It's never good news when one of the lookouts comes sprinting down into the village and hammers on her door.

At least this just looks like weird news. Coming down the path towards the village is... well, she's going to get into detect magic range and find out what it is. 'Snake with a mirror for a head' is not exactly a standard herald description, it could be Day or Autumn or Night or, anything really.

She strides out down the path with her staff, her mage armour properly adjusted, her satchel bag with whatever it happened to have in it, a few lightstones on her belt, and shadowed by a couple of her people with spears - at a sensible distance back, because heralds are Vate business. If this is a known herald, the constellation of the Fountain tattooed down her right cheek should let it know what kind of business she means.

As she's just reaching out and incanting a swift detect magic - "Ophis reveal you," muttered quietly so as to hopefully not cause offence, but she really needs to know what it is to approach it correctly - the snake lunges down the path with incredible swiftness, and her staff comes up to parry it but it's like parrying water - instead of connecting with its head, she gets caught off balance by the lack of contact, and falls helplessly through...

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She lands off to one side of a neatly paved, narrow road. On either side rise buildings stacked to ten stories, some higher. Wide windows glitter all the way up. The sun is out of sight behind the left line of structures, but not by much. It's fairly hot. A dull roar of random background noise emanates from both distance and proximity.

The ground level is punctuated by careful, proud storefronts, clear windows and doors, each built and turned out in a pattern totally inconsiderate of the last. People walk quickly past, of most skin and hair colors she's familiar with. Each is solitary. Most are wearing very drab clothes and heavy-looking backpacks. A few are looking down at tiny rectangles in their hands as they walk. A handful glance at Allegra - her clothes stand out sharply - but only one, across the road, is staring in frozen shock. Between Allegra and the gawker, a bicyclist shoots past.


...okay, so apparently the answer was 'Autumn' and it was not here to talk.

This is... very Autumn. She's always hated Autumn. Focus. Too many people, presumably some of them are automata, for a pocket it's very... big.

Is there any immediate danger. Someone is staring at her. Possibly she should introduce herself, but apparently fast things go down the middle of the - whatever this is - so it's going to be at a polite difference, at least until she has a little more observational evidence of what is going on there.

"Well, you've caught me," she offers in a carrying, but not shouting voice, fixing the gawker with an even stare - not overtly threatening, but denoting that she doesn't intend to be intimidated. "Did you not think that would work, or something?"


The gawker looks mortified - for a split second. Then that melts away, like it was never there.

". . . If I say something that isn't 'yes' or 'no', will you decide that I'm not the person you're here to see, and move along?"

The stranger's voice is very carefully even. It sounds more masculine than feminine, but . . . yeah, the gender of this person is really not clear. They're watching Allegra very carefully, now, and very coolly.


"I didn't come here on purpose," replies Allegra. If they are playing with her, they already know, otherwise they might as well be told. "Would you rather I interrupted someone else?"

Ugh, Autumn. She feels like she should know how to play this game by now, but she's never been any good at it. (The gender of the individual doesn't seem to be confusing her in the slightest - it's probably one of the least confusing things in the vicinity, really.)


". . . I did not bring you here," and I have no idea why you're here, "but to my perception I am not at all the wrong person for you to have interrupted. Could you use local help with anything?" He doesn't expect an actual yes to that clumsy ask, but he's so devoid of advantageous context here and it'd be foolish not to attempt engaging somehow. With the person who just fell out of thin air.


Okay, so they're either testing for weakness or jumping on a trade opportunity.

Of course now she thinks of casting detect magic again, but to do it right now would be impolite and she'd need to slow cast it so she has mana left to operate the portal out.

"Do you know the way back out of here? I can operate portal out if I'm confident of where it is." That's not much information, nobody wears a getup like this with the big wide belt with the Oak on it, gemmed bracers and circlet, and the obvious magic staff gleaming silver between autumn leaves on bleached wood, if they can't do that.

And it's not accepting the offer, it's inviting a more precise offer. She hopes. Hope is a false virtue, and all that. Why did it have to be Autumn.


"Out of here . . . to where, exactly?" He's probably just blown it, maybe on behalf of humanity, but revealing his ignorance earlier could hardly have helped. And he didn't choose to be the one standing here in place of someone who could have handled it better! Rikka's hands are clean.


Of course they would ask some kind of stupid trick question. It's not like it isn't absolutely obvious, but there isn't a name for it in Imperial because every time someone comes up with a sensible one, the Highborn have an enormous whinge about it.

"The location I just came from - that I was in subjective five minutes ago - ideally, or anywhere also within the Casinean Empire on the same planar level as that would be fine," she replies, keeping it smooth and casual, not letting the increasing annoyance leak into her tone. All that poise training has to be good for something.

'Planar level' isn't quite an accepted technical term, but any entity who actually knows where the portal out of the pocket is and isn't just messing with her for fun will probably know what she means, and she does not want to invite 'sure, step right this way into another bloody realm pocket' nonsense.



"I'm afraid all the stuff you just talked about is above my pay grade." And you're either probing me with an act of ignorance as to my actual pay grade, or way out of your depth in a way that I, personally, have no way to take advantage of. Or we're both insane. It's seeming increasingly likely that we're both insane. Or that what I saw was a clever illusion, but why . . . ?

People are lingering a little around the two weirdos talking across the bike street. Rikka nonchalantly crosses and lands somewhere on the safely distant side of 'respectful' from the stranger.

Last chance. Openly, obviously ready to take off if he gets a 'no':

". . . If you need to stay low-profile for some reason while you look for someone who can help you find your way 'out', I can help you with that. Or orienting you to local things in general, in my capacity as someone who saw you drop out of an appearing-and-disappearing window in the air, and will therefore have no trouble believing that your strange requests for assistance are sincere."

It occurs to Rikka that he may have just marked himself for destruction, if this is the particular genre of wild science fiction where the aliens are as smart as humans or smarter but do not care about being nice literally at all. He tells that part of himself to shut up. This, after all, is real life. Better yet, a simulation in which Rikka is an important player!

And the stranger seems pretty normal so far.


Allegra twitches just slightly, her instinct pushing her to take up a defensive posture at the other's approach, but she forces it down - there's no sign that they're armed or dangerous and she can parry them from here anyway if they suddenly are, assuming they are not another bullshit trap that's set up to...

No. Focus. This is either a native of this hopelessly overpopulated pocket who doesn't in fact know what's going on, or they're trying to look like that for their own inscrutable Autumn reasons.

The correct way to deal with this is probably to play along and keep subtly probing for information in a deniable fashion, but her people are still out there with whatever that thing was. And she hates uncertainty and stupid illegible negotiation games.

"And what would be your price for those services?" she asks, still affecting a breezy air and smiling to try to take the sting out of it.


Legible exchange!    . . . Maybe this is the kind of science fiction where the aliens have moral lessons to teach humanity. The far likelier prospect is, of course, that some company has invented portals and the disoriented stranger thought Rikka was a fellow employee. But a guy can dream.

"I'm a systems programmer with Eksil, the networking equipment company in Ram Askielal, I'm just here visiting my brother for two days, but I can help you while I'm here, and after that if you still haven't found someone else I can ask him to take my placeif you're okay with him knowing." Of course Agario gets this, just like he gets everything. But that's how it is when you get set up in Aineh. "I'd honestly be happy to work for the experience, including renting you a hotel room if you don't currently have access to money" although it'll probably be tiny as balls "but if you want to pay me something more concrete and need to calibrate, my boss at Eksil generally pays me somewhere in the range of six to ten dozen gross-milligrams Seril amphetamine equivalents for a bug fix, in stocks, and I can usually get one of those done in a half day to a day. Or I'm happy to let you figure out what I'm worth to you as we go."


Those sure are some words!

"If you are willing to assist me for two days merely for the experience, I accept that offer." Although it had better not take the whole two days, but at this stage she's regretting the waste of fast casting before and might need to sleep on it if finding the portal is going to be difficult.

"Do you know what the extent of this place is, who has caused it to come into existence or generally oversees it, and if it is worth detecting here for portals?" If help is being offered she might as well use it, although, "and which Eternal are you - and this place - under the perview of, if any?"

It's not like she thinks that this 'systems programmer' is incapable of lying about it, but outright lies are not really Autumn's style, even if they have just offered their services suspiciously cheaply.


Eternal? That . . . has to be a code word for something. But then what's the rest of what the stranger is talking about?

"If that's internal company jargon, I'm sorry, I have to come clean, I really understand none of it. If you're still thinking I work for your boss, I don't.

If you're asking about this universe - the part of it that this planet can see and interact with, that has a known size, I don't know it off the top of my head but I can look it up - " he reaches behind him, unzips part of his backpack, which is mainly a carrier for some kind of medium-sized string instrument but with several extra pockets, and pulls out a block about four inches high, two and a half wide, and a third thick, most of the surface area of which becomes covered with text when he presses a button on it. He begins punching letters into physical keyboard buttons. "and as for who or what originated it or ultimately controls it, ah, that I don't know, and I'd be surprised to find out that any particular person does know, although someone might. It's one of the big questions people in general are working on? Are you . . . from somewhere where they don't do that?" Vaxi, what am I saying? "I also certainly know less about whether it will be worth detecting here for other portals than you do, sorry.

Aha, apparently the radius of the observable universe is about 9 x 12^9 lightyears. If that's the kind of information you were looking for." Rikka looks back at the stranger. "As far as I know, as far as anyone knows, it goes on forever beyond that, although I don't really know what that means, functionally - especially for your purposes."

Yeah, he does not regret engaging with the stranger.


"It is not, but you might understand this - who is your 'boss'? And their boss, if they have one - ideally, who is at the top of your hierarchy? You might have to describe a few relevant characteristics like what they're primarily interested in and their preferred negotiation style and how they treat people they are negotiating with, as I'm not familiar with the name 'Eksil'."

Just her luck to land in a particularly irritating pocket of Autumn, where the individual keen on talking to her doesn't actually know anything about the pocket she's been landed in. Well, it was targeting her, presumably it was doing so with some knowledge, Autumn doesn't tend to move without planning.

Goes on forever, indeed. Well, it probably does, once you skip through the other portal back into the Autumn realm proper. Maybe these individuals come and go without noticing it.

"Also, is there somewhere more sensible for us to talk than the middle of a thoroughfare?" She hadn't yet noticed any more promising-looking entities, and the constant urge to look around twitchily due to the number of unknown - people? heralds? - wandering around was not exactly helping her remain calm enough for Autumn etiquette.


". . . My boss's name is Argeila, his boss's name is Melshtoydin, I'm butchering it, and they're both perfectly clean negotiators as far as I know, but - even if they weren't, why would you expect me to speak ill of them? Eksil runs Eksil, of course. I don't know him personally, of course. And sorry, I don't know the whole chain of authority that goes between him and me. 

What do you mean by 'what they're interested in'? I can describe what they do, but I find it difficult to imagine a meaning of that question that would be impersonal enough to answer on someone else's behalf even if that someone wasn't my boss.

And for sure, I'm eager to ditch this place too - I was actually just on my way to my hotel, do you want to follow me or are there more constraints on the kind of place you're imagining?" 'Thoroughfare' is a new word to him but the world has a long history and is full of geniuses with mind-crushing vocabularies so new words appear every so often. He'll have to look it up.


"I wouldn't expect you to speak ill of them, but perhaps one might deal more in favours, another only in what can be straightforwardly valued, another only in material goods useful for their projects?

A hotel sounds like an excellent plan."

Allegra attempts to pay attention to the surroundings, to discern how far they go, but the Autumn realm is known to be full of immensely detailed-seeming fractal patterns that confound that kind of attempt. If only they could be in Spring or Summer or something, where they just wanted to eat her or fight her.


"Great! It's this way." Rikka gestures and continues down the street.

". . . Where are you from, if you don't expect disadvantage from sharing that? Around here people aren't picky about what they deal in."



Oh great. 'Not picky about what they deal in' is probably the City of Locks, among all Autumn places the worst Autumn place... no, she's being unfair, she would definitely prefer wandering around the City of Locks to being a prisoner in the Green Iron Citadel.

But obviously everyone is going to be superficially cooperative and then betray her at the worst possible moment and that kind of thing just gets on her nerves.

"Excuse me a moment, I'm just going to do something I should have done when I first got here before we get too far away," she replies, plants her staff firmly on the ground in front of her with both hands, and starts to mumble a series of just-audible but deeply nonsensical words: "I am the Spider. I am hidden; I watch; I watch what is hidden. I am the Web. I am connected to from whence I came. I am the Key. I reveal what is hidden. Ophis! Sular! Evrom! I seek the uncertain way." She then starts repeating herself; if not interrupted, this will go on for a full half-minute.


. . . Well, most of the characters in The Makkus Archives made it out okay. That's just because that's how novels work, of course, you don't get a satisfying ending by killing off your protagonists. However. The hypothesis would seem to be that he is in a novel.

Catshit, thinks the sane part of Rikka's brain. The rest of Rikka has no other ideas.

"What was that?" Rikka will ask once the ritual is over.


She really ought to play them at their own game, come up with some kind of plausible and exciting deception, but whilst she's been good at that in the past she's not sure she's that good, and she did just use up most of her remaining mana fruitlessly searching for a portal that doesn't seem to be there, nor were there really any traces of Autumn... or, magic at all.

"I was attempting to find the way I came," she replies. "Let's see this hotel room of yours."

At the very least, it might give her some space to think, without the overhead of continually watching for attacks from all sides, out on this busy street.


Rikka leads the exciting person-shaped apparition down another long bike street. They reach an unusually broad and segregated building, the more unusual for the pale gray concrete exterior of its first floor being nearly unbroken by windows, in contrast to the second floor and all those above, which are almost entirely made of glass. (It's one-way, though, the outside glass giving off the impression, no matter what angle you're viewing it from, that that's slightly the wrong angle to see inside.)

The double doors open into a narrow, short, dark-painted room lit by dim electric strips around the ceiling. The only feature is a silvery little keypad on the right wall. Rikka extracts a ragged slip of paper from his backpack, with a code scrawled on it, and punches the code into the keypad, which flashes green and makes a clattering-metal noise, and the "wall" at the end of the hallway shhhhhhks aside. A soft pink glow comes from the opening.

Rikka retrieves the key-and-lanyard that's been dispensed into an alcove behind a metal flap in the wall - that's what the clattering was. He puts the lanyard on. "The room will be really small", he admits, trying to lowball, as he leads the person-shaped apparition through. The pinkish-glow room has copper-looking handrails on all the walls, and another, bigger keypad. Rikka presses a button and the door shhhhhhks shut again. "Twelfth floor", he says idly, and presses another. The elevator's acceleration is rapid, but smooth - it'd be barely perceptible, except for that after the first floor, the fourth dark wall of the shaft drops away from the side of the elevator that's transparent, and four-dozen-foot-square pink-lit common areas blur past, one after another. On each floor Rikka glimpses the same arrangement of unassuming ergonomic stools and standing desks, the same doors to the same common bathrooms, the same pattern of hallways leading away, so that when the elevator reaches Twelve, he's oriented himself to at least where the hallways are.

It still takes him half a minute of searching to figure out what direction the room numbers go in, before he finds his room and turns the key.

"Small", he repeats, leading Stranger inside and flipping on the dimmer of the two light settings. The room is between six and a dozen feet square, with a cutout formed by the unseen bathroom; there's nothing on any of the walls, except that the far wall itself seems to be beveled inward, with the inside of the cutout covered entirely by a sheet of perfectly black, heavy fabric, weighted taut by a metal strip at the bottom.

On one side, there's a very tall standing desk with a correspondingly tall stool. On the other, there's a bed, soft but clearly not physically big enough for more than one person. It's elevated to about Rikka's waist height and very shallowly cup-shaped - there's a latch you turn to flip one of the short, cushioned walls outward so you can get in. Rikka strips the bed of one of its two blankets, and one of its two (stacked) pillows, and lays them out on the floor, which is carpeted. "I'll sleep here", he says, nodding satisfiedly at his floor setup.



Allegra is incredibly good at not showing how incredibly startling her surroundings are, which is rather useful as, well, the huge mirrored building is kind of almost understandable, the cave lighting is weird but that's just Realms for you, but the key dispenser machine is extremely startling and the wall moving reminds her of Axou tomb traps rather too much for her liking.

It's also just as well she no longer has culturally mediated claustrophobia. She absolutely doesn't still have traces of it from her upbringing and the air in here is fine and she definitely isn't hyperventilating.

...that's a point actually, the air in here might not be fine, Heralds don't generally need to breathe?

"While I don't want to be a demanding guest," she prefaces awkwardly, "you do know that humans require a supply of air to continue functioning, yes?"


". . . Yes? Are you - have you been thinking for some reason that I'm not really human? That I've only been pretending? I am an actual literal real-life human. I myself need to breathe, I'm currently breathing and not just for fun or masking or aesthetics or something." What exactly is going on here, he does not ask, because this is a Very Important Person who knows how to Teleport and that would be intrusive and presumptuous. But he wonders! Other than the Stranger-thought-I-was-putting-on-a-human-suit hypothesis, the only other one Rikka can think of is 'there is for some reason a wide class of sapients out there in the multiverse that look just like humans, most of which aren't, but the stranger thinks of itself as 'human'.' Or a bizarre jargon translation snafu . . . ?

"You are talking about air that's about four out of five parts nitrogen and one in five oxygen, right?" He wobbles his hand back and forth. "'Cause that's what this is. That's what my kind of 'human' breathes."


"As long as it's roughly equivalent to the air outside, it should be fine," she replies; after all, she'd have noticed if something was wrong earlier.

Her hand drifts slightly towards her satchel bag. She could actually determine if the 'systems programmer' was human. But she is also not very eager to spend some of the limited resources that she has on her.

But there was no trace of Autumn outside, and certainly everyone did look human - she would have expected a considerably higher density of horns and metallic skin from heralds unless someone was trying very hard to convince her otherwise.

It's probably worth one of the three vials of liao, to confirm.

She takes a small vial of a purple substance out of her bag, looks at it regretfully for a moment, and then downs it.

"I open the eyes of my soul," she says, making eye contact rather intensely, "and I see you..."


Rikka is - divergent, heritage-wise, from any ethnicity Allegra is familiar with, along axes those familiar ethnicities didn't tend to diverge along. But he's not only telling the truth as he sees it, he's telling the truth. He's a totally unaugmented human, zero trace of detectable supernatural inclinations, genetically capable of having a kid with one of Allegra's acquaintances.

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