Curveball Issue 30: A Price Collected

Part One: Haruspex Analytics, Top Floor

The Board Room is nearly empty, save for three figures sitting at the long, center table. One sits at the head of the table—the Chairman, his face shrouded in shadow, as always—while the other two sit at the far end, watching him intently.

The space between them is deliberate, and both sides are keenly aware of it.

“Thank you for coming.” The Chairman doesn’t move, other than a slight incline of his head. The shadows around his face shift, lightening in places, darkening in others, thinning slightly around his high, sharp cheekbones. “You have traveled far outside your sphere, and I understand exactly what it means for you to arrive so deep into mine.”

The words are that of a gracious lord, greeting his guests, but for those familiar with the protocols of the powers beneath the world, there is a second acknowledgment: you have some power over me, even in this place.

The two figures at the far end do not reply. One, a massive, hulking form, leans back in his chair, fingers folded over his stomach, heavy-lidded eyes half closed, as if he were falling asleep. The second, a smaller, slighter man, hunches forward, smiling slightly. His sharp eyes peer across the table, gazing at the Chairman with undisguised curiosity.

The Chairman waits a moment, giving them the opportunity to speak. He knows they won’t—not yet—but it is appropriate to give them the chance.

“You have a grievance against me,” the Chairman continues. “And your grievance has merit, I won’t deny it. I invaded your city. I broke its most fundamental law. And it was I that broke it, sirs, though I have never set foot in it. I take full responsibility for it, and I acknowledge your complaint.”

The tension rises perceptibly in the room.

“So great is my transgression,” the Chairman continues, “that you would be fully within your rights to declare war on me and mine. None of the others would even think of intervening. And yet… you sit here, instead. You do not immediately sound the horn.”

The smaller man stirs, his smile widening. “The Pythia.” The razor-like quality of his voice matches the sharpness in his eyes. “There are those among us who will hear her voice… despite her present allegiances.”

It is not quite a snub. It is, rather, a reminder of where things stand—of where he stands.

“It was her reputation that convinced you to hear her words,” the Chairman counters. “But she did not convince you to travel here, to hear mine.”

It is not quite a reproach. It is, rather, a reminder that he knows how this game is played. The smaller man’s smile widens, almost into a grin. He dips his head in acknowledgment.

“Let’s not argue over why you decided to come,” the Chairman says. “You are here. That is enough. You are here because you are curious. You have heard my claim, and you have decided that, preposterous though it may seem, it might actually be true. You wish to see for yourself. You wish to know for yourself.”

The smaller man looks over his shoulder at the larger, bulky man. The large man doesn’t react, still leaning back in his chair, hands clasped over his middle. The smaller man nods thoughtfully.

“We do,” the smaller man admits. He leans forward again, returning his gaze to the Chairman. “You are a thing that should not be. That is not intended as insult, it is observation. There are many among us who would, if they knew exactly what you are, insist on calling you a blasphemy.”

The Chairman chuckles softly, low and rich with amusement. “I suppose that isn’t far wrong.”

“A meaningless word,” the smaller man says, waving his hand dismissively. “How does one profane the profane? You are a new thing, and a thing that should not, by our understanding, exist. And yet, you are here; we are speaking. If you can exist, then what else can? So yes, you are correct. You have attracted our interest. And your claim… well. If it is true, it changes much.”

“It changes everything,” the Chairman says. “Until this point the only viable anchor to the True Realm has been through people. Now it can be bound to things. Now it can persist. It does not exist in a pure state—it cannot, here—but… well. Perhaps a demonstration is in order.”

In a smooth motion, he flings something down the length of the table with his left arm. Somethings, rather: two black rectangles, roughly the size of domino pieces. Glowing purple symbols flit over the surface as they make their way down to the other end, each piece spinning and slipping against one another until they come to an abrupt halt in front of the smaller man.

“They are safe to touch. In fact, if you would be so kind as to place the ends together…”

The smaller man stares at the two blocks curiously, watching the runes slide across them, purple light flickering over his angular features. With an abrupt, birdlike motion he grabs one of the blocks, turns it sideways, and places it against the other.

The runes on both blocks flare up. The smaller man jerks his hand back, eyes widening, and with a sudden hiss a ragged disc, roughly the size of a dinner plate, opens above the blocks. The edges shimmer and pop as the disc fights to maintain its form, then with a sudden snap the edges smooth into a shimmering silver-gray, with only darkness within.

The room grows cold. The lights, already dim, flicker and fade even further. The only true light in the room comes from the brilliant purple-white of the runes on the blocks and the shining silver gray of the disk hanging over it.

From behind the portal, something shifts. They can feel it in the room—a thing uncoiling, slithering toward them. They feel anger, cold and pure, focusing on the shimmering portal and what lies outside. A sound emerges, a sound that isn’t properly a sound, rather a grinding silence, and their ears ache as it pours out from the portal, a soundless shriek of pure, unending rage.

Quickly the smaller man grabs both blocks and pulls. They separate smoothly, and the shimmering portal collapses, sputtering out like a doused flame.

The smaller man looks over his shoulder. The larger man’s heavy-lidded eyes are now fully open; he sits straight in his chair, fists clenched, as he stares at the two tiny blocks with intense, undisguised interest.

“A window only,” the Chairman says. “Though it may be possible to communicate through it. There is a measure of awareness that passes between the two realms. As you saw.”

The smaller man hmmmms his acknowledgment.

“I do not know how to open a door into the True Realm,” the Chairman says. “I don’t know if anyone could. But all this window requires is that the ends of those blocks be placed together.”

The smaller man picks up the blocks, one in each hand, and studies them carefully. “There was a time when it would take the deaths of many men to achieve such a thing.”

“There was a time,” the Chairman says, “when power could only be moved through flesh. When our runes and sigils and words served only to bind power to the flesh, to increase the power even as the flesh is consumed. But I have learned another way.”

“So it seems,” the smaller man says. “How?”

The Chairman doesn’t immediately respond. He sits, a dark, unmoving silhouette in the dim room, as the other men look on, waiting.

“Think of it as a kind of imbuement,” the Chairman says. “The same instruments we use to attract and magnify power—runes, sigils, monoliths—can also be used to bind it, give it a kind of permanence. I can teach you the secret of it. I can show you how binding it changes it, and instruct you on the advantages and disadvantages of those changes.”

“Aha.” The smaller man grins as he places the obsidian blocks back on the table. “You can teach us. But will you? That is the question, oh Thing That Should Not Be. That is the most important question.”

“I am willing to teach it,” the Chairman says, “if you are willing to come to an accord.”

“Then let us parley,” the smaller man says. “We are here. We are listening. You have our undivided attention.”

Now it is the Chairman who leans forward. His eyes are still shadowed, but his chin and mouth are visible. “You have seen a little of my work. You know, in broad strokes, what I seek to accomplish with Project Recall.”

It is a strong chin. They are very white teeth.

“We are not allies,” the Chairman continues. “Anyone with any claim to wisdom will see that. But we need not be enemies. Not yet. Perhaps, at some point in the future, when only you and I remain. Perhaps then. But even then… I doubt our conflict will be resolved by active conquest. It will be resolved by proving that one of us is right. Nothing less will suffice. Any other victory would be hollow.”

The smaller man doesn’t reply. His grin is fixed, rictus-like, on his face.

“What we can both agree on, I believe, is that there is a more immediate problem. There is a power that sits outside of our spheres. A rogue power, one that threatens to utterly break the game.”

The smaller man nods, his expression never changing. “The metahumans.”

“The metahumans,” the Chairman agrees. “Not only are they unbound, but in ten to twenty years I predict their growth will accelerate dramatically, beyond what anyone is prepared to handle.”

“And so you have decided to handle it now,” the smaller man says.

“I have,” the Chairman says. “If Project Recall succeeds—and it will succeed—I will decimate the herd. The ones who survive will be far easier to control. Or, at the very least, to contain.”

“And you are convinced it will work?” The smaller man’s face assumes a more neutral expression.

“It does work,” the Chairman says. “It only needs refinement now. Refinement, and a suitable source of power.”

“We will not allow our domain to be used in such a way,” the smaller man says. “Not again.”

The Chairman nods. “I do not intend to ask. Make no mistake, I do not apologize for my incursion. It was necessary. Out of all the old places, the mechanisms you put in place beneath your city made it ideal for what we needed to do. But I recognize that what I did incurs debt, and I will not incur it again.”

“Very well,” the smaller man says. “You have another place in mind.”

“I do,” the Chairman says.

“Then what do you want of us?”

“Your neutrality,” the Chairman says. “Your pledge to stay out of the remainder of this fight. Oh, you can claim you have always been neutral if you wish, but I received your message quite clearly. No, forgive us our transgressions and stand aside. Allow us to complete our grand work. No interference. In return, the knowledge I have is yours.”

Immediately the smaller man turns to the larger, his sharp eyes peering at his companion. The larger man continues to stare at the Chairman, unmoving, unspeaking. Despite his silence, the smaller man begins to nod.

“Yes,” the smaller man says. “Yes, I see. It is true. It will be necessary.”

The smaller man turns back to the Chairman and stands. As he rises, he reaches into the seat next to his, picks up a bowler hat, and places it on his head.

“We are not opposed to your proposal,” he says. “Normally we would reject such a thing out of hand, but the magnitude of what you offer… well, there are some, on your side and on mine, who would recoil at such a thing. A change too great, it might be said. But we cannot ignore it. We will not ignore it. But you have miscalculated with your offer.”

“Have I?” the Chairman asks, sounding genuinely surprised.

“You have.” The smaller man beams. “It is not a grave miscalculation—quite frankly I expected one so young to do far worse—and it can be fixed, I think, to both our satisfaction. Though perhaps more to our satisfaction than to yours.”

The Chairman sits in silence, waiting.

“The problem, you see, is that you have been carried away, rapturously so, by your new discovery. I quite understand why. It has the potential to change everything—in fact I’m quite sure it is changing everything now. But you have forgotten that the old laws—the oldest laws—still have sway, at least for now. They must be appeased.”

“I have not forgotten,” the Chairman starts to say, but the smaller man cuts him off with a wave of his hand.

“You have partially forgotten,” the smaller man says. “You acknowledge your debt to us, which is proper, but you seek to pay us weregild in restitution. Make no mistake, your offer is one we wish to accept, but the oldest laws are clear: there are only two payments that can be offered, the greater and the lesser. Until the oldest laws can be broken, we are bound by them. You are not, it seems—you are a strange thing—but we are.”

“I see,” the Chairman says. If he is offended at being called a thing, he does not show it. “Yes… I see your point.”

“Given what you know,” the smaller man says, “and given what you offer… we have no interest in your annihilation. So this is our proposal: in return for your weregild, we will accept the lesser price.”

The Chairman hesitates. The smaller man can almost feel him frown. “That is not a tempting offer.”

“Indeed not,” the smaller man agrees, “but we are bound all the same.”

The Chairman sighs. “And your neutrality?”

“Agreed,” the smaller man says. “Once the price is paid, all debts between us are cleared. We will make no move against you, in open or in secret. We will even declare our neutrality openly, to our peers.”

“I see,” the Chairman says. “There is some advantage in that. And I suppose I have little choice.”

“By the oldest laws, you do not,” the smaller man says. “It is this, or it is war.”

“I do not want war.”

The smaller man shrugs. “Nor do we, given what you propose in its place.”

Another silence. The small man continues to stand, waiting. His companion continues to sit, leaning slightly forward, his face bored but his eyes fully open and focused on the Chairman, who leans back in his chair, covering himself entirely in shadow.

Minutes pass.

“Agreed,” the Chairman says.

The smaller man laughs merrily, clapping his hands. “Excellent! Oh, well done!” His companion is standing now, though no one is sure when he moved. “I am impressed, creature. I did not expect you to survive this. History suggested otherwise, and yet you have! And all that is left is the matter of payment.”

“Yes…” The Chairman’s voice is weary. “And what is your price?”

“A simple thing,” the smaller man says. “A nothing. It will pass and be done. It is one of the more classic payments, and I feel it is appropriate on such an auspicious occasion, on the day when the old ways begin to crumble and fall away, leaving only chaos and confusion in their wake.”

He lowers his voice, speaking in a whispering, singsong purr.

“We demand a fifth.”

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