Octo sighed and made pointed suggestion. “Use a ‘Wow, I didn’t die; but things can still go horribly wrong’ smile.”
“I only won thanks to you,” I replied behind the beauty queen smile.
“I just provided immoral support,” Octo replied. “You did the messy lifting all on your own.”
I stopped by the small orchestra. The conductor was polite, but ultimately had nothing that I could consider a “victory song.” They did have an arrangement of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” So I requested that and moved on, making a direct path to Sivar. Octo was quiet.
As I moved with the mournful strains of the folk song, the room became pregnant with anticipation.
During my stroll, a pain began in my chest, the physical manifestation of a yawning pit of realization that I won… and that I also lost. I felt like I had eaten my heart and discovered that I did not need it. I kind of wanted to feel guilt. I could not muster it. I did not feel guilty about killing Paulos; not in the slightest.
Apparently the memory of love, or a current love, was not a circuit breaker on my survival instinct. Part of me honestly thought I’d give up and just let him kill me.
Sivar was among a knot of people who started backing away as I approached. The parting gaggle left Sivar, Dion, who seemed to be on the verge of tears, and a pale woman in a sleeveless gown of layered white gossamer silks and a mass of coal black hair with strands of pearls and gold leaf worked into it.
“Your Eminence,” I greeted Sivar. I then gave Dion my full attention. “My sincere condolences, Your Excellency.”
“You won’t know Entertainer’s Guildmaster Elizabeth Rowan.” Sivar made a small gesture towards the dark haired woman in white. “Betsy, this is Vycta.”
“Guildmaster,” I acknowledged, with a formal nod. Then I turned all of my attention Sivar. “Do you approve of my victory song, Your Eminence? Have I killed my way back into your graces and your home?”
The drama bomb’s impact sent waves of brief exclamations and eruptive vaporous gasps through the sea of guests.
Sivar took the cue. “You are not as amusing as you think.”
“Then why put me in a gilded cage only to bring me here?” I asked. I took a single perfect step forward and stopped. I tried to give my words a rhythm, an abrasive wry drawl teetering on ‘southern’ but not succumbing to the lure of twang. “I think you do still love me; but I am no longer convenient to love. As everyone here has learned today, this wouldn’t be the first time it happened. You always put me in a box separate from your other toys.”
“Should I… leave?” Betsy’s voice had an Anglican affection with a deep, animated, velvety texture that glided over my skin.
“No,” Sivar said evenly. She purposely turned her attention from me to the crowd and clapped her hands, amplifying the sound with magic. “Enough of this droning, rancid, self-indulgent sentimentality. Real music please! Everyone be festive! I have a problem to deal with.” She took my hand and with a great show of force, drug me off, motioning for Dion and Betsy to follow us into an out of the way, fully enclosed alcove.
Once inside, Sivar gestured abruptly and the air in the doorway shivered into opaque solidity.
Sivar turned to Elizabeth and smiled, “Now things get really interesting.” Sivar handed Dion a small golden book.
Dion grew pale and started to cry.
“I captured Paulos at the moment of death,” Sivar explained. “Consciousness, memories; it is all here. Without an excessive infusion of prana, his recuperation is going to be lengthy and his power levels reduced, but he will recover naturally. I am giving you this in return for help with something I need Vycta to do for me, with no annoying questions about how Vycta was able to best Paulos. He’s not dead yet. I can change that. Think about it.” She turned to me. “Honestly, I expected this to be you.”
My spurned lover bit faded when Sivar put the warding over the alcove. “What do I really look like? What was so awful that Paulos would…”
She produced a syringe filled with a viscous liquid, glowing violet-white. “What will you give me for that information?”
“Where did you get that?” Dion’s strangled interruption seemed terribly loud in the alcove.
Sivar fixed the Primate with her gaze, “I am older than you are… by a sizable margin. I have my sources; some no longer exist as they were then.
“If you use that… my presence or no, the other Primates will know that you are ready to ascend to Service from Rule,” Dion said.
“No, they won’t, unless you tell them.” Sivar did not move, continuing to keep her eyes on Dion’s face. “I am not a Primate because I do not want to be cooped up in an observatory ‘listening’ for signs a Creator who provided us with perfectly useful servitors to maintain its Will and Creation while we exercise and develop our own Wills. Now, Dion, will you help me?”
“You’re overconfident,” he said firmly. “I will help you. I will not tell. But if you use that, you are courting ruin.”
“The order of Creation is being disrupted by those heretical Atlanteans and now I have problems with the Legion in my own house. I need to know when the next attacks on the principalities are coming, and from whom. I cannot both shepherd the injection’s reaction in Vycta and See. I need you to partner with me on this.”
She turned to me. “You will be the focus again. It will be just like what happened on D’Orleans, except this time you will be conscious and can focus on assimilation and keeping your aetheric nervous system intact.”
“If you show me what I really look like, I don’t care.”
“You will be giving up a lot by discarding this mostly normal appearance,” Dion cautioned.
“I just killed the hero of the Atlantean Brigade in front of witnesses,” I replied. “Earlier today, I was informed of the scope of my ruined reputation. So, I kind of really don’t give a stellar-sized fuck about false normalcy. Please stop wasting time! There is a party out there that won’t stay locked in speculative frenzy for long.”
“I agree,” Sivar replied. “Betsy, the wards will let you pass. Watch the door please. Make certain no one comes in.”
Betsy nodded and slipped out. I lay down, and dropped into emptiness.
Sivar sat at my head. “I will forgive all your debts for doing this, Vycta. When you leave this alcove, we part as associates, not liege and vassal. It will be a new life for you: Lord Vycta, man of leisure, member of the Entertainer’s Guild at large, Ranger, horribly dangerous man, and friend of the Prelate of the Central North American Principality.”
I felt Dion’s presence at my feet.
“On three.” Sivar’s voice was heavy with breathless anticipation. I opened my eyes, catching a glimpse of the levitating syringe. It looked a lot bigger than I remembered, like three feet long, not counting the silvery needle. I closed my eyes again. This was going to be ugly.
The needle went into my forehead, slipping into my brain.
“It’s showtime.” Octo said. “Remember how Paulos kept regenerating even though he had been turned into smooth, warm slurry? Of course you do. These pranic shells are not the real you. They are an interface with this reality; you just occupy them and use them to store the bulk of your experiences and memories. You can exercise more control over your shell, but it depends on if you can cope with the idea that you’re just piloting an interface. It may look like a body, feel like a body, but you’re just animating it with your faith, and living inside, experiencing life through it. If you can make this leap, your consciousness will live in your spirit and vice versa. A little bodily destruction won’t send you hurtling back into reclamation. You’re welcome, by the way.”
I felt something punch into my stomach. I could not see or hear conventionally. I was seized by a nauseating, sinking, twisting sensation, but Octo would not let me black out. I had work to do. Through the sensation maelstrom, I continued to managed my rapidly mutating aetheric system, keeping the channels open to prana, not letting them fold back on each other, seize up, and crystallize.
“Are we done?” Sivar’s voice was distant.
“You are done,” Dion said. “You did not need me here. You only brought me here to Witness this travesty, this perversion.”
“You were very necessary Dion,” she replied. “You can testify that all procedures and proprieties had been observed.”
“You sold him out well and good, didn’t you?” Dion’s voice was scathingly accusing.
“Dion, I reconstituted Paulos using the overflow from the essence injection. He has recovered his physical body and is back at full strength, although he is suffering some trauma,” she said dismissively. “You can either stay here and fume at me, or go help your precious charge.”
“This isn’t the end of this Sivar.” Dion’s voice was full of barely suppressed outrage. I heard his footsteps on the floor, and opened my eyes as he stepped out. Sivar was sitting over me, her hair disheveled and face beaded with sweat. Relief spread across her face as we made eye contact.
I frowned slightly. “You know, if you go outside looking like that all sorts of rumors are going to fly.” I put a sudden, surprised hand to my throat. “Whoa, I sound like myself.”
“You expected to sound different?”
I demurred. “Did you get what you wanted from this grand production?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I just needed to make sure you were okay before I left. I have some arrangements to make, and you need to recover.”
“I think I need clothes,” I said, looking down. My jacket and shirt was ripped. The legs of my pants had partially collapsed. I could still feel my toes and the fabric vibrated wherever I touched.
I levitated up, blades of shadow slowly rotating out of my ankles to somewhat smoothly trim the length of the pants. I hove in the air, briefly gratified to see the appendages but something seemed off. Their proportions had changed. While I was in the air, Sivar stood. I landed and looked up at her.
I made a quick self putdown check: face, head, arms legs, chest, wang. I looked up at Sivar, gauged her height. “You’re five feet ten inches or so, right? I guess I’m around five feet even, give or take?
“Four foot ten,” she replied. “I can convert to metric or use an extinct system if it makes you feel better.”
I ignored the jibe, “I… don’t feel any different. I don’t even feel off balance!”
“Go limp,” she said, stepping up to me. She lifted me by main strength and twirled me around for a few moments. She put me down and observed with an annoying, documentarian tones. “Your center of gravity is low, probably because of the stubby legs. You weigh about 600 pounds. Your density is ridiculous. Your proportions are… well, from the waist up, normal. Your arms are relatively long but ultimately normal compared to your torso. Your legs, while fully articulated with a pronounced buttocks, are on the stunted side. You are about 4 feet wide at the shoulder, slight tapering at the waist. You neck is much thicker, although your facial features remain basically the same. All in all I think you came out well. Some mutations are much, much worse.”
“She does not know about the… ah… other changes… I made,” Octo said in my head. “It would be ill-advised to volunteer information at this juncture.”
“You should still do fine in the Entertainer’s Guild as an exotic,” Sivar continued leaning over to pat my crotch. “The equipment is unchanged, more than present, even. You seem unhindered and able to move smoothly and normally. You’ll just have to get a little creative in bed, but I do not think that will be a problem. I will send Betsy back in so you can get acquainted.”
“What else did you do?” I asked.
Sivar seemed genuinely pensive. “We renamed you. I needed Dion’s help, or rather I needed his presence to witness.” She was hedging, inching to the door. She was half way out when she finally said, “Your name, True Name, and Calling occupation, have been unified. You should keep using ‘Vycta’ as an affectation. It is known for those of flamboyant means to take nicknames, useless personal titles, or a handle.”
Her mild evasiveness was starting to make me edgy. “Why is this name change such a big deal? You changed my name; so what. Changing it once didn’t stop Paulos and his masters from trying to kill me. Why would it matter now?”
“Everyone has a purpose in Heaven,” she replied.
I countered. “Horace is a Butler but he started as a Legionnaire. You are a Prelate, but you had to work to get there. What makes this so special?”
“It takes an act of material will to change a name. It takes an act of Celestial will to change a True Name. Only the two in concert can petition to change a Calling, and even then, it is something that cannot be wholly made over. If you are to be a warrior, then you may or may not be called a ‘Legionnaire.’ You could be a ‘gladiator’ or ‘guard,’ or ‘knight.’ But no Celestial, or other celestial had a reason to indulge what they saw as a childish rebellion against your nature. However there was one celestial who did not think the name was just and he got permission from the Choir of Celestials, citing several myths, and linking them to your last few years here: Delilah and Sampson, David and Goliath, Achilles and Hector, Deianeira and Hercules, Paris and Achilles.”
She paused and I waited, trying to tie the three together. I finally said. “One or both of the people in those pairs were heroes, and one of the heroes died in all of them.”
f0 She smiled, but it was visibly false, the effort cracking and falling away. “I have named you… the kraken faced Celestial has named you… ‘Herokiller.’”
She said it as if she had laid a curse upon me. I just said, “Okay.”
“Okay?” She reacted. “Okay?”
“‘Hero’ is relative, depending on who benefits from said hero’s exploits. It’s applied to anyone the wider society admires for doing something for the benefit of said society that everyone else can’t do. But what isn’t said is that heroes fail. Heroes die. Hell, in war, heroes have to die. Someone has to win. It’s just the way of conflict. The Atlanteans probably had heroes in their battles: honored warriors, tacticians, and humble infantry, who died trying to assault and infect our brigades.
“Were they heroes? To us, no. But our heroes are not heroes to them either. So… okay, my name is ‘Herokiller.’”
“Your name cannot be changed,” she said. An intensity dawned in her voice, a nearly panicked realization. However, she did not end the conversation abruptly. Your name is ‘Herokiller’. Your True Name is ‘Herokiller’. Your Calling is literally ‘Herokiller’. Now and forever, you are ‘Herokiller.’”
There was a smug defiance in my voice when I replied. It just came bubbling out, the lingering high of ‘I finally won something!’ “I think I will still use ‘Vycta.’ It is the name I chose, after all, and it has the strongest scandal recognition.”
“Don’t be surprised if there are those who do not accept your affectation. I must go.” She swept from the room, leaving me alone in the alcove. (by Hank T Cannon)