The Hero With A Thousand Chances

“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.”

“But—”

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.”