All posts by D. D. Webb

About D. D. Webb

D. D. Webb is a highly suspicious character who is widely believed to be up to no good. A bookseller by trade, he lives alone in a tiny house in the woods of Missouri, which is neither as romantic nor as creepy as it sounds. He has, to date, published one novel, Rowena's Rescue. If he's not stopped now, there's no telling where this could lead.

12 – 28

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“Why is it always cherry trees?” Tellwyrn complained, pacing into the inner courtyard. “Sure, they’re pretty. Useful, even. But with all the endless variety in the world—”

“On the subject of variety and preferences,” Kaisa said lightly from the branches of the enormous sakura tree growing from the center of the courtyard, “here you are, Arachne, visiting someone else’s home and about to ask for favors if I am not very much mistaken, and you introduce yourself with shrill complaints. Surely the Twilight Forest didn’t tax your entire supply of patience?”

It was a truly massive specimen of its kind, towering much larger than they naturally grew, and heavily laden with pink blossoms, offset beautifully by the heavy snow now dusting its boughs. Neither the blossoms nor the snow were in season; whichever kitsune happened to have finagled the upper hand at the moment must have found this arrangement pleasing. Kaisa herself sat on the largest, lowest branch, which was still three times Tellwyrn’s height from the ground, lounging against the trunk and plucking idly at the koto braced against her knee.

Tellwyrn stopped two yards from the base of the tree, planting her fists on her hips and staring disapprovingly up at the kitsune; Kaisa just gave her an aloof smile.

“All right, have you had your fun?” the elf demanded. “We have a contract, you know. I’m amazed you were willing to let it go at less than the full two semesters agreed upon.”

“I have invoked an early termination clause in said contract,” Kaisa replied with playful hauteur. “Due to hostile conditions on the campus and a distinct lack of respect for my personal dignity.”

“I can’t imagine it will surprise you to learn that Admestus cracked,” Tellwyrn said severely. “Immediately. Like a glass ninepin. You, yourself, deliberately arranged a lack of respect for your personal dignity in order to do this nonsense.”

“Oh?” The kitsune straightened up, blinking twice, then reached behind herself and produced a scroll of parchment apparently from nowhere. She held this up to her face as though she were painfully nearsighted, and began humming softly to herself, eyes darting rapidly back and forth across the text. Down below, Tellwyrn rolled her eyes and began tapping her foot. It took Kaisa little more than half a minute to finish perusing the scroll, at which point she held it up, pointing to it with her free hand. “You know, Arachne, I can’t find anywhere in the contract a stipulation ruling that out.”

“Why are you doing this?” Tellwyrn asked, in a suddenly quieter tone. “You are not a quitter, and you’re not this easily bored, despite the way you like to carry on. I need you, Kaisa. It’s why I asked you to come teach in the first place.”

“I’m sure Alaric has things well in hand,” Kaisa demurred. “He’s a rather unimaginative fellow, but then, good teachers sometimes are—we can’t all be as charmingly eccentric as you and I, or the young ones wouldn’t learn anything but how to make spectacles of themselves. And he is very even-tempered, not to mention so polite! A man of numerous virtues; you’re lucky to have him.”

“That’s neither here nor there, and you are avoiding the question,” the elf accused.

“Why, Arachne.” Kaisa grinned, a little too broadly, showing off her extremely sharp incisors. “Had I a suspicious nature, I could almost interpret your phrasing as a suggestion that you asked me to teach at your school for some reason other than my skill as an educator.”

“And you’re still doing it,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I know this game and I’m bored with it, Kaisa. You’re not offended, and I’m not going to bite. You know very well how much I value your intelligence, and you also know that your presence on the campus was a deterrent to more nonsense like that hellgate. Do you know what’s happening in Last Rock now?”

“Well, I would surmise you are suffering some manner of disruption caused by a very powerful and somewhat unfocused warlock, running amok in the shadows,” Kaisa said lightly. “I’m a bit behind on the news from your continent, though. I have so much to catch up on here at home, I’ve been very busy.”

“You knew this would happen?!”

“Oh, Arachne, compose yourself,” the kitsune chided gently. “As you just said, obviously I was aware of the situation. You told me about Elilial’s little trick—it’s no stretch to deduce, from there, what would happen if I removed myself from the campus. Especially now that we know dear little Embras and his Wreath have taken a shine to some of the students.”

At that, Tellwyrn bared her own teeth. “I’ve always assumed your actions were toward some greater purpose, Kaisa, but after this it had better be a good one. My students—our students—are in immediate danger! What could possibly be so important that you’d play with the whole school this way?”

“Why, Arachne, I’m simply doing what I always do,” Kaisa said with a mysterious little smile. “Teaching.”

“Who the hell do you think you’re teaching, holed away in a castle in the middle of your forest?”

Still smiling, Kaisa shrugged, and indicated the empty courtyard with a languid wave of her arm. “Do you see anyone else here?”

For a moment, Tellwyrn was actually speechless.

“You—that—I didn’t hire you to teach me!”

“Really?” Kaisa made a show of examining the parchment again, then shrugged. “Hum, it doesn’t say anything about that either. Really, Arachne, do you ever read any of the things you sign? Oh, stop swelling up like that. My sisters aren’t all as fond of you as Emi, by far—lose your temper here and something’s likely to happen to you that I can’t forfend.”

Tellwyrn very deliberately drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, her posture relaxing slightly.

“Kaisa,” she finally said in a smaller voice. “Please. The kids… I can’t protect them from this, I’ve tried. I need your help.”

Kaisa sighed softly, shook her head, and then nimbly slid off the other side of the branch. Rather than appearing below it in the fall into which she had just launched herself, she vanished behind it—then stepped out from behind the trunk at ground level a second later. Both the koto and the scroll were no longer in evidence.

“So,” she said, pacing forward, “secret arch-warlocks among the student body. At least one ambitious and unwise enough to open a hellgate over the campus—and really, Arachne, if I have one criticism of your recruitment practices it’s how many of those children I could see doing such a fool thing. However many there are, and I strongly doubt it is more than two, three at the absolute most, they have at least managed to remain concealed. Even I did not spot them. You are faced, in short, with subtlety and indirection. And how did you respond?” She spread her arms, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “By summoning to your campus a being for whom any warlock is nothing but prey. Brute force, Arachne. Literally the greatest possible brute force that could be employed in this scenario.”

“Kaisa, if you will stop this and return to the campus, I promise you I will sit there and let you lecture me about whatever you like. I’ll give you an hour a day.”

“What was your endgame, Arachne?” The kitsune began pacing in a slow circle around her; Tellwyrn gritted her teeth, not bothering to turn and keep Kaisa in her field of view. “Had you managed to keep the warlocks suppressed, eventually they would have graduated. They would then be unleashed upon the world, with no one to stop them.”

“Two hours. That’s my final offer.”

“Despite what people say about you, I have never found you to be so…irresponsible. I have been waiting to see your plan unfold, Arachne. I left when I finally realized that…it had. That you were not building up to anything. Keeping me there, keeping them down, was the whole plan. That really is so very disappointing.”

“Oh, come off it,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Protecting my students had to be my first and highest priority. And after they graduated? Then they would no longer be under my protection, nor in a position to be a danger to my kids, and let me tell you, Kaisa, more dangerous things than untrained, over-powered warlocks have risen on this world and been unceremoniously slapped down. There’s always the Pantheon, there are still paladins… And more, now. The Empire is not to be trifled with, the dragons have banded together under one banner. Much as I’m starting to loathe him, Justinian has turned his Church into a force able to contend with such monstrosities. Hell, once they were safely away from the other kids, I’d have landed on them the moment they revealed themselves. This is still personal, to me.”

“And so, that was it?” Kaisa paused behind her, leaning forward to poke her nose over Tellwyrn’s shoulder. “Turn your problem into someone else’s problem—everyone else’s problem? Disregard the incalculable damage that would be caused to countless uninvolved parties before it was resolved? I had thought so much better of you, Arachne.”

“Is this leading up to a better idea you have, or are you just—”

“Yes!” Kaisa actually swatted her on the back of the head, prompting Tellwyrn to growl and round on her, but the kitsune had already bounded backward. “Did I think you simply as stupid and selfish as your actions suggested, I would have just ignored your plea in the first place, Arachne. You are here—I have brought you here, because a lesson needs to be learned!”

“Ugh, fine.” Tellwyrn turned and stalked toward the courtyard gates. “If you’re not going to help, I guess you’re not. What a waste of my time… Gods only know what’s happening on—”

She broke off, but did not look at all surprised, when Kaisa rounded the corner directly in front of her, striding in through the gate.

“You have come all this way, though,” the kitsune said, raising an eyebrow, “and you only just made a point of how much you value my input, Arachne. You will really march out of here without learning what you’ve come to learn, just to assuage your ego?” She folded her hands in front of her, the posture almost demure, though her expression was simply sad. “If you truly have come to so value your pride above your intellect, then I suppose you ought to go after all. It would seem there is nothing left that I—that anyone can teach you.”

Tellwyrn pursed her lips in a bitter expression. Saying nothing, she folded her arms, and raised one eyebrow expectantly.

“I am bothering with this at all,” Kaisa said softly, “because I know you already grasp the lesson—you simply haven’t applied it to yourself. You went well out of your way, in fact, to persuade none other than Naiya of this very same fact, which quite frankly is such an achievement I am almost annoyed. I doubt even I could get her to pay attention at this point, much less listen to sense. Truly, your stubbornness is a mighty force.”

“That’s your big point?” Tellwyrn said disdainfully. “That the world is changing? Please, Kaisa. Everyone—”

“Wrong!” Kaisa pointed accusingly at her. “Wrong, and you know it! The world is changing in such a way that those who once ignored it no longer can.” She took a step forward, her tail twitching, green eyes boring into Tellwyrn’s own. “Those who once bulled their way through it no longer can.”

“If you have a problem with my methods—”

“Truthfully I find your methods rather endearing, but that is not the point. You engaged me as a teacher, Arachne. Well, this is a lesson you need to learn. You can’t do this any longer.”

“What, specifically, is it you think I cannot do?”

“Everything!” Kaisa spread her arms wide. “All of this—your entire shtick. There has never been anything wrong with your mind. Nor even with your capacity for subtlety. It wasn’t easy, but I have learned the story of what you and Elilial did in Scyllithar. The whole story, Arachne.” She shook her head. “Which tells me everything I need to know about the scheming and maneuvering you must have performed to get to that point. And is that, perhaps, why you are like this? I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like—”

“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn whispered, “I will put up with much from you that I would not from anyone else. But not this. You will not pull that thread.”

“Tough,” the kitsune said bluntly. “Whether your travails among the Scyllithenes motivate your current obstinacy or not is irrelevant, except to you—and honestly, woman, I wish you would take Izara up on her multiple offers. If there has ever been anybody in urgent need of therapy, it’s you. But with regard to the point at hand, I know you are intelligent enough to be indirect, to be strategic; you just won’t, and you need to get over it. The world is not like it was under the Elder Gods, not yet…but in the shape things are taking, I see a future not unlike that one on the distant horizon. You aren’t a matchless power anymore.” She hesitated, then continued in a bare whisper. “Nor am I. Nor is anyone. The dragons, as you mentioned, have realized it, and adapted. You yourself managed to bully Naiya into adapting, and her consciousness now so diffuse it’s amazing you got her to even hold a conversation. You, though? You see the state of the world, you recognize this need, and yet…here you are. You problem is that you still think the rules don’t apply to you, just because they mostly haven’t until now. I’m afraid that much has changed.”

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded in a strained voice, “does this have to do with a renegade warlock hexing my students?”

“Is that what he is doing?” Kaisa shook her head. “You know what, Arachne. It’s a problem you, personally, cannot solve by blasting someone to atoms, or even threatening to. And so you sought to solve it by employing someone who could. That is not a solution. More importantly, it reinforces a pattern that you can no longer afford.”

“Kaisa,” Tellwyrn shouted, “this thing is un-trackable! It’s invisible, undetectable, and un-counterable. I can no more out-scheme this bastard than I can just shoot him!”

“Wrong!” Kaisa barked right back. “Wrong, ignorant, lazy. Unworthy of you! You are better than this, and it’s past time you started acting like it! If you don’t have the resources to do this, you can find more.”

“That is literally what I did!”

“You sought more force! A kitsune to counter a warlock—tactical janken when what you need is strategy, politics, subtlety.”

“I brought someone in capable of being subtle—”

Kaisa actually lunged forward, seized Tellwyrn by the shoulders, and began shaking her. “You did this so you would not have to! And I won’t have it, Arachne. This is the last chance! If you do not make your peace with the world, you will be just as helpless against the next disaster—and the disasters of the new world will be more like this than like the hellgate. Agents striking from the shadows, exercising leverage rather than force. You will be beaten, perhaps destroyed, and thanks to the responsibility you have taken to your University, your existence is no longer your own plaything to throw away when you are tired of it. Learn, Arachne. Adapt, plan, compromise. Even Avei advocates indirect strategy above confrontation in battle. Avei.” She gave her a final, hard shake for good measure. “What is your excuse?”

“I don’t know what the hell you want!” Tellwyrn snarled. “You’re not listening—no amount of scheming is going to accomplish anything here! The force you represent is the only thing that works!”

“Ah, but you are wrong,” Kaisa said, suddenly quiet again, still holding her by the shoulders. “And you know it all too well. A warlock haunts your campus—he does not haunt the streets of Tiraas. Nor Kiyosan, nor Rodvenheim, nor even Puna Dara. There are simply too many strands in the web, now—except in Last Rock. If one has the means to avoid the great Tellwyrn’s wrath, the University is the one place in this world uniquely vulnerable, because it lacks the connections that bind together the rest of civilization.”

“Those connections have too steep a price,” Tellwyrn snapped, stepping back from her.

“They have a price,” Kaisa agreed. “So does your current course. Is it steeper than watching your students being hexed while you dither helplessly?”

“Damn it, I’ve already reached out to the Empire for help, and that’s done nothing more than add to my problems!”

“Because,” Kaisa said implacably, “your University is uniquely vulnerable. To them, as much as to your current enemy. Whoever operates in this world must do so with great care, because everything they set in motion will ripple farther and faster than it ever has. Without subtlety, without strategy and restraint, a person or even a nation can easily be shaken to pieces by the vibrations she herself causes. But you? You have stubbornly kept yourself and your University separate. You’ve relied on your legend, your power and the threat of your anger to dissuade encroachers. And so, Arachne, you stand alone.”

“My students have to be free from the politics of the world, or everything we’re doing is pointless!”

Kaisa shook her head sadly. “Arachne… How free do you think you are?”

The snow drifted down around them. Thick flakes had by now formed a heavy dusting in their hair; one of Kaisa’s ears twitched as a cluster of them danced into its sensitive inner surface.

“It’s time to join the world,” Kaisa said quietly, while Tellwyrn just stared at her. She stepped forward again, reaching out to place one hand on the elf’s shoulder. “Our age has passed, Arachne. No one stands above it all any longer. Very few have that power, and soon none will; already it has come to pass that those who have the power do not have the luxury of exercising it as we once did. This is my last lesson—to you, to our students, to me… And to my sisters. They will not hear it; I can only pray you will, and that some of what I love can be saved from the future I fear.”

She sighed heavily, letting her ears droop and her tail lower to brush against the snow building on the ground.

“The time for play is over, my old friend. It’s time for us all to grow up. Hopefully…it is not too late.”


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12 – 27

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It was not without relief that he finally delegated the immediate clean-up and departed. Ildrin could handle the more urgent practicalities, while Delilah attended to the more trying duty of calming Rector, whose understandable upset at the sudden loss of so much of his hard work was considerably exacerbated by his inherent…difficulty. Getting him under control would be a necessary first step before the project could be cleaned up and resuscitated; he would be nothing but an obstruction to anyone trying to work in the ruins until then. Hopefully Ildrin could arrange the important matters alone, but if worse came to worst, he was prepared to involve Nassir. For obvious reasons, the number of people aware of, and involved in, this particular project had to be kept to an absolute minimum, consisting only of his most trusted lieutenants.

Justinian strode through the deep passages below the Cathedral at as rapid a pace as he could manage without resorting to unseemly haste. Not that there was anyone nearby, as his innate sense of others’ emotions revealed, but there were habits he maintained even when they seemed unnecessary, precisely because they were so necessary the rest of the time. He also kept his expression clear and serene, despite the turmoil of his thoughts.

Occupied with his inner whirl of plans, countermeasures, concerns and stratagems, he passed deeper and deeper below the Cathedral, penetrating layers of security with the minimum attention necessary to get through them. Several were magical devices which recognized him and required no conscious input, but he ardently eschewed the laziness of over-reliance on sophisticated gimmicks. The confusing layout of the deep passages was a help, which he had enhanced by placing barriers in such locations that he had to backtrack repeatedly through even more twisting, switchbacking corriors to retrieve various keys from their hiding places.

The descent took the better part of an hour. It was fairly rare that his demanding schedule allowed him the leeway to come here aside from his weekly visits, but that was for the best, considering how demanding these visits often were, themselves. And in the end, it was not optional. No one could know what he kept here.

The final door was hidden in plain sight, one simple wooden barrier in a hallway lined with identical ones, the rest of which were all trapped in some way. Justinian opened the correct door and slipped through, closing it behind him, and availed himself of the remaining few moments it took to traverse the opulent entry hall of this subterranean apartment to make extra certain that his face and bearing were composed.

He emerged into a grand chamber which, on its own merits could have belonged in any palace. Round, three stories in height, and with much of its second level encircled by a balcony from which doorways branched off, reached by a curved staircase beginning immediately to the right of the entry, it was carved entirely from marble and liberally gilded—with actual gold. The domed ceiling high above was a single piece of crystal, and also the primary source of light. A grand pianoforte and a large harp stood against one wall on a dais, though they were not the source of the music currently playing; a string quartet echoed from one of the adjacent rooms, with the characteristically scratchy undertones of a soundisc player. Rugs and pillows were scattered about more like the detritus of fallen trees than any deliberate attempt at décor, mismatched and drifting into piles against the walls.

The curtains covering the doorways, in contrast to the expensive quality of the room itself, were practically rags, dusty and torn. Only upon closer examination did one see that they were not, in fact, ragged or dirty, but that shape and color because they were nothing but dense masses of spider webs, arranged in roughly flat shapes. More of their kind were draped across the dome above, giving its clean light an eerie quality. Those immense cobwebs shifted slowly, as if in response to a breeze which was not there, causing peculiar patterns of light to sway gently across the floor.

“Where I am from, a man entering a woman’s home uninvited would experience…consequences.”

Justinian’s smile was only partially faked. Partially because on several levels, he truly did enjoy these exchanges. Faked because on other levels, they could be utterly nightmarish.

She had appeared in the doorway to his left, silently as always, and now posed with her arms braced against it, shoulders slanted one way, hips the other, smirking mysteriously. Everything a pose, a slice of pageantry. From some women, such behavior seemed like manipulation, and to be sure, she was manipulative in everything she did. He had come to understand, though, that there was no hostility in it, and not necessarily even an agenda. She manipulated like she breathed, and quite possibly could not stop.

He bowed, ignoring the obvious rejoinders about where she was from, or who provided her with this luxurious space in which to live.

“Ah, but if I were well-behaved, Szaiviss, you would find me so much less interesting.”

Her answering smile could almost have been genuine. Perhaps it truly was. It was a sly smile, but that might be the most genuine thing of all, from her.

Few Tiraan would ever see truly black skin on a drow; in Tar’naris, after millennia of interbreeding with (mostly enslaved) humans, drow came in an entire grayscale palette, ranging from a deep slate color to the nearly white of some of the modern half-drow who could be found in Lor’naris. Szaiviss came from an older and undiluted line, one which had had no contact with the surface since before the Elder Wars, and her skin was black, and subtly glossy, like living obsidian. Her eyes, too, were startling; unlike the more muted colors common to Narisians, they were a vivid scarlet which seemed almost to glow when the light hit them just right. That wasn’t due to her blood; the likes of vampires and some succubi had eyes like that, and for similar reasons. She wore a short gown that was necessarily filmy, being woven of cobwebs like her curtains, clinging to her and concealing almost nothing of what little it actually tried to cover. Against the dingy off-white garment and her black skin, her ankle-length white hair seemed almost to glow, falling all around her like a cloak.

“Let’s see,” she purred, her Tanglish fluent but heavily accented, and oozed out of the doorway to come slink toward him. “Only two days since you last came just to spend time with me, my love. Not long enough for the desire to overwhelm you again… I know I don’t yet have you that addicted to my charms. Which means…” She had come to stand very close, gazing up into his face from mere inches away, near enough that her breasts grazed the front of his tabard. “You want something.”

“Aside from the obvious?” he murmured, slipping his arms around her. Szaiviss did not pull back, but her expression hardened.

“No, no, beloved. No games, not till later. I rather it not hang over us in the meantime.”

“You seek to put me in a box too small for my comfort, my dear,” he replied, pulling her closer, which she allowed. “I can have more than one goal at a time. Any pressing need makes a perfect excuse.”

Szaiviss chuckled low in her throat, and finally did extricate herself, pressing her hands against his chest and pulling back out of his grasp. “Then I shall have to prioritize, as usual. Before we take time to play, you had better tell me your problem. Otherwise, you’ll be too…distracted.”

She turned and sauntered away, rolling her hips fluidly as she went. Justinian followed her through the curtained doorway into a much dimmer space, also bedecked with webs across the ceiling and pillows all over the floor, this one narrower and lit only by a single fairy lamp. The soundisc player was in here, as well as a stand currently burning incense. She did so love her sensual distractions, particularly of the kinds not available where she had come from. Then again, precious little was available there.

“My project with Rector and the Avatar has been stalled,” he admitted, watching her stretch herself out in a pile of cushions. She did not invite him to sit yet, and he did not presume; her jokes were one thing, but he had learned to respect some of the drow cultural mores she held in sincerity. “In fact, completely destroyed. Rector and his minders barely escaped unscathed, not to mention myself.”

“You’ll be wanting the goddess’s touch to access it again, then?” she mused. “How…prosaic. How disappointing.”

“Eventually,” he agreed with a grim little smile. “I have more urgent problems, however. Rector’s machine exploded with the full force contained in its power crystals, which I have made very certain before providing them that it should not be able to do. Someone at the other end of the connection did that quite deliberately. After replacing his display with the Imperial sigil.”

Her grin was a white slash across her face in the dimness. “Oh, Justinian. Poor, clever boy. Even your setbacks are just so fascinating.”

“Open confrontation with the Silver Throne has always been part of the plan,” he said with a shrug. “But it is much too early. Everything could be ruined if I am forced to proceed to direct hostilities before the other necessary factors are ready.”

“Then perhaps your plans are less thorough than you thought,” she said, her face devoid of levity now. “That forces me to question things, Justinian. Many things. How will you provide what you have promised me if the Empire comes storming in here before you can arrange it?”

“They will not,” he replied, beginning to pace back and forth. It was not his habit, but he preferred to show a few nervous tics and mannerisms in her presence which he did not ordinarily betray. Keeping her under control was far easier so long as she assumed she held the upper hand. “Even at the height of the Enchanter Wars, the Imperials did not dare invade the Cathedral. Sharidan is quite capable of eclipsing my ability to move, however, which would be bad enough.”

“Yes. And so, here we are, in this pit you have dug.”

“Rector grew too focused on his task and failed to adequately cover his tracks,” Justinian said, as if to himself, which continuing to walk slowly back and forth across the piled carpets. The lowest-hanging spider webs brushed the top of his head; he raised a hand to push one aside, though it didn’t really bother him. “Quite typical of his particular type of aberrant personality, and a risk I was aware of when I employed him. My errors were in overestimating the control his handlers have over him, and under-preparing for such an extreme breach of security. Minor breaches I expected, not…this. Even so, however, this is a setback, not necessarily a disaster. I find it is a mistake to over-plan; much better to surround oneself with the resources necessary to adapt to the unexpected.” He came to a stop, turning to face her, and spread his arms, smiling down at her. “And in that, I am still well-positioned. Even the Empire does not possess a resource such as you.”

Szaiviss regarded him in aloof silence for a moment before answering. “You imagine, Archpope, that you possess me?”

“As much as anyone does anyone, my dear. You are no one’s creature but your own, but our aims are in harmony.”

She smiled at that, but only briefly, before her expression hardened again. “And in all your scheming up there, what progress have you made toward my needs? I’ve heard nothing of it since that absolute silliness with the newspapers backfired on you.”

“That was only an exploratory probe of her defenses,” he replied calmly. “I continue to make them. A creature like Tellwyrn is not to be attacked openly, or without detailed knowledge of her capabilities. In point of fact, my dear, circumstance has recently conspired in our favor. Tellwyrn has her own problems lately, and though I did not intend it, Rector’s interference with the Hands of the Emperor has quite accidentally exacerbated them.”

She came smoothly to her feet, as rapidly as a pouncing cat, and pressed herself into his space, this time with no hint of allure. He did not back down from her, simply meeting her glare in perfect serenity.

“I must be the one to kill her, Justinian, or this is all pointless. Do not overstep yourself.”

“She would destroy you as effortlessly as she has all your predecessors,” he said calmly, declining to acknowledge her furious hiss. “My plotting is what will make your aim possible, Szaiviss. And Tellwyrn’s newest strength also provides her a weakness she has never had before. This University gives her many new advantages, but she is too bound up in it to abandon it at need. And the University is vulnerable as all institutions are, in many ways that an archmage is not. We will destabilize it, and thus her, to create the opening you need. But first, we must watch, and prepare, and lay the groundwork. I assure you, none of what I have done thus far will come close to ending the Arachne’s life. But every little step helps me learn how it may be done.”

She narrowed her eyes, but after a pause, slowly nodded, and drew back. “Very well, then. Your problem with the Empire…what do you wish me to do about it?” Her lips curled back in a displeased grimace. “There will be a price, Justinian, if you seek to invoke her presence.”

“Quite apart from the price she demands, there would be a cost,” he said, grimacing in return. “No. My dictum stands; under no circumstances must you invoke Scyllith’s presence here. No shrouds I can throw up would prevent the Pantheon from noticing that, and then we will both be finished, and all our plans come to naught.”

“Good,” she said with a wry little smile. “I meant a price I would demand, though, quite apart from whatever she wants. I desire nothing more than to be out from under the lunatic old bitch’s thumb as long as possible. The only reason she has a cult at all is the cursed Themynrites prevent my people from fleeing the Underdark.”

“We are in accord, then,” he replied, indulging in a small grin of his own. “No, not Scyllith, my dear; only you do I trust. I need your ability to find the unknown.”

“What, your room full of oracles is not enough?”

“Those sources are obstreperous,” he said, “and take time to use—time I don’t believe can be spared, in this case. Besides, my little tests have verified that all four of my Bishops have figured out how to ascertain who has been studying what in the Chamber of Truth. I don’t yet trust them with matters this sensitive, and for now, I’d rather let them chase each other’s schemes than catch a whiff of mine. Besides,” he added with another slow smile, “all the accumulated oracles of the world have never performed as well as your skills.”

“Your flattery is blunt,” she said, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. She did it with a smile, though.

“I flatter you only when the simple truth gives me the opportunity, my lovely. It happens more often than I would have expected.”

“Yes, good boy,” she said approvingly. “Later, you may spend time praising me in detail. But! Work before pleasure. What is it you seek?”

“An enemy,” he said immediately. “Last year, one fortuitously appeared in the form of a hellgate, accompanied by a new stage in Darling’s own plot, which enabled me to ally the Church with the Throne against a common foe. One is not conveniently available, now, which means one will have to be found. I must re-cast this…little indiscretion as just that, and not the dramatic breach it truly is. To that end, I need alliance with the Throne against a common danger. To begin with. The rest I can arrange myself.”

Szaiviss turned away without answering, strolling toward the opposite end of the narrow room from the entrance. It was more of a wide hallway, really, its sides lined with occasional articles of furniture and thick drifts of pillows. Across from its entrance, the back wall was entirely swathed in more cobweb-curtains.

She shrugged and then rolled her shoulders, and her paltry garment slipped from them, slithering down to lie puddled around her bare feet. Szaiviss languidly raised one hand; Justinian, having seen this before, now knew to watch the shadows on the wall, barely visible as they were in the dimness of the one nightlight. He could see, however, the shadow of her arm. The arm did not move further, but the shadow did, reaching out to entangle its unnaturally long fingers in the darkness swathing the multiple layers of ragged silken drapes concealing the back of the room. At the shadow’s touch, the whole arrangement was pulled to one side, gathered up into a bundle, and draped over a hook on the wall, revealing what lay beyond.

The semi-circular space was bathed in pure white light which had been invisible behind the thick curtains. Its walls were of obsidian, crisscrossed by lines of white paint designed to resemble spider webs. Its floor was a raised dais, upon which was engraved a sigil which had been unseen on the surface of the world for eight thousand years, deliberately expunged long ago by the Pantheon. Scyllith’s personal glyph did not depict anything Justinian recognized; it was simply an arrangement of lines, like the Infinite Order’s. Perhaps, though, both of those had meant something more concrete in those days.

Szaiviss turned to glance at him over her shoulder, just in time to catch his eyes wandering over her body—because she expected and enjoyed it, mostly, but she was beautiful enough that his appreciative smile was the result simply of relaxing his customary reserve, not faking an expression.

The shadow priestess stepped up onto the dais, turned to face the room, and knelt, closing her eyes. Her chest swelled with a deeply in-drawn breath, then relaxed. Then again, and once more.

And then she opened her eyes. They were pure white, blazing with light. In trance, the drow began to speak. He listened intently, even after the first words revealed that she said exactly what he expected.

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12 – 26

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”

“Him?”

“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”


“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”


“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”


“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”


“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.


“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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12 – 24

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“It’s in place? And it actually works!”

“Even better than I anticipated!” Fross chimed, buzzing around the scale model of the mountaintop set up in the center of the spell lab. “I’m picking up fluctuations wherever magic is in use—which is a lot of places, this campus being what it is. All four schools feel different, but based on what I’m getting from the infernal spell labs, I should be able to tell when the Sleeper strikes. And by the way, Gabe, I could take offense at the incredulous tone.”

“Hey, none intended!” he said, grinning and holding up his hands in surrender. “C’mon, after all we’ve been through, I definitely know better than to doubt your capabilities, Fross. But this is still some way complex spellwork. You’re gonna be a hell of a wizard someday.”

“Aw, thanks!” The pixie darted over to Juniper, who was sitting against the wall, absently scratching at the floor with one hand the way she did when Jack wasn’t with her. “You doing okay, June? It’s not uncomfortable?”

“Nah, I’m just a little out of the habit of holding attunement while on campus,” the dryad replied, shaking her head. “It bugs other fairies and witches a little. Also, there’s a lot of arcane magic flying around here, which feels…weird. Not bad, though.”

“Is that going to create a problem, do you think?” Toby asked. “I know there aren’t many fairies on campus, but…”

“Any actual fairies will leave me alone,” Juniper said. “Fae users might be another matter…” She frowned. “…I think Iris has noticed. Somebody in the Wells just did a small ritual to sort of…poke at me.”

“I’m gonna tentatively consider that a non-problem,” said Ruda. “Considering what we’re hoping will happen, having fae-attuned magic users turn up tonight could be all kinds of useful.”

“Professor Tellwyrn asked us, in particular, to keep an eye on the campus,” Shaeine said quietly. “I’m not sure I feel sanguine about involving other students.”

“She didn’t ask me, but here I am,” Scorn snorted, folding her arms.

“Also,” Gabriel added, “if I’m not misremembering, didn’t Tellwyrn tell us not to go hunting for the Sleeper?”

“This is laying a trap, not hunting,” Ruda said with a grin. “But point taken. Tellwyrn knows our strengths, and they don’t include marching in a line. I figure there’s room for improvisation implied in the mandate.”

“Or so you intend to argue when she complains?” Teal asked with the ghost of a smile.

Ruda pointed a bottle of rum at her. “Fuckin’ ay!”

They all turned to face the door when it opened. Nobody relaxed at the sight of Inspector Fedora.

“Ah, good, everybody’s here,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Smashing. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some more assistance!”

“You don’t need to take any liberties,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward.

“Down, boy,” Fedora replied, stepping out of the doorway. “I think you recall the campus’s visitors?”

Juniper bounded to her feet. “Aspen?”

“Hey, little sister,” the other dryad said brightly, skipping across the room to give her a hug.

“I didn’t feel you coming!”

“I wasn’t attuning… Wait, you are? I don’t know how you can stand it, all the arcane on this crazy mountain. It’s like bees in my head.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad…”

“Uh, hi,” Gabriel said awkwardly to the other person who entered more sedately. “It’s, uh… Inger, right?”

“Ingvar,” the Huntsman corrected, bowing. “A pleasure to see you all again.”

“Likewise, and sorry. I’m awful with names. Anything that requires me to remember stuff, really. My grades are a disgrace.”

Ingvar smiled at him, then his expression sobered as he panned it across the room and those assembled, settling on the model in the middle. “The Inspector asked us to participate in your attempt to catch this Sleeper, but I’m afraid that’s all we know of the matter.”

“You know about the Sleeper?” Teal asked.

He nodded to her. “The salient points, I believe. Per Professor Tellwyrn’s invitation, we have been exploring the campus, and had several interesting conversations with both students and faculty.”

“I have never had so many people in such a short time try to have sex with me,” Aspen said, tossing her hair. “They’ve got some ideas about dryads on this mountain, Juniper. What exactly have you been doing?”

“Oh, help yourself,” Juniper said breezily. “It’s all in good fun; I’m not territorial about anyone here. Just don’t hurt anybody.”

Ingvar gave them a level look. Aspen met his gaze sidelong, then shook her head. “I was just…commenting. I’m not really in the mood.”

“Fascinating as that is,” said Fedora, “and believe me, I’m taking notes, I asked them here for a reason.”

“Just a sec,” Aspen interrupted, pointing at him. “You guys do know this fellow’s a demon, right?”

“He is not much of one,” Scorn grunted, “but yes, we are aware.”

“I guess that’s all right, then.”

“You knew that, and you followed him in here anyway?” Ruda grinned. “Points for balls.”

“He has government credentials,” Ingvar said mildly, “and I found it distressingly easy to believe that Imperial Intelligence would employ a demon. Besides, it seemed very unlikely that a demon would wish to start trouble in Professor Tellwyrn’s domain. Or with a daughter of Naiya.”

“Damn skippy,” Aspen said smugly.

Fedora rolled his eyes. “The point was, the logistical weak point in this plan has always been getting to the Sleeper both quickly and silently when he attacks; we want to nab him, not spook him into flight, and we have neither the forces to quarter the campus nor a means of staying in communication. So we’ll have to start from this position, reach the Sleeper unseen when the alarm goes off, and apprehend him there. To that end, I should think the inclusion of another dryad is obvious; there’s not a damn thing any warlock can do to her.”

“Dryads are not built for speed,” Toby said. “We unfortunately found that out the hard way in the Golden Sea.”

“Excuse you?” Aspen said disdainfully. “Let’s see a show of hands: who here has run down a gazelle?”

Hers was the only hand that went up.

“We’re not good at protracted running,” Juniper explained, “which is what we did wrong then.”

“That barely scratches the fuckin’ surface of what we did wrong then,” Ruda muttered.

“In a sprint,” Juniper continued, “Aspen’s right, a dryad can match basically any land animal, as long as it doesn’t drag on for more than a couple minutes. We should be able to get across campus quickly and without tiring.”

“And I brought a little something to give you kids a…boost,” Fedora said with a leer. “Check it out!”

He grasped the lapels of his trench coat and yanked it open wide; almost everyone averted their eyes, some with yells of protest. Ruda and Scorn, by contrast, straightened up, peering interestedly.

“Oh, he has potions,” Gabriel said a moment later. “Well, that’s…actually helpful.”

“Courtesy of your own Professor Rafe,” Fedora said, winking. “True invisibility is…well, possible, but has side effects and that’s made from expensive stuff; I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to hand those out. But camouflage and attention deflection we have!”

“I’ve some gifts along those lines myself,” Gabriel said.

“More to the point,” Fedora continued, closing his coat, “is that Ingvar should be able to shut down shadow-jumping in a localized area. He did during the hellgate crisis last year in Tiraas.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ingvar said evenly.

Fedora winked at him. “Imperial security clearance, second class, remember? Your commitment to discretion is laudable, Huntsman, but I already know.”

Ingvar sighed. “…fine. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t just do that on my own. The ritual requires a shaman.”

“You know the ritual?”

“Yes,” the Huntsman said patiently, “but without the power…”

“We have here,” Fedora said with unspeakable smugness, “two dryads and a pixie magician who is something of a prodigy in weaving together different schools of magic. We have the knowledge of the ritual, basically infinite access to fae magic, and the capacity to jury-rig any gaps in our expertise. We can spot the Sleeper striking, sneak up on him hopefully undetected, and cut off his escape. We could very well end this tonight, kids. Let’s get to work.”


“The systems to which you have access contain an abundance of scientific literature, including complete courses of education. If you are interested in science—which I heartily applaud—I strongly recommend perusing those, rather than talking with anyone who was alive during the Infinite Order’s reign. Their perspective is likely to be…tainted.”

“Tainted?” Milanda asked. “How would… Look, honestly, Avatar, I don’t think I can handle any more grand revelations today. I’m just trying to figure out how much Walker can be trusted. Was she telling me the truth or not?”

“I am not trying to obfuscate,” the AI said apologetically. “The matter simply isn’t so cut and dried. Walker’s description of the Infinite Order itself seems accurate. Among other preoccupations, they were prone to favor mystical interpretations of scientific facts whenever such seemed at all viable, and some branches of theoretical physics make such interpretations very tempting indeed. And that is only speaking of their initial mindset, before they deliberately muddied the waters further. The Pantheon’s revolt was the first to succeed, not the first to occur. Long before they rose, the Infinite Order had chosen to deter further such incidents by, among other measures, obscuring the knowledge that could lead to the development of transcension field technology.”

Milanda took a step. She was talking with the Avatar in his apparatus attached to the gate, rather than going to the Nexus; so far, they had privacy, the dryads being off who knew where. It was rather inconvenient, however. The little planetoid rotated at much less than a walking pace, so she could neither stand still nor stroll alongside the gate, being forced to catch up with it in small increments every minute or so.

“So…what she said about the universe and consciousness, that wasn’t true? Frankly it makes little difference to me; I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist. I just want to form an understanding of the…entity I’m working with, and whether I can trust what she says.”

“I have no insight into the Walker’s state of mind,” the Avatar said diplomatically. “It seems to me, however, that if she wished to deceive you, it would be with regard to current, practical matters, not ancient history or arcane science. And with regard to the question of accuracy, it isn’t so much that her described worldview is incorrect as that she, along with most of her generation, were taught a…liberal and even metaphorical understanding of the science in question, designed to engender a sense of awe and purpose rather than rational comprehension. She isn’t provably wrong, but invested in a line of inquiry which would not lead to useful technology if pursued to its logical conclusion. As a layperson’s means of understanding the basis of transcension technology, it is…good enough.”

“Not dishonest, necessarily, but also not necessarily right,” Milanda murmured. “Well, that is certainly relevant to my basic concern…”

“The answers to those questions were among the reasons for the Ascension Project itself. Some aspects of quantum mechanics are simply impossible for biological sapients to explore without transcending their mental limits in some way. It is perhaps significant that the events of this planet’s creation were all one grand experiment to test the hypothesis which was the foundation of the Infinite Order’s beliefs. That experiment was a resounding failure—but whether because the hypothesis was incorrect remains untested, as the Order’s gradual breakdown over the ensuing years fouled it beyond redemption.”

“You make it sound like I’m nudging at the central question of all life on this world.”

“Arguably the central question of existence itself, and of particular interested to the development of life on this specific world.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, I think we can safely assume I’m not going to solve that one. And, more to the point, I can probably stop listening when she goes on about the past. She does love to explain things. Makes sense, considering how long it’s been since she had an audience… But with all respect, I have little interest in either advanced science or the, uh, historical novels she suggested.”

“I am not sure that I would agree,” said the Avatar. “I infer that you are more interested in practical things?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “Beyond the immediate situation… History, politics, psychology. People skills, things I can use.”

“That being the case, one approach to improving your present situation would be to research the technology used in this facility, so as to repair and even reconfigure the system governing the Hands. That, however, would necessitate years of intensive study at minimum. A faster method would involve making the most effective use of the resources already in place, in which case, any insight you gain into the mindset of the people who built them, not to mention your current companion, could be immediately useful. In short, I think you will find it very practical indeed to listen to the Walker. Just not, necessarily, to take her at face value. Ah, program compiled.”

A small, metal-bound crystal like the one he had given her before emerged from a slot in the side of the gate apparatus, next to the screen in which his purple image was projected.

“Walker, or anyone basically familiar with the Order’s computers, should be able to use that software with relative ease, assuming I have done my job adequately,” the Avatar said as she retrieved the crystal. “It presents a streamlined and user-friendly interface governing connections between the facility’s sub-OS and any other systems, which should enable her to access them, acquire relevant data, and take counter-action as necessary. The end result will not be as potent or efficient as the efforts of a skilled hacker, but given your particular situation, it should hopefully suffice. Respect for the security protocols we established is built in, as well. You will need to authorize her access to each activation of the program. I recommend supervising her, as well.”

“Understood,” she said with a smile, bouncing the crystal on the palm of her hand. “And thank you.”

“One more thing, if I may.” A second data crystal emerged from the slot. “Do be careful not to confuse the two; this portable drive contains some reading material I think you will find both enjoyable and useful.”

“Oh?” She pulled it carefully out, noting that this one had a red marking around its metal rim.

“On that drive are the complete works of Robert Greene, a political philosopher of very pragmatic bent who, incidentally, was a personal favorite of Avei, Vidius, and Eserion. I recommend beginning with The 48 Laws of Power; it is considered definitive. As a successful Imperial courtier, I think you may find him more to your taste than Tolkien.”

“I…see,” she said slowly, then tilted her head and gave his projection a long, considering look. The Avatar’s expression was blandly neutral as always. “Wouldn’t these writings be in the computers up there, as well?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “But so long as you read them specifically from that portable drive, then remove it from the computer when you are done and keep it on your person, there will remain no record of what you have been reading. I leave the matter to your discretion, of course, but it seems to me it might be disadvantageous for the Dark Walker to be perusing ruthless political philosophy, or to know that you have been. I have, over the last few years, acquired some skill at managing daughters of Naiya. A good rule of thumb is that what they don’t know hurts no one.”

“You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?” she said thoughtfully.

The Avatar’s simulated expression did not waver. “My maker, Tarthriss, sided with the Pantheon during their rebellion. Upon his demise and that of the Infinite Order itself, the Avatars were left more or less at liberty—whatever use that may be, since most of the Order’s surviving facilities are now abandoned and inaccessible. Our only guiding principle is now Tarthriss’s final directive: to assist the sapients residing on this world to the best of our ability. The means by which we do so is left largely to our discretion.

“Empress Theasia I found to be a most admirable person in many respects; based on what I have learned of recent history, it seems that she was a very necessary stabilizing force against the chaos of the time in which she lived. But a stabilizing force can easily become the opposite, if given access to the wrong kind of power.”

“And Emperor Sharidan?” she asked quietly.

“He appears a more conservative and sympathetic ruler by nature. To be sure, he will not rule forever, but the present must be considered as well as the future. My position here, Milanda, is part of a series of compromises I have made with reality, and will continue to make as necessary. But in light of the current situation, I begin to think that perhaps it is time for the people of this world—in a careful and controlled manner, of course—to be reintroduced to some of their heritage.”

Milanda frowned, then turned to her right—the planetoid’s north, where the Nexus lay at its pole. “A week ago I was an Imperial consort. It was a cushy position, frankly. Peaceful. The entire job description was ‘make the Emperor happy’—and my Emperor in particular is an easygoing man. Now… No matter how this business with the Hands and whoever is invading the system ends, it’s only going to get bigger and more complex, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “I am not ready for this.”

“I advise eschewing that thought,” the Avatar said gently. “No one is ever ready, truly. What will matter is not how ready you were at the outset, but how well you faced what circumstance dealt you. And that you will only be able to tell when it is all done.”

“It’s never going to be all done. Nothing ever is.”

He smiled. “Precisely.”

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12 – 23

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“Any problems?”

Milanda glanced up at the door, where Walker had appeared, and shook her head. “No…just more junk. I ended up piling it on the other beds, so I could reach the…you know.” She waved vaguely at the other end of the barracks.

The room was long and narrow, rather like a corridor branching off from the security hub. Immediately inside the door from the hub was a seating area, lined by generously padded square benches, with low tables in front of them. Then it descended six steps to its main, central section, where the walls were lined by double bunk beds, four on a side. These, too, were well-padded; Milanda had cleared off the one closest to the door and on the bottom right. Past the sleeping area, six more steps climbed back up to the kitchen, where she had identified sinks, a cold box and an oven/stove apparatus, as well as half a dozen more devices whose purpose was inscrutable to her. A door behind the kitchen led to a small room containing toilets and showers. In design, the barracks sort of reminded her of the belly of a ship, except for its squared edges. Every section of wall not covered by beds or other furniture appeared to be a screen, each currently displaying the symbol which she by now assumed was the sigil of the Infinite Order.

Like the security hub, they had found the room full of junk once it was unsealed. Milanda had stacked crates, boxes, tools, and garments on all of the beds except the one she’d chosen, and the bunk directly above. Walker had claimed to need no sleep, but it seemed inhospitable not to at least make some little arrangement for her.

“Hm.” Walker’s eyes flicked dispassionately across the room. “If this ends up taking more than a few days, it may profit us to take an inventory of all these containers. What’s in them might be useful. Or dangerous. At the least, it doesn’t belong…piled around, like this. It looks like the default environment; is it to your liking?”

Milanda frowned. “The…environment? Well, the whole place is generally sterile, despite being messy. I can’t say I would want to live here.”

“No, I meant the controls for…” Walker trailed off, then smiled slightly. “Well, let me show you. Computer, load environment preset: Hawaiian night.”

Silence.

“I suppose that only makes sense,” Walker said ruefully. “You try.”

Milanda gave her a dubious look, getting only a mildly expectant one in return, then sighed. “Computer…do what she said.”

Immediately the light dropped to the level that might be provided by a full moon on a clear night. A moment later, the air warmed, the humidity rose significantly, and the scent of greenery, flowers, and the salty ocean breeze suffused the room; in fact, a faint, warm wind was now blowing through. The sounds of the ocean and of chirping insects and night birds filled the air. Most amazingly, all of the viewscreens paneling the walls activated, showing a scene of a nocturnal beach, the ocean stretching away in one direction and a distant, forested rise of mountains in the other, as if they were all windows looking out over a scene upon which the barracks sat.

Milanda gasped, and then could only gape. The detail was amazing… It all seemed so real.

“It has a number of preset arrangements,” Walker said, looking pleased by her reaction. “You can change the individual factors to suit you, though. Temperature, humidity, background noise, aroma, view… You can also add fog or light rain, though those aren’t part of the preset suites by default. In theory, it could do heavy rain or snow, but you’d need to get in there and monkey with the settings, since they aren’t considered part of an indoor environment anybody would want. The furnishings should be impervious, but be sure to remove anything fragile if you’re gonna add precipitation. You’re lucky; this room’s previous occupants had to argue with fifteen other people about the environmental arrangements.”

“This is unbelievable,” Milanda whispered, turning in a slow circle to gaze around at the room. It was just like being outside on a beach. In fact…amazing as this was, she rather doubted she’d be able to sleep with it like this. Presumably the computer could give her something that felt a little less exposed.

“Anyway, I’ve made some progress out here, too,” Walker said, turning and walking back into the hub. “Come see.”

Following her was like stepping indoors; the door hissed shut behind her, cutting off the Hawaiian night and leaving them again trapped in the Infinite Order’s sterile environs. There was a change in the room since Milanda had gone to arrange the barracks: above the central structure around which the computer terminals were arranged, there was now projected a luminous, transparent model of the whole facility, with the faint outline of the mountain itself around it. Being almost a full story tall, it gave her a much better sense of the scale of the place than the much smaller map out in the corridor had. Walker went back toward her selected screen and sat down.

“Basic security’s set up,” Walker reported. “I tested the instructions you gave the computer, just for thoroughness’s sake, and it’s fine. The door outside will remain hidden unless one of us orders it activated, so the Hands shouldn’t be able to find this place. Didn’t test the alarms, obviously, but there’s not reason to think they won’t work. We should have warning when they’re in the facility. I’ve been checking over the facility as a whole to see what’s what.” She pointed at the floating, three-dimensional map. “The yellow marks are corpses of sapients.”

“Not very many,” Milanda murmured. At a glance, she could only see half a dozen of them, scattered throughout the whole structure.

“It gets more interesting. The blue ones represent life forms held in suspended animation.”

“Suspended…?”

“Asleep, but preserved, and alive. In theory, ready to be awakened. There are usually some health issues associated with awakening from long suspension, but fairly minor ones. If we activated the requisite medical drones first, they should be fine.”

“These are people?” Milanda asked, fascinated. Several dozen blue marks were scattered across the map. “Actual, living people, from the time of the Elder Gods?”

“No, just life forms that someone considered important to preserve. Sapients in suspension are identified by green marks. Look, down here; this is a medical wing, and the only place that has any.”

Indeed, in the small room to which she pointed, there was a whole row of green person-shaped icons, each marked by floating notations which made little sense to her. Seven of them.

“Who are they?”

“The computer does not know,” Walker said, giving her a significant look. “Which is way against procedure. Somebody took the good time and trouble to erase that data. Look, if you mean to leave this facility open and explore it in the years to come, you or the Emperor or whoever may decide to wake ’em up and see. Personally, I wouldn’t. It would be cruel to just dump them into the world as it is now, and anyway, they stand a very good chance of being far more trouble than they’re worth. Meanwhile, for our purposes, they’re nowhere near here, and I’ll repeat my recommendation that we not open anything up that we don’t expressly need.”

“Agreed,” Milanda murmured, then pointed. “That blue dot, up there… A non-human life form that can be awakened, right? Isn’t that this room?”

Walker turned in the chair to nod at her, then turned further to stare pointedly at the transparent cylinder containing the katzil—or quetzal, as she called it. “That doesn’t look like any suspension chamber I ever saw, but just because standardized designs existed doesn’t mean everybody used them. It’d have to be hooked into the power grid. None of the Order’s portable power sources would have kept running for eight thousand years.”

“Let’s not wake him up,” Milanda said fervently.

“Good call,” Walker replied with a grin. “I just point it out, because it means we can’t move that thing out of here without disconnecting it. Which might kill it, or wake it up, depending on how it’s set up.”

“Well, I guess it’s not hurting anything, sitting there. What’s this big room, next to the sleeping people?”

Indeed, the medical wing containing the green marks was adjacent to the second largest open space indicated on the map, dwarfed only by a vast round chamber far below it containing a hovering sphere, which had to be the tiny planet where the dryads lived. That whole space was well below sea level, reached only by a few descending shafts, and seemed to have a diameter comparable to the whole size of the city above. The room to which she pointed was long and much wider than tall, apparently butting right up against the base of the mountain, just above the sea level. In fact, it looked like it should open out onto the ocean itself, though there was assuredly no sign of any such thing visible from without.

“Shuttle hangar,” said Walker, standing and sticking her finger into the display to indicate the labeled shapes arranged within. “Larger ships parked on the flat top of the mountain, but several ranking members of the Order kept personal spacecraft in there. Just status symbols, really. Ascended beings have no need of vehicles, but having fancy ships to carry one’s personal staff around was a grand affectation.”

“You mean, there are working vehicles down there?” Milanda said, fascinated. “Ships that can travel off the planet?”

“No, it’s empty. If I ever have a god of the Pantheon at my mercy, I’m going to make them explain to me what happened at this port complex. Everything’s stacked in boxes, there are hardly any bodies, so the place was evacuated. All the shuttles are gone, but something hit the mountaintop above hard enough to melt it. People in suspension… And why was the only open part a prison wing? The whole thing doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not empty,” Milanda protested, pointing. “Look, I can see the ships! They have labels and everything.”

“That’s not a live feed; it’s showing you the reserved berths. Look, see how they’re outlined in red? That means the ships themselves aren’t there, it’s just displaying where each one goes. Trust me, I checked. There are no spacecraft or even pieces of them anywhere in here, not even the little maintenance skiffs that should be tucked away in various access compartments. That means somebody went to serious effort to remove them.”

“I see,” Milanda murmured in disappointment. She rose up on her toes to peer closely at the ships’ outlines, which didn’t give her much insight into what they looked like. Their profiles certainly resembled nothing she would have thought of as a ship. The labels were interesting, though. “Are these their names?”

“Yes. And those of their owners.”

“It’s funny…”

“Oh?”

She shook her head. “The way you describe the Infinite Order, I’d have expected more pomp and grandiosity. Like this one, Enterprise. That seems fitting. But some of these are so…whimsical. Dawn Treader, Heart of Gold…” She frowned and leaned closer. “…Beans With Bacon Megarocket?”

“Bunch of dorks,” Walker muttered, turning back to her terminal and tapping the screen.

Milanda backed away from the map and blinked at her. “Bunch of…”

“And about a hundred years too late for it to be trendy, so I understand. The Order were a pretty tight-knit group, and had some very particular interests in common. That’s why I pointed you at Tolkien. Some of their shared hang-ups explain a lot about the general state of affairs on this planet, even now.” She shook her head, grimacing. “Nobody on Earth was sorry to see them leave. That had more to do with their attitude than their hobbies, though.”

“The way you were talking earlier, I thought you were born on this world. You also got to visit…Earth?” She wondered, but did not ask, if there was any significance to the fact that the origin planet shared a name with a Tanglish word for dirt. Actually, most of the things she’d heard her own world called meant something similar…

“No,” Walker said tersely, shaking her head again. “This solar system has been dimensionally isolated since long before my sisters and I came along. That was one of the first things they did. I did some research, though, and Mother was sometimes willing to answer questions, if I caught her in the right mood. It was impossible not to wonder, born as I was into a world governed by all-powerful beings, most of whom were late in the process of going completely mad. The history was fascinating to me, and important. Anything to help me understand where it all came from… What it all meant.”

Milanda seated herself next to Walker, then leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and stared expectantly at her.

Walker gave her a sidelong look, continuing to poke at the screens in front of her. For a few long moments she was silent. Then…

“Humans need something to believe in. They need faith, and to be part of something larger than themselves. The physical universe is just not enough; a human being requires purpose. Religion has been part of your species as long as it has existed, which is a very different fact to you than to your distant ancestors, because you live in a world in which gods are a real, verifiable thing. On Earth, they weren’t…but religions were. Some were systems of principle, sort of like the dwarven animism around what they call the Light. Many, though, posited divine objects of worship, which clearly did not exist. And the irrationality that resulted in this has caused untold war, suffering, and subjugation throughout the long history of your race.

“As science advanced, atheism rose as a coherent system of thought, and gradually gained traction, but never grew to be more than a minority. It didn’t address the fundamental, emotional need people had for faith, for purpose. That is what gave rise to the Infinite Order. They were, in essence, a cult which worshiped science. Reason was their doctrine, engineering their sacrament. They were trying to reconcile the emotional need for belief with the practical need for rationality. And…no, they were not well thought of. Neither atheists nor the faithful of the old cults appreciated the competition. Honestly,” she added somewhat sourly, “they brought the worst of it on themselves, managing to combine atheistic condescension with religious sanctimony. Their arrogance was really something to behold. ‘Infinite Order’ is a fair enough name for a group of people who bent reality to their will, created a whole world and all its inhabitants… But they called themselves that from the very beginning, starting when it was among the most staggeringly pretentious things anyone on their world had ever done.”

“I suppose I understand why they wanted to become gods, then,” Milanda murmured.

“Not really,” Walker said with a humorless little smile. She had already stopped tapping the screen, and now shifted to face her audience more directly as she continued. “The Order never particularly cared what anyone thought of them—or so they insisted in the records they left here. Personally, I strongly suspect they resented their rejection by society and spent the next few thousand years denying it, just because that would be consistent with their personalities as I observed them. But that’s only my opinion. Regardless, what they were trying to do here… The Ascension Project… That was something much greater.”

She finally shifted fully to face Milanda, her expression solemn. “In the beginning, in the very beginning, all existence started. There was nothing but heat and the base elements, exploding outward for a near infinity of time. As the deep ages passed, material coalesced together due to gravity, eventually forming the first stars. The stars lived, burned, and billions of years later, died, exploding and spewing out dust and elements refined in their cosmic furnaces. This detritus drifted through the void, becoming the interstellar dust clouds, showers of debris, some of it forming together to make new stars…and planets. On some planets, the right combination of elements occurred to spark self-replicating chemical reactions—life. Living things evolved, growing gradually more and more complex, until some produced sapience.

“At the most fundamental level, Milanda, when you peer closely at what matter and energy truly are, it turns out that they are mostly nothing. Things are made of molecules; molecules are made of atoms; atoms are little more than infinitesimal electric charges and patterns of probability. Mass is illusion; existence is built of stacked-up equations. And among the most startling discoveries in the history of science is that on that basic level, the constituent particles of reality respond to consciousness. What they do depends entirely on what they are observed to do. By being an intelligent thing examining the building blocks of the universe, one determines how those blocks are laid. To observe is to affect.”

“Magic,” Milanda whispered, nodding.

“Not exactly,” Walker said with a wry grin. “That’s jumping ahead a bit. The Infinite Order held central the belief that reality, the collective laws of physics, was a conscious thing, and the physical universe was its attempt to understand itself, possibly to reach its own fulfillment. Evolution marked the long process from base elements to sapient life, and was a purposeful and meaningful event. They believed their goal here, ascension, was both the ultimate scientific and spiritual objective of all life, of all reality. By remaking themselves as beings not bound by their biological shells, they sought to advance the goal of the universe itself. To move beyond evolution, outside the cycle… To give meaning to existence by transcending it, seeing what lay before the big bang and after the heat death of the universe.”

“I guess I was right, then,” Milanda murmured. “Grandiosity hardly begins to cover it.”

Walker smiled again. “Yes. I think it actually was a noble goal… It’s a shame how it turned out, for more reasons than the suffering they ended up causing. The only thing the Ascension Project ultimately proved is that absolute power is psychologically unhealthy for sapient minds. Which, frankly, was a matter of open record and didn’t need to be validated. In a way,” she said with a sigh, “this…all this, this world and everything that has happened on it, has ended up being history’s grandest and most cosmic waste of everyone’s time.”

The silence hung over them, Milanda having caught some of Walker’s suddenly morose mood. It was, indeed, a heavy thing to consider. Before depression could begin to set in, she shook herself and spoke.

“But…you talked about consciousness affecting the basic structure of reality. I’m no mage or enchanter by any means, but that sounds a lot like the underlying theory of magic. I’ve read a little about arcane physics. The math is way over my head, but the concepts are actually rather beautiful.”

“Quantum physics,” Walker replied with a faint smile. “But yes. That…is not what magic is, but how magic works. Objective physics become subjective, physical reactions occur in response to thought. That’s the nature and the function of transcension fields.”

“It sounds like the Elders needed magic, needed their transcension fields, to achieve ascension.”

“Yes.” Walker nodded. “It’s an absolutely necessary part of the process. You see, quantum physics is materially useless to most people most of the time, because it governs interactions they’ll never see. It takes very advanced experiments even to observe quantum effects; for the rest of all interactions, human perception doesn’t initiate wave function collapse because humans cannot percieve the infinitesimal particles involved. And if they could, the number of such interactions it would take to achieve a macroscopically useful effect would be in the trillions, far more computations than a human mind could possibly make. Transcension fields bridge these gaps. They interface between sapient perception and the subatomic world, and they perform the necessary calculations to turn countless wave function collapses into, say, a fireball or luck enchantment. They have a third purpose: to impose limits, and order. That’s why individual transcension fields—individual schools of magic—have their own unique traits and interactions. Obviously, you cannot have every stray thought every sapient produces affecting physical reality; the carnage that would result would be unimaginable. The fields impose limits, of whatever nature seemed most appropriate to their makers.

“Magic is not power, you see. The power is inherent in reality; there’s enough fundamental energy in a square meter of space to instantly vaporize the world’s oceans. Magic is…” She paused, tilted her head to one side in thought, then smiled. “Data processing.”

Slowly, Milanda stood. Without really meaning to, she began to walk, gradually making a full circuit around the central structure of the chamber, navigating around upended chairs and piles of boxes without really seeing them.

She was a practical person, at heart. Politics, history, human relationships, those were the things she found interesting. Art and music and the like, sure. Philosophy had always been an annoying abstraction to her, advanced magic a useful science whose benefits she appreciated in society, but which was the province of other people to actually perform and understand. Having the central mysteries of the universe dropped right in front of her, having answers provided to staggering questions she’d never even thought to ask…

It was quite a mouthful to chew.

“Anyway,” Walker said suddenly, causing Milanda to twitch in surprise and stop walking. Without realizing it, she’d done a complete circuit of the chamber and come abreast of Walker’s station again. “There’s been no further visit from our mysterious friend, but I’ve been doing what I can to prepare for him. I have to tell you, though, that I’m somewhat less confident than I was.”

“Oh? What’s wrong?” Milanda asked, turning to her and glad to have something more immediate and concrete upon which to focus.

“As I said before,” Walker explained, “I think I can shut him out easily enough. The system’s inherent defenses should be more than adequate; all we would have to do is turn them back on. What’s tricky is taking the opportunity to identify and retaliate.”

“If it’s at all possible, I would still like to do that.”

Walker nodded. “Then…I may need help. I can use the computers just fine, Milanda, they’re designed to be simple. Getting into their deeper functions is another matter. I’m not a programmer…and just for the record, while I was made with the knowledge of how to operate systems like these, I haven’t done so in over eight millennia.”

“You’re rusty?” Milanda asked with a smile.

“I can figure it out,” Walker said a little testily, “but that will take time. I’ve been researching methods here—fortunately, these systems contain literature on every conceivable subject. But we’re talking about me acquiring a level of skill at hacking that we don’t have time for, with the Hands up there running loose. We need to deal with this guy before we can start putting the system right. This is your project, so I’ll leave the decision to you: shut him out and proceed straight to repairs, or try to engage and neutralize him more permanently?”

Milanda frowned. “Can you think of anything to make this faster? More feasible?”

“Yes,” Walker said immediately. “Ask the Avatar for help. He could do this as easily as you can breathe, but he’s not here. If he’s got an apparatus down there that lets him produce data crystals, though, I bet he can put together a program that will make all this much easier. You can plug that into the console up here, and it’ll make my job a lot easier, if not do it for me outright. A fully automated program is probably too much to hope for, but if he can give me a software suite that’ll let me engage an intruder and counter him without needing to know the ins and outs of the sub-OS’s digital architecture, that will help immensely.”

“All right,” Milanda said, nodding. “It sounds like a plan. I’m too keyed up to try sleeping, anyway; I might as well go talk to him.”

“You’ll be wanting to do that in any case,” Walker added with a smile. “If what they did to you is anything like what they do to the Hands of the Emperor, you’ll have gained a lot more by it than strength, vitality, and immunity to fae effects. The Hands have powers unique to the individual, which they need some individual coaching to master; considering what we’re up against, it seems a shame for you to be walking around carrying abilities like that, and not know how to use them.”

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12 – 22

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“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Danny said cheerfully, rubbing a plate dry with a towel. “Almost fun, in a way!”

“Fun,” Sanjay repeated, shooting him a sidelong look.

Their houseguest grinned. “Satisfying, at least. You do the thing, and the thing is done—there’s an inherent substance to it. Or maybe I’m just glad it’s not turned out to be as onerous as Lakshmi suggested. She made it sound like I was being sent to a salt mine.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Shmi for you,” Sanjay said with a shrug, rinsing off a cup. “Always gotta mess with everybody’s head. And she wonders why she’s still single.”

“I can hear you,” Lakshmi shouted from the next room.

“Seems like an Eserite thing, doesn’t it?” Danny remarked, stacking the plate and reaching for the next one waiting in the strainer.

Sanjay snorted. “So, really? You’ve never washed dishes before?”

“Technically, I still haven’t. It’s my fond hope that, in my time with you, I’ll earn enough trust to work my way up from drying.”

“Yeah, but…never?”

“Not once,” Danny mused, eyes on his current plate. “I can’t recall ever actually cleaning anything in my life. Never cooked, either, or had to fix anything…”

Sanjay let out a low whistle and shook his head. “Must be pretty damn nice.”

“Watch your language!” his sister barked from the living room. Danny and Sanjay exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

“It’s been a charmed life, I must admit,” Danny continued, now working on the last plate, while Sanjay loaded the last cup into the strainer and began scrubbing the silverware. “It’s not that I’ve been bored… Actually, they keep me pretty busy. There are always decisions to be made, things to organize, people I have to coddle or bully or placate. Honestly, they keep me busy from dawn till dusk, most days.”

“You poor baby,” Sanjay said, completely without sympathy.

Danny grinned as he continued talking and working. “In terms of just…day to day tasks, like this? The things everybody has to do to take care of themselves? I’ve never had to learn. I didn’t test it, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been allowed to learn, even if I’d tried. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to do… Anything. If I ever lose my position permanently, I’m going to be pretty well screwed.”

Sanjay snuck a glance up at the man; he was frowning pensively at the cups as he rubbed water from them with the dampening towel. Initially, he’d found little to respect in the well-groomed, sweet-smelling, uncalloused and unfairly handsome man who had been inexplicably in his home when he got back from school. Danny was personable and hard not to like, though. And now, incredibly, he began to seem actually sympathetic.

“Didja ever think about just…running away?”

“I did, actually!” Danny’s expression brightened, and he winked, lowering his voice. “When I was younger, my best friend and I used to sneak out all the time, to go drinking and chase girls. My mother came down on that pretty hard when she found out, so that was that. It’s a shame I was so young and dumb, then; I could’ve been teaching myself all sorts of useful things instead.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Sanjay said airily. “Sounds like you had your priorities in the right order!” Danny laughed obligingly.

Lakshmi’s face appeared around the doorframe, wearing a suspicious expression. “What are you two snickering about in here?”

“Nothing,” they chorused, turning innocent looks on her.

“Omnu’s balls, that’s disturbing,” she muttered, scowling at them before retreating.

“You hear that?” Sanjay complained. “And then she tells me to watch my language.”

“Well, half the fun of being older is being able to be hypocritical about stuff like that,” Danny said cheerfully. “Wait till you have kids of your own, and you can spend your time making them crazy. I’m told that’s the whole attraction.”

“About running away, though,” Sanjay said more thoughtfully as he deposited the last fork in the strainer and let the water out of the sink. “I meant, like…more permanently.”

Danny’s smile turned wistful. “You know what, I actually do think about it with some regularity. It’s a pretty stressful job, being responsible for people.”

“I bet having your a—” He broke off, darting a glance at the door to the living room. “…getting catered to hand and foot all the time helps.”

“It sure does,” Danny said frankly. “Not gonna lie, the perks are pretty da—pretty nice.” He, too, glanced at the door, then winked. “But they’re not what stops me. The truth is, I enjoy the work, even as tiring as it is. It’s satisfying. I get to make a difference and actually help a lot of people. And…when I mess up, a lot of people can suffer.” His expression faded to a frown and he paused in drying the silverware to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of them. “I sort of feel I blew my chance to walk away the first time I let a bunch of people down in a way that has real consequences for them. You can’t make something like that go away, you know? There’s nothing to do but keep going forward. With every success, I feel more motivated… With every failure, I feel more responsible.”

“Sounds grim,” Sanjay murmured.

“Well, standing here, right now, my recommendation is that if you ever have the option to step into a noble’s place, don’t. This seems much more…free.” He shrugged. “Truthfully, though, I probably know as little about your life as you do about mine. So my opinion there probably isn’t worth much.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree on that one,” Sanjay said with a grin. “The last part. If I ever get the chance to step into a noble’s place, I’m gonna be all over that.”

“Where do these fellows live?” Danny asked, patting the short stack of plates.

“Top cabinet, to your left, there.” He watched Danny put dishes away in silence for a moment. “How do you learn that? Do they have special schools for nobles?”

“Oh, yes,” Danny said. “Expensive ones.”

“Naturally.”

“Silverware?”

“In the drawer, right in front of you.”

“Thanks. And yeah, there are classes in things like economics… Mostly, though, the craft of ruling is taught a lot the way the Thieves’ Guild trains its apprentices. You learn it by being coached by someone who’s done it a lot longer.”

“Most of the Eserites I know think nobles are worse thieves than they are,” Sanjay said skeptically, folding his arms and leaning against the sink.

“Most of the nobles I’ve met think Eserites are basically boogeymen,” Danny said frankly. “My feeling is both are right. I’ve known aristocrats who I have to say are completely useless human beings, and a few—more than a few—who I’d call outright monsters. The thing is… You see that everywhere, I think. But nobles are supposed to be responsible for a lot. When a leader is useless or evil, it does a great deal more damage than when an average person is.”

“I guess that makes sense. I haven’t met any nobles—before you, I mean—but I’ve met some pretty useless idiots and ass— Jerks.” He shot a look at the doorway and rolled his eyes. “People I’d hate to see in charge of anything.”

“Yeah. The reverse is true, though.” Danny shut the silverware drawer and gave him a contemplative look. “You may not learn about it directly, considering where and how you’re growing up, but it seems like a disproportionate number of the Eserites I end up hearing about are some really vile individuals. Maybe—”

“OI.” A paperback book came sailing through the door and bounced off the wall a few feet from them. “So help me, if I catch you trying to turn my brother against our religion, I will glue your dick to your leg while you sleep, and Sweet can whine about it all he likes!”

“Yep,” Sanjay said quietly, grinning. “Still single.”

“Aw, now, a lot of gentlemen go for women with spirit!”

“Ew.” The boy wrinkled his nose. “That’s my sister. I don’t need to be thinking about that!”

“You’re probably right,” Danny said gravely. “It’s for the best.”

“Anyway, that’s not the same, though,” Sanjay said thoughtfully. “Nobles and thieves. Or nobles and anything else, really. You can apprentice to be a thief no matter who you are. Legacy families are actually pretty rare in the Guild; most Eserites come from other places, other cults, even. And, like, most crafts are that way. There are some family businesses, but I think most people come to their trade because they have talent for it, or just want to do it.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Danny acknowledged, turning to lean against the wall next to the sink and face him directly.

“Nobles, though, you have to be born noble.”

“Mm…not necessarily. That’s the most common way, sure. You can also marry into nobility, or be adopted.”

“Come on, how often does that happen?”

“Less often than it should,” Danny said ruminatively. “I think it would help keep the Houses fresh. You know, House Madouri has always made a point of marrying commoners, seeking out fresh blood. And they’ve been actual rulers of Tiraan Province for a thousand years, longer than almost any other House has even existed. I think there’s a lesson in that.”

“Does your House do that?”

“No, actually, my House is too young for that to have been a factor. And that’s the other thing. You always have to keep in mind that nobles got noble in the first place by accomplishing something, and then capitalizing on it. The gods didn’t select the Houses.” He smiled. “I’d have thought the Guild would make a point of mentioning that.”

“Well, I’m not old enough for proper Guild training yet, but yeah…I’ve heard that idea mentioned a time or two,” Sanjay admitted, grinning ruefully. “From Eserites and Punaji both. Shmi always says, the only reason she’s comfortable raising me outside Punaji culture is that Eserite culture is pretty much the same thing, with less fish.”

Danny laughed at that; Sanjay, emboldened, went on.

“So where’s your House from?”

“To the north of here,” Danny said vaguely.

Sanjay rolled his eyes dramatically. “Danny, Tiraas is on the southern coast. Everything is north of here.”

“Sanjay.” Lakshmi appeared in the door again. “That’s called an evasive answer, and you know it. Danny is in hiding, we’re being paid to help him, and we don’t ask questions about other people’s jobs.” She glanced back and forth between them and grimaced. “You know what, if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. And you,” she added, pointing balefully at her guest, “if you’re just gonna encourage him anyway, you can help him.”

“Sounds good!” Danny said gamely, even as Sanjay groaned. “More education! I shall be a wiser and stronger man when I go back home.” Lakshmi just snorted and disappeared back into the living room.

“Here,” Sanjay said with poor grace, tossing him a rag he’d just taken from the drawer. “The kitchen’s fine, just fix it up enough she doesn’t have an excuse to complain. Wipe down water off the sink and cabinet, see if you can find dust or something on the shelves. It’s not like we’re gonna be having tea with the Empress in here, anyway,” he added sullenly.

“You’d better hope not,” Danny agreed, already wiping off the edge of the sink. “I hear she’s pretty unforgiving.”

“Have you ever met her?”

“First rule of being powerful: try to stay away from people who are more powerful than you. They’ll cause you all kinds of headaches.”

“Hey, that sounds almost Eserite!” Sanjay glanced at him again, from his position standing on a chair, where he was halfheartedly flicking dust off the top of the cabinets. “So…who taught you? About ruling, I mean. You make it sound like your mother’s sort of strict.”

“Oh, that she was.”

“Was?”

“She’s been gone for a few years now.”

“Oh.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” Danny said, giving him a quick smile. “She wasn’t that bad, though. Yes, she’s the one I learned from, mostly. In a way… Have you ever noticed how you can love someone completely without ever liking them all that much?”

“Yes,” Sanjay said emphatically. “Yes, I have. I think that’s called family.”

“I know where you sleep, y’little brat!”

“And there she is now,” he added, smirking. “Yeah, that’s not just you. That’s everybody’s family.”

“Well, good, I feel a little better about it.” Danny’s smile quickly faded, and he slowed the motion of his hands until he was just leaning on the sink. “I miss her a lot, though. She was my mother and I loved her, but it isn’t just that. I believe I’ll always feel she was just better at this than I’ll ever be. It seems like at least once a day I’ll find myself baffled by something, and my first thought is always, ‘Mother would know what to do.’” The smile returned to his face, more wistful now. “And oddly enough, she still helps me, in that way. Thinking about what she would do always points me toward a solution. Of course, I don’t always do what she’d have done, but it’s a reliable starting point.”

“I didn’t get to know my mother,” Sanjay said quietly, staring at the remaining dust on the cabinet.

“I don’t think you’re right,” Danny said frankly. Sanjay turned to frown at him. “A mother’s a lot more than the person who gave birth to you, I think. You’ve got someone who loves you, provides for you, makes sure you’re getting an education and an upbringing. Someone who cares enough to be certain you go out into the world with the best preparation she knows how to give you. Sorry if I’m being presumptuous, Sanjay, but it seems to me you have as good a mother as anyone can.”

Sanjay coughed awkwardly, his cheeks coloring, and lowered his eyes. A moment later, they both turned, noticing Lakshmi standing silently in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the frame.

“You,” she said to Danny, “are dangerous, aren’t you?”

“Oh, well.” He gave her a disarming smile. “Maybe a little.”


One could usually tell day from night, provided the sky was clear; beyond that, the passage of time in the Twilight Forest was inscrutable. In darkness, the ambient light was pale and blue, while by day it held a golden orange tone, and in either case, a haze hung in the air which inhibited the view even more than the underbrush and the shadows of the massive trees. It never grew brighter or dimmer, though. Dawn was a sudden thing, and dusk such a perpetual state that its arrival was impossible to notice. Aside from the light, it looked very much like any old growth forest, with the occasional path winding around the roots of ancient sentinel trees, and here and there the odd ruin appearing suddenly amid the shadows. The sounds, though, were eerie at best. The noises of insects, birds, and small animals were there, but less than in most such woods, and often one could hear what might have been the distant sound of laughter, the rapid patter of tiny feet, occasionally a note in the wind that could have been the agonized wail of someone far away.

Aside from the odd tauhanwe passing through one of the coastal cities, there were no elves in Sifan, and not because they were made unwelcome, either by the kitsune or the Sifanese. Elves liked their forests natural, and the full force of Naiya’s wild magic kept at a respectful distance. The presence of the Twilight Forest could be felt for miles out to sea in all directions from the archipelago, to those sensitive to it. In truth, there were no fairies of any kind, here, save those whose being sprang from the auspices of the kitsune. There were few clerics on the islands, the cults organized in ways that were often strange to their brethren elsewhere in the world. There were, assuredly, absolutely no demons. Sifan was a land unlike any other, and the Twilight Forest in many ways as alien as Hell.

But at least it was pretty.

Tellwyrn hadn’t been to Sifan often, and not to the Forest in decades. As frustrating as the experience of wandering aimlessly through the woods was when she was in urgent need of results, it did provide the opportunity to appreciate its oddly lovely scenery, an opportunity she rarely had. For now, that was the best she could do. One did not rush things, here.

“Why, hello there.”

She was not surprised at being suddenly addressed by someone standing very close, whose presence she had not detected through any of her enhanced senses, elvish or magical. It was unwise to let the Twilight Forest take you by surprise. Truthfully, it as unwise to be in it at all; best not to add foolishness on top of risk.

“Good day,” she said politely, bowing to the short old man who had appeared at the base of a tree next to the path. Little taller than her waist, portly, bald, and smiling beatifically with a face so wrinkled she could barely make out his eyes, he was dressed in the robes of a monk and carrying a staff more than twice his height.

“I don’t think I have seen you here before, my dear. Are you lost?”

“In fact, I am,” Tellwyrn replied. “Can you tell me how I might find the kitsune?”

The old man hummed softly to himself. “Dear me, what an unusual quest. Most who enter this forest would prefer to avoid the kitsune.”

“And yet, here I am,” she said with a patient smile.

He hmm-hmmed again. “The humans have shrines outside the woods, devoted to the fox-goddesses. That is the safest way to seek them out.”

“Alas, my business compels me to hurry. I have no time for the safest way.”

“Ah, so?” The old man rubbed his double chin with his free hand in a show of thought. “Well, perhaps I can help you, indeed. If you will do a favor for a fellow traveler, I shall do one in return.”

“What is it you need?”

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he said bashfully. “I seem to have lost my knapsack up a bush. It is wedged quite securely; I cannot prod it loose with my staff, nor reach it with my fingers. You, though, are so tall and graceful! I’m sure you could retrieve it for me with ease.”

“Why, however did you manage to lose it?” Tellwyrn asked with a smile.

The little old man sighed. “A mischievous monkey took it from me, and tangled it among the branches just out of my reach. They are such annoying creatures, monkeys. But if you will kindly help me retrieve my knapsack, I shall be only too glad to help you find what you seek.”

“Very well, it’s a bargain,” Tellwyrn said politely. “Where is this bush?”

“It’s just this way!” the old man replied, beaming happily. “I am fortunate you came along so quickly; who knows what might have happened to it, had I been forced to go down the path to seek help! Just through here.”

He turned and led the way off the little trail, Tellwyrn following without complaint at the slow pace he set. She didn’t bother glancing back at the path. Odds were good it wouldn’t be there the next time she looked.

The old man was as good as his word, at least. Despite the almost nonexistent speed mandated by his tiny stride and the rheumatic shuffling of his feet, they emerged after only a few minutes into a small clearing, floored with verdant moss and the occasional fern. Directly opposite this was a bush with dark, spiny leaves, and hanging in the upper branches, just beyond the reach of the little old man’s arms, hung a battered leather satchel by its strap.

“There, you see?” he said, pointing. “Look, we are in good time, it hasn’t been further disturbed!”

“How fortunate,” she said.

“I will wait here and keep watch,” he said seriously, nodding and thumping the butt of his staff against the ground in emphasis. “Thank you for helping an old man, traveler. Please bring me my knapsack, and then we shall see about your request.”

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied, giving him a smile, then strode briskly across the clearing.

Behind her back, the old man’s beatific expression melted to one of shock.

She reached the bush, finding the strap draped over a thick branch, and not excessively entangled at all. It took hardly any effort to lift it clear; the spiky leaves caught on the leather, but not enough to impede her, and the sack itself was not heavy.

Holding the knapsack, she turned, evincing no surprise to find the little man gone.

Panting, he scampered back through the underbrush as fast as his paws could carry him, chancing a glance over his shoulder toward the clearing, which cost him dearly; he plowed directly into the shabby bulk of his own knapsack.

“Here you are!” Tellwyrn said brightly, again standing right in front of him. “I see you found time to change into something a little more comfortable.”

His robes were the same, but his body had become furred, wrinkled old face replaced by a sharp snout, clever little eyes, and a pattern of darker fur forming a black mask. He gaped up at her, then yelped and turned to flee again.

Tellwyrn seized the tanuki by the scruff of his neck before he made it another step, hiking him bodily off the ground like his knapsack.

“Now, then,” she said briskly, “that’s my part of the bargain fulfilled. Take me to the kitsune, please.”

He squealed in agitation, then twisted himself around with astonishing agility and sank his needle-sharp teeth into her wrist.

Blue arcane light blazed from the skin-hugging shield invisibly lining her arm; it was like biting into a firecracker. The tanuki hung, dazed by the blast, while Tellwyrn carried him back to the clearing.

“Now, this is where we were,” she said, “in case you were lost. Which direction shall we go?”

“I can’t!” he squealed, having recovered enough to squirm. “They don’t want to be bothered! They’ll kill me!”

“That,” she replied, “is a problem for the future. They aren’t here; I am. And believe me, my furry little friend, I have neither their playfulness nor their forgiving nature.”

“You don’t know what they’re like!” he wailed.

“Here’s what I know,” she stated flatly. “This conversation will end with you helping me to find what I seek. What I tell them at the end of that search will depend upon how the conversation goes. Am I going to have a story about how helpful and courteous you were?” Calmly, she tossed his knapsack to the ground in the center of the clearing, and the whole thing collapsed as if made of paper, the wafer-thin coating of moss disintegrating and dumping fern fronds and the unfortunate knapsack into the yawning pit concealed below. Tellwyrn stepped forward and dangled the squirming tanuki above the chasm. “Or, will they hear a very sad tale of a very stupid raccoon who smears their good name by breaking his oath to travelers in their forest?”

“Y-you don’t scare me, elf! N-not nearly as much as they do!”

She hefted him higher, enough that she could stare grimly into his eye from inches away.

“You don’t know me,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “You really, really don’t want to.”

A soft giggle sounded.

Slowly, Tellwyrn turned, lowering the tanuki but not relaxing her grip, and making no note at all of his redoubled but still useless attempts to wriggle free.

A young woman perched in the lower branches of the tree behind her, clad in a silk kimono white as snow, embroidered with patterns of blossoms in palest lavender. Her complexion was like bleached ivory, even her triangular ears and bushy tail a snowy white, though they were tipped in black.

“You’re such fun,” the kitsune tittered. “I do wish you would visit more often, Arakuni-chan!”

“If only I could find the time,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “How lovely to see you again, Emi. Can you tell me where I might find Kaisa?”

“Oh, no.” Emi hopped lightly from the branch, landing on a nearby fern which hadn’t enough structure to support a sparrow and balancing effortlessly on her toes. “No, I don’t think that would be any fun at all, do you? I can, however, show you where you might find Kaisa.”

“Oh, good,” the tanuki said shrilly, “I guess you don’t need m—”

“Noisy,” Emi commented, the levity abruptly vanishing from her face, and he broke off with a strangled croak. “I believe you owe this honored guest a favor, Maru. I know you value your word far too much to renege upon such an obligation. I’m sure, sooner or later, she will find some…use for you.”

Tears beaded up in his beady eyes; he whimpered, which the elf and kitsune both ignored. Emi turned a once again sunny smile upon Tellwyrn.

“This way, if you please!”

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