Out of nowhere, beneath the clear dawn sky, a circular patch of tallgrass vanished from existence, taking with it the top layer of soil and leaving behind a round patch of dirt and exposed roots which might as well have been carved off with a razor. It only stayed smooth for moments, however, before two figures materialized upon it with a similar lack of fanfare.
The vegetation made for problems when it came to teleportation; a person who materialized with their body phased through dozens of large stalks of grass had an excruciating death to look forward to. These preparatory measures were necessary, though they raised problems of their own.
Both men turned in half-circles facing the opposite directions, looking around. The prairie was empty and quiet, lit golden red by the rising sun, and stretching featurelessly away in all directions but one. To the west, the thin line of the Rail marked the horizon, and in the near distance due northwest of their position rose the mountain, with the town of Last Rock huddling against its base.
The man in the Army uniform with the Azure Corps insignia turned to his companion and bowed. “Will you require us to remain alert for extraction, sir?”
“No,” mused the Hand of the Emperor, studying Last Rock. He was middle-aged in appearance, balding and with sharp dark eyes set deep in his craggy features. The Hands were, in theory, all one voice, that of the Emperor, but in practice they did tend to specialize. This man habitually sat on the security council, but they would have to accustom themselves to his replacement for a while. “No, don’t focus any scrying on the area. She’s very likely to detect it, and I don’t wish to introduce myself until I am ready.”
“Yes, sir,” the battlemage replied, saluting. “Will you require any further aid in case she detected the teleportation?”
“I’m employing my own countermeasures against that. In any case, no. Tellwyrn is not classified as hostile, and I can deal with her.”
“Understood, sir. By your leave, then.”
The Hand gave him a nod, then strode off toward the town without another word. He walked only far enough to be out of the cleared circle, pushing his way into the surviving tallgrass, then turned to face the mage.
At that signal, a shrill buzzing rose from the air around them, accompanied a second later by a cerulean shimmering in the air, and then the battlemage vanished with a sharp pop of displaced atmosphere.
The Hand waited attentively for nearly another minute until the buzzing returned, and seconds later the displaced tallgrass reappeared.
It started to fall immediately, of course, but as if drifting down through syrup, its velocity slowed to roughly one hundredth of normal. Instantly, the Hand gestured with both arms, and it slowed further. Earth congealed together, roots re-attached, a few stalks which had been shorn off above ground level merged back into place, with the exceptions of a few which were too displaced by the time the healing took effect, and continued to tumble downward.
The slowing effect decayed rapidly, and had vanished in less than another minute. The replaced tallgrass listed drunkenly this way and that, most of it again attached but still feeling the effects of the trauma it had just undergone. The Hand studied this thoughtfully, then closed his eyes in concentration.
Stalks shifted, righted, regained some of their vitality. It wasn’t a huge difference, but when he was done, most of them stood more or less upright.
Opening his eyes, the Hand surveyed his work critically. Obviously, it was plain something strange had happened here—and to anyone who knew what to look for, a close inspection would reveal exactly what. This should be enough, though. Given how the students (and occasionally townspeople) ranged, a mirror-smooth patch of dirt in the middle of the prairie ran the serious risk of attracting attention; this would have to be noticed before anyone inspected it closely, and in its present state was unlikely to be. Most of those who vanished into the tallgrass from the town or University did so in pairs, and were more interested in privacy than botany. The next rain would set it more or less right, and by then it wouldn’t matter.
Of course, it still might be noted, but the risk was minor, as was the cost if he were exposed. He did not intend to conceal his presence long, anyway. This was standard procedure, though, and it was a procedure which existed for excellent reason. He approved of thoroughness. The Emperor approved of thoroughness.
Nodding once in satisfaction, the Hand of the Emperor straightened his black coat, turned, and strode away through the tallgrass toward the town.
“Something’s amiss.” Gabriel squinted suspiciously, peering around the classroom. “Something…is different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but maybe if I study closely…”
“Arquin, quit bein’ a dickhead,” Ruda ordered, plopping down in her seat and taking a jug of moonshine from inside her coat.
“Aw, c’mon,” he said, grinning, “if I did that, how would you know it was me?”
“Cos out of the only two present who dress in men’s casual, Teal actually dresses in it, as opposed to accidentally falling most of the way into whatever was lying on the floor in the morning. And she combs her hair.”
“Nice to have my efforts acknowledged,” Teal said with a smile.
The classroom was devoid of the decorations which had appeared at the beginning of the last semester—no silk screens, no potted plants, no blossoming cherry tree. Every sign of Professor Ekoi’s unique presence had abruptly vanished. Though this left the room in more or less the state to which they had become accustomed over their first year, it suddenly looked empty.
“It’s actually kinda sad,” Juniper whispered, gazing around with wide eyes. “The walls look lonely, now. Do you think Professor Ekoi’s okay?”
“Based on what I’ve been reading about kitsune,” Fross chimed, “I would be absolutely astonished if anything was able to actually harm her.”
“Really?” Gabriel looked up at her. “I tried to read up on kitsune after it became clear I was gonna be her favorite punching bag, and I couldn’t find much in the library.”
“Well, there’s not much in Tanglish,” Fross explained. “I had to order some things from a Nemitite temple, and before I could read them I had to learn to read Sifanese. That slowed down my research by a good six weeks, but that was still quicker than having to look up every single thing with a bilingual dictionary and grammar codex as I went.”
Teal dropped her book; fortunately she was already at her desk. Staring at Fross, she didn’t seem to notice that it had fallen. “You taught yourself Sifanese in six weeks? When?!”
“Well, I had some spare time. I don’t sleep; it gives me an extra few hours a day to pursue personal research projects. And I don’t need a lamp, which is very handy for reading at night!”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gabriel said grandly, “I give you our future overlord, Fross the pixie.”
“That’s a damn difficult language,” Ruda added. “Seriously impressive shit, glitterbug.”
“Arigatou gozaimashita,” Fross said modestly.
“What I wonder,” said Toby with a frown, “is if this has something to do with what happened yesterday.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty suggestive,” Gabriel agreed in a more serious tone. “I mean, just the timing alone.”
“The way you described it,” said Ruda, “she was just pissed off, not hurt.”
“Wait, what happened?” Juniper demanded. “I didn’t hear about this.”
“Well,” Gabriel said with a sigh, “apparently, yesterday Rafe slipped Professor Ekoi one of his anti-magic potions.”
“He did WHAT?” Fross shot upward until she bounced off the ceiling, chiming in agitation. “Professor Ekoi is a fairy! She’s made of magic! That’s like making someone drink poison, or strong acid!”
“She’s made of a lot of magic,” Toby said soothingly. “Ruda’s right, she didn’t seem hurt. Just angry, and…um, interfered with.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel added, “apparently she doesn’t actually speak Tanglish and was using her magic to translate. We couldn’t puzzle out a word until Tellwyrn showed up. And she actually walked away instead of doing that melodramatic non-teleport thing she loves so much.”
“That’s still a nasty prank!” Fross exclaimed, now buzzing about in figure eights above their heads. “I am extremely disappointed in Professor Rafe!”
“Why?” Ruda asked lazily. “You’ve met the fucker, haven’t you?”
“Questions of Professor Ekoi’s welfare aside,” Shaeine said quietly, “kitsune are rather notorious pranksters, and she is somewhat unpredictable herself. I have greatly enjoyed her class, but I fear if Professor Rafe has instigated some kind of practical joke war, the collateral damage is likely to be considerable.”
“Oh, dear gods in fancy hats,” Ruda groaned, tugging her own hat down over her eyes.
“Good morning, students!”
The classroom’s lower door had opened, and they all turned to regard Professor Yornhaldt, who strolled in wearing a smile.
“Take your seats, please, it is time for class to begin. Ah, I confess this is rather satisfying,” he said, stepping up behind the lectern and beaming at them. “I have quite missed teaching. And all of you, of course! Now, then! Fortunately this has befallen us no more than a week into the semester, so we should be able to proceed with only minimal disruption to the curriculum. First of all, I must announce, as you have undoubtedly intuited already, that Professor Ekoi has rather suddenly departed the campus. Until further notice, I am resuming duties as your primary magic teacher for the remainder of the semester.”
“Is she…okay?” Juniper asked somewhat tremulously.
The dwarf sighed. “Well. To the best of my knowledge, yes, she is well. Beyond that, anything I could say as to the reasons for this would be mere speculation. Or rather, it would be gossip, which is a most inappropriate use of my classroom time.”
“What about your office hours?” Ruda asked, grinning.
Yornhaldt gave her a wry look. “Miss Punaji, have you ever known me to gossip? Professor Ekoi’s personal business is just that. And I should perhaps take a further moment to mention,” he added more severely, “that Professor Tellwyrn shares my feelings on the subject of discussing faculty business with nosy students. And, in addition to being her usual charming self, she is already rather piqued about this entire affair. Anyone considering asking her for more details should be forewarned. And, ideally, refrain.”
“Well, there ya go,” Ruda said cheerfully. “We have now known you to gossip!”
“I find,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “that warning my students against terrible errors in judgment is usually worth the relaxation of certain other standards. Not that they necessarily listen, but the effort is still worthwhile. Now, then! I shall have to ask you, students, what you have already covered in the last week. I’m afraid my predecessor was not one for leaving detailed notes.”
“Okay,” Iris said, nodding earnestly and clutching her books to her chest. “Okay. It’s gonna be this semester, girls. I’m gonna do it.”
“That leaves you a great deal of time,” Szith noted.
Iris nodded again, her eyes fixed with determination on the path ahead of them, but not seeing anything. “Yes. Right. Exactly. I have time to psych myself up. I can do this.”
“I meant rather the opposite,” the drow said gently. “The whole semester gives you plenty of time to back away and find excuses. Perhaps setting yourself a shorter timetable would be wiser.”
Iris’s eyes widened in near panic. “I…I… Shorter? I don’t know if…”
“Aye, that right there’s the look of a lass just rarin’ to charge off after ‘er ‘eart’s desire,” Maureen said cheerfully.
Iris gave her a sour look. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“Iris, hon, y’know I love ye, right?” The gnome stepped closer to affectionately jostle Iris’s leg as they walked. “That’s why I make fun. I mean, wantin’ the boy by itself ain’t doin’ you any good in the ‘get out there an’ get ‘im’ department. I figure, maybe a little friendly joshin’ from yer roomies’ll help? Cos between you, me, an’ the tree, you’re bein’ ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Iris said sullenly.
“Wanting him is not ridiculous,” Szith replied in her usual placid tone. “All this melodrama about it, however…”
“It’s just not that easy,” Iris whined.
“Perhaps my own cultural background sabotages my sympathy,” Szith mused. “In Tar’naris, the only obstacle in your way would be his rank. He is lowborn, however, which mitigates that; those of granted rank have little prerogative to look down their noses at being approached by others beneath their station. He is, after all, a man. It’s your right and obligation to reach out a seize him, if you desire him.”
“Szith,” Iris said in exasperation, “for the last time, that’s not how we do things here!”
“Indeed,” the drow said solemnly. “Bad enough you have to suffer under such a backward system without perpetuating it yourself.”
“And I don’t want to seize anyone,” Iris added, scowling now. “I want Gabriel to like me! I just…I don’t know how to make him. Ravana’s really helpful to me in learning social skills, but…um…”
“Aye, now ye bring it up, it’s a mite hard to imagine Ravana gettin’ a boy to chase after ‘er,” Maureen mused. “I bet she’d reckon any lad she couldn’t just order to report to ‘er chambers an’ perform was beneath ‘er. An’ not in th’fun sense.”
“Now that is the proper attitude for a noblewoman to have,” Szith said approvingly.
“Is there such a thing as a Hand o’ Izara?” Maureen asked. “Cos this campus could sure as flip use one. I mean, we’ve got all the other paladins, aye?”
“You two are a tremendous help,” Iris growled.
“Iris,” Szith said with one of her rare smiles. “Friend. You only hurt yourself, doing this. Just ask the boy. It does not have to be perfect, and it does not have to be impressive. We do not live in a bard’s tale, and quite frankly, the male upon whom you’ve set your sights is the local champion of well-meaning awkwardness, himself. Just ask him, honestly. I quite think the results will go in your favor.”
Iris closed her eyes. “But what if he says no?” she whispered.
“Then,” Szith replied, “you will know, and can stop torturing yourself. But honestly, why would he?”
“He likes th’ladies, that one,” Maureen said cheerfully. “Ask me, you’d do him a world o’ good in addition to gettin’ over yer own hurdle, here. That’s a lad who needs a lass to settle ‘im down.”
“Even more than most,” Szith agreed.
Maureen suddenly stopped, turning to her right, and the other two halted as well. They had just passed a low retaining wall atop which was a raised flower bed; suddenly revealed sitting in the shadow of it was one of their classmates.
“All right, there, Chase?” Maureen asked, frowning.
He was slumped against the brickwork, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes closed and mouth open. At Maureen’s prompting, he made no reply.
“Oh, my gods,” Iris said, her eyes widening. “He’s not dead, is he?!”
“He breathes,” Szith reported, “and his heart beats. Both at about the speed that is normal for a sleeping human, if you and Ravana are average examples.”
“’ere, now, this ain’t the best place to take a nap,” Maureen said severely. “C’mon, just cos you’re the leadin’ source o’ tomfoolery on the campus don’t make all yer classmates harmless. Chase? Oi, I’m talkin’ to—”
She reached out to jostle his shoulder, then broke off, going pale, as he slumped over on his side.
“Okay, very funny, Chase,” Iris said nervously. “That’s kind of cheap by your standards, isn’t it?”
Chase lay there, inert.
“Chase?” Maureen whispered, looking up at the others. “Um…”
Szith stepped over and knelt by his head. “Chase!” she said sharply, shaking his shoulder, to no effect. She pried open one eyelid, lightly slapped his cheeks, then as a last resort plucked a hair from his eyebrow.
“What’s wrong with him?” Iris demanded shrilly. “Are you sure he’s breathing?”
“Yes,” Szith said tersely. “He is asleep. This close, I could tell if he were faking; neither his breath nor heart rate change in response to pain. Do you sense any magic on him?”
“Nothing like that,” Iris said, shaking her head rapidly, “but I’d only be able to pick up on fae magic, anyway…”
“Keep an eye on ‘im,” Maureen ordered. “I’ll fetch Miss Sunrunner.”
She often paced, as much as the space in the cell allowed. For days, even weeks on end, she kept moving, back and forth and in circles, long enough that in any normal cell her feet would have worn grooves in the floor. Not this cell, of course. She had naturally tried her strength over every inch of it, which yielded nothing. Its floor, ceiling, and three walls were all one piece without joints, made of the pale alloy known in this era as mithril. Its fourth wall was transparent, but not glass; the material dampened her inherent magic just as well, and was just as impervious to her physical strength. She’d never bothered to learn what they called the stuff, back in the old days. It had just been…there.
Not that she’d ever had much in the way of physical strength, which just added to the irony. In this cell, of all places, physical strength was the only kind that mattered—and was even more irrelevant, as in addition to its magic-dampening properties, mithril was hard enough once cast to survive passage through the corona of the sun.
That was neither exaggeration nor a random example. She had had the good fortune to observe that particular test. Or at least its aftermath.
The “glass” wall would surely be the weak point, anyway. Mithril just had to be impervious; that wall had features. It was in it that the doorway formed when the command phrase was spoken, though she had not seen that done since the Hands of the Emperor had first put her in here. That panel emitted the light, illuminating both her cell and the corridor outside—a neat trick, since it did not seem like a light source when looked at directly. It was also in that transparent wall that the signs and sigils appeared, little notations in a language which had not been used on this planet in millenia. They came and went rarely; there was very seldom anything for them to report. The facility itself ran silently along, only rarely registering any data on significant events, which were never anything but minor seismic activity. Occasionally there would be a solar flare, which was of no import to this facility, but she had instructed it to report on anything its sensors could detect.
No, the only significant data registered on the transparent panel was the arrival of visitors. It very obligingly informed her when the facility was accessed. Not that it did her much practical good to know when the Emperor or one of his Hands was about to pass through, but there was a small satisfaction in knowing. Especially since they did not know that she knew, much less how.
They didn’t know how any of this worked. They’d just found it down here, deep below the city. She was mildly curious whether it had been located by accident, or some of the original passages had survived and the Imperial Palace been built deliberately above them for that reason. They certainly did not know how the panels worked. That it wouldn’t acknowledge the command to open if spoken from inside was none of their doing, that was just how the Order had programmed their holding cells. After all these years, she knew how the local humans thought and what they thought of her. They didn’t know she could get information from the panel; they’d have instructed it to deny her if they knew that, and if they knew how. She had never even heard them speak in the language to which the Order’s systems defaulted. Of course, the sub-OS recognized even their bastard English, so why would they need to?
They knew nothing. Silly children playing with the tools of a true civilization which they mistook for toys, distracted by their glossy surfaces and blinking lights. Such a pity nothing down here was likely to harm them if mishandled.
Well, except herself, of course. If she ever got out. She had to acknowledge that in this cell she was basically helpless; the stripped-down state of the facility worked against her, there. Had there been an Avatar running, by this point she could surely have manipulated it into giving her some concessions, if not actually releasing her.
At the moment, she was not pacing. Sometimes she didn’t; such little changes in her routine were the only distractions she could arrange for herself. The panels certainly were not programmed to provide any entertainment. Being cooped up in here would have long since driven her mad, had that ship not well and truly sailed long before she had been imprisoned. So she sat, idly, in the corner, just staring out through the panel at the empty cell across the corridor.
They could at least imprison someone else down here. She couldn’t possibly have been the only anomalous being to be caught in a vulnerable position. They were increasingly clever, these Tiraan, and becoming rather sophisticated for primitives. And they were certainly fascinated by Naiya’s experiments, to judge by the presence of those dryads down the hall. Eventually they would surely poke at something with which they couldn’t contend; she’d just have to hope they managed to stick it in one of these cells, first. Hopefully something that could help her get out. But no, there she sat, alone, as always. For now.
She stood, not moving like a creature made of bone and muscle, but simply straightening upright as if lifted by a string attached to the top of her head, staring at the text which now flashed in the upper corner of the transparent panel.
“System,” she said in Esperanto, “status of aperture?”
The facility doors were sealed, no sapients in range. So the humans were not visiting.
“Identify current user.”
The panel calmly informed her that she did not have clearance to access that data.
“Display user activity.”
Still no clearance.
Then the light level shifted, dimming slightly before resuming its customary brightness. A moment later, it changed, becoming magenta, then blue, then returning to normal.
After that the temperature altered. It grew several degrees warmer, then plunged to near freezing, then normalized again.
Condensation appeared on the panel as the humidity was tampered with. Seconds later it was gone.
“Report system damage.”
No damage, everything was functioning normally.
So someone was doing this. Someone who knew how to activate an Infinite Order sub-OS.
Someone, she reflected as the lights flickered again, who could activate the computers but didn’t know what they did. They were apparently poking at the system blindly, trying to puzzle out their functions. Someone who either had physical access to the Imperial Palace in Tiraas, or had managed to patch the transcension field linking the Order’s facilities and was operating from another one.
“Well, well, well. And who might you be?”
No one answered, of course. They might be able to tell she was in here, if they figured out how to access the internal sensors. Whether they would care was another question; what they might do about it, another still.
Still smiling, she began once more to pace.