63 years ago
Alaric pretended to work for at least an hour before giving up with a heavy sigh, straightening from his containment circles to knuckle his lower back and study the distant forest. When he’d first come to N’Jendo, he had found the proximity to the Deep Wild unnerving, especially with the frequent rumors of things that came wandering out, supported by the presence of an Imperial bastion here.
Of course, that was before the last three days. Now, he was much farther out beyond the pass through the cliff than the soldiers had warned him to go—not that they would have let him go, had he felt any inclination to try. There weren’t any soldiers now, however, and he felt less in danger being out here with the trees and the infinite viridian shadows beneath them than he did back in his rented room in the town.
He was seriously considering not going back to town at all. It would mean a long hike around the cliffs, with the forest never more than half a kilomark distant, not to mention abandoning his belongings in Andaji, but those were beginning to look like acceptable terms. When he’d come out this morning to do his measurements, the fortress hadn’t been glowing.
Alaric sighed, staring glumly down at the three containment circles he had carefully inscribed on the grass, with the crystal sensors set in the center of each, glowing faintly under the midmorning sun. Weeks of work and travel, wasted. Well, it couldn’t be helped. Even Professor Svalstrad wouldn’t expect him to stay here and finish his experiments with all this going on. Well, Svalstrad might, but the old woman was notoriously unreasonable. He could probably go over her head to the Dean; the Institute specifically instructed thesis students not to place themselves in unreasonable danger. He had ample cause to petition for an extension. This was certainly dangerous, and nothing if not unreasonable.
He turned slowly, almost dreading the sight, to stare up at the cliffs which marked the barrier between the Deep Wild and the human-occupied lands beyond. A natural and rather porous barrier for much of history, with a pass leading straight up through it to the higher elevation on which sat the town of Andaji. Now, and for the last several decades, fortifications lined the clifftops on either side of the pass, which itself had manned checkpoints at the bottom and top. Alaric had been surprised to find them unattended when he set out this morning; he wasn’t sure whether it had begun to make less or more sense when the crenelated walls of the Imperial garrison beyond had first turned black as obsidian, then begun to emit an eerie purple radiance.
Alaric glanced back down at his containment circles. Handy that he’d set up exactly the spells needed to measure ambient magical energies. Of course, all this nonsense had utterly botched his experiments, but he’d kept at it for some time after the fortress had begun glowing, canceling out his default parameters and re-turning them to find out exactly how much danger he was in. Based on his readings, whatever was happening in there wasn’t explicitly hazardous to be close to. It didn’t take a nearly-complete arcane sciences degree to figure out that anything this unnatural was likely to produce something dangerous, and sooner than later. In fact, it already had. He probably should have fled the day before.
The leftmost circle pulsed slightly, the crystal in its center swiveling to point at the forest. Oh, great. Now something chose to come out.
He turned to face the Deep Wild, carefully making no aggressive moves but mentally preparing himself to call up several defensive spells. Just as quickly, though, he let himself relax. What was approaching out of the woods appeared to be an elvish shaman accompanied by a pixie.
She appeared to be ignoring him, staring up at the empty fortifications and creepy glowing fortress within them, which was unsurprising. The woman was a wood elf—naturally, considering where she’d just been. She was dressed entirely in animal skins, none of them expertly worked and some clearly not even properly tanned; her hair was dirty, frizzed with lack of care and twisted up into a straggly bun. The pixie hovering around her head was reddish orange, and zipped this way and that, apparently excited as a puppy at being in a new place.
The shaman came to a stop a few yards distant, her eyes still on the fortress. She hadn’t looked at Alaric once. She planted her fists on her hips, scowled, and demanded of no one in particular, “What the hell?”
“Shiny!” chirped the pixie in a squeaky, feminine voice. The elf gave it an annoyed look.
“That’s only the latest and most ominous development of several in the last few days,” Alaric said. Her green eyes shifted to him, finally, and he suddenly was conscious of how long it had been since he’d had his own hair and beard trimmed.
“Well?” she said sharply, and he realized it had been a few moments. He’d fallen silent, studying her; obviously she was still waiting for the rest of his explanation. He cleared his throat, feeling his cheeks color.
“It started three days ago with the plants around the town. Only cultivated plants; weeds and wild grasses are fine, but everything in gardens and lawns took on a sickly tint and started producing a kind of green slime. They don’t appear to have died, or at least hadn’t this morning, but no one wants to get too close, obviously. Then it spread to insects, then mice and other vermin. Hasn’t affected livestock or pets yet, that I know of, though the blight makes animals far more aggressive. The bug bites tend to fester,” he added, grimacing and scratching at his lower arm. “No medical crises yet, but the town’s priests are rather overworked and supplies of healing potions are running low.”
“Hm,” she said noncommittally. “Is that it?”
“Sounds evil,” the pixie breathed.
“Hush,” the elf snapped, glaring at her again.
Alaric glanced between them, then continued, offering no comment on the byplay. “There was a rather more significant crisis last night when the dead rose.”
“Ah…presumably all of them. Only a relative few were able to get out of graves, though. They favor granite tombs here, it seems. Still, that was a significant…issue…as you can imagine.”
“You have the typical dwarven gift for understatement,” the elf snorted. “All right, I have two more questions. No, three. First, who are you?”
“Alaric Yornhaldt,” he said, placing a hand on his chest and bowing. “Fifth year, College of Arcane Sciences, Svenheim Polytheoric Institute. I am here conducting research for my undergraduate thesis on the function of arcane spell latices in environments rendered unstable due to significant fairy presences.”
“I’m an insignificant fairy presence!” the pixie chimed. “She always says so. Don’t you?”
The elf ignored her, frowning at Alaric. “They make undergrads do theses, now?”
“It’s a relatively new practice,” he said. “Only the last ten years or so. Not all of the universities have picked it up. None in the human territories, that I’ve heard of. I don’t mind, though, this has been far more interesting than sitting in a classroom. If not in quite the way I was expecting,” he added, looking dourly up at the glowing fortress.
She grunted. “Alaric, then. Second question: what year is it?”
He blinked, surprised. “Well… 1115, by the common calendar. I, ah, don’t know anything about how your people keep time. Sorry.”
Her eyebrow twitched at the mention of “her people,” but she made no comment about that. “All right, last question: Where the hell am I?”
Alaric couldn’t help frowning, studying her warily. “That is Fort Seraadiad. Just beyond it is the town of Andaji, N’Jendo Province. Tiraan Empire,” he added, perhaps irrationally, but she had just come out of the Deep Wild. No telling how lost the woman was.
To his astonishment, the shaman snarled, clapping both hands over her eyes. “Augh! Veth’na alaue! Andaazhia in Nijendiu! Why, why is it always me?! I mopped this nonsense up once, that should have been plenty!” She actually stomped her foot childishly, cursing in elvish.
“Don’t mind her,” the pixie said. “She just likes to vent. She’s actually really nice, she just doesn’t want anyone to know.”
“I am not nice,” the elf said petulantly, swatting at the pixie, who deftly evaded her, chiming in amusement. “You! Alaric, was it? Is the town evacuated?”
“Ah…” He glanced uncertainly up at the fortress. “It wasn’t as of this morning. Once that started, though, I bet people started leaving. They’ve sent messengers to the Empire for help, but it’ll take them days to reach a city that has a telescroll tower. This is back-of-beyond territory. There’s not much place to evacuate to.”
“So, there’ll be people fleeing in panic, then,” she muttered. “Well, fine. If I can’t do commerce in a civilized manner, I suppose I can loot some supplies from abandoned shops.”
“I beg your pardon?” he said, offended at the very idea.
The elf gave him a very sardonic look. “Well, I am not going to go straighten out that mess dressed like this. I require clothing that deserves the name—I’m not picky—some food I haven’t killed myself, and a few basic supplies. And I haven’t had a proper bath in… Hell, I don’t even know. It’s been at least a decade.”
“I’ve been with you for seven seasons!” the pixie chirped.
The shaman sighed heavily. “Really? It feels like centuries.”
“That was not a—no, dammit, I am not going to explain this again. Anyhow, come along, Alaric. Half-trained or no, you’re still a mage; I shall require your help.”
She brushed past him, making straight for the cliff pass—which ran right by the ominously glowing fortress.
Alaric found himself trailing along behind her before he actually decided to. “You… Wait, you intend to do something about this? Why?”
“Do you see anyone else tending to it?”
“But…you don’t know these people.”
“That, Alaric, is a terrible reason to leave somebody in danger. I’m disappointed in you.”
He flushed, falling silent. She was right; his father would have been disappointed, too. It was fortunate that the elder Yornhaldt hadn’t been witness to that lapse.
“But… I don’t even know what’s going on in there. My measurements registered chaotic traces of all four principal classifications of magic, none powerful enough to create effects like this.”
“Don’t worry,” she said darkly. “I know what it is.”
“She knows lots of things!” chimed the pixie. “She’s very smart!”
“Shut up, glitterball!”
“Forgive me,” Alaric said, almost jogging to pull even with her—she was moving at a good clip herself, and her legs were nearly twice as long as his. “I didn’t get your name?”
“Arachne,” she said, frowning up at the fortress.
Alaric faltered for a step, then regained his footing, grinning ruefully and shaking his head. “All…right, then. If that’s what you want to go with. Might be careful, though. The original was known to be somewhat volatile, and she may not actually be dead.”
The elf gave him a sidelong glance, quirking an eyebrow. “I suppose that’s true. She may not.”
The pixie chimed, obviously laughing.
Alaric slowed slightly, then had to hustle to catch up again. “Ah… How long did you say you’d been in the forest?”
Arachne grinned at him.
Her prediction proved more or less accurate. The folk of Andaji were typical Western stock: tall, dark-compexioned, prone to a generally relaxed attitude that belied their industriousness. N’Jendo had a bit of a backwater reputation, but it was also one of the Empire’s more peaceful provinces, home to no particular troubles except those which occasionally occurred along the frontier of the Deep Wild. The people here were accustomed to doing for themselves without support from the central or even provincial government. Not much fazed them.
They were well and truly fazed today.
A line of carts and wagons was streaming out of the town, most heading northwest toward Jennidira, the provincial capital, though others were taking the roads south and due west, probably toward relatives. Most of the noise came from children and animals, both running alongside carts and riding in them; the adults were grim-faced and quiet, not inclined to kick up a fuss even in the face of the dead rising, the sudden absence of soldiers, and some sort of portal to Hell opening in the garrison.
“A portal to Hell?” Alaric asked.
T’bouti Nijaund nodded seriously. “We are educated men, Mr. Yornhaldt; we know that is no hellgate. In fact, a good few of the folks repeating that rumor know that just as well. But… Hellgates are something people understand. The more uncertain the world becomes, the more one wants to cling to the familiar.”
Alaric sighed. “Well… I suppose there’s no harm in it. The proper response to a hellgate is to get away, which would seem to be the best plan here, as well. Anything I can do to assist, Mr. Mayor?”
Nijaund shrugged. “Unless you have learned to teleport since I last asked…”
“Ah…I do know the theory, and should have enough energy… I’ve only done it in controlled environments, though, under supervision. Those were my concerns when you asked yesterday, Mayor Nijaund. Now, though… Whatever that is, there’s a good chance it has a dimensional component, which would make teleporting…essentially suicide.”
“Yes, let us not commit suicide,” Nijaund said seriously. “There is no end of paperwork involved, and I feel I will have enough to do.”
Alaric managed to crack a smile at that.
“The woman you found,” the Mayor went on, frowning pensively. “She said she knows what this is?”
“That is basically all she said,” Alaric replied, glancing behind him at the inn. The proprietor had cleared out while he was on the frontier that morning, leaving Alaric (his only remaining guest) a note that he was welcome to make full use of whatever was left behind. “Except for her name.”
Nijaund raised his eyebrows.
“She says,” Alaric said slowly, “her name is Arachne.”
The Mayor blinked. “She… Could it be?”
“At the moment I am less willing than usual to render opinions as to what is or isn’t possible. It could be. She came out of the Deep Wild. Honestly, it is probably more likely that she is Arachne than that she would impersonate her. That would be a very risky thing to do when the fate of the real one isn’t known, and from what I have read, she was never well thought of among the elves. I took her for a shaman at first, though,” he added ruefully. “You know, elf dressed all in hides, with a pixie…”
“A fire pixie, I note,” Nijaund mused. “I dearly hope she has it under control. A fire is the last thing this poor town needs on top of everything else.”
The front door of the inn burst open with far more force than was called for and the elf herself emerged, accompanied by her pixie. “There you are!” she declared. “Well? Have you arranged what I asked?”
“You mean, aside from the clothes?” he said dryly. She had specified practical garments in green, and that was what he had found; a simple skirt and blouse of dark green, rather than the colorful attire the locals favored, plus sturdy knee boots and a supple leather vest. It had all been rather pricey—the tailor and leatherworker hadn’t evacuated yet, and weren’t too panicked to haggle—but Arachne had given him a handful of miscellaneous jewels and coins whose provenance he hadn’t asked about. None of them were Tiraan. The tradesmen, luckily, weren’t curious, either.
“Yes, yes, thank you,” she said brusquely, twisting to look down at herself. It really made a marked difference in her appearance, especially with the golden hair clean and brushed. “Though I had to do my own alterations.”
“Your pardon, good lady,” Nijaund said politely. “We have little commerce with elves here; there is simply not much lying around that would fit you. It is very fetching, if I may say so.”
“I hate wearing skirts,” Arachne muttered. “What of the rest? Supplies? Companions? You surely don’t intend to head into that morass with this old fellow.”
“This is Mr. Nijaud, the Mayor,” Alaric said pointedly. “I have secured some food and alchemical supplies, though since we aren’t going far…”
“Alaric, it’s not far to the fortress. Once inside, we may find ourselves traversing the very planes of existence. Travel rations are not a luxury. But pardon me, I seem to have interrupted your excuses.” She folded her arms, staring disapprovingly down at him.
“Be nice to the dwarf,” the pixie admonished. “He’s helping us.”
“There is absolutely no reason for you to be talking,” Arachne snapped, glaring at her. The pixie just chimed.
Alaric sighed. “You tasked me, in essence, with assembling an adventuring party. To the extent that such people still exist, this is the worst possible place to look for them. The Deep Wild is too dangerous and not rewarding enough to draw them, and the Imperial garrison here takes steps to dissuade heavily-armed loners from lingering in the area. Took steps,” he added dourly. “The soldiers vanished quite spontaneously this morning. They, unfortunately, were the only ones who might have been suitable for such an enterprise.”
“Our village witch was the first to depart,” added Mayor Nijaud. “She encouraged everyone to go with her, and a lot have taken her up on that. The Universal Church parson left not an hour ago, leading a caravan carrying the elderly and infirm, along with the town healer and several of the most able-bodied men. I fear you have found yourself in a village nearly deserted, Miss… Tellwyrn.” He hesitated, looking warily at her, but she only grunted.
“There is an Avenist cleric still in the town,” Alaric added. “A retired one. I approached her with the idea of venturing into the fortress and, ah, learned some very explicit and surprising things about my ancestry.”
“She sounds fun,” Arachne said, grinning.
“Ms. Taloud is, shall we say, a defensive thinker,” Nijaud said with a sigh. “In this crisis, she has taken to sheltering the stray cats and dogs, and any unaccompanied children who wouldn’t go with the parson’s group.”
“Fine, fine,” the elf said disparagingly. “So there’s no help, then. What of weapons, at least? Surely somebody in this dingy little pothole has a magic sword squirreled away in an attic.”
Alaric and the Mayor exchanged a glance.
“The only swords in this town are displayed above mantlepieces,” Nijaud said, “and rusted to the point of uselessness. None are magical, I assure you; the Empire collected all of those decades ago. Nobody fights with swords anymore.”
“Well, that isn’t even close to true, but I take your point,” she muttered. “And let me guess: all the staves and wands left with the evacuees?”
“The few we had, yes,” Nijaud nodded. “The soldiers didn’t encourage us to keep a lot of weapons in town. With them here, we’ve never had a need to.”
She sighed heavily. “Ah, well. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had, I was critically unprepared for. Welp! No point in dilly-dallying. Come along, Alaric, I hope you’re well-rested. This is likely to take all day.”
“You do not strictly need to do this,” Nijaud said to him before he could reply. “You are a student, Alaric, and a guest here. I would hate for you to be harmed because of our problem.”
“Whatever this is, Mr. Mayor, it is likely to become everyone’s problem,” Alaric replied. “It shames me to say I was considering running this morning, but… If I can be at all useful, I don’t see how I could refuse to try.”
“Whether you’ll be useful is an open question,” Arachne said dryly. “I simply find it wiser to approach uncertain circumstances with company. Harder to sneak up on a group.”
“That’s why you’ve got me to watch your back!” the pixie cheered.
“Shut up, you combustible little fart!” Arachne snarled, turning and stalking down the stairs, and pushing rudely between Alaric and the Mayor at the bottom. “For the last time, quit following me!”
“Aw, you like me,” the pixie chimed, fluttering along after her.
Alaric sighed. “Mr. Mayor, I left a letter in my room, to my parents. If I should happen not to be back…”
“I will see to it,” Nijaud said gravely. “It is the least I can do, my young friend.” He grimaced, staring around at his increasingly empty village. “I will be the last one to leave, regardless.”
The fortress wasn’t purple, and wasn’t truly glowing. Or at least, it cast off no illumination. Alaric studied it closely as they approached; not until they were virtually at the door did he manage to put his finger on what the effect was. It looked like the discoloration one saw after rubbing one’s eye vigorously, and indeed, the purplish haze seemed to shift as he craned his neck around to peer at it from different angles. Whatever the source, the effect, unnervingly, clearly occurred in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s not black, either,” Arachne said when he voiced this observation. “It’s just not reflecting light.”
“Ah… The color black is what occurs when no wavelengths of light are reflected…”
“More or less, yeah. You have never in your life seen an object that was truly black; you wouldn’t be able to see it. That’s what’s going on here.”
“But… I can see it. The shape of the building, the angles…”
She glanced at him. “Can you?”
He frowned, studying the fortress. Indeed, when he focused on it, the whole thing appeared to be just an empty dark spot in the world, fortress-shaped but with a disorienting lack of depth. And, of course, limned by that creepy purple…whatever it was.
“Don’t stare directly and don’t think too hard about whatever you’re looking at,” Arachne said. “Your mind will make better sense of what it encounters if you don’t try.”
“I never think too hard,” the pixie assured her.
The elf gave a long-suffering sigh. “I know. Anyway, Alaric, just follow that advice the whole time we’re in there and you should be okay.”
They came to a stop in front of the broad doors into the fortress, which hung open. The outer gates had as well; crossing the courtyard had been unnerving enough, but the hallway before them now seemed nothing but a dark tunnel into infinite nothingness. There was no light within—none. Only the peculiar distortion, as if he were looking at it through recently-mashed eyeballs.
“What exactly are we dealing with?” he asked.
“Chaos,” she said quietly.
“Well, clearly, but—”
“No, Alaric, that was not a poetic turn of phrase.” She turned her head to stare piercingly at him. “I’ve been here before, though there was no fortress at the time. More of a tomb. There was a town, but most definitely not the cheerful little vacation spot you see now. We found, and locked away in the chambers far beneath, a book.”
“Well. It was a book in the sense that a black dragon is an animal. It was a book that held the secrets of chaos. What do you know about the things that dwell between planes?”
“I know not to go looking for them,” he said firmly. “Or at them. Or to be in a position where I could look at them if it’s at all possible to avoid.”
Arachne nodded. “Chaos isn’t our reality. It’s everything that is not our reality, and when it comes into contact with our reality… Well, one or the other wins. Little flickers of it come through all the time, but as they are little flickers by definition, they are quickly snuffed out just by existing here. The Book of Chaos, which is what I’ll call it as voicing its actual name would just worsen this nonsense, contains the methods for bringing chaos here, and keeping it here. Which means,” she added, turning a deep scowl upon the darkened fortress, “someone not only went and dug up the damn thing, but did all this quite deliberately.”
“What a jerk!” the pixie exclaimed.
“Why…would someone do such a thing?” Alaric asked.
“Why?” The elf shrugged. “Why do people always feel the need to poke their noses into what they can’t possibly hope to contend with? Pure curiosity, sometimes. More often the lust for power. Considering your stories about raising the dead and poisoning domestic plants, I’m betting on the latter. Those effects could occur naturally, or accidentally…but so could sixteen sequential lightning strikes on the same spot.”
“Power,” he mused, rubbing his bearded chin and frowning thoughtfully up at the nightmarish edifice. “I’ve never heard of such a thing as this. Could a person truly wield this power?”
“No,” she said bluntly, “which is why that damned book came to be sealed away in the first place, by several people who would have been delighted to get their hands on a source of nigh-infinite power. Yours truly included. We were none of us daft enough to fool around with this. Whoever’s in there, whatever else comes of this day, I’m going to kick his ass.”
“Shut it, you aggravating little gaslamp!” She turned back to Alaric, who had to repress an urge to retreat from her scowl. “I must say you’re taking all of this very calmly.”
“Am I?” he asked. “That seems a little incongruous to hear. I am so terrified that I begin to regret not wearing more absorbent undergarments.”
She grinned. “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”
“If you weren’t terrified of this, it would mean you’re an imbecile. I’ve had bad experiences going into dangerous situations with those.”
“Well, I’m not afraid!” the pixie boasted.
“And that is what we call ‘the clincher,’” Arachne said with a sigh. “Well, all this procrastinating isn’t putting the world back in order. Come along.”
Alaric had never in his life been so reluctant to do anything as he was to follow her through those doors, but he did it anyway. Terror was a constant thrumming in the back of his mind, but he acknowledged it and left it alone, making a silent vow to deeply and properly thank Professor Varrenstadt for his mental training, if he should happen to survive this day. A disciplined mind was the mage’s first, last and greatest weapon. Fear was just an emotion. He refused to allow it to determine his actions.
Everything within was…not dark, and yet utterly black. He could see just fine…when he wasn’t trying to. Anywhere his eyes attempted to focus was a black void, while half-glimpsed things to the sides were visible, only obscured by their eerie purple coronas. Then, too, when he tried to concentrate on his peripheral vision, that went black. The only things he could plainly see were his companions.
In fact, the pixie’s light seemed to help somewhat; Alaric took to staring at her so intently that he could make out the tiny humanoid figure glowing white-hot within her orange aura. It was through the fringes of that fiery glow that he could see his surroundings most clearly. Oddly enough, staring directly into the light didn’t seem to be harming his vision. At least, not in the short term.
“I’m sorry,” he said, mostly for something to take his mind off his surroundings (the better to be able to perceive them), “I never even asked for your name.”
“Oh, I don’t really need one,” the pixie chimed breezily, sounding no less cheerful than before, despite their surroundings. “I know who I am! And so does she.”
Arachne just sighed, maintaining an even pace.
“How…do you know where you’re going?” Alaric asked her.
“’Know’ is overstating it,” she replied. “I’m working on several educated guesses. For one thing, this fortress is built to a standard model. Nice thing about huge bureaucratic governments is they don’t tend to innovate. If you’ve seen one of these border forts you’ve all but literally seen them all.”
“Really? I never realized they were so standardized.”
“Only in the last twen—” She paused, sighed and corrected herself. “The last fifty years or so. This kind of thing is a significant strategic weakness; it’s just waiting to be exploited by an enemy. That’s what happens to a military power that hasn’t had anybody worthwhile to fight in almost a century. Down, here.”
They had come, suddenly enough to make him falter midstep, to a stairwell. He peered into the darkness below, only able to see the stairs at all by looking above them. “…must we?”
Arachne chuckled grimly. “That’s the other educated guess. Dungeons and secure storage are below. The vault in which the damn book was hidden was way below; they must have found it while digging. The plants, the undead, even the vermin… All that suggests the power was being disseminated through the ground. So, down we go.”
He sighed. “I was rather hoping you were picking things at random so I could argue.”
“Buck up,” she said, winking at him. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
“The mind boggles.”
“Precisely! So you can’t really dwell on it, can you?”
Descending the stairs was utterly hellish, considering he was doing it by feel. Arachne seemed to have no trouble with her footing, but she kept to a slow pace to accommodate him, without commenting. The whole way down, especially while trying to navigate the landing where the stairs turned one hundred eighty degrees to continue descending, he bitterly envied the pixie’s wings.
“Okay, this is more like it,” she said at the bottom. “Do you feel that?”
“Just follow me, then. It’s coming from the main storage chamber that should be just up here…”
Very quickly he was able to see where she was headed; that door was actually glowing. Glowing, with real light! A sickly pinkish light which flickered a darker shade of red every few seconds and promised nothing good, but Alaric was delighted to see it nonetheless.
“Carefully, quietly,” Arachne murmured, creeping forward. He forced himself to slow, only realizing just then that he’d been scampering toward the promise of being able to see clearly. They reached the door and she gestured him to go first. Being taller by a good margin, she was able to stand behind him and peer around the corner over his head as he did likewise.
The room was…a room, which was a blessing to see at first. It had walls and a ceiling and everything; they were all perfectly visible and perfectly normal, just plain, undressed stone, cut to exactingly unimaginative Imperial standards. Whatever the long chamber had been meant to hold was gone, now; the only things present quite ruined the view, however.
An altar had been set up along the back wall, upon a dais; a safe of some kind sat to one side, a tall stand holding a crystal globe on the other. Chest-high (on a human) stands stood at the four corners of the dais, each holding a green flame at the top, and it was utterly beyond Alaric how those were producing that pink light.
A man stood with his back to them, poised over the altar, chanting softly. The words, to Alaric’s ears, were inaudible. From the back he seemed rather nondescript, dressed in a blue Imperial Army uniform.
None of that was what so disturbed him, however.
The safe appeared to be of standard manufacture, except with a large interface of arcane runes sprawling across its front. The clouded crystal globe was just that: clouded crystal. Everything else, the dais, altar, lamp posts, the superstructure holding up the safe, was made of bones, muscle, sinew and skin, all glistening wetly in the sickly light. It altogether looked like living flesh from multiple sources had been blended together into a kind of paste and formed into shapes like clay. As Alaric watched in horror, the hideous structure shifted slightly, pulsing in places as if it were breathing.
“Well,” Arachne whispered, “that explains what happened to the soldiers…”
He was concentrating too intently on not vomiting to pay her any heed. A mage’s mind was disciplined, emotion was only a distraction…
“All right, keep silent,” she said, still in a low voice. “He’s obviously figured out how to make some use of the book, and we need to recover that before we can put this right. It’ll be easier if we don’t have to—”
And that was when the pixie rounded the corner.
“Oh, gross! What is wrong with you?! Why would you do that?!”
The man on the dais whirled, brandishing a knife.
Arachne sighed heavily. “Typical.”
“No closer!” the man barked in a thin, reedy voice. He reached behind himself with one hand, where Alaric now observed there was a hole of some kind in the air, then yanked his fist out of it and made a throwing motion, as if scattering a handful of dust around himself.
Alaric jerked back reflexively. Arachne just tilted her head.
“There,” the man on the dais said in a more satisfied tone. “Now that you’ve interrupted the process, you may as well introduce yourselves.”
Arachne paced slowly forward, still studying the room and its occupant. He looked rather on the thin side for a soldier, in his early middle years and prematurely balding. In fact, his appearance was almost totally unremarkable, apart from a pair of rectangular spectacles with gold rims.
“How, exactly, did you get your hands on that book?”
“The book?” His eyes cut immediately to the safe—this fellow wouldn’t have been much good at poker. “You know of the book? Well, my dear elf, you have lamentable timing. It has been claimed, and soon I will have fused with its power.”
“Fused with—that is not how that—oh, for heaven’s sake, why am I even talking to you?” she snorted, raising a hand, palm-out.
A bolt of power ripped forth, zipping toward the man on the dais and causing him to jerk backward…and then stopped.
Alaric crept fully into the room, his eyes, like everyone else’s, fixed firmly on the glowing white ball of energy suspended in midair. It was pulsing and crackling, and giving off a glowing trail like a comet—altogether it appeared to be traveling at an enormous speed, but simply hovered there, immobile.
“Hah!” the man crowed, grinning broadly. “Sorry, darling, your tricks aren’t going to work. Chaos itself protects me!”
“No, it doesn’t,” she said bluntly. “Chaos doesn’t do that.”
“It’s a neat trick, though,” the pixie commented.
“It’s only the beginning,” said the soldier, still with that unnervingly amiable grin. “And now that your capacity to intervene is neutralized, I’ll thank you to keep it down while I enact my ritual. I already have to start over, thanks to you.”
“Wait, you’re Lieutenant Faralhed!” Alaric exclaimed. “The quartermaster!”
The soldier sighed. “That hardly matters. Soon enough I will be so much more.”
He turned his back on them, positioning himself over the altar again.
“Listen to me, boy,” Arachne snapped. “I am one of the people who sealed that tome away in the first place, and I did it for a reason. You think I wouldn’t have used its power if it were usable? You’re going to accomplish nothing but to destroy yourself and everything in the vicinity!”
“I rather think you are talking through your hat,” Faralhed commented without turning around. “I’ve already made substantial use of it, as you can see. Perhaps you simply aren’t as gifted as I?”
“You’ve used simple arcane spells to control minute amounts of chaos energy. In essence, you’ve managed to light a twig from the bonfire, and now you’re about to stick your hand in and grab a fistful of flame. And my name is Arachne Tellwyrn, you little scab. I assure you, you’re not more gifted than I at anything.”
“Really?” At that, he turned around again, studying her. His eyes turned to the bolt of power still suspended in space, and he smiled. “Well, well. I suppose you might be, at that. Not many of your race take up the arcane, after all. How fortuitous!” Again, he grinned, and Alaric was disturbed by the lack of overt madness in his expression. The man wasn’t apparently unhinged; he had simply decided to do this. “On the eve of my ascension, fate sends me a suitable bride to stand beside me as I bring the world to heel. Be a good girl and be patient for a bit; I’ll get to work on you presently, right before I tend to the rest of the world. First this Empire, and then…everything else.” Chuckling, he turned yet again to his sickening altar.
“By all the gods, he’s one of those,” Tellwyrn groaned. “All the powers of uncreation in the hands of a jackass whose basic driving force is melodrama. I knew that printing press was a bad idea. I took one look at that thing, and I said ‘this had the potential to bring civilization forward by leaps and bounds, but what we’re going to get is pornography and people by the millions who think the world works the way bards say it does.’ I said that, you can ask anyone who was there. Well, I guess they’re all dead now, though. Good riddance, now that I think of it.”
“You’re, uh, kinda veering off topic,” the pixie said.
“Listen to me very carefully, you abominable pinhead,” Arachne barked. “The beings you’re trying to invoke can’t be bargained with. They don’t want anything. They’ll unmake you simply by existing, which is no great loss, but then the whole province will go with you. You have simply no concept of what you are messing with!”
Faralhed didn’t reply or acknowledge her this time. He had taken up his chant again, and just stood there with his back to them, facing his altar.
Tellwyrn grimaced, then caught Alaric’s eye and jerked her head back toward the doorway. He followed her out into the disturbing darkness of the hall without hesitation. It was less uncomfortable to be around than Faralhed’s dais. By the gods, were those people possibly still alive?
“This may be an absurd question,” he said, “but can he actually control what he’s trying to summon?”
“My choice of fire as a metaphor for chaos was apt,” Arachne said, frowning into the darkness in apparent thought. “With the proper spells—any of the four schools will do—you can give it the right food to grow, and set the right boundaries so it doesn’t spread where you don’t want it. You never truly control chaos, but you can reap certain incidental benefits from its presence. I suspect the events that befell the town resulted from his early explorations. In small amounts, chaos, like fire, is most likely to simply flicker out if mishandled. Once it rages out of control, however, the objective is always to beat it back and stamp it out. There is simply no question of deriving any use from it at that point.”
“All right,” he said, stroking his beard. “Boundaries, then. Can we perhaps intercede between him and—”
“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “The time for that is before the chaos arrives. Once you are dealing with the thing itself, you never try to do magic at it. We were fortunate the distortion effect he threw down worked as intended; I’d never have tossed a spell like that if I knew what he was doing.”
“You can’t sense it?”
“Can you?” she asked pointedly. “It’s not like the magic we know, Alaric. You are of course familiar with the problem of recursive subjectivity?”
“Of course,” he said, frowning in mild offense. “I have nearly completed my degree, after all. Students at any college of arcane sciences are warned heavily about that from day one.”
“Mm hm,” she said with a small smile. “And how many of your classmates tried to self-enchant anyway?”
“…nobody I was close to.”
Arachne nodded. “You cannot enchant yourself because that would be applying subjective physics to subjective understanding. Nobody can have an objective grasp of who and what they are. Without an objective anchor, the spell is unmoored from reality and totally unpredictable. So is it with chaos. You are dealing with a primal force of which your mind cannot make sense; try imposing your subjective physics upon it and anything might happen. Literally, anything.”
Alaric had the sudden thought that despite her apparent impatience and grouchiness, she was actually a pretty good teacher when she had something to teach.
“So in this situation,” Arachne went on, leaning back to glance into the room again, “we have a barrier of chaos between us and the man we need to reach. We’ve seen we can safely put energy—and thus, presumably mass—across it, where it will only be trapped in a kind of perpetual fall.”
“Is it not just frozen in space?”
She shook her head. “My arcane bolt is still burning energy—in fact, it’s starting to burn out, now. It’s consistent with the effect it would have if it just traveled into space without striking anything.”
“A spatial distortion, then,” he mused. “And we cannot attack the effect itself for fear of causing more chaos.”
“Precisely. Hmm… I note we could see and converse with him. That means light and sound can cross the barrier.”
“I’m not sure how much use that will be,” Alaric protested. “According to Pevel’s Law, the speed at which photons travel is a universal constant; light gets around a lot of spatial distortion effects that way. But once you piggyback anything onto them to try to create a physical effect of any kind, they are no longer truly photons and the benefit collapses.”
“Yes—well, no, but it has that practical effect in magical activity. Sound, though, is what interests me here. Sound is nothing but vibration transferred through matter…”
She looked up at the pixie, smiling.
“…and so is heat!” Alaric exclaimed.
The pixie chimed in confusion. “Huh? What are we talking about? You lost me way back there.”
The arcane bolt was, indeed, in the process of petering out. The scientific part of Alaric’s mind which wasn’t consumed with the crisis immediately before them was deeply fascinated and wanted to simply observe this; there was basically no other circumstance under which such a weaponized spell could be watched as it fizzled gradually from its own entropy.
They had work to do, however. Faralhed remained fixated on his ritual—whether he was trying to create the “wildfire” of chaos Arachne had described or summon one of the beings that dwelled between the planes she couldn’t tell, not having perused the book in that much detail. Either would be an utter disaster, of course. Fortunately, whatever the ritual was, it appeared to consume its caster’s attention. His chanting was gradually growing in volume, but the words were meaningless to Alaric.
If worst came to worst and they needed more time, they could possibly distract him again, forcing him to start over a third time. Hopefully it would not come to that.
Arachne nodded toward the revolting dais, making a shooing motion at the pixie, who drifted toward it without so much as a chime. She had been emphatically warned against making noise.
She stopped at a relatively safe distance from the suspended and rapidly fading bolt of power and emitted a tongue of flame into the air. Nothing happened. The pixie crept forward, repeating this procedure at short intervals until suddenly stopping with a jerk. She bobbed excitedly in place.
Arachne nodded encouragingly. Alaric, for his part, couldn’t see any difference between that tiny flame spurt and its predecessors, but presumably the fire fairy knew what she was doing.
She drifted lower and began emitting a continuous gout of fire onto the stone floor. Alaric felt a faint surge of arcane magic nearby; Arachne hadn’t moved so much as a finger, but a silencing spell was clearly in place, leaving the pixie’s efforts hopefully undetectable by their target.
Faralhed’s chant seemed to be a rather substantial undertaking; it certainly went on for a long time, growing only slowly in volume and pitch. Alaric recognized that pattern, sort of. It was similar to some rituals used in fairy and divine invocations. The frustrating part was that he had no means whereby to measure the progress being made. It seemed that the chaotic rift above the altar might be growing slowly, but if so, its rate of growth was too meager to be visibly tracked. It might also have been his own unease causing him to imagine an escalating threat.
Well, to be sure, the threat was escalating, but Alaric knew his eyes for the unreliable instruments they were.
The pixie was making much more rapid progress. She was putting out a continuous stream of fire that burned nearly white in its intensity, and had caused a patch of the floor to actually melt. Gradually she increased the angle of her stream, heating the floor in a line that crept closer and closer to the dais. In theory, she shouldn’t need to melt the stones all the way there; once there was a sufficient transfer of heat from one end of the spatial effect to the other, Arachne theorized that the effect should collapse.
“Theorized,” “should” and “sufficient” were the parts that troubled Alaric. Arachne had informed him that what could possibly happen when a chaotic effect collapsed should trouble him more.
“How much energy do pixies have?” he asked, moving his lips clearly but speaking in a breath that barely qualified as a whisper. It was surely inaudible to Faralhed, but as plain as a shout to his companion’s elven ears.
She grinned, turned to him and clearly mouthed, “All of it.”
That was hardly scientific. He mentally marked the topic down for later study.
He went back to dividing his attention between the pixie’s progress and Faralhed’s. She had the streak of molten floor extended more than halfway, assuming the rapidly-diminishing bolt of power represented the middle. Did it, though? He simply had no data. Whatever the case, the pixie appeared to be having no trouble putting out flames, though she was having to emit them from a considerable distance, now. Looking at the strength of that spout of fire and the range it apparently had, Alaric resolved never again to fail to treat a pixie anything but seriously.
His ruminations were interrupted when the arcane bolt abruptly leapt back into motion. It flashed across the remaining distance between it and its target, striking Faralhed full in the back.
Unfortunately, by that point it had dwindled so far that it did nothing but knock him forward over his altar with a grunt. At least it had broken his ritual again.
“Wait!” Arachne barked, holding up a hand at Alaric as he took a step forward. She stepped twice to the side and fired a second bolt.
It froze in midair.
“What?” Alaric demanded.
“I was afraid of that,” she said grimly. “At least it didn’t summon monsters or something… But we’ve only got a narrow path to him. Where the heat makes a bridge.”
Alaric looked down at the “bridge,” the first half of which consisted of a swath of cooling magma.
“That does it,” Faralhed snarled, righting himself and shoving his disarrayed spectacles back into place as he turned to face them. He stuck one hand blindly into the chaos rift, glaring at them. “I had plans for you, but I am done playing—”
“DON’T YOU DARE!” the pixie shrieked, zipping across the hot path and hurling a fireball at him. Faralhed managed to dodge it, but the top half of his altar disintegrated in a cloud of smoke which smelled horrifyingly of cooked pork.
“Away, pest!” he bellowed, conjuring an ordinary arcane lightning bolt, which was immediately ensnared in his own spatial distortion.
Arachne had stepped up as close as she safely could to the molten stone and was making weaving motions with her fingers. A fine filigree of blue-white light spun itself out of the air before her, settling into place above the swath of magma and extending rapidly toward its far end. Alaric didn’t recognize the spell, but could infer its purpose easily enough: she was creating another, more serviceable bridge across the distortion, giving them a path to Faralhed, who at the moment was being contained only by the pixie.
“You will be the first!” he sneered, ducking under another fireball and sticking his hand into the rift again.
“Just hold on,” Arachne shouted. The lattice of arcane light was settling into place, more than three quarters of the distance crossed.
Whatever Faralhed drew out of the rift wasn’t energy, and it wasn’t light; it was as if he had pulled up a handful of the purplish haze that imposed itself on the eyes of the viewers without having any true physical effect. From his hand, it spun out in a stream, finally stopping the pixie’s fire blasts. She hung motionless in the air amid the spell.
“Hold on!” Arachne said urgently. Her bridge was almost done.
“It’s okay,” the pixie said gently. “I gotcha.”
She charged forward, straight into Faralhed’s grip, and exploded.
The burst of light, fire and sheer kinetic force hurled Alaric over backward. Dwarves were too sturdy a folk to be so easily dazed, and he righted himself in seconds, by which time the scene before him was already unrecognizable.
The dais was somehow even more disgusting for being half-gone and partially cooked. What remained of it sagged in gloopy, steaming clumps. The structures upon it were either totally gone or reduced to stumpy little protrusions; there was no altar and no lamp posts. The stand which had held the crystal orb was toppled, the orb itself shattered against the far wall. The safe had sunk lopsidedly into the pile of meat below it, its runed face looking upward at a crazy angle.
Of the rift into chaos, there was no sign remaining.
Faralhed groaned, lying prone on his back with the remains of his left arm, now ending in a blackened stump halfway past the elbow, upraised.
And Arachne had finished her bridge.
Despite the pain and shock he had to be in, Faralhed reacted as soon as he laid eyes on her stepping up onto his platform.
“I-I-I will share the power with you.”
“There is no power,” she said quietly. “You did all this for nothing. The book only offers death.”
He blinked, gulped, and cradled his arm against his chest, wincing. “I…um… I’ll replace your pixie. My word on it.”
“Replace?” she whispered. “You will replace the sentient being you just killed?” Arachne stepped forward and kicked him lightly in the forehead. It looked like an almost gentle touch, but he plummeted backward, squelching into the meat below him. “You will replace my friend?” she demanded, her voice rising. “I suppose you’ll also replace the hundred or so fellow soldiers you murdered to make this abomination?”
There was really nothing he could say to that. All he managed was a whimper.
Arachne sneered at him, then turned to look at the safe. “Let me guess. If it’s forced, it does something stupidly nasty like tear pages out of the book? I recognize those spells. Fine, then, tell me the combination.”
Faralhed gulped again, and seemed to rally, despite his shudders of obvious pain. “I… Perhaps we can…make a deal, then. Since I have something you want.”
Arachne’s response to that was to plant her foot on his throat and press him backward into the singed flesh. “I’m going to tell you a little story,” she said, “about the last fucking imbecile who angered me as much as you have. He was a Huntsman of Shaath—in fact, a fanatic with some deeply twisted ideas about how to acquire and treat ‘wives,’ which was what ran him afoul of me. I could’ve just handed him over to the other Huntsman if I wished him dead, but I was feeling particularly bitchy. So, I removed his hands, feet, tongue and eyeballs, cauterizing the wounds to prevent complications, and also laid on an alchemical concoction for which I had to pay far too much, which rendered those scars un-healable by any known means. He will remain utterly helpless for the rest of his life—which I took steps, via further alchemy, to ensure would be as long and healthy as possible. And then I handed him over to the Sisters of Avei.” She grinned psychotically down at the terrified would-be master of the world. “They were sufficiently horrified at my cruelty that they offered him the only kindness they could—exactly what he did not want, and I did. He is quite well cared for, you see, waited on hand and foot for the rest of his life by women he despises and who despise him. Utterly helpless, utterly dependent, unable even to end his suffering. Now, that might not work for you, Lieutenant Faralhed, but I assure you, I am quite willing to take the time to learn exactly what it is you fear most, and spend the effort completely rearranging your world until it consists of nothing but that. I’ll have time, you see, because I can unravel the spells on this safe, eventually.” She let her disturbing grin fade into a blank expression, staring down into his terrified eyes. “Or you could start earning a little favor with me and spare me some effort.”
Alaric hardly dared to breathe.
“It’s…it’s the True Number,” Faralhed gasped. “The-the combination.”
“What… Which number is the true one?” Alaric demanded, frowning.
“That’s the elvish term,” Arachne said dismissively, turning her back on Faralhed. “He is trying, ineptly, to curry favor. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. 3.14159, and so on.”
“Oh,” Alaric said, feeling rather foolish. He clung to that; it was the least unpleasant thing he’d felt recently. “Be careful! He may be trying to trick you.”
“He may,” she allowed. “In that case, I will protect you, and make good my threat to him.” She gave Faralhed a grim look. “Twice.”
“It’s the number, I swear!” he squealed. “To the seventh digit! Th-the decimal is the star symbol in the upper corner there, see?”
Arachne grunted and began touching runes with her fingertip. Alaric, prudently, eased back toward the doorway.
The safe unlatched and swung open without fanfare, however. She reached within and pulled out, one-handed, an open book bound in black leather. For all the trouble it had caused, the Book of Chaos was disappointingly plain. The only thing that would have made it stand out in a library was the lack of any lettering on its cover. It had clearly been left open in the safe; Arachne held it by one cover, letting the pages hang downward. They appeared to be blank.
“Well…that’s that, then,” said Alaric. “Now what to do with it?”
Without responding, she lightly tossed the book upward, caught it with her hand on its spine, and snapped it shut.
The world blinked, lurched sideways, and screamed. Afterward, that was the only way Alaric could think to describe the sensations he experienced in that moment, on the rare occasions when he could be persuaded to do so.
In their aftermath, however, there was silence. The purple not-quite-glow was gone; looking out into the hallway, Alaric beheld only plain stone. Chaos had retreated.
The platform wrought from bodies was still there, however, still with its occupants.
Faralhed whimpered. “So…am I…under arrest?”
Arachne stared down at him without expression for a long moment, until he swallowed heavily and opened his mouth to speak again.
Then she pointed, and unleashed a second arcane bolt. This one had no time to diminish in power, and was fired at point blank range. It bored a torso-sized hole through Faralhed’s midsection, the dais and into the stone floor below.
“Well,” she said, bending to pluck the gold-rimmed spectacles from his nose, “this explains some of how he managed it. Just look at these things. Total spectral vision! I bet this would penetrate any enchantment not laid by a god or something similar. Even lets you see through chaos.” To Alaric’s horror, she settled them on the bridge of her own nose. “Heh, I can see your aura without concentrating! Marvelous. They must be old, too; spells aren’t woven in quite this way anymore, and I know this asshat didn’t make them. Welp, mine now.”
“It’s over, then?” he said weakly.
“Mm.” Arachne glanced around at the chamber. “When it comes to chaos, reality has a certain…ontological inertia, shall we say. Chaos itself won’t linger a moment beyond having something to hold it here. It remains to be seen how many of the aftereffects will have to be cleaned up.” She paused, then sighed heavily, and went on in a more subdued tone. “Alaric… Of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve done in my far-too-many years, I do believe this has been the stupidest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
There was, indeed, more left to be done. Much had returned to normal when the fortress stopped glowing, but not all. The dead no longer scrabbled against their stone coffins, but the blight still lay on the plants. Within hours, some showed signs of healing; Arachne asserted that individual plants would recover or perish based on their overall state of health before chaos had afflicted them. But the long-term results of that, and the demise of every insect and rodent in the area, would be revealed only by time. It was without precedent as far as Alaric knew, and there could be no guessing the results for the local ecosystem.
Also, an entire Imperial fortress had been wiped out in a day. The frontier with the Deep Wild was not an active one; the soldiers rarely had to deal with anything more than a wandering satyr, and that not more than once or twice a year. There had been some real excitement at Fort Seraadiad over a decade ago, when a dryad had come out of the woods and been scared off by some very careful staff fire, but that was anomalous enough that it was still talked about even now. Regardless, this pass from the frontier now lay totally undefended. Not to mention that the Tiraan Empire would not take the loss of so many troops lightly.
Major Nijaund, after sending runners with the news along all three roads to intercept as many of the fleeing villagers as possible, had decreed that tomorrow would be a day of morning, but this evening would be a celebration.
Alaric, though he definitely understood the impulse, couldn’t bring himself to feel terribly celebratory, and had left the party at the inn early. Arachne, for her part, certainly seemed glad to let her hair down. She was still participating in the singing of folk songs when Alaric returned to the inn, over an hour after leaving it. She alone of the crowd wasn’t visible inebriated, though she was singing a different song than everyone else, in a different language.
He threaded his way through the crowd of folk far taller than he and caught her sleeve. “Come with me, please?”
Arachne scowled down at him. “Where’ve you been? You’re missing all the fun!”
“I don’t think you’re having fun,” he replied.
“Now see here, you—”
“Miss Tellwyrn,” he said firmly. “Arachne. There’s something I want to show you. If you’re not interested, you can come right back, and you’ll only have wasted a few minutes. But I think you will be.”
She sighed, glanced around at the party, and threw back the remainder of her tankard of ale, then shoved the golden spectacles back up her nose, where they had started sliding down. “Oh, fine, whatever. Let’s see the big surprise, then. If you’re just looking to get under my skirt, I have to tell you, it doesn’t take so much subterfuge or effort.”
He flushed brightly at that, but refused to respond—either to the comment or to her cackling at his reaction. She followed him, though, as he led the way out of the inn, then out of the town, toward the riverbank.
Andaji sat atop granite cliffs; the ground was mostly rocky, here, with soil only where it had been gathered up and cultivated. As such, there wasn’t proper sand on the beach of the wide, slow river, just a nearly flat embankment of rounded stones. It had been adequate, however, for Alaric to set up a simple elemental evocation circle.
Upon his arrival with his guest, he reached out with a thought, triggering the runes. Immediately the night burst alight as a pillar of orange fire soared upward, emitting dancing sparks here and there. He thought the sparks were a nice touch. They had cost him some extra effort.
“I don’t know your people’s customs,” Alaric rumbled in the quiet of the firelit night, “but upon consideration I have the feeling you probably don’t care much about them, do you? So… This is how we do it where I am from.” He pulled the flat bottle of scotch from his waistcoat—good whiskey from home, not the swill they’d been drinking in the inn—and took a deep swig. Once the pleasant burn had finished carving its way down his throat, he held up the bottle in a toast. “Absent friends.”
She accepted the offered bottle, face expressionless, firelight dancing on the lenses of her new spectacles, and took a drink. “Absent friends,” she repeated quietly.
They stared into the flame for a long moment, and then Arachne folded herself up, sitting down on the stones. Alaric followed suit with less grace, wincing as he tried to find a semi-comfortable position beside her.
“I was passing through the pixie grove,” she said suddenly. “It’s not exactly on the beaten path, but I was nearby, and I figured… Eh, what the hell? Might as well go see. I’ll tell you, Alaric, if you ever have the opportunity to meet the Pixie Queen…pass. She’s a complete gibbering lunatic, even by fairy standards. But I ran across a little pixie altercation. They’re cannibalistic, you know? They consume each other for power. A little fire fairy was being chased by a much more powerful wind spirit.”
She shrugged, still staring into the flame. It was set on a timer, and would burn for another hour yet. “None of my business, of course. It happens all the time, there. The sensible thing would have been to just leave it alone. But… There it was, happening right in front of me, and I couldn’t help feeling that if I just walked away from that, it would make me somewhat more of an asshole than I’m comfortable being. So… I rescued her.”
Arachne laughed softly. “Couldn’t get rid of the damn thing after that. Apparently she wasn’t shown much respect by her own Queen—at least, she seemed to suddenly like me a lot more. Followed me bloody well everywhere, no matter what I said. Completely useless for conversation, not a whole lot better in a fight. She was forever lighting fires for me at night, never mind that my own magic could keep me plenty warm, and all she ever did was risk burning down the goddamn forest. That was her, all over. Dumb as a pinch of fairy dust, and… Sweet.”
For the first time since she’d acquired them, she removed the spectacles, scrubbing at her eyes. “Ugh. You know, I’m actually going to miss that aggravating little glow worm. That’s the most annoying…” She trailed off, her shoulders spasming once. Her voice was suddenly thick, and faltering. “So help me, Alaric, if you ever tell a soul you witnessed this…”
Alaric laid his arm around the legendary immortal’s thin shoulders, and rubbed her upper arm while she shook with silent tears. He kept his eyes on the fire. “Witnessed what?”
They watched the flame in silence for long minutes, even after she stilled. He couldn’t have said what moved him, finally, to speak, but the question tumbled out unbidden.
“Why did you go into the Deep Wild? Everyone’s been wondering what happened to you.”
“I went there to die.” Her voice was even, calm; she gazed, unfocused, at the fire. “There aren’t many places that offer me that prospect. The Golden Sea holds little threat for me, and if I tried to go wandering in Hell, Elilial would just boot me back out. She’s told me as much in person. To get into the Deep Dark I’d have to carve my way through a bunch of Themyrite drow who’ve done nothing to deserve it and don’t need the hassle. The Wild, though, that’s Naiya’s territory. The old bitch might up and do anything at all. I guess, though…” She paused, laughing softly. “In the end, the Wild must have grown tired of chewing on me without ever managing to digest. I don’t have it in me to just lie down and quit. I always gave it what I thought was a fair fight. Apparently I don’t have it in me to lose, either. So…here I am, again.”
He held silent, not asking. She would either explain or not; the question would just be a provocation.
“When you’ve lived in pursuit of a goal,” she whispered, “spent three thousand years at it… Not minding what you had to become in the course of it, because it wouldn’t matter once you attained it. Making whatever sacrifices and compromises were necessary, clawing your way to the attention of god after god until they all finally had to give you your say… At the end of all that, to find out that you just can’t have what you were looking for, that you’ve wasted all that and become a name synonymous with terror for nothing… I don’t think I could describe it, Alaric, what it felt like. I don’t think you would thank me if I did.”
“Your friends would miss you if you were gone,” he said simply.
She snorted. “What friends?”
“Well, I don’t know your life,” he said with a shrug. “But I know there’s at least one.”
After a moment of silence, she leaned slightly against his shoulder. She was too tall to rest her head on it. “Well… I didn’t manage to die, either. I guess there’s nothing for it now but find a new purpose.”
“That sounds daunting,” he mused.
She nodded, firelight flashing on her glasses.
“I don’t doubt you’ll manage. You might try eradicating stupidity, for example. That should keep you busy for a good long while.”
Arachne half-turned to look at him. “Stupidity?”
“You said this business was the stupidest thing that’s ever happened to you,” he said, shrugging again. “I think I see your point. I mean, what did that fellow expect was going to happen? From what you describe of chaos, I think he was luckier in the end than he had a right to be. One of my professors is of the opinion that there’s no true evil in the world that’s not attributable to people not thinking through the consequences of their actions. ‘Any sufficiently enlightened self-interest is indistinguishable from altruism,’ she likes to say.”
Arachne turned back to the fire. After a moment, she smiled.