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"Allow me to make sure I have this straight," the hero said. "I've been untimely ripped from my home world to fight unspeakable horrors, and you say I'm here because I'm lucky?"
Aerhien dipped her eyelashes in elegant acknowledgment; and quietly to herself, she thought: Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven heroes who'd said just that, more or less, on arrival.
Not a sign of the thought showed on her outward face, where the hero could see, or the other council members of the Eerionnath take note. Over the centuries since her accidental immortality she'd built a reputation for serenity, more or less because it seemed to be expected.
"There are kinds and kinds of luck," Aerhien said serenely. "Not every person desires their personal happiness above all else. Those who are lucky in aiding others, those whose luck is great in succor and in rescue, these ones are not always happy themselves. You are here, hero, because you have a hero's luck. The boy whose dusty heirloom sword proves to be magical. The peasant girl who finds herself the heir to a great kingdom. Those who discover, in time of sudden stress, an untrained wild magic within themselves. Success born not of learning, not of skill, not of determination, but unplanned coincidence and fortunes of birth: That is a hero's luck."
"Gosh," said the hero after a long, awkward pause, "thanks for the compliment."
"It is not a compliment," Aerhien said, "but this is: that you have taken good advantage of your luck. Our enemy does not speak, we do not know if there is any aliveness in it to think; but it learns, or seems to learn. We have never won against it using the same trick twice. It is rare now that a hero succeeds in conceiving a genuinely new trick, for we have fought this shadow long under our sun. For this reason we have taken to summoning heroes from distant dimensions with other modes of thought; sometimes one such knows a truly new technique, and at least they fight differently. But far more often, hero, the hero wins by luck."
"Huh," said the hero. He frowned; more in thought, it seemed, than in displeasure. "How... very odd. I wonder why that is. What kind of enemy can be defeated only by luck?"
"A nameless enemy and null," said Aerhien. "Structureless and empty, horrible and dark, the most terrifying thing imaginable: We call it Dust. That seems to be its only desire, to tear down every bit of structure in the world, grind it into specks of perfect chaos. Always the Dust is defeated, always it takes a new shape immune to its last defeat."
"I wonder," murmured the hero, "if it will run out of shapes, and then end; or if it will finally become invincible."
(One of the other Eerionnath shuddered.)
"I do not know," Aerhien said simply. "I do not know the nature of the Dust, nor the nature of the Counter-Force that opposes it. The Dust is terrible and our world should long since have ended. We are not fools enough to believe we could be lucky so many times by chance alone. But the Counter-Force has never acted openly; it never reveals itself except in - a hero's luck. And so we, the council Eerionnath to prevent the world from destruction, are at your disposal to command; and all the power and resource that this world holds, for your battle."
And she, Aerhien, and the council Eerionnath, bowed low.
Then they waited to see if the hero would demand dominions or slaves as payment, before condescending to rescue a people in distress.
If so they would dispose of him, and summon another.
This one, though, seemed to have at least some qualities of a true hero; his face showed no avarice, only an abstracted puzzlement. "A hidden Counter-Force..." he murmured. "Excuse me, but this is all very vague. Can you give me a specific example of a hero's luck?"
Aerhien opened her mouth, and then the breath caught in her throat; suddenly and involuntarily, her memory went back to that huge spell gone out of control which had blasted the then-form of the Dust, killed the hero her lover, ruined their home and country, and rendered her accidentally immortal, all those centuries ago -
Ghandhol, the second-oldest of the council, must have guessed her silent distress; for he spoke up to cover the gap: "There was a certain time," he said gravely, "when the hero of that age, sent off the entire army of the world in a diversionary attack against the strongest fortification of the enemy. While he, with but a single friend, walked directly into enemy territory, carrying undefended the single most valuable magic the Dust could possibly gain. Then the Dust captured and corrupted the hero's mind. And when all seemed absolutely lost, they only won because - in an event that was no part at all of their original plan - a hungry creature bit off the hero's finger and then accidentally fell into an open lava flow, which in turn caused -"
"That was an extreme case," said one of the younger councilors; that one looked a bit nervous, lest this hero get the wrong idea. "None since have tried to imitate the Volcano Suicide Hero -"
"Ah!" said the hero in a tone of sudden enlightenment.
Then the hero frowned. "Oh, dear..." he said under his breath.
The councilors looked at one another in mute puzzlement. The hairs pricked on Aerhien's neck; she had lived long enough to have seen almost everything at least once before. And her lover had frowned, just like that, an instant before his spell went wild.
The hero's brow was furrowed like a father whose child has just asked a question which has an answer, but whose answer no child can understand. "Do you..." he said at last. "Do you have knowledge... about the khanfhighur... that's not even translating, is it. Do you know about... the things that things are made of? And are the things constantly splitting all the time? Not singly, but in - in groups -"
The other councilors Eerionnath were staring at him in mute incomprehension. But Aerhien, who had been through it all before, gravely shook her head. "We do not possess that knowledge; nor do we know why our sun burns, or why the sky is red, or what makes a word a spell; nor has any summoned hero succeeded in raveling them." Aerhien held up her hand. "Hand, made of fingers; beneath the finger, skin and muscle and vein, beneath the muscle, sharrak and flom. That is the limit of our knowledge. Some worlds, it seems, are harder to ravel than others."
The hero waved it off. "No, it doesn't matter - well, it matters a great deal, but not for now. I only asked to see if I could get confirmation... it doesn't matter."
Aerhien waited patiently; they were rare, this sort of hero, but the more distant and alien sort did sometimes treat her world as a puzzle to be solved. She usually sought those similar enough in body and mind to feel empathy for her people's plight; but sometimes she thought of the great victory won by the Icky Blob Hero, and wondered if she should look further afield.
"What would happen if the Dust won?" asked the hero. "Would the whole world be destroyed in a single breath?"
Aerhien's brow quirked ever so slightly. "No," she said serenely. Then, because the question was strange enough to demand a longer answer: "The Dust expands slowly, using territory before destroying it; it enslaves people to its service, before slaying them. The Dust is patient in its will to destruction."
The hero flinched, then bowed his head. "I suppose that was too much to hope for; there wasn't really any reason to hope, except hope... it's not required by the logic of the situation, alas..."
Suddenly the hero looked up sharply; there was a piercing element, now, in his gaze. "There's a great deal you're neglecting to tell me about this heroing business. Were you planning to mention that the 'hero' which your council chooses and anoints, often turns out not to be the real hero at all? That the Counter-Force often ends up working through someone else entirely?"
The members of the council traded glances. "You didn't exactly ask about that," said Ghandhol mildly.
The hero nodded. "I suppose not. And the Volcano Suicide Hero - what exactly happened to him, that caused no hero to ever dare tempt fate so much again, in the history you remember?"
"His home country was ruined," Aerhien said softly, "while the army marched elsewhere on his diversion. It threw him into a misery from which he never recovered, until one day he set sail in a ship and did not return."
The hero nodded. "Poor payment, one would think, for saving the world." The hero's face grew grim, and his voice became solemn and formal, mimicking Aerhien's cadences. "But the Counter-Force is not the pure power of Good. It seems to care only and absolutely about stopping the Dust. It cares nothing for heroes, or countries, or innocent lives and victims. If it could save a thousand children from death, only by nudging the fall of a pebble, it would not bother; it has had such opportunities, and not acted."
Ghufhus, the youngest member of the council, grimaced, looking offended. "How is it our right to ask for more?" he demanded. "That we are saved from the Dust is miracle enough -"
Ghufhus stopped, noticing then that the other Eerionnath were sitting frozen. Even Aerhien's mask of dispassion had cracked.
"Ah..." Ghufhus said, puzzled. "How do you... know all this? Is there a Counter-Force in your own world?"
Fool, Aerhien thought to herself. The hero had seemed puzzled by the idea, at first, and had needed to ask for examples. She decided then and there that Ghufhus would meet with an accident before the next council meeting; their world had no room for stupid Eerionnath.
And the hero himself shook his head. "No," the hero said. "You have never summoned a hero who remembers a Counter-Force like yours."
This was also true.
"Nor will you ever," the hero added, "unless you try some way of seeking that specifically, in your summoning. It would never happen by accident."
Aerhien willed her stiff lips to move. It should have been wonderful news, but the hero himself seemed anything but happy. "You... have fathomed the nature of the Counter-Force?"
The hero nodded.
"And?" Aerhien said. "What is the rest of it? The part you are still considering whether to tell us?"
Ghandhol's eyebrows went up a tiny fraction, and his head tilted ever so slightly toward her, signaling his surprise and appreciation.
The hero hesitated. Then he sighed.
"The Counter-Force isn't going to help you this time. No hero's luck. Nothing but creativity and any scraps of real luck - and true random chance is as liable to hurt you as the Dust. Even if you do survive this time, the Counter-Force won't help you next time either. Or the time after that. What you remember happening before - will not happen for you ever again."
Aerhien felt the nausea; like a blow to the pit of her stomach it felt, the end of the world. The rest of the council Eerionnath seemed torn between fear and skepticism; but her own instincts, honed over long centuries, left little room for doubt. The distant heroes sometimes knew things... and sometimes guessed wrong. But after a hero had been right a few times, you learned to listen to that one, even if you couldn't understand the reasons or the logic...
"Why?" Ghufhus said, sounding skeptical. "Why would the Counter-Force work all this time, and then suddenly -"
Ghandhol interrupted with the far more urgent question. "How can we restore the Counter-Force?"
"You can't," said the hero.
There was a remote sadness in his eyes, the only sign that he knew exactly what he was saying.
"Then you have pronounced the absolute doom of this world," Ghandhol said heavily.
And then the hero smiled, and it was twisted and grim and defiant, all at the same time. "Oh... not quite absolute doom. In my own world, we have our own notions about heroes, which are not about heroic luck. One of us said: a hero is someone who can stand there at the moment when all hope is dead, and look upon the abyss without flinching. Another said: a superhero is someone who can save people who could not be saved by any ordinary means; whether it is few people or many people, a superhero is someone who can save people who cannot be saved. We shall try a little of my own world's style of heroism, then. Your world cannot be saved by any ordinary means; it is doomed. Like a child born with a fatal disease; it contained the seed of its own death from the beginning. Your annihilation is not an unlucky chance to be prevented, or an unpleasant possibility to avert. It is your destiny that has already been written from the beginning. You are the walking dead, and this is a dead world spinning, and many other worlds like this one are already destroyed."
"But this world is going to live anyway. I have decided it."
"That is my own world's heroism."
"How?" Aerhien said simply. "How can our world live, if what you say is true?"
The hero's eyes had gone unfocused, his face somewhat slack. "You will deliver to me the record of every single hero that your history remembers. You will bring historians here for my consultation. Your world cannot survive if it must fight this battle over and over again, with the Dust growing stronger each time. It is my thought that on this attempt, we must neutralize the Dust once and for all -"
"Do you think that hasn't been tried?" Ghufhus demanded incredulously.
The hero smiled that twisted smile again. "Ah, but if you had succeeded, you would not have needed to summon me, now would you? Though I am not quite sure that is valid logic, in a case like this... But it does seem that none of the other heroes fathomed your Counter-Force, which puts an upper limit on their perception." The hero nodded to himself. "All things have a pattern. Bring me the records, and I will see if I can fathom this Dust, and the limit of its learning ability - there must be a limit, or no amount of luck could ever save you. All things have a cause: If something like the Dust came into existence once, perhaps a true Counter-Force can be created to oppose it. Those are the ideas that occur to me in the first thirty seconds, at any rate. I must study. Bring me your keepers of knowledge. They will be my army."
Aerhien bowed, in truth this time, and very low, and the Eerionnath bowed with her. "Command and we shall obey, hero," she said simply.
The hero turned from her, and looked out the window at the red sky, and the small dots on the land that were the homes of the innocents to be protected.
"Don't call me that," he said, and it was a command. "You can call me that after we've won."
It was Ghufhus who said it, and Aerhien promised herself that if it was a stupid question, his accident would be a painful one.
"But what is - what was the Counter-Force?"
Aerhien wavered, then decided against it.
It might not matter now, but she also wanted to know.
The hero sighed. "It's a long story," he said. "And to be frank, if you're to understand this properly, there's a lot of other things I have to explain first before I get to the ahntharhapik principle."