s run. We escaped once before, we can do it again.” Natalie spoke with steely resolve.

“Don’t you think I’ve considered that? Where would I run, and how would I stay there? All worlds are bound to this one.”

“Not ‘I’. ‘We’. He plans to unbind this world. That means he plans to unbind us, too, eventually. So we’ll just do it for him.” She was clearly getting to something, and so, although she paused, Constantine did not speak. “You know, I took what you said to heart. Technically, every structure is an infinite-dimensional shape. I incorporated some of that into the design. This,” she gestured at the cross, “is just a single facet. A shell, if you will.”

New information. Interesting. It was modified. Improved. Thoughts, calculations, estimations. Yes, this did change things. “I see,” Constantine nodded.

“And with your Rod…”

“And the power of the Line…”

“Yes. We leave this world behind. We leave the world to him. He will exert his will upon the world and its people.” She looked up at him. They both paused.

‘We will be together, though?”

“Yes, we will be together. ”

“Then everything will be all right.”

“Yes, it will.”