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Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”


“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”


“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”


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Bonus #27: Scion, part 4

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If one had to be sentenced to an eternity of indentured servitude, the citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis was surely the best place for it.

Though at first appearance the place seemed as spartan as it was purely weird, the accommodations proved downright luxurious. Most of them, it turned out, were concealed in the eclectic hodgepodge of floating structures which surrounded the complex. Given their sheer number, and the fact that several were clearly larger on the inside than their physical dimensions should have allowed, there was space for virtually everything a person could want. Except, of course, the freedom to leave.

Many were left empty, which was because these also provided housing for the Scions themselves. Everyone had the freedom to pick a dwelling from any of those not in use, and it seemed there as no rule or even convention against taking prime real estate. At least, nobody seemed to mind that one of the largest structures, a castle of medieval Syrrinski design, was Rispin’s personal residence. Aradidjad, doubling down on the lifelong enjoyment of irony which was helping to keep her sane, picked the lighthouse upon which she had nearly broken her neck immediately after arriving in the nexus.

At the moment, it was a spartan place to live. The method by which physical objects could be acquired in the nexus was not yet known to Aradidjad; all she knew was who was responsible for this. Kaolu created food, which it seemed the Scions did not need but were encouraged to eat as it was a pleasurable and satisfying experience, and as Rispin had warned her, taking care of their own mental health was an important duty in this state of eerie servitude.

Everything except food came through the auspices of Q. And apparently “everything” meant virtually anything; Rispin and Yalda both showed her their fully-furnished homes, and while Yalda had simple tastes, his was downright luxurious—not to mention huge. That made Q a living bottleneck in the process of requisitioning anything, and Aradidjad was beginning to feel the effects of the first impression she had made on him. So far, she had a hammock, a small stack of books, and a tacky fairy lamp which he claimed was “art deco.”

That aside, there were facilities for basically everything concealed in the floating buildings. The Scions had gymnasiums, swimming pools, botanical gardens, workshops, laboratories, a theater, no less than five museums and two smaller recreational libraries in addition to the “official” one Chao Lu Shen oversaw which supplied research material for missions. Kaolu’s residence was an apartment over the Tilted Hourglass, a pub which apparently served as the Scions’ principal casual hangout. It was stocked with vintages from across ten thousand years, and staffed by a funny little wheeled cylindrical golem with metal spider arms and bells for a voice, which was apparently an Elder God relic.

And that was just what Aradidjad had discovered in her initial poking around and talking to people. She met another dozen or so of her coworkers and found them, unsurprisingly, an eclectic bunch. Evidently they had plenty of leisure; there was no set schedule on which missions happened. Tellwyrn just showed up suddenly and started barking orders. According to Dravo, a talkative wood elf from the second century after the Elder Wars, she did a good job of spacing them to break up the tedium and avert any serious altercations, without overworking anyone. Aradidjad supposed that kind of thing was easy enough to arrange if you had a bird’s eye view of the timeline.

“Rise and shine, doctor,” Tellwyrn ordered, striding into the Hourglass, where Aradidjad was sitting at the bar with Yalda and Styrronski, a wizard she had just met and whose story she did not yet know. “Report to Shaft Three, you have an assignment.”

“What, just me?” she asked, glancing at the other two—and noting how flat their expressions had suddenly gone. This was only her third time being sent on a mission, and on both of the previous two occasions Tellwyrn had interrupted a gathering and dispatched everyone simultaneously.

“This time, yes,” the archmage said, wearing a pensive look which began to alarm Aradidjad slightly. The elf was usually the very incarnation of disdainful self-absorption. “I’ve been easing you into this, but now I’m afraid the leading strings come off. Shaft Three.”

She turned and strode back out, without waiting for a response. Aradidjad sighed, shook her head, and stood to follow.

“Hey.” She glanced back to find Yalda regarding her seriously. “Listen… It’s not going to be the end of the world. Okay? I don’t mean that to be condescending. Nothing she drags you through will be more than you can recover from, no matter how it feels at the time.”

“Well, that just shot right past ominous and straight into horrifying,” Aradidjad replied, frowning. “Is there something in particular I should know?”

“Yes,” Styrronski replied, then scowled at Yalda when she jabbed his arm with a fist. “Yes. She deserves a forewarning, same as all of us—”

“I was forewarned,” Yalda snapped, “and it made it infinitely worse. The anticipation was the cruelest part, and exactly why Tellwyrn doesn’t give those out. Look, Cyria, after you’re back and…you know, feeling up to it, come visit my place, all right? I’ll set up a girls’ night. Or…whatever you need.”

“..sure,” Aradidjad said suspiciously. “Thanks. I guess I’d better report to Shaft Three before the boss comes looking for me.”

“She won’t,” Styrronski said morosely, glaring down at his vodka. “She has all the time in the world.”


“So the Scions are what anchor your perception and time-altering powers to the world, is that it?” Aradidjad asked upon stepping out of the place between onto a familiar street in Calderaas. The city was frozen, like Tiraas had been on her last assignment, but other than that looked…normal. This must be very close to her own time.

“Not bad. How’d you reach that conclusion?” Usually Tellwyrn affected a vague blend of condescension and approval that befitted a seasoned professor addressing a precocious student, but her voice was still tense. It was not improving Aradidjad’s nerves.

“Logic, and awareness general magical principles. Apparently you have to guide a Scion through the place between to actually perform time travel, but once we’re here you can open gates right to us. Which makes sense as magic requires a sapient mind to be actively performed. There’s a precedent for the presence of such a mind serving as a focus for passive enchantments and supplemental effects, too.”

“Mm hm. All right, you know the surrounding area. This is not an intervention against a time traveler; the perpetrator enacted their spell from several years into the future. Another Scion dealt with them. You’re here to plug a hole, that’s all. A temporal rift will form in Calderaas and you are to neutralize it.”

“Well, that’s idiotic,” Aradidjad snorted, sidestepping immobile pedestrians. She didn’t actually know where she was meant to be going, but preferred walking to standing around. And it was nostalgic, seeing her city again. No telling when or even if she’d have another chance to visit. “Why didn’t the other Scion just stop it from that end?”

“One of Vemnesthis’s more arbitrary rules, I’m afraid. Everybody cleans up their own mess.”

She stopped cold.

“Keep following the crowd you’re presently weaving through. There’s a market on the next street over, and a demonstration occurring at an ice cream shop—”

“No.”

“The rift will form directly on that location. I know you’re familiar with—”

“I’m not doing this, Arachne. Get someone else.”

“Yes, you are. You’re familiar with the specific spell, but I can walk you through the steps— No, Aradidjad, it’s not going to be that easy.”

She had turned and started running back the other way, heedless now of the time-locked people she jostled in passing. Aradidjad got half a dozen steps before Tellwyrn rewound her right back to where she had started.

“Keep walking. As I was saying, the surrounding obstructions rule out a nice, neat spell circle, but I’ll show you how to compensate using the available space.”

She gritted her teeth, focusing arcane power. The familiar whine of building energy rose in her ears, and with a blue sparkle of magic, Aradidjad teleported away. The scene around her was still frozen, but changed to the highway extending south from the gates of Calderaas, toward the distant capital of the Empire.

“Oh, you like teleporting?” Suddenly, Tellwyrn’s voice lost its grim flatness, replaced by overt anger. “Fine, let me show you something.”

This time she vanished and reappeared instantly and far more cleanly, a humiliating reminder of how far Tellwyrn’s magical capabilities outstripped her own. Aradidjad was now standing on a flat rooftop, overlooking the market street. In fact, directly across from the ice cream shop, the proprietor standing out front demonstrating his exotic new delicacy, with beside him the brand new, state of the art, unknowingly faulty freezing apparatus which was the cause of so much misery.

She squeezed her eyes shut, turned, and started running back across the roof. Not that she had any plan for what to do once she reached the other side; all she could think was to get away.

“No, you don’t,” Tellwyrn grated. Aradidjad slowed to a halt, then was reversed through time back to her starting point at the edge of the roof.

This time, though, she remained frozen there. Below, the street came to life with movement, but she herself was fully suspended in time. Physically, at least, unable to move even her eyes. Her consciousness, however, remained fully in sync with the world. Somehow, she couldn’t manage to marvel at the finesse of Tellwyrn’s control.

“Since you’ve decided to make this difficult,” the elf’s voice informed her, “you’re going to watch yourself get your wish, and see how much you enjoy it. Pay attention.”

They were there; she couldn’t look away. Right there at the very head of the crowd, nearest the demonstration.

Dashar was a tall man even without the four-year-old boy perched on his shoulders; naturally they stood out, and given how close they were, the vendor immediately fixed on them as ideal volunteers for his demonstration.

She wanted to scream. Couldn’t, but desperately wanted to. Tellwyrn could at least have given her that much.

At this proximity, having studied the Imperial Inspectors’ analysis after the fact, she knew exactly what happened, knew what to look for, saw the things that would lead to the disaster even from a rooftop across the street. The tiny imperfection in the arcane containment system which created intense cold within a sealed compartment; a flaw so minute it had doubtless been right on the threshold of the factory’s quality control standards. If operated as intended, it would never have mattered. But the stupid fucking ice cream man had the unit, designed to sit in the back of a restaurant kitchen, running out in direct sunlight, an hour before noon, in midsummer, in Calderaas.

Even that wouldn’t have caused such a crisis, though. From her perch, Aradidjad could sense, helpless, the flicker of infernal magic within the crowd, not far from Dashar and Selim. She didn’t know who the warlock was or what they were trying to do; there were limits to what investigators could reconstruct after the fact. A Black Wreath spy committing an act of terrorism, a hedge warlock with poor control who’d have been doomed for a messy death one way or another, maybe even some hapless oaf afflicted with a curse whose existence they didn’t even know if. It didn’t matter in the end.

She watched her son, perched on his father’s shoulders, getting his first and only taste of ice cream. At that angle, she couldn’t even see his face. But she was focused enough on the scene to feel the flicker of infernal power brush against the nimbus of arcane energy surrounding the cold unit, catch in that tiny flaw in its spell boundary, saw the containment begin to unravel. Had there been another mage in the audience, they would have noticed the same, maybe even been able to stop it. There was not.

Except this time, another power intervened.

The temporal portal burst into being directly over the crowd. It wasn’t visible to the eye, but caused an immediate change in air pressure which made every ear on the street pop, eliciting outcries. It would take someone with magical senses to realize something was happening, let alone something that big; that thing was a blaring beacon that would alert every arcanist in the city. The only reason Imperial or Sultanate troops weren’t on the site already was they would know better than to try teleporting that close to an obvious rift.

The characteristic high whine pierced the air, and flashes of blue began sparking around the front of the crowd. With a final burst of light, Aradidjad’s husband and son vanished, teleported through the rift to a point six years into the future. To safety.

This, of course, generated even more of an outcry, but that lasted only moments before the thermal containment charms on the ice cream maker finished unraveling. The first thing that happened was that the damn device exploded as metal parts under pressure were suddenly flash-frozen while exposed to hot sunlight and destabilized magic. The force of the blast lifted the vendor himself and hurled him away like a doll.

On the heels of the explosion, which bowled over the entire front row of the crowd, came a torrent of super-chilled air. Every drop of moisture in the local atmosphere froze. The nearest people froze. Flesh turned as brittle as glass—and in the midday heat and the tumult of people falling over each other, the results of that were immediate and grisly.

And her Dashar and little Selim were meant to have been right there at the forefront of it.

Aradidjad had never had much use for Avei or any of the professions which looked to her as a guardian, but the lawyer she’d found had had a paladin’s fury over injustice and a soldier’s ruthless aim for an enemy’s weakest spot. By the time she, the other victims, the Sultana and the Empire had finished with the manufacturer of those cold boxes, the negligent piece of shit’s great-grandchildren would be out of business. It had been a fairly successful company up to that point, too. The proceeds had funded her temporal research.

“So much stupid suffering from such a random little thing,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Fate is way too fond of that callous plot device. Oh, but what comes next is very different.”

It was. That rift wasn’t going away. Vast quantities of arcane energy funneled through a planar portal presented nigh-insurmountable problems; it could be stabilized on one end through tremendous effort, and on the other… Well, that was possible, in theory. She hadn’t managed to do it.

She hadn’t cared.

The rift was only sealed on the other side.

That left a hole to nowhere in the street above the already-screaming crowd. Distracted as they were by the horrid aftermath of the explosion, it was several more seconds before anyone noticed the lightning arcing out of a spot in the empty sky above.

Aradidjad had no idea it could have been this bad. Punching a hole through spacetime and leaving it to feed back on itself quickly unraveled more physical laws than she had anticipated. Things began lifting off the ground as a rival force competed with the planet’s gravity. Trash, then objects displayed on storefronts, trash cans… And soon enough, people. Then carriages.

And while the contents of the street started rising toward the rift, so did more power from nearby. Calderaas was an industrial center; no single spot was far from massive factory antennae discharging electricity into the atmosphere. There were three of these within sight of the street, and all of them began pouring lightning bolts in the direction of the market. Then, streams of pure arcane magic as the rift seized these power sources and began to suck them in. The antennae themselves bent toward it…

“I believe I’ve mentioned, doctor, that way too many Scions were fools who had no idea what they were messing with. So this is somewhat anomalous, you see. On the other end of that portal was a theoretical arcanist—one of the best in her field, in fact. One of the very few people in this era who had some idea what would happen if she pried open a temporal rift and shoved a teleport spell through it, then failed to close it properly.”

It was ripping up pieces of buildings and sections of the street, now. Masonry, metal, lightning, and screaming people were being crushed into a ball above Calderaas right before her frozen eyes. The very roof on which Aradidjad stood fractured and crumbled; only she, suspended in time, remained unaffected amid the carnage. Vemnesthis’s grip on her was more than a match for the spell she had unleashed.

“This is a great deal more destructive than most of what we have to clean up after, you know. And also, a great deal more maliciously fucking negligent. This is the act of an obsessed, unhinged, selfish monster who cared about no one and nothing except her own pain.”

Tellwyrn made her watch until the unstable rift reached a critical mass, stopped drawing in matter and energy, and instead expelled it. All of it, at once. The explosion sprayed debris and loose arcane energy for miles, and instantly flattened a good quarter of the city.

Only then was she rewound. Back through all the horror of the market, and then her futile attempts to get away. Back further, across two teleports, and leaving her standing in the middle of the street, a block distant from the ice cream shop.

Aradidjad instantly slumped to her knees.

“In the hours to come,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “you’re going to be complaining at length, and in a very loud voice, about my heartlessness. I just thought you should have some context before we got started. You know how this ends, Dr. Aradidjad. We can take as long as you need to before you accept it.”


She still fought. Of course she did.

And, of course, she lost.

She tried to flee, on foot, via magic, by stealing a carriage. She sat down in the street and refused to do anything, and even managed it for a long time before reliving the same three seconds on an endless backward-then-forward loop drove her to the brink of madness. She tried attacking—first that stupid warlock, then the ice cream vendor, then random people in the crowd. She attempted to warn or rescue Dashar and Selim countless times. Tellwyrn just implacably rewound anything Aradidjad did that was not following her instructions to intercept and seal the temporal rift before it even finished opening. The damned elf even let her spend three hours purchasing a wand, a sword, and a Rail ticket to Last Rock (after stealing the money from the ice cream shop) before rewinding and forcing her to live through every second of those hours, at the same speed only backward.

Aradidjad tried to teleport to Last Rock, after that. Since that was way outside the range she could manage and she’d never been there anyway, that only resulted in dropping her from a height of thirty yards above some random patch of prairie. Tellwyrn let her lie there with a snapped spine and generally mangled body for a few minutes to reflect on her decisions before rewinding that one.

Even her vivid and flexible imagination was running out of new ways to kill herself by the time Tellwyrn got tired of cleaning up after her increasingly extravagant suicides. Aradidjad took a faint, grim satisfaction in the fact that the elf’s patience broke before her own. Even that was immediately stripped from her.

The archmage suffered Aradidjad’s struggling for some time before she started asserting herself right back—by using a combination of her own much more powerful teleportation and temporal freezing to make her watch the cold box explosion at the end of every rewind. Aradidjad had long since lost the ability to keep track of time; it felt like she had been fighting this forever, but she had no idea how many hours or days it had actually been before Tellwyrn changed tactics. She started counting after that, though. Forty-seven times, she watched helplessly as own temporal rift decimated her city.

“Surely you know you didn’t save them,” the elf said after the forty-seventh. “You were caught in that explosion, idiot. All you’ve done is create a paradox which split off a splinter timeline in which they, you, and most of Calderaas are continually massacred because this situation can’t resolve itself in a linear manner. I realize you don’t like the eternity you’ve been sentenced to. Is that one really so much better?”

Tellwyrn, at least, gave her as long as she needed to cry until she no longer could.

Setting up the spell array across multiple surrounding rooftops was fiendishly complicated. Fortunately, Tellwyrn was a better mage than she, and understood time travel far more thoroughly; all she had to do was follow directions. She still made mistakes, which Tellwyrn had to rewind, but at least the elf didn’t make her watch the carnage again so long as she was behaving.

And so, finally, she stopped it. Neutralized the rift before it could even form. Calderaas was not destroyed by her hand; no one’s ears even popped. And her husband and son were caught right at the brunt of a stupid, random accident, frozen and shattered like crystal sculptures.

Over a taste of ice cream.

Tellwyrn, apparently only a sadist when she was making a point, didn’t make her watch that either. Aradidjad hurled herself through the rift, away from that day, before the cold box finished destabilizing.

She slumped against the rail of the elevator, and refrained from hurling herself off it only because she knew it wouldn’t do any good. Aradidjad stared emptily past the astonishing spectacle of the citadel as the vehicle slowly descended, reached the bottom, chimed pleasantly, and opened its door.

For several minutes, she just hung there, draped against the upright support of the elevator. It took that long for her to summon even enough energy to raise her head.

Tellwyrn was standing there, watching her over the rims of her golden spectacles.

Exhaustion and numbness vanished in blinding torrent of rage.

Aradidjad burst out of the elevator, screaming incoherently and hurling spells without strategy or restraint. Fire, lightning, pure arcane bolts, blasts of kinetic force, localized gravity wells—everything she could think of that could possibly break something, she flung at the archmage.

Aside from having an elf’s capacity for mana storage and three millennia (and who knew how much longer, if she’d spent a lot of time in the nexus) of practice, Tellwyrn’s reflexes were thrice as fast as Aradidjad’s. Her attempting to assault the elven archmage with magic was exactly as efficacious as a child pounding on a brick wall with bare fists. Tellwyrn barely even bothered to gesticulate as she cast, calmly backing away and unweaving every spell Aradidjad shot at her before it could so much as singe or dent the platform.

She kept doing it anyway. Aradidjad poured every spark of mana she could muster into hurling destruction at the elf until, with surprising suddenness, she found herself without the energy to keep standing upright, much less cast spells.

Slumping to her hands and knees, she stared at the metal plates of the floor with blurry vision, panting for breath.

“Feel better?” Tellwyrn asked.

To her own surprise, she managed an incoherent screech and conjured a combination of heat, gravity, and kinesis that manifested as a tornado of pure fire. She didn’t even see what Tellwyrn did to it, but just collapsed onto her side with the sudden stabbing pain in her temples and spontaneous nosebleed which signified the onset of a solid case of mana fatigue.

“No, of course you don’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. Aradidjad couldn’t muster the energy to react, even internally, when the elf sat on the floor next to her.

They were silent for a while. The show she’d just put on had doubtless attracted the attention of every Scion in the citadel, but nobody came anywhere near them. Based on Yalda and Styrronski’s earlier reactions, they probably knew exactly what was happening here.

“What’d you do?” Aradidjad whispered finally. That wasn’t one of the things she’d urgently wanted to know. She was too tired and too numb even to be surprised at herself for asking.

“To get sentenced here, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Tellwyrn shrugged, gazing into the distance. “Every Scion except me wanted something. Tried to get something for themselves. All of them were either after unreasonable power, or trying to recover something precious they’d lost. Me, all I wanted was Vemnesthis’s attention. I fired a four-dimensional flare across his nose. It harmed no one, affected nothing, and presented no possibility of profit to me. What I wanted to ask him about didn’t even require any time travel expertise.”

“…you were actually punished for that?”

“Rules are rules. But…no, not exactly.” Tellwyrn shifted, bringing her gaze down to meet Aradidjad’s eyes. “That’s what all of this is about. The reason we were all sentenced to this. Because we are not special. We all tried to unmake reality for our own purposes, and we don’t get to do that. A Scion of Vemnesthis is a wizard who, at some point, decided that having power over space and time meant we were entitled to do whatever thing we wanted. We are confined here and compelled to serve to disabuse us of that notion. I am no threat to the timeline, Vemnesthis told me that himself. But in many ways I embody this problem—the idea that I get to do whatever goddamn thing I please because I damn well can and hardly anyone is in a position to stop me.” She shrugged again, raising her head to stare up at the endless hourglass. “He decided to impose some limits on me, because no one else had. I can’t say I appreciate it, but… I also can’t say I blame him.”

Aradidjad closed her eyes. She was lying in a very uncomfortable position. Somehow she didn’t care enough to move. “And this warrants eternal servitude.”

“You want justice? Well, Avei probably wouldn’t have done it this way,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter laugh. “But if we’re talking proportionality, you do realize that you’d be here longer than anyone. None of your colleagues actually tried to destroy a major city, Cyria.”

There wasn’t really anything to say to that. Another long silence fell.

“I’ll tell you what I know, though,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “Two things. Gods never reveal everything… And there are far too few Scions.”

Aradidjad opened her eyes to stare a mute question at her.

“Given the rate at which we recruit them? How often some fool wizard tries to mess with existence and won’t listen to reason?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “There ought to be hundreds. Thousands. This place is certainly big enough to accommodate that. We have barely three dozen. And I don’t remember any others, but… Would I? Speaking as high priestess I can’t promise you anything. But just as someone who has been watching the comings and goings here for quite a while, I am absolutely convinced that there is some kind of retirement clause for Scions of Vemnesthis. And when they’re done, they are simply…erased from our timeline.”

“That’s the most twisted fucking thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Yeah.” Tellwyrn scrunched up her nose in distaste. “He tries so hard to be considerate of us, and just does not understand what it’s like to exist as a linear person. The result is a lot of existential horror. Well.” With a sigh, the elf stood up, then bent to offer Aradidjad her hand. “Come with me, Cyria. There’s someone you need to meet.”


Standing with Tellwyrn on some miscellaneous piece of prairie in the horrible place between places, trying not to think about the writhing monstrosities that filled the sky, Aradidjad reflexively grabbed at her revolver when a black shape came swooping out of the sky at them.

“Easy,” Tellwyrn said, placing a hand on her arm. “This is her. Doctor, this is Evaine. Evaine, Cyria Aradidjad.”

“It is a sincere honor to finally meet you,” the valkyrie said enthusiastically, and swept a bow. It was an elaborate gesture involving a horizontal brandishing of her scythe and arching of her great black wings overhead. Aradidjad eased backward a half-step in response.

Her voice, even to her own ears, was unnaturally flat. “Why.”

Evaine straightened up, still smiling at her and clearly taking no offense. “I understand your suspicion, Dr. Aradidjad. I’ll try to explain things in order, since if I know Arachne, you have no idea why you’ve been brought here.”

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes under their combined stare, but said nothing.

“The afterlife,” the valkyrie began, “is a dimensional plane like the prime material plane upon which you were born. The Elder Gods set it aside for the purpose of…well, power. You know, I’m sure, that magic requires a sapience to be initiated?”

“She’s one of the best theoretical arcanists of her era,” Tellwyrn said. “You can skip the review.”

Evaine made a wry face at her before turning back to Cyria. “Very well. That, doctor, is the reason the Elders began harvesting and storing souls. In the suspended state which is normal there, they have no will as such. They can be used to create magical workings on a scale no mortal caster could even dream. And now, that vast soul battery is under the control of the Pantheon.”

“Why,” Aradidjad asked faintly, “is every new thing I learn more horrific than the last?”

“Because you messed with time and blew up Calderaas,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “Hush up and listen.”

“Still working on those people skills, I see,” Evaine said cheerfully. “Anyway, doctor, don’t worry—things are much better since Vidius took over. The souls of the dead aren’t being used for anything, just allowed to exist. And no longer in neutral suspension, either. The afterlife is just…bliss. Pure, existential happiness. Except!” She held up one finger. “The few souls my sisters and I are sent to gather… They retain a consciousness and individuality. Not just everyone is added to that roster, because, well… The world would be filled with them, and it would have all the same problems as the mortal plane. The honored dead are given a paradise in which to live as people, and even that requires an awful lot of maintenance, even for the comparatively few of them.”

“Who are the few?” Aradidjad asked woodenly.

Evaine’s answering smile was gentler now. “Mostly? The brave. We bring those who fell in acts of great courage and heroism. But…there are a few extras. Now, this part probably isn’t strictly allowed, so don’t spread it around. Arachne here pulled strings with us. We don’t mind at all, and neither Vidius nor Vemnesthis has said anything, so hopefully that’s that. Some of the Scions, I understand, end up serving because they lost someone and tried to bend time to get them back.”

Aradidjad didn’t dare speak. Her pulse was suddenly pounding in her throat.

“For those,” Evaine said with a knowing smile, “we make exceptions. Those dead loved ones are brought to paradise. It’s a chance for life to go on. And… A chance, at least, for children to grow up, to actually live. It’s not the world, but it’s a life.”

She opened her mouth, not sure what she could even say. It ended up not mattering, as her voice was gone. For what seemed the dozenth time very recently, Aradidjad slumped to her knees, too overcome to carry on holding herself upright.

Evaine knelt with her, wrapping arms around her shoulders and holding her close.

“We won’t often have the opportunity for our paths to cross,” the valkyrie murmured, “but when I can manage it, I’ll bring you news. I was the one who brought Dashar and Selim home; I made sure they knew they have you to thank. I’ll let you know how Selim is growing when I can.”

“I know it isn’t much,” Tellwyrn said. “It’s not…enough. Not the same as having your life back. But it’s what I could manage to arrange, thanks to Evaine and her sisters being willing to help.”

Aradidjad drew a shuddering breath, the valkyrie’s wings folding protectively over her. No, it wasn’t enough. But it was something. It would strengthen her enough to keep going.

And maybe, if Tellwyrn was right, she could be with them again. For now, that was something she could cling to.

For a time.

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Bonus #26: Scion, part 3

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Aradidjad shamelessly rubbernecked on her way through the streets of Tiraas. She had spent her undergrad years in the capital and knew these streets—or had, before. The streets themselves were more or less in the same configuration, but everything else was new and fascinating. She had passed only a bare handful of horses, most of the vehicles being enchanted, and most of those sleeker and more ornate than the carriages she knew. There was new construction of all kinds, buildings towering higher than any she had seen, and in unfamiliar architectural styles. Even the street lights were no longer on poles, but hovering twelve feet above the sidewalks.

Fortunately, nobody noticed her gawking, as nobody else was moving.

“This is very nearly as creepy as it is impressive,” she commented, mincing her way through the crowds. With the entire population frozen in place, this took some doing; she had never really noticed before how large groups of people naturally got out of each other’s way when moving. “Not to mention stressful. If I accidentally jab someone with an elbow…”

“Nothing will happen,” Tellwyrn’s voice reassured her. “Yes, you are moving at an incredible velocity relative to any of these people, but you’re doing so through the auspices of a god, who corrects for certain physical problems. That’s the reason the air resistance hasn’t scoured off your top layer of skin already. Still, don’t molest or interfere with anyone or anything if you can avoid it. Including the pigeons.”

Aradidjad withdrew the hand with which she had been about to experimentally poke a bird arrested in mid-flight near a peanut vendor comically frozen in the act of scattering a flock.

“Nobody would miss one of the flying bin rats…”

“The whole job is to suppress time travel, doctor, not amuse ourselves through petty abuses thereof. Minimal contact. I’ll rewind minor accidents, but if I think you’re making a mess on purpose I will not hesitate to make you walk all the way through the city again.”

“Yes, about that,” Aradidjad huffed, rounding a corner and nearly tripping over a small boy suspended a foot off the ground, apparently jumping and grasping toward one of the floating street lights which was hopelessly beyond his reach. “Was there a reason you couldn’t position the exit gate closer to the target?”

“Yes. I thought you’d enjoy having a look at the city of the future. Once, anyway.”

“Well…fair enough,” Aradidjad admitted, smiling to herself and gazing around. “I think I like the new trends in architecture. Less so in fashion. What the hell are these women wearing?”

“Have Chao Lu Shen explain flappers to you sometime. More immediately, heads up. You have arrived, next gate on your left.”

She was in the Embassy District, close to Imperial Square itself and largely serving exactly the purpose its name implied. In fact, she recognized the very building to which Tellwyrn pointed her, though the signs and flags on display were unfamiliar.

“The Confederacy?” she mused aloud, turning and striding up the path to its double doors. “This used to be the Narisian embassy. What happened to them?”

“There’s a Narisian consulate in Lor’naris, but the drow have no direct relationship with the Silver Throne in this era. For the same reason the Elven Confederacy has none with, say, Mathenon. Whether federation or empire, central governments don’t appreciate their member states pursuing their own foreign policy. On the far side of the room, to the right of the staircase, you’ll want the door on the right wall closest to the corner. Oh, and don’t forget to leave any doors in the position in which you found them.”

Aradidjad obediently pulled the front door shut behind her, making her way across the embassy’s rotunda in no great hurry. She had never had occasion to come inside before, but suspected it had been heavily redecorated since the drow were in charge. The space was predominated by a huge tree, of a species she didn’t recognize, not that she was any kind of botanist. Its rough bark was threaded through with luminous blue veins, as if the whole tree were brimming with magic. In fact, its blade-like leaves glowed subtly, too. From its four largest limbs, spaced evenly around its trunk, hung four flags; Aradidjad recognized the banner of Tar’naris, but the others were unknown to her.

“Are you lost already?” Tellwyrn snipped in her ear.

“Sorry.” She shook her head and started moving again, toward the indicated door in the rear. “I just noticed the tree was glowing and realized something. If surrounding time is frozen and I can still perceive light, that suggests a theory I had about photons was correct.”

“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting you’re a theoretical arcanist. You’d be amazed how many of your fellow Scions were bumbling conjurers poking at something they didn’t begin to understand. Anyhow, don’t be too eager to draw conclusions about physics from your experiences here. As I said, having a god make the arrangements for you heavily colors the experience. Stop here; take the door on your left and descend three flights.”

The door in question led to a stairwell, which must have plunged deep into the crust beneath Tiraas, as it continued down after the point at which Tellwyrn instructed her to exit.

“Among their many benefits,” her operator lectured as Aradidjad navigated the halls below the embassy, “your official robes function as a biological containment vessel. A person ordinarily leaves behind a trail of hair, dead cells, skin oil, and innumerable other detritus. Left here. Obviously we can’t have that, not only to avoid biological corruption but in the case of situations like this where these elves would be unfrozen and immediately smell that an invisible human had just walked past them. Wearing those, even hounds can’t track you. Right at the intersection. Also, it prevents your own antibodies from unleashing some kind of super pandemic on a world that isn’t prepared for them. Or vice versa; the common cold in any era ahead of your own will reliably kill your ass excruciatingly dead. Stairwell at the end of the hall, head down.”

“Praise Vemnesthis and all his foresight,” Aradidjad muttered sarcastically. Getting to the stairs without knocking over the plains elf just emerging from them was dicey; refined senses or no, anybody would notice suddenly being thrust into a different position.

In fact, aside from a few human visitors in the rotunda above, everyone she had passed had been an elf. All three varieties were represented, which made this whole Confederacy thing downright incredible. Aradidjad’s knowledge of elves was largely theoretical, but it was universally known that they weren’t terribly social as a rule and that drow and their surface cousins despised each other with a passion. Yet, here they all were; she passed several mixed groups apparently talking and performing tasks together.

Also, some of the wood elves (to judge by their ears) were notably out of costume. A minority of them seemed to eschew traditional garments for brightly colored clothes that were either too tight or too diaphanous, accentuated with lots of gold jewelry and wildly elaborate hairstyles. Aradidjad passed one of these frozen in the stairwell in the act of performing some kind of scrying spell above her open palm.

“Are these…high elves?” she asked in wonderment.

“Yep.”

“Huh. I thought they were a myth.”

“Don’t feel bad, they’ve gone to a lot of trouble over a very long time to encourage that idea. Even what little is commonly known of them in your era is misdirection; their city isn’t actually in the Dwarnskolds, though some of its access gates are.”

“Where do you hide a whole city? Wait, let me guess, it floats in the clouds.”

“Other direction. It’s at the bottom of the Anara Trench, in the Stormsea.”

“…I guess that would do it. How’d all this happen? I mean, this doesn’t seem to be that far in advance of my own time.”

“Less than fifty years. As for how… The world changed, and much to my surprise, the elves chose to adapt rather than be trampled beneath it. Don’t assume too much based on the embassy, here. The Confederacy is widely hated by almost everyone who’s a citizen of it. The whole thing is held together by stubborn leadership and the fact that the average elf dislikes other elves marginally less than they fear humans, dwarves, and dragons consolidating into their own superstates. Straight down the corridor, you’re almost there.”

“Wait, the dwarves united, too?”

“Not to this extent, but the Five Kingdoms have a formal alliance now. Between that, the Conclave, and the Confederacy, the Empire isn’t nearly so confident in its position these days. If those nations didn’t have enemies in common this whole continent would already be a war zone. And here we are! Now you get to learn how we bypass locked doors without disrupting them.”

“This lock is magical,” Aradidjad noted, bending to study it and ignoring the two guards. High elves, apparently; their armor and weapons appeared to be made of glass and brass.

“It’s biological; an authorized person just has to touch it.”

“Ah. So I just have to get this guy’s glove off…”

“Think, Aradidjad. Authorized person touches it, the door unlocks. That is a linear sequence of events. Off the table, with the door enchantment as frozen as everything else.”

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense, then,” she snapped.

“Step back.”

She more stumbled than stepped, as Tellwyrn didn’t wait for her to comply before opening one of the Scions’ gates in the middle of the wall, completely eclipsing the door. Unlike the vague golden swirl of most of them, this opened visibly onto the room beyond.

“Ah, right,” Aradidjad said irritably, brushing herself off. “Time, space, connected, and so on. I suppose it makes sense those temporal gates would have a more mundane utility as well.”

“Naturally! Go on, chop chop.”

She strode through, and stopped, surveying the room. It was a large enchanting laboratory, with banks of magical equipment and reagents along two walls. There was also a metal catwalk surrounding its second story, reached by ladders. A mixed group of elves stood in a knot a few yards from the door, studying the object at which the high elf leading them was gesticulating.

This filled a large amount of the available space. Its core was a conventional magic mirror, built up by a significant array of enchanting machinery and sitting atop overlapping spell circles inscribed on the broad metal plates on which it stood. It was more advanced than anything she had managed to make, but Aradidjad immediately recognized some of its basic design principles.

“Allow me to introduce Magister Ethliron,” said Tellwyrn. “He’s working on this thing here because his fellow Magisters don’t allow temporal experimentation in Qestraceel. We had to make some vivid points to them, but the message got through quickly enough. The absolute last thing they want is Scions or anyone else tromping through their precious hidden city. Unlike everyone else, we can get past any security they put up with little effort.”

“He’s built a chronoscope,” Aradidjad said wonderingly. “This thing is amazing.”

“Yes. Ethliron means well, too; he aims to scan possible future timelines for optimal outcomes to help the Confederacy guide itself forward. Noble, but obviously we can’t allow it.”

“Does that really count as time travel?”

“It may seem a finicky definition, but yes. These are the rules we have to enforce, however arbitrary they may be. So you get to un-build it.”

Another gate popped open right next to her and an object came whizzing out. Aradidjad barely caught it before being beaned in the temple, and found herself holding a wrench.

“Dismantle the device and just toss its components through. Q will sort and dispose of them on the other side.”

“How hard would it have been to give me the wrench before sending me here?” she demanded.

“The easy way isn’t always the best way, doctor. It’s almost never the most entertaining way. Oh, stop making that face, you’re going to need a lot more tools than that. There’s absolutely no point in making you carry so much when I can just open a gate at your location.”

Strictly speaking, there hadn’t been a point in making her walk all this way, either, but she wasn’t about to embrace the futility of pointing that out. Instead, Aradidjad stepped over to the wonderful device and, with some reluctance, began to hunt for bolts that would fit the tool she currently held.

“This should be the final blow to scare Ethliron off this line of research,” Tellwyrn said while she worked. “You’re to deliver a message before returning. Finding his chronoscope suddenly replaced with a Scion is the bigger part of the message, but I need you to drive it home for him, Aradidjad. That’s why I chose this moment, when he’s demonstrating it to Confederate dignitaries. Elves, even elves who don’t care for each other, tend to be more collectivist than humans. Make the point that this project jeopardizes more than him and the rest will make sure it comes to a permanent stop, even if he doesn’t.”

She glanced over at the group with Ethliron. He had gathered two plains elves, a wood elf, a drow, and another high elf. Ambassadors? It probably didn’t strictly matter who they were, for her purposes.

“He seems quite competent. Not to mention conscientious, based on what you said. Why are we scaring this guy away instead of recruiting him?”

“Because we can scare him away. The Scions only recruit time travelers who flatly refuse to desist, doctor. That’s why there’s not a set number of warnings a subject gets; we’ll deliver however many are necessary in each case. I make sure any recruitment subject gets warned at least once, just for fairness’s sake. Ultimately, though, anyone we bring in was just never going to listen to reason.”

“That sounds like a recipe to end up working with a bunch of unstable malcontents.”

“Don’t I know it,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The truth is, doctor, we don’t actually want more personnel. Given the circumstances under which we operate, there doesn’t really need to be more than one Scion. It’s not as if we work under any kind of time limit. You are here, just like me and all the rest, because we couldn’t persuade you to stop and Vemnesthis apparently doesn’t want any murder on his conscience.”

“You can’t really think coercing someone into eternal servitude is kinder than killing them,” Aradidjad snorted, pulling off an access panel. “I need a screwdriver. Actually, a set of screwdrivers, including smaller clockmaker’s—ah.”

The compact little case bounced out of the gate and slid across the floor toward her.

“I really think Vemnesthis really thinks that. I have met a lot of gods, Cyria, and I’ve noticed something: the more you gain vast, omniscient perspective over the whole of the universe, the less you truly comprehend what the experience of mortality is like.”

“Hm.” She set about carefully detaching power crystals in silence. Why a decentralized power system instead of a main battery? Presumably there was a reason, but it would make the thing difficult to maintain. Also quite tedious to dismantle. “So. If even viewing other timelines or periods isn’t allowed, how does that work with you getting to stomp around doing whatever you like?”

“Are you questioning my integrity, doctor?” Tellwyrn’s tone was amused, which if anything irritated Aradidjad more than if the elf had tried to shut down her inquiry.

“Don’t be coy with me, you smug megalomaniac. Even if I assumed, for the sake of argument, that you had the best of intentions, you know very well it’s impossible not to have your actions influenced by what you know. There is no way your mortal life isn’t affected by future knowledge.”

“I’m sure that would be true, but I have no such knowledge. I do get to leave the citadel, yes, but outside it, all I know is that I lead the Scions, and how to return to them. Any knowledge I possess about their operations or the things they discover remains behind. Which is actually very annoying; the stuff we’ve uncovered about the Elder Gods alone would have spared me centuries of pestering the Pantheon for answers they didn’t have.”

“What? You mean you… Oh, bullshit. Maintaining a reactive memory block like that would be fiendishly complicated and completely pointless.”

“My, you’re just full of naysay today!”

“Crowbar!” she snapped. “And don’t throw it at my—” Aradidjad flattened herself to the floor as the crowbar sailed overhead to clang against the far wall. “You gratuitously obstreperous bitch.”

“Complain to Q, I’m not the one manning the equipment locker. Anyway, you’re thinking like a mage, doctor. Remember, all this happens by the will of a god. A god is a being which doesn’t need to devise solutions to problems, but simply exerts their will and the solutions devise themselves. Vemnesthis is largely motivated by what he in some cases mistakenly thinks is compassion. A little memory editing is a perfect example. It is a horrifying personal violation and he set it up that way in an attempt to be nice.”

Aradidjad had retrieved the crowbar and now planted its wedged end between two metal panels. There, though, she paused, holding the tool still and frowning at nothing.

“Why do you get to leave, then?”

“Let’s just say a lesser offense gets a lighter sentence. By the way, I appreciate your respect for another wizard’s craftsmanship, but it’s not like anybody’s going to put that thing back together. You needn’t be so careful in disassembling it, unless you really want to for some reason. Either way, chop chop. It’s not going to break itself down.”


When Tellwyrn ended the time freeze, Aradidjad was standing right in the center of where the large chronoscope had been with her arms folded, and an eyebrow superciliously arched. It was a pose she had cultivated to control unruly classrooms before the University had allowed her to move on to pure research.

Ethliron was in the middle of a speech. “—my hope that with its aid, we will be able—”

He broke off with a gasp and physically started, shying back from her. The rest of the elven dignitaries reacted likewise, some with more restraint, but all visibly shocked. The drow tucked her hands into her wide sleeves and lit up with a silver glow, but fortunately didn’t push it any further. Aradidjad could not deny experiencing a rush of pure satisfaction at being the focus of so much surprise and uncertainty by so many normally inscrutable immortals.

“Tell me, Magister Ethliron,” she said flatly, “is it that you believe that you, personally, are special, and above the fundamental laws of existence? Or do you simply not care how your actions affect the people around you?” That, too, was a variation on a line she had used to great effect on undergraduates.

“I… It was only…” The elf paused and swallowed heavily. “Please, you must understand I had no intention of physically intervening. The device only gathers information.”

Aradidjad stared at him in silence, waiting. When half the other elves had shifted their focus from her to Ethliron, he opened his mouth to speak again. Then, finally, she cut him off.

“This Confederacy of yours has every possibility of a bright and glorious future. Possibility is all that anyone ever has. Nothing cuts off possibilities faster than ill-considered actions. Do I make myself clear, ladies and gentlemen?”

“Explicitly, Scion,” one of the plains elves said before Ethliron could reply. “We apologize for putting you to this trouble. It will not happen again.” The last was clearly directed at the Magister himself. By that point, only the drow priestess was still studying Aradidjad through narrowed eyes; the rest were staring at Ethliron with decidedly less friendly expressions.

And then they all froze in place once more.

“Always leave ’em wanting more,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Nicely handled, Aradidjad. You’ve worked a room before!”

“A little drama is necessary to make college students behave.”

“Preaching to the choir.”

“I have to admit,” Aradidjad mused, “that is really satisfying when I’m not the one it’s being done to. I’m sure that reflects poorly on my moral fiber.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, doctor. We have to take our satisfaction wherever we can find it in this line of work.” A gate swirled open next to her. “Run along home, now. There’ll be plenty more to do, soon enough.”

She stepped through with a last glance around at all the aspirations she had just crushed. “I don’t doubt it.”

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Bonus #25: Scion, part 2

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“Ah ah! Don’t do that,” Tellwyrn’s voice ordered when Aradidjad instinctively raised her revolver to aim at the sky. “Keep it in your pants, cowgirl. Rule number one of the place between: ignore the sky monsters.”

“Ignore them?” Aradidjad exclaimed shrilly.

“Vital survival skill. You’re in a space created by the Elder Gods to keep the dimensional planes separate; it has qualities that make time travel possible if you move through it in the right way. But they didn’t want people messing around in there, so it also has security features. The sky monsters do not exist except in the context of someone there to observe them. The more attention you pay them, the more aware of you they become. As it’s not possible to completely ignore them, your time in there is limited, and it grows shorter the more you think about them. So don’t.”

“Don’t think,” she growled, lowering her eyes to stare fixedly at the ground. “Easy as that, huh.”

“It’s an acquired ability, takes practice.”

“What…exactly…happens when they become sufficiently aware of me?”

“Of you? I have to rewind your entire trip and you get to spend even longer stumbling around in there. Other people use the place between to travel, but not wise people. Only Scions and valkyries pass through with impunity. Now, follow the marker.”

Before she could ask what marker, it appeared: a translucent golden arrow extending out from her toward the distant mountains. It wobbled slightly for a second before steadying, like the needle of a compass.

“Invisible to anyone but yourself, before you ask. Always move quickly in there, doctor, but carefully. Watch that first step.”

Grimacing and repressing the urge to look up again, Aradidjad peered around. She was in the central street of a small village—near the middle, with no visible obstructions. Watch that step for what?

She stepped forward and the world blurred around her, leaving her suddenly standing in the middle of a wheat field with a forest rising up ahead and the mountain range beyond that. Also, her compass needle had shifted by a few degrees; evidently steps were not accurate units of direction at that distance.

“And this is why others travel through here,” Tellwyrn explained while Aradidjad stumbled and struggled for balance, nearly toppling over from sheer confusion. “If you know the trick of it, you can shave off most of any journey—on the same continent, that is, unless you can walk on water. Not as quick as teleportation or shadow-jumping, but it helps. And of course, a woman of your education is obviously aware that space and time are closely linked; a little help from our patron makes the same dilation effect usable for our purposes.”

And locked the ability to time travel to Scions on sanctioned missions with Tellwyrn’s oversight, Aradidjad noted silently. Aloud, she snapped, “At any point are you going to explain something before making me stumble headlong into it?”

“This may be your first rodeo, doctor, but it’s not mine. I’ve been guiding baby birds since literally time immemorial; trust me, I know the fastest way to teach you to fly. Now, step carefully but keep moving. Given the first impression you made on the watchers, you’re on a tight schedule.”

Something told her that rewinds or no, she didn’t want to experience whatever those things would do to her before Tellwyrn had to undo it. Grumbling to herself, Aradidjad shifted her face to follow the needle and stepped again.

This time she was in the foothills of the mountains, and it was the middle of the night. There was a dim, sourceless light all around, an effect made all the more eerie by the lack of moon or stars. She adjusted to match her compass again and stepped. One blurring footstep at a time, covering an unknown stretch of miles each, she paced across the continent, only the shifting time of day betraying that she was moving through time as well as space. The whole thing was so surreal it was almost banal, as if her brain were protecting itself from undue stress by refusing to dwell on the implications.

“Valkyries, huh,” she asked while walk-jumping across the land. “Are they what I’m supposed to shoot, if not the horrible sky monsters?”

“Don’t do that; the valkyries have been instructed not to interfere with Scions. They are fellow Pantheon servants and I don’t need the stress of cleaning up after that. Even after rewinding, Vidius always knows when one of my lackeys has taken a shot at one of his. No, there are occasionally…other things in there. That is where chaos comes from, after all.”

“Bloody brilliant,” Aradidjad muttered. “Who got attacked by a valkyrie? I assume if they had to be instructed…”

“I said interfere with, not attack.” Tellwyrn’s voice was amused. “They’ve been trapped in there for eons with nobody to talk to but their god, each other, and the recently dead. They kept cornering my Scions and jabbering their ears off until the monsters intervened. I had to ask Vidius to lay down the law.”

“No fun allowed. Got it.”

“You’re being punished, Aradidjad, it isn’t supposed to be fun. Go on, you’re almost there.”

Though her on-the-ground perspective made it difficult, Aradidjad possessed a basic knowledge of geography and figured out where she was by the time she got there; her path had taken her south around an impassable mountain range, then back north. The intervening landscapes were quite distinctive: the tall but rounded hills of Viridill, the pine forests of northern Athan’Khar, the canyons and rivers of N’Jendo and finally the steppes of Thakar.

“Why go all the way around the Wyrnrange? You can’t tell me this is efficient.”

“This method requires you to travel through space as well as time,” the voice of the elf replied. “The distance was necessary. It is efficient; I’ve plotted the optimal course, I assure you. And now you’ve arrived! Exit through the aperture, please.”

She kept her thoughts to herself, but took note: if she had to travel through time in order to reach a specific period, the Scions’ citadel existed at some point on the timeline, not outside it. At least, in theory. Temporal mechanics were her own particular field of study, in the last few years, and the one thing of which she was truly certain was that mortal minds weren’t configured properly to fully grasp them.

It looked very much like the gate through which she passed to and from the nexus: a vertical hole in reality right in front of her which grew wider in an uneven pattern, as if it were being tugged open by invisible hands. Light was distorted around its edges and through the middle was nothing but a dim golden glow reminiscent of the sands in the great hourglass, revealing no hint of what was on the other side. Assuming this place corresponded to the material world, probably the same northern jungle in which she now stood.

After the merest hesitation, Aradidjad stepped through the portal, which as before had no sensation; it was less disorienting than her time-shifting steps out there in the place between.

On this side, though, there was a village… Or had been, recently. Aradidjad stopped, clapping a hand over her mouth and staring around in shock while Tellwyrn nattered on in her ear.

“You’re near what would be the Onkawa/Thakar border in your time, though neither of those exists yet. It is roughly four thousand years after the Elder War, in a period which left little archaeological evidence for our era, thanks to the Hellwars which are slated to kick off in just a few centuries. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with any of that as your focus here is extremely specific. Your target is up ahead; follow the path leading into the jungle. He has already been warned not to do what he’s trying to do. You are to inform him of the terms of the deal, the same ones you got. Join, or perish.”

Someone had clearly been through here after…whatever had happened. The village itself was still a wreck—huts badly damaged, evidence of recent fires in multiple places, rubble and dried bloodstains strewing the ground. The bodies, though, had been carefully dressed, all of them. They lay scattered all over, probably near where they had fallen, but were neatly positioned wrapped in blankets and adorned with flowers.

Aradidjad stepped forward, following the wide path between the small cluster of mud-and-straw huts toward the jungle at its other end, having to step around corpses. Her mind seemed to snap back into focus; spatial and temporal dilation it could numbly brush off, but in the face of this, she fell back into cold analysis to escape the horror of it. Nothing could disguise the gut-turning smell—all the flowers only complicated it—but the lack of scavengers, even insects, strongly indicated magic. She sensed none, so not arcane. Infernal could scare away pests, but warlocks in this era were little more than walking firebombs, lacking that kind of sophistication. Very likely fae; the shamanic traditions of Onkawa had persisted into the Imperial era, only gradually fading as the Pantheon cults strengthened their presence. But could a shaman work out a way to time travel? That really required arcane magic…

“How often do they choose to perish?” Aradidjad asked quietly when she had passed the final corpse and reached the treeline. “I didn’t agree to become an executioner…”

“In all your missions, you’ll get as many tries as you need to get it right. With recruitments, getting it right means working out a path through the conversation which leads to them accepting terms. We always recruit, never kill.”

“…why?”

“I have my suspicions, Dr. Ardidjad, but the truth is I don’t know. Those are the orders from Vemnesthis, with which I am as obligated as you to comply. Right down to the empty threat of murder if they won’t come along quietly. And there’s our boy.”

The thick foliage hid even the impressive monument ahead; she came upon it quite suddenly through an opening in the dense underbrush. It was a ziggurat similar to the traditional pattern of Omnist temples, though this one was basically just an angular pile of stone displaying no iconography. It was small, too, not more than twelve feet high. Though steep, it had a long stone ramp extending from its top to virtually the foot of the path. She had to push aside huge ferns to reach it, and might not have known she was close to anything had she not felt the distinctive prickle of arcane magic at work.

Not enough to power a time travel spell, though, which was partly why she was taken by surprise. Totems of wood and stone, decorated with crystal and feathers, lined the clearing around the ziggurat and dominated the four corners of its flat top. Concentrating, she could sense the flows of magic—oddly thin and stretched, and moving in patterns shaped by something invisible. Forced into them, in fact, like a magnet suspended by a precisely configured field of opposing magnets. He was, she realized, using a huge quantity of fae magic to construct an arcane working from whatever tiny dregs of power he could summon up. It was…brilliant. She could never have conceived of such a thing on her own. Oh, what she would have given to be able to study it…

But the shaman standing atop the ziggurat turned his back on his altar to glare down at her, and she audibly gasped.

It was the Scions’ chef and groundskeeper, Kaolu.

“Oh, you twisted little asshole,” she said aloud.

“I assume that was directed at me,” Tellwyrn replied with audible mirth.

Kaolu, naturally, assumed otherwise, and scowled. “Leave this place!” he thundered down at her.

It occurred incongruously to Aradidjad that she hadn’t known any of the languages being spoken at her in the Scions’ citadel, either; she certainly didn’t understand pre-Hellwar Western dialects. Except, she clearly did, evidently thanks to the auspices of her new god.

Clearing her throat, she straightened up, giving him her best undergrad-withering stare—which was difficult as it hinged on peering down her nose and he was standing on a platform twice her height.

“You were warned, Kaolu!” she called across the clearing. “You—”

He spat and gestured, and a spear levitated on currents of air at his side. Aradidjad immediately shut up and conjured a disc of force; it didn’t provide the same coverage as a standard spherical shield but was far sturdier, and that was a factor if he was going to be hurling spears at her. Shields bore up well against spells and energy weapons, but contact with solid matter degraded them quickly.

Her instincts were good, which was small comfort as she was proceeding upon false data. That wind spell he used to hurl the spear did not pitch it forward on a ballistic course, but whipped it at her as if it were tied to the end of a chain. It did move a lot faster than if it had been thrown by human hands. Unfortunately, it also arced around to the side, and she wasn’t able to move her shield in time.

The broad stone head hit her in the side right below the ribs, with enough force to hurl her bodily across the clearing. Given its size, that was enough force to very nearly tear her in half. Which was a delightful thing upon which to reflect while she was reliving that experience in reverse over the next few seconds.

Standing at the end of the jungle path, Aradidjad glared daggers at the screen of ferns separating her from the clearing. “That son of a bitch.”

“Nobody ever gets it in one try,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Well, you know his opening move, anyway! Or one of them.”

“One of them?!”

“People are complex, and so are situations; timelines aren’t mechanistic or completely predictable. I’m afraid you cannot just memorize a sequence of events and perform a dance. Your target will be quite predictable in the short term, but not to the point of reacting precisely the same way every time. You have to get to know him, the situation, and learn to adapt on the fly.”

“How bloody long does that take, on average?”

“Oh, the upper range is a couple of years, locally, of constant restarts. But don’t worry, that’s exceedingly rare. And this isn’t nearly so complex a situation. I started you out on a soft one, doctor; I’m fully confident you’ll be out of there in a few hours. A day or two, tops.”

Snarling savagely, Aradidjad stomped through the ferns. “Hey, jackass!”

Kaolu whirled. This time, probably due to her far more aggressive posture, he didn’t bother speaking to her. He did use the wind-spear again, though, rather than surprising her with a new trick.

Aradidjad conjured her localized shield, this time right in front of the spear instead of near herself, smacking it out of the air at the very start of its arc. While he was gaping at that, she hurled a pure arcane bolt at him.

As it turned out, his incredibly complex working of fae magic controlling a very precise array of arcane energy to pierce the fabric of the space/time continuum did not like being abruptly pumped full of unfocused arcane destruction. The resulting explosion scoured away the top half of the ziggurat, along with everything else within twenty yards, including herself.

“Well, what did you think was going to happen?” Tellwyrn snorted moments later when Aradidjad was once more standing on the path before the ferns.

“That, pretty much.”

“I suppose it’s good that you’re not deterred by the prospect of painful death. Just don’t take it too far, doctor. Also, do keep in mind the mission. You’re here to recruit him, not incinerate him.”

“Well, if nothing else, I guess I understand why he was giving me the stink-eye back at headquarters. This was a particularly cheesy move, Tellwyrn.”

“Heh. If I really wanted to mess with your head, I’d have sent you to recruit Idrie.”

Shaking her head, she shoved past the ferns again, and stopped at the foot of the stairs, glaring up at Kaolu.

Once more, he turned upon her arrival, and scowled down at her. “Leave this place!”

Aradidjad drew her revolver and shot him right through the chest. The force of the beam sent his body toppling over his altar and down the other side of the ziggurat.

And then, of course, Tellwyrn rewound her.

“Feel better?” the elf asked dryly.

“A little,” Aradidjad mused, placing a hand on her revolver, which was now holstered again in its magic sheath. “This thing is remarkably accurate for having such stopping power. Usually there’s a trade-off, there.”

“That was a very good shot. I didn’t realize you were a weapons enthusiast.”

“I don’t care for them, in truth, but I put myself through grad school making wands. In Calderaas, they’re the easiest money for an enchanter who doesn’t have the right mindset for factory work. You probably saw a couple of my pieces pass through Last Rock in the hands of one wannabe adventurer or another… Oh, I’m sorry, do you know about Last Rock yet?”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said with a chuckle. “But we can trade backstories when you’re not on the clock…so to speak. Keep in mind your ground rules, please: do not fire your service weapon on the mortal plane, and refrain from murdering your recruitment prospect.”

“Oh, right! I had a feeling I was forgetting something, thanks.” She stepped forward through the ferns again.

This time, she shot Kaolu before he was finished turning around.

“Are you just about done?” Tellwyrn demanded once she was reversed back to the path before the clearing again.

“Hmm…yes, I believe it’s out of my system now,” Aradidjad said solemnly. “Okay, for real this time.”

She strode purposefully through the ferns, right up to the base of the stairs. “Kaolu!” she called out in her most imperious tone. “I bring you a message from the gods!”

He turned more slowly this time, seeming to respond to the inherent gravitas of this claim, and stared down at her through narrowed eyes. Aradidjad knew she must be an impressive figure; those robes were very faintly luminous, and doubtless totally outside his experience. Actually, for a man in this region in this era, a human of Tiraan blood probably looked as exotic as an elf.

“Speak it, then,” Kaolu said, folding his arms across his bare chest.

“The gods have sent me to bring you this warning,” she intoned.

Then drew her revolver and nailed him right through the head.

This time, the rewind was longer, dragging her all the way back up the jungle path and through the slaughtered village, leaving her standing right where she had first arrived on the material plane in this era.

“Oh, that was just petty,” Aradidjad complained.

“Takes two to tango, sweetheart. You can play the comedian if you really want, Cyria; we quite literally have all the time in the world to get this right. If you’re thinking of testing your patience against that of an immortal, it’s probably best that we disabuse you of that idea early on in your career.”

“This isn’t my career,” she grunted, starting back through the village toward the jungle again. “And by the way. Would I be correct in extrapolating from this scene that Kaolu has just lost everyone in the world he ever cared about and is desperately trying to restore them? And this is the ‘offense’ for which I’m to rip him out of reality into an eternity of indentured servitude?”

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes. I should think you of all people would have a little more sympathy for him.”

“You’ll find I’m not a very warm or cuddly person, Arachne.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.”

The path terminated in a familiar tangle of ferns, with glints of daylight beyond, and now Aradidjad slowed, narrowing her eyes in sudden contemplation.

“All right…wait. Before I go charging in there unprepared, again, can you tell me anything about this situation? Something I can use?”

“Ahh.” Tellwyrn sounded so much like the dean of her University department smugly inflicting one of his “teachable moments” on some poor kid that Aradidjad resolved on the spot to shoot the archmage at some point, just to see what would happen. “So it seems you do learn! All right, here’s the situation, roughly…”


She didn’t get hungry, thirsty, or tired. Tellwyrn just directed her to pay attention to the mission when Aradidjad tried to pause and ask about this, so she put it aside for another time when the elf wouldn’t have that excuse not to explain things. In fact, Tellwyrn’s general lack of explanation was rapidly becoming an extremely sore point. It seemed her entire teaching philosophy was to hurl her subject into the thick of whatever task she had and see how well—and indeed, whether at all—they fared. By the end of this, Aradidjad was seriously wondering about those kids who matriculated from Last Rock, and how so many of them survived without having time regularly reversed. It seemed likely that those in particular would tend to run afoul of the Scions, if they picked up any of their teacher’s general attitude.

As her operator had warned, Kaolu didn’t react precisely the same way every time; this wasn’t a problem that could be solved through rote memorization. He did behave in predictable patterns, though, and through trial and error, she learned to adapt to them. The recruitment was like an elaborate dance, composed of steps but held together by elements of improvisation.

Lacking any frame of reference, she had no way of knowing how long the whole process took. It didn’t even occur to her to count the rewinds until quite a few had passed, though by the end they surely had to number in the hundreds. In retrospect, it seemed less ironic that as an enforcer of the timeline she had been issued a weapon and not a watch. Knowing would probably just have enraged her further.

In the end, she first had to impress Kaolu by engaging him in a magical battle and making a show of effortlessly neutralizing every spell he threw at her without losing composure or retaliating. This, of course, required a lot of trial and error, until she could dispatch every trick in his repertory by sheer muscle memory no matter the order in which he played them.

That laid the groundwork for the second phase, persuasion. Aradidjad did, indeed, know something of the pressures under which he was operating. That helped, but what truly tipped the balance was remembering what had worked on her. Threats, pleas, and reasoning had no effect on someone caught in the grip of life-altering grief. What made him finally agree to stop, to accept terms, was relentless, inexorable implacability.

She had a counterspell for everything he attempted, an answer for everything he said; she constantly, slowly, pressed forward physically, one step at a time, until she finally reached the top of the ziggurat.

Until she had finally worn him down into true, hopeless despair.

Shooting the man was one thing; Aradidjad had never considered herself a violent person, but she’d done it dozens of times now, in her frustration, and it never left a mark. Time travel quickly took the sting out of brutality. This, though, her final victory, made her feel truly filthy.

By the end of it, the reliance on repetition and reflex, as hard as it was to develop, was a blessing. Aradidjad was so numb and so disgusted with what she was doing that divorcing her consciousness from the process even a little was all that kept her from putting that revolver to her own head. Well, that and the fact that it obviously wouldn’t achieve anything except to give Tellwyrn the bloody satisfaction.

At least recalling Scions to the citadel was easier than sending them to another place and period. Tellwyrn was able to open a portal right where they stood, rather than forcing Aradidjad to backtrack through the village and then chaos space. By that point she was too relieved at avoiding the prospect of accompanying Kaolu past the bodies of the loved ones she had prevented him from restoring even to wonder about the temporal implications of the recall.

She stepped through the portal with him, her mind as far away as she could send it and still function. The relief at finding herself back in an elevator in the nexus alone was so intense it completely blotted out her momentary confusion.

“Welcome back, and congratulations on your first successful mission!” Tellwyrn buzzed in her ear. “Don’t worry about your target; we don’t have multiple iterations of the same person in the nexus, so he’s doing what he’d been doing for years by the time you got here. And don’t stress yourself unduly about non-linear events like that. You’ll be much happier in the long run just glossing over them. Now go relax a bit, you’ve earned it.”

Aradidjad said nothing in reply. Somewhat to her surprise, Tellwyrn didn’t push at her any further.


She found a seat on a random platform; some of the citadel’s spaces were obviously purposeful, but just as many seemed strewn with aimlessly scattered, anachronistic furniture. Aradidjad ensconced herself in an overstuffed armchair in a distant corner with a view past two buildings at the grand sweep of the cosmos beyond. The structures floating around the periphery of the nexus remained in place, linked as they were by bridges, but she now observed that the ring system slowly orbited. Was that purely a decorative touch, or did it serve some purpose? At that point, she didn’t care enough to ask anyone.

In truth, she didn’t really want to talk to anybody at all. Aradidjad had passed several people while wandering through the platforms, bridges, and staircases in search of an out-of-the-way place to hide. Some greeted her, some ignored her; none except Idrie were familiar. She didn’t react to anyone, and none of them seemed put off by that. Undoubtedly they had all been in her position. Even Tellwyrn, thankfully, left her alone.

The chair had a lever on the side, below its arm rests. This, it turned out, caused its back to lean backward and footrest to extend, reclining to a sort of improvised bed. What a marvelous innovation. Aradidjad lounged back, staring up at the ascent of the great hourglass into infinity above.

She was just absently wondering what that smell was when a big, dark hand holding a steaming bowl appeared in her field of vision.

Aradidjad reflexively grabbed the lever; fortunately the chair didn’t seem to go upright as quickly as it reclined, which spared her from rearing up straight into the bowl of soup.

Kaolu still took a judicious step back, watching her with a faint smile totally unlike his previous stony glare.

“We never grow hungry,” he explained. “Food is to nourish the spirit, here. You’ll quickly find this is important and well worth doing; we are all staving off one kind of madness or another. Here, it is a Sifanese noodle soup Tellwyrn likes. I don’t know your comfort foods yet, but one good thing about this place is the plentiful opportunity to discover new things.”

She got the chair back upright, and found herself clutching its armrests with both hands, staring at him with an embarrassingly fish-like expression.

Kaolu’s smile widened slightly. “An apology is owed.”

“Oh,” Aradidjad said weakly. “I…”

“No, no!” He actually laughed, waving at her with his free hand. “No, from me. I must have been very unfriendly when you first arrived. Truly, I am sorry for my rudeness. You see, I recall so vividly the mysterious Scion who appeared in the aftermath of my greatest anguish, and so calmly outmaneuvered everything I did to coerce me into this place. Yet, when I arrived here, she was nowhere to be found! I have grown accustomed to the service of Vemnesthis without the chance to grow accustomed to that person.”

Aradidjad blinked, and nodded. In fact, the cheerful Idrie who accompanied her on that first elevator ride had borne little resemblance to the unstoppable little force of nature which had…

“And so,” Kaolu continued, “there you suddenly were, and memory struck me like a mighty blow. I let myself forget what I now know, of how it feels to be suddenly…here. To be doing these things, with no choice.” Smiling, he bent forward again, offering her the bowl. “We are all prisoners together. We wear the same chains. It does not do to hold grudges between us. Here: soup cures nothing, but treats everything. Please have some.”

“Thank you,” she said finally, reaching to take the hot bowl from him. “I…appreciate it. And… I’m sorry, too, Kaolu. If it helps, you gave me quite a lot of trouble.”

His smile broadened into a wide grin, but just as quickly diminished again. “We are of two kinds, I find. Some are here because they grasped for power. Some, because they tried to undo a cruel loss. Often you can tell which, by what they do after their first mission. That you retreat like this—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said abruptly, then stopped and deliberately moderated her tone. “I’m sorry.”

“Be not sorry,” he replied, bowing to her. “I only meant that I understand. You need not hurry to speak of anything. Here, we have nothing but time. If you ever do wish to speak, though, I will hear.”

“I…thank you.”

He smiled broadly, and gave her a deep nod. “For now, enjoy your soup. She will have more tasks for us all soon enough. Welcome, Cyria Aradidjad. We shall try to make this a home for you, as we do for each other.”

Kaolu left her alone after that. She gazed pensively after him for a long moment, until he disappeared into the distance, before turning her attention to the slowly cooling bowl in her hands. Frowning, she carefully picked up the utensils provided with the noodles and broth.

“…in all of time and space, what sort of maniac uses two sticks to eat soup?”

 

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Bonus #24: Scion, part 1

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“Impressive, isn’t it?”

It was much more than that, but she was not about to give them the satisfaction of saying so.

Aradidjad folded her arms and did her best to look supercilious rather than sullen; she stared past the open walls of the cage-like elevator as much to avoid the eyes of her captors as to take in the incredible scene.

The citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis hung suspended in a void; all around was an endless vault of stars and eerie splashes of faint color like distant nebulae—a sight she dimly recognized from her undergraduate years, though she was no astronomer. The whole complex was even surrounded by a ring system like Bast’s, tilted at a crazy angle. Like the rings around the distant gas giant, it seemed to be made of dust and chunks of floating debris, being just close enough to the elevator for her to make out its texture.

In the center of the complex hung the vast hourglass. Multi-chambered, filled with sands which glowed in shifting shades of gold and silver, streaming through its many compartments in patterns that made no sense even when they were not interrupted by miniature sandstorms, the glass was an endless tower suspended in space. It actually seemed to terminate far below, but stretched above apparently infinitely. The relatively small segment surrounded by the Scions’ base might as well have been perfectly vertical, but as its vast length extended toward eternity it could be seen to weave and waver in an irregular pattern.

Rings of metal surrounded the hourglass, broad walkways upon which Arididjad could see people coming and going. There were over a dozen layers of them, connected by an erratic network of spiral staircases and rope bridges, all wrought from metal which gleamed like chrome. A faint glow washed outward from the great hourglass, but there were also incongruously mundane-looking street lamps on posts positioned here and there, mostly at the foot of each bridge.

The elevator “shafts” were little more than long metal poles guiding the course of each car, which itself was nothing but an open cage of brass and a glass floor—enough to give a person vertigo, to which she was fortunately not very susceptible. There were dozens of these elevators, all positioned around the edges of the metal platforms, apparently stopping at multiple levels and all rising to the gateways which hung in space several stories above the highest level of the complex.

Extending out past the network of platforms and bridges, but within the planetary ring, were a profusion of buildings covering every conceivable architectural style. Everything from mud brick huts to stone temples, log cabins and graceful palaces, even several towering and improbable-looking structures of glass and steel. They floated in nothing, reached from the platforms by more hanging bridges.

There were no banisters or safety rails anywhere in the place.

“Aw, it’s all right, you can say it,” the gnome prompted with an irritating grin. “It’s no admission of weakness. It is damn impressive, and you know it.”

“No need to prod at her,” the elf said in a mild tone. While the gnome seemed strangely cheerful about this whole contemptible business, the elf had just been standoffish and left her alone. Aradidjad didn’t know the little red-headed gnomish woman from a hole in the wall, but this elf was unmistakable, and her presence here boded ill. Her apparent disinterest was, if anything, encouraging.

“How long am I expected to serve, here?” she demanded.

Tellwyrn had been watching out the front of the elevator with her back to Aradidjad, but now half-turned to look at her sidelong, pushing those gold-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of her nose.

“This is a life sentence, Dr. Aradidjad. Idrie should have explained that to you.”

“Oh, I bloody well did, an’ you know it,” the gnome huffed. “C’mon, Arachne, you know what they’re all like when first picked up. I told ‘er what she needs ta know; it won’t stop the questions.”

“So,” Aradidjad grunted, “I’m here till I die, then? Well, at least I know how to quit.”

The elf’s shift in posture was infinitesimal, and her expression changed not a hair, but suddenly Aradidjad’s nerves jangled with a sense of impending danger.

It didn’t help. Moving with the characteristic fluid speed of her race, Tellwyrn whirled, whipping a gold-hilted saber out of nowhere, and drove the blade straight into her heart.

She gaped, in total shock, at the elf’s faintly sardonic expression…which drifted upward as she slumped to her knees. Blood spurted with each agonizing beat of her heart. The pain… It hurt less than she’d have expected. It felt like pressure more than a cut, she noted with scientific detachment, even as her senses faded into blackness.

Everything stopped.

And suddenly, everything was running backward. She moved through a haze over which she had no control, watching the last few seconds rewind. Aradidjad was pulled upright as if on strings, Tellwyrn reached out to grab the saber’s hilt and yanked it from her chest. That, oddly, didn’t hurt.

Then time resumed its normal flow, and she stumbled backward. Fortunately her back came against one of the elevator’s upright supports, which spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. Aradidjad scrabbled frantically for the handrails, gasping. She clawed at her chest; no wound. There was no blood. Her shirt wasn’t even rumpled.

“You get to quit,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “when we decide you can.”

Idrie the gnome rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Arachne.”

“You could just have explained that!” Aradidjad snarled.

Tellwyrn shrugged and turned her back again. “I find that experience is the best teacher.”

Aradidjad bared her teeth at the elf’s back, straightening up and raised one hand; energy began to coalesce out of the air in her grip.

Idrie cleared her throat, catching her eye, and then shook her head pointedly.

After a short pause, she let the half-formed spell disperse. What was the use, anyway? Tellwyrn didn’t even bother to acknowledge it, though she of course must have been aware of a spell of arcane destruction being cast directly behind her. Well, of course she didn’t. It was Arachne Tellwyrn. Cyria Aradidjad was a much more than competent mage, but instigating a wizard’s duel with this one would have been nothing but drawn-out, extravagant suicide.

And if she correctly interpreted the point of the very painful lesson she had just been given, even that option was not available to her.

Apparently the time reversal had been highly localized. She couldn’t tell whether Idrie had been affected, but the elevator itself was not; it continued down, its progress not altered by the few seconds which had moved backward for Aradidjad. She was still getting her breath back under control when it reached its destination. The cage came to a stop alongside a level near the middle of the complex, a soft chime sounded from somewhere, and the doors slid open.

“Well, step lively now,” Tellwyrn said lightly, striding out onto the metal platform.

“Are you in a hurry?” Aradidjad snipped, following her. “I would think we have all the time in the world.”

“Sloth is a moral failing regardless of its concrete effect,” Tellwyrn replied without turning around. “Come along, Doctor. You will quickly learn to develop the habit of keeping in motion. The kinds of people recruited to serve here are usually those whose minds go to dark places when they have time to sit and contemplate.”

Aradidjad narrowed her eyes, but followed. That description was so true of herself it was eerie.

With Idrie trundling along behind them, seeming to keep up effortlessly despite her tiny legs, they made their way along the platform. Aradidjad glanced down rope bridges as they passed. Not rope, she saw now, but some kind of steel cable. They still didn’t look terribly sturdy. Each led to a floating building; all had their doors closed. There was no guessing at the contents or purpose of any from what she could see.

“And here we are!” Tellwyrn proclaimed, coming to a stop at one end of the long platform. Off to the side of the space, two bridges extended away to other platforms, next to a spiral staircase leading both up and down to still more. This area, though, was set aside for occupation, with a profusion of mismatched tables, chairs, and a few long sofas. Perched across one end of the seating area, precariously close to the edge of the platform, were two food carts such as Aradidjad often saw on the streets of Tiraas. At least, their purpose was obvious, though one was a primitive wooden affair with a charcoal brazier and the other seemed made of brushed steel and contained an arcane cold box of a design clearly more advanced than she had ever seen, to judge by the compact structure of its enchanting components. “Everyone, meet Dr. Cyria Aradidjad, our newest Scion. Cyria, everyone.”

“This is everyone?” she demanded, sweeping a surprised stare around the group. There were only five of them. But then, with power over time itself, she supposed the Scions did not need to be a numerous group to be everywhere they needed…

“Not hardly, it’s just a figure of speech,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You can meet everyone at your leisure, but this is a good start: these are exactly the folks you’ll be interacting with the most. Behind the carts there is Kaolu, our chef and groundskeeper. Stay on his good side if you wish to eat well. This is Q, short for Quartermaster, and the only thing he wishes to be called. Chao Lu Shen is our librarian and archivist—any mission which requires you to be updated on the details of the period, which will be most of them, begins with him. And these are Rispin and Yalda, who are much less important.”

“Always a pleasure to see you too, Boss,” the blonde dwarf introduced as Yalda replied sardonically. Rispin, a male drow, just looked at Tellwyrn and then at Aradidjad, his expression betraying nothing, and did not pause in chewing whatever was in his mouth.

The three Tellwyrn introduced as important were all humans. Kaolu was a Westerner of towering height, who fixed Aradidjad with a stony stare from the moment of her arrival. Q gave her a curt nod to soften his speculative expression. It was a little hard to read his face, dominated as it was but an enormous handlebar mustache and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. He was actually an inch or two shorter than she, but incredibly burly, with a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair that was beginning to recede. Chao Lu Shen was a diminutive Sheng man wearing frameless spectacles which appeared to be clipped onto the bridge of his nose, without earpieces. He smiled pleasantly at her and bowed at being introduced.

Not one of them looked like mages, though only mages ended up running afoul of—and being forcibly recruited by—the Scions of Vemnesthis. Then again, appearances did not count for much even in the rational world she knew. Here, it might be best to assume nothing meant what it seemed to. What little seemed to mean anything.

“So, a doctor?” Q rumbled. “Would that be of the medical sort?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I am a researcher in the Arcane Sciences Department at Imperial Univeristy in Calderaas.”

“Were,” Idrie corrected her cheerfully. “You’re one of us now!” Her smile was undaunted by Aradidjad’s answering scowl.

“Pity,” Q grunted. “We could use a medic.”

“For what?” Yalda asked in exasperation.

“General principles. Feels wrong, serving in a unit with no medic.”

“So, a theoretical scientist.” Rispin had swallowed, and now addressed her in a low, warm voice that might have been seductive had she been in any mood for it. “I suppose that explains how you came to be here.”

Aradidjad’s attention was diverted by Kaolu, who had continued staring at her flatly with that unreadable expression. At the drow’s open invitation, though, she cut her eyes to him and narrowed them. “I’m not interested in talking about that.”

“Oh, by all means, take all the time ye need,” Idrie said lightly. “Times all we’ve got in ‘ere, aye? Everybody comes ’round eventually. Me, now, I’m an archaeologist!”

“Don’t you mean were an archaeologist?” Yalda retorted, earning a few points in Aradidjad’s book.

“Are, were, all the same,” Idrie replied, waving her off. “Leastwise, fer me it is. I’m in it ta study ancient cultures, an’ hell’s bells ‘ave I got the opportunity of a lifetime fer that! I may never publish another paper, but damn if the work ain’t excitin’!”

“I, too, find cause to appreciate my current position,” Chao Lu Shen said almost diffidently. “I created a stable temporal loop, enabling myself to live the same day over and over.”

Aradidjad had resolved not to get involved with these people and focus on getting out of this predicament, but that story diverted her attention both from her plans and Kaolu’s increasingly unnerving stare. “One day, on endless repeat? Why in the world would you want to do that?”

“I was a librarian even then,” he replied, smiling. “The Library of the Celestial Emperor in Zingyaru is among the greatest in the world. Texts from every land, from every age! A scholar could devote a lifetime and explore only a fraction of one wing. Indeed, it would take a lifetime’s study to learn every language needed to decipher every document in the Library. I could not bear to be among such a wealth of knowledge, and know that my mortality would deprive me of all but the merest sliver.”

“You imprisoned yourself in a time loop,” Aradidjad said slowly, “to read books.”

He bowed to her again, his smile undiminished. “And now, I have access to books and knowledge beyond all mortal apprehension, and eternity itself in which to study them! I am most content with my lot. If Vemnesthis demands my service for this privilege, then I am honored to serve.”

“If you’re thinking that makes you a bad fit around here,” Yalda said dryly, “don’t. Chao Lu Shen is the exception, not the rule. Most people who were ambitious enough to try messing with time don’t particularly care to be pressganged into being wardens of the very prison they tried to bust out of.”

“We all make whatever accommodation we must with our situation, as it is well and truly permanent,” Rispin added. “Trust me. Some of your new colleagues—none of those here—have chosen to embrace madness rather than endure this situation at face value. From watching them, we have learned that the excuse of madness does not relieve us of duty, but merely makes it more difficult to perform. It is worth devoting some attention to keeping yourself sane.”

“What’re you in for, then?” Aradidjad asked him.

“Bad form, that,” Q snorted. “Won’t tell us your story, but you wanna hear everyone else’s?”

“Aw, quit bein’ such a grouch,” Idrie ordered, strolling over to smack him on the knee reprovingly.

“There is no harm in the asking,” Rispin said with a shrug. “If I did not wish to answer, I wouldn’t. Vemnesthis is not widely known in the Underworld; most of the Pantheon are not. I crafted a plan which would have catapulted me to immense power over my fellows, but failed to account for the existence of an entire deity devoted to thwarting ambitions such as mine.”

“Sorry it didn’t work out for you,” Aradidjad said, struggling to withhold the spite from her voice. Typical drow.

He shrugged again. “One tries what one must; sometimes one fails. I may not have power, here, but the accommodations are indescribably luxurious, compared to what I endured before. I have not learned to appreciate being ordered around by a distant god and his sharp-tongued delegate, but who among us gets all we wish from life?”

“I just wanted to see my fiance again,” Yalda said quietly, fixing a cold stare on Tellwyrn. “But to hell with that and with me, I suppose.”

Aradidjad followed her eyes, deliberately ignoring Kaolu, whose stare had neither relented nor shifted from her for a second. The man didn’t even seem to blink. “Yes, I can’t help but notice that our most famous member appears to be out of uniform. What’s her story?”

Tellwyrn was standing off to the side, silently watching the conversation with her arms folded. Indeed, she wore a simple blouse, vest, and trousers in green and brown, while the rest of them were clad in robes of a pale bronze color deliberately reminiscent of the sands in the titanic hourglass which loomed off to the side.

“Oh, ‘aven’t ye guessed?” Idrie chimed merrily. “She’s the boss of us, an’ now of you, too! That there’s the high priestess of Vemnesthis, an’ the one from whom you’ll be gettin’ yer marchin’ orders from now on.”

“She’s out of uniform,” Yalda added with barely-concealed dislike, “because she gets to go home.”

“The Scions have no home but this citadel in time, and no life but our service,” Chao Lu Shen said in his soft voice, “and never see the world of our birth save on missions in the name of Vemnesthis. Except for our leader, who has the privilege of a dual existence. When not directing us, she returns to her own affairs in the mortal realm.”

“In your entire life,” Aradidjad asked Tellwyrn bitterly, “have you ever encountered a rule that actually applied to you? Or do you just apply them to others?”

“Yes, yes, how very put-upon you all are,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone. “You all know exactly what you did to end up here—especially you,” she added, tilting her head to stare over the rims of her spectacles at Aradidjad. “I should think it would be fresh enough in your mind. Complain if it makes you feel better, but I’ll warn you up front that it won’t, in the long term. And the long term is what you’d better start thinking of. There are no short terms, here.”

“You have barely begun to dislike Arachne Tellwyrn,” Rispin said with a sarcastic smile which strongly suggested he wasn’t of Narisian origin. “She is an abrasive, unlovable onion whose many noxious layers you have all the time in the world to open, one by one. But, and this is one of her most annoying traits, she is very seldom wrong. She’s not wrong now. Don’t dwell on your anger, comrade. It will only make you miserable, and gain you nothing.”

Offering him no response, Aradidjad stared at Tellwyrn through narrowed eyes in the ensuing silence. She glanced aside; yep, Kaolo was still glaring at her. That was going to get very old, very quickly.

Then, before her better judgment could kick in and dissuade her, she whirled and dashed for the edge of the platform.

No one tried to stop her; no one even exclaimed in surprise, with the exception of Idrie, whose whoop could only be taken as encouragement. Aradidjad only had to take four long steps to reach the edge of the un-railed platform and hurl herself off into the infinite abyss.

She had, fortunately, plunged into a section of space with no structures under it…or perhaps unfortunately. Involuntarily flailing her limbs, she plummeted past rope bridges and more platforms, and barely missed skinning herself on the long bulk of a floating lighthouse (of all the absurd things), and then she was falling through sheer nothing, toward nothing. Stars drifted all around; in her spinning descent, she caught glimpses of the base of the hourglass, retreating above her along with the citadel of the Scions. It was smooth and rounded on the bottom, filled with sand, and rapidly shrinking behind her…

And then time slowed, and stopped. For a second, she hung there, fixed in place. Then it began to run in reverse, dragging her helplessly along.

Aradidjad rose straight back up, unable to move against the rewind but conscious of it. She shot past hovering structures to the edge of the platform on which Tellwyrn and the other Scions stood, staring at her—not caught in her rewind, she noticed—as she landed on its edge, jogged backward a few steps without the ability to so much as protest, and was finally released, standing in exactly the position from which she’d started.

“Wow,” Yalda drawled, sounding oddly impressed. “Most people have to deal with this place for a few years before trying that.”

“Oh, we’ve got us a live one ‘ere, we ‘ave!” Idrie crowed.

“I was wondering about the lack of safety rails,” Aradidjad commented.

“You’ll be glad to know,” said Tellwyrn dryly, “or perhaps not so glad, that if you land on something solid and crush yourself like an egg on the cobblestones, it works exactly the same. You work for Vemnesthis, now, and nobody’s going to get you out of it. Not even Vidius.”

“We’ll see,” Aradidjad replied, staring her down.

Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well. All right, since you all look so bored, it’s mission time.”

There were a few muted groans, but clearly everyone present knew the futility of protest. Tellwyrn continued barking orders, ignoring them.

“Chao Lu Shen, back to the library and prepare to assist your colleagues. Q, fetch a service pistol for Aradidjad here and meet her by Shaft Six. Kaolu, I’ll have a bowl of kake udon with a slice of tangerine ginger cheesecake for dessert. Rispin, you’re delivering a first warning to an arcanist in Akhvaris; no special accommodations with the culture are necessary this time, I want you to scare the hell out of her. You’ll embark from Shaft Two. Yalda, there’s another tribal group fucking around with that off-kilter hellgate in Arkania, a century and a half after the last batch. Same drill as before. Chao Lu Shen will brief you on their etiquette; we’re assuming at this point that they’ll comply with a divine messenger. If not, we’ll try harsher measures. Shaft Eleven. Ardidjad, you’re doing a recruitment, Shaft Six. The shafts are clearly numbered, just head clockwise around the platforms from here and you’ll get there.”

“Honestly, that mess again?” Yalda whined. “Since you’re the one who can bloody well leave, can’t you straighten that damn thing out? It’s a big, red, glowing button with a ‘poke me’ sign for anyone with a shred of arcane or infernal talent.”

“You’re not wrong,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “but options are few in that period. In my official capacity as Vemnesthis’s representative I have repeatedly asked the local cults to intervene, but the Avenists have their hands full with the other hellgate in that region and the Salyrites aren’t yet organized enough in that century to be much use. It’s long before I came along, or I’d just do it myself. My next gambit will be Vesk; he’s annoying to deal with, but if I can get him to make a quest of it some adventurers will eventually straighten it out. That’s why I want you to be polite to these people. I don’t think this group will help, but try to persuade them to stabilize the gate instead of making use of it. If they won’t, just get them to leave it alone; there’ll be another group along in another eighty years who will be more accommodating.”

“Feh,” Yalda grunted, flouncing off. “Anything to avoid adventurers. All they do is make a mess…”

“Hang on,” Aradidjad protested while the group dispersed, with the exceptions of Rispin and Kaolu, the latter of whom didn’t stop eerily staring at her even while cooking up some kind of noodle soup with ingredients he appeared to have conjured out of thin air. “I just got here! You’re sending me—I mean, isn’t there training or something?”

“We learn by doing,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smile. “Shaft Six, off you go.”

“I don’t even have the uniform!”

“Don’t you?”

Aradidjad paused and looked down on herself. Her avuncular suit was gone; she was inexplicably dressed in a set of those golden-beige robes, apparently tailored to her.

“Already,” she observed, “I really hate you.”

“I suggest you get over that, since it doesn’t harm anyone but you. Need something, Rispin?”

“A request,” said the drow, who had remained behind while the others scattered. “Would you please direct Yalda last this time? You’re always unusually grouchy after dealing with her.”

“And you thought that would help my mood?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be on my cheesecake by then; gods know I’ll need it. Get to your assignment, Rispin.”

“I don’t understand,” Aradidjad said plaintively.

“Through the auspices of our divine benefactor,” Tellwyrn informed her while Rispin strode away, “I will be your eyes and ears while you are on mission; you are the hands and feet. I’ll be feeding you instructions and watching your progress the whole time you’re working.”

“Well, that’s creepy as hell. So… You’re going to direct everyone at once?”

“No, sequentially. I can multi-task, but there’s no reason to, and these things go off much more smoothly when I focus on one person at a time.”

“Then we each have to wait for the one before to finish before we…” She trailed off when Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah. Right. Never mind.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the elf said with mild amusement. “Everything about your brain wants to deal with time as a linear construct. The way things work here takes significant getting used to. If anybody makes fun of you for it, know that they started in exactly the same place, and also you have my blessing to shove them off a platform. Now, off you go. Shaft Six, already. Chop chop.”

Aradidjad sighed and slouched away, aware without looking behind that Kaolu was staring at her back until she was out of sight.

Despite the chaotic appearance of the citadel, there was a logic to it—at least, to the elevator shafts. She found number Six without trouble, and found Q waiting impatiently at its foot.

“Finally,” he grunted at her. “Take the scenic route, did you?”

“I have Tellwyrn’s permission to push you off the platform,” she informed him.

“Yes, and that runs both ways, doctor. This is your service revolver.” He held out the object on both open palms.

Aradidjad stared at the thing for a moment, before gingerly taking it by what was clearly the handle. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to hold it, based on the handle’s position and the obvious clicker mechanism, and it was clearly a weapon, but… “Okay. But what is it?”

“An extrapolation from a design which I gather comes along after your time,” he rumbled. “The originals used controlled explosions to fire shaped metal projectiles at close to the speed of sound—”

“That would absolutely destroy any known energy shield,” Aradidjad breathed in fascination, studying the revolver with a new respect.

“Until shielding charms grew more sophisticated to adapt, yes,” Q said impatiently. “That’s neither here nor there. This one uses arcane power crystals instead of bullets, because you cannot be leaving material evidence anywhere you’re going. Each time you squeeze the trigger—”

“You mean the clicker?”

“…the trigger,” he said deliberately, glaring at her, “it will engage one of the power crystals to fire an energy beam, and the cylinder will rotate to bring the next crystal into alignment—”

“Thus entirely avoiding the overheating problem of conventional lightning wands and enabling a much faster rate of fire!” she exclaimed, delighted. Aradidjad had never been a weapons enthusiast, but always appreciated clever applications of engineering and enchantment.

Q snorted loudly, making his mustache bristle. “I can tell you’re going to be a world of fun, doctor. You are under no circumstances to fire that weapon in the material world while on mission. Any problems you encounter will be handled by Tellwyrn—”

“How? I thought the whole point of her staying here was to provide logistical support while we’re the ones in the field?”

“Dr. Aradidjad,” Q stated calmly, “if you interrupt me one more time, I will take that weapon back from you and shoot you with it. I will then continue to do so each time you rewind until Tellwyrn comes down here and makes me stop. Do we have an understanding?”

“Ah. So that’s how we avoid injury with no medics.”

“Yes, yes,” he sighed. “Go ahead, get it out of your system now.”

So she shot him in the head.

The revolver produced a sharp beam, blue in color and less intense than the enchanter wands with which she was familiar. It also had more of a kinetic element, clearly. The bolt entered cleanly through a small hole it bore into his forehead, but erupted out the back of his skull in a veritable explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments.

The rewind was fascinating to watch when she wasn’t caught in the middle of it. Pieces of Q’s head flew neatly back into place and he staggered back upright.

“There,” he said sourly, “feel better?”

“That really is amazing,” she said admiringly, and shot him through the heart.

“Knock it off, Aradidjad,” Tellwyrn’s voice sounded right in her ears, making her jump. Q lurched back toward her in a reverse of the blow which had flung him bodily away—that revolver had serious punching power, far more than any wand—and the hole in his chest mended itself. “Q, finish your spiel, please, I want to get this one in the field so I can play with her.”

“Gladly,” he snorted. “As I was saying, you are not to fire that weapon on the mortal realm. Most Scions never have an occasion to use their service pistols at all. It is only for emergency use against hazards you may rarely encounter in the place between, which is the medium used to travel to different time periods and locations.”

She frowned. “Where’s that?”

“Where you’re going next,” Tellwyrn said with ominous good cheer. “Thank you, Q, you’re dismissed. Now up the elevator, Aradidjad, your first mission awaits.”

Deliberately not allowing her trepidation to slow her, she stepped into the elevator. “Did you say you’re sending me on a recruitment? Why is that my first mission?”

“Because they’re easy,” Tellwyrn’s disembodied voice informed her as the elevator ascended with no prompting from its passenger. “Place the revolver against your side at a height that’s comfortable for you to draw it from; a holster will automatically appear on your robes and contain it. And don’t worry, Aradidjad, I’ll be guiding you every step of the way.”

“And let me guess,” she said sourly. “You can make that rewind thing happen at will, not just in response to lethal injury.”

“Precisely! You have as many chances as you’ll need to do it right. It’s not dangerous work, doctor; it’s far more likely to be tedious. Nothing ever goes off perfectly on the first try. But with all of time itself at our disposal, perfection is a very attainable standard. Vemnesthis requires nothing less.”

“Lovely,” she grunted.

“Oh, don’t be surly, your face’ll freeze that way. I’ll tell you what, after everyone’s back from assignment, we’ll have a movie night to welcome you aboard.”

“…movie…night?”

“It’s Chao Lu Shen’s turn to pick, which means it’ll be early Madouris talkies, but they’re not bad. You’ll appreciate those when Kaolu’s turn comes, he makes us watch these truly inexplicable Glassian art films.”

“Am I expected to have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about?”

“Not at this juncture, no,” Tellwyrn said with a laugh that made Aradidjad really wish she could shoot her. “Come along, no dallying.”

The elevator chimed pleasantly, coming to a stop at the shimmering gateway at the top of its shaft. Aradidjad drew in a breath, but did not hesitate in stepping through it. Not because she gave a flying damn what her bossy captor thought about anything, but for her own sake she refused to fall into timidity.

On the other side, though, she had to stop, staring.

She did not recognize this town; it apparently empty of life. There was something wavery and indistinct about the air, an effect she could not quite place. The silence was absolute and frighteningly oppressive.

Worst was the sky; there wasn’t one. Instead was a vast mass of eyes, tentacles, claws, bulbous protrusions of pulsating flesh. It was as if the world were completely surrounded by heaving monstrosities, themselves the size of planets.

All of which, suddenly, were looking directly at her.

“Come on, Aradidjad, chop chop,” Tellwyrn prompted her cheerfully. “Off you go! Time waits for no one.”

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Bonus #23: Toujours, part 2

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After the tumult of that day, he did not have a restful night, even when safely tucked away in his stall. Uneasy and alert, listening to the sounds of wind around the barn and the other horses sleeping within, Silver was not awakened when the barn door opened a crack, admitting a figure carrying a lamp. Nor was he surprised.

He was surprised, a little, at who it was.

Raoul was cloaked against the night’s chill, but lowered his hood once he had the barn door shut. In addition to the half-shuttered lantern in his hand, he wore a rapier belted at his waist, its hilt visible beneath the cloak and the tip of its scabbard protruding tellingly from below. He crossed single-mindedly to Silver’s stall, and there paused, holding up the lamp. Simply regarding the horse with his eyes narrowed in apparent thought.

Silver watched him right back, ears alert, and not moving by so much as a swish of his tail.

“How much do you understand?” Raoul finally asked in a quiet tone.

Silver whickered at him softly.

The young man shook his head. “Old blood. Hell if I know what that even means. Even father just mutters when I press him on it. He was always too interested in elvish nonsense. That’s the cause of half his problems.” He broke off, drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “By Ryneas and his paintbrush, don’t you think I would have blooded that vicious, unhinged cow of a woman and hurled her across the yard if it would have helped Yvette? It’s not as if I am famed for my restraint, you know. It’s only made things worse. She may lose her position here. Father could only protect her by blaming you. Do you understand any of this?”

Silver lowered his head.

“I’m explaining family politics to a horse,” Raoul muttered. “Well, I guess being as mad as the old man is as good a start as any on taking the place over when he passes on.”

Silver nickered again, as quietly as he could.

“They’re selling you,” Raoul said abruptly. “To those Shaathists, as they asked. For now, Yvette isn’t going to lose her home or her position, but you had better believe Amelie is after her with a vengeance. I don’t know what the future will bring.”

Jerking up, Silver neighed angrily, even hopping his front hooves off the ground in agitation.

“Omnu’s sweet breath, you really do…” Raoul stopped, set the lantern down on the edge of the stall door, and reached up to lay a hand on Silver’s nose. The horse calmed, for the moment, swiveling his ears forward again and watching him. “Hell. I’ve no right to blame you for losing your temper. In truth, I might have been the one to strike the hag; you were just closer. But now, here we are. We have to protect Yvette. No one else is going to.”

Silver snorted once, loudly, and bobbed his head up and down. He pawed at the ground with one hoof for emphasis.

“Here’s how we’re going to,” Raoul said grimly. “You are going to be gone, and I am going to become the focus of everyone’s outrage around here. You’re leaving this ranch, tonight. It’s off to the wilds with you, where maybe that old blood can be of some use. I’m sorry, but you can’t say goodbye to Yvette.”

Silver whinnied in protest.

“You can’t,” Raoul insisted. “Do you hear me? If it’s even suspected she had anything to do with this, that’s it for her. She’s asleep in her quarters, and the other grooms will be able to attest she never left, I’ve seen to that. It has to be me who lets you out. An act of spite that’ll make me the target of Amelie’s venom for once. Silver, I will protect Yvette. This isn’t the end, I promise you. Even if it means I have to put steel through that old bag, I will not let my sister be harmed.”

Dancing back and forth in agitation, Silver whinnied a soft plea.

“This is the only thing we can do,” Raoul said. “Maybe someday, you can come home. But for now, this is the only way. Can you… Do you understand?”

Slowly, he lowered his head again, and let out a soft snort of defeat. Raoul stroked his forehead, running his fingers through that overhanging lock of his mane. Just the way she always did.

The boy retreated suddenly, removing the lantern, and crossed back to the entrance, where he opened one of the barn’s front doors.

“I’ve opened the north gate enough for you to get through,” he said, coming back to Silver’s stall. “…what am I doing? I’ve gone utterly insane, you’re a horse.” Pausing to growl at himself, he shook his head vigorously. “Ugh. If you’re more than a dumb beast, this is the time to prove it, Silver. The north gate. For Yvette. Try to take care of yourself out there. This is going to hurt her enough; I dearly hope she will get to see you again someday.”

He unlatched and swung the stall door open, standing aside. Raoul opened his mouth to speak, but Silver exploded past him, charging straight up the aisle for the open barn door.

He erupted out into the night, letting out a whinny of dismay, but did not slacken his pace, wheeling around to gallop north across the grounds, toward the gate. He could not slow; if he didn’t do this now, he would hesitate and it would all be over.

Behind him, a voice was raised in a shout; he couldn’t tell if it was Raoul’s. Silver ignored it, putting his head down and thundering toward the ranch’s only egress to the north. The Highlands spread out beyond, wild and untouched, full of who knew what dangers and wonders.

At first he thought Raoul had tricked him, but no—the gate was ajar. Not enough to admit him, but he cantered nearly to a stop to avoid crashing painfully into it, using his weight to nudge it open enough to pass through.

And then he was beyond the fence, outside of his home, and charged off into the northern wilds as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. For the first time, he was truly, completely free.

He had never imagined he could feel so alone.


It wasn’t all that hard to get by, he quickly discovered. There was grazing aplenty—not as good as the oats and hay his human friends furnished for him, much less the occasional apple or strawberry, but Silver did not go hungry. Nor was water hard to come by. At this time of year, it wasn’t even frozen yet. That should not be a problem when it was; he knew from experience that his hooves could break ice more than a foot thick, at need.

No one followed him from the ranch, though he had to have left a distinctive trail. He could barely imagine what was going on back there. He tried not to, as that only led to thinking about Yvette. And Marchand, and all the others who had been part of his entire life till now, but mostly of Yvette. She had always been there for him.

But this was for her. He understood Raoul. This was painful for everyone, but life was not perfect. This was all they could do to protect her.

He wandered, veering away from his home, along the long moors the stretched away toward the north, gently climbing in altitude as they drifted into even higher lands. The north itself was walled off by the distant peaks which had been a barrier to that part of the sky since he had first stepped out of the barn, but there was far more land between the ranch and those mountains than Silver had ever appreciated. He had ample room to put distance between himself and home, and they did not seem to come any closer.

On the second day, he was set upon by a pack of wolves, and made short work of that. They seemed to expect him to run, and were very confused when he stood his ground, watching them circle and ignoring their growling and snapping. They became less confused when he finally retaliated, but after he had broken two of their backs beneath his hooves, they decided to go seek an easier meal.

He didn’t know what other dangers lurked up here, but if that was the worst of it, the humans had exaggerated the ruthlessness of the Highlands in their stories. Silver had a suspicion, though, that he had only begun to learn what this harsh land could throw at him. Once in a while, when the wind shifted, that thing drifted upon it again. A scent that he couldn’t place, but which was wrong in a way that made him stop wherever he was, head up and swiveling to find the threat.

It never materialized, but it was out there. Nothing which smelled like that could be good.

Above all, he missed his home. The horses he knew, the people he knew, the dogs and cats. Chickens barely had enough personality to be interesting; they weren’t his friends, but even their familiar presence would have been good. He missed sleeping in the barn, his blanket and good food provided for him by caring hands.

Mostly, he missed her. So much that sometimes he stopped where he was, bucking and heaving, punishing the very earth with his mighty hooves and bellowing his despair at the sky.

Neither earth nor sky showed him any pity.


Only three nights in, he found them. Or they found him.

Silver didn’t sleep well, out in the open. Keenly aware of the vulnerability as he was, every little thing made him raise his head. He caught naps during the day, when the light was better and no wolves howled in the distance, but nights were bad times out on the moors.

It only grew worse as that smell came more and more frequently. Until, by that third night, it seemed to come every other gust of wind. It was definitely from the north…but not just that anymore. It was making him constantly anxious, even more than his situation itself.

He plodded along, concentrating on placing his hooves carefully; it would be easy to trip in the darkness. But sleep wasn’t an option. The menacing night itself, that unearthly stink…and especially, the dilemma it posed. He couldn’t go back south, toward the ranch; he had to stay away to protect Yvette. On the other hand, he definitely could not go north. Whatever was making that smell, he needed to head away from it, not toward.

Silver had compromised, and that day begun making his way west, toward the sunset, simply because the hills looked somewhat lower in that direction. Now, after dark, his plodded that way still, just for something to do to keep his mind off the danger and his loneliness.

They moved so quietly he didn’t notice them until he was quite close, scarcely a hundred yards away, despite there being nothing between them but a stretch of open moor. He stopped, jerking his head up and snorting in surprise, ears swiveling.

Their procession was moving steadily south, on a course that would lead past the ranch—toward Glassiere proper. Altogether, they were like smaller, oddly distorted versions of the life he knew. People, and horses, only…not. They were strangely thin people, garbed in sleek clothing unlike the thickly warm coats and cloaks the Glassians wore against the Highland climate. And those horses… No, they weren’t horses. Every one as white as he, built almost like deer, each with a single horn sprouting from its forehead.

They’d seen him first, obviously; two- and four-legged alike, their heads swiveled to watch him as they passed. They did not slow, however, nor seem alarmed by his presence. He couldn’t feel alarmed by theirs, either. The smell of them was quite unfamiliar, but it was… Silver had no basis for comparison. He had the thought, though, that they smelled somehow opposite whatever vile thing it was the wind had been trying to warm him about. They smelled like something fundamentally, inexplicably, good.

And so when one broke off to approach him, he stood his ground, watching with alertness but not alarm.

The elf’s walk seemed to be almost a glide, as if he barely deigned to respect the shape of the ground. Projecting calm, he came up to Silver, raising one hand as he drew close, and brought it to rest gently against the horse’s nose. Silver’s nostrils flared, taking in his scent, but he did not protest.

“I see you,” the elf said. He did not speak Glassian, and in a way it catapulted Silver back to his earliest days as a foal, absorbing intent and meaning behind two-legged speech without knowing specific words. This language, though, seemed to convey those meanings more clearly. Or perhaps, it was some other gift of the elf. He still liked the sound of Glassian more, but at least he could understand. “What a story you must have, my friend.”

The elf bent, reaching for Silver’s leg in much the way the farrier did. Obligingly, he lifted a hoof, and the man ran long fingers over his iron shoe before releasing him.

“You came from the ranch,” he said. “Are you Monsieur Marchand’s mysterious old blooded stallion? I wonder what has brought you here. There is great danger rising. Have the humans been destroyed? But no, you would be running away from the evil, not toward…”

He stepped forward, closing his eyes, and leaned his forehead against Silver’s.

Magic was something with which he had no direct experience. He had barely heard of it; his humans spoke of such things, from time to time, but it was nothing to do with the ranch. This, then, was his first brush with the shaman’s art. It was surprising, to say the least, but not threatening.

Meaning bloomed in his mind, expression clearer than words could convey. He knew the elf, felt and saw him in a startling new way. And the elf knew him, just the same.

He touched upon Silver’s loneliness and worry, and sympathy came from him in turn. It was a purer speech, and imprecise for that; they shared feelings, not words or even images. But while the elf doubtless did not acquire the full story in every detail, he grasped the gist.

“Wise,” he whispered aloud. “And brave. But friend, be wary. You head toward danger.”

Gently, accompanying the threatening sensations with a firmly reassuring presence of his own, the elf shared with him what was happening. Danger, corruption, fire, slaughter. Trees and whole groves burned, poison spreading through the very ground. Evil people practicing their horrid arts. Creatures that did not belong in this world. In the north, rising. More and more, and spreading.

The elves were leaving their lands, taking the desperate (for them) step of moving to join the humans. They had to stand together against this.

Silver neighed in agitation, stomping a hoof, and related firmly the conversation he had overheard between Marchand, the Captain, the Huntsmen and the Squire.

Surprise came from the shaman at the clarity of those words, followed by gratitude for the information shared.

“So they do live, and are taking action,” he whispered. “Not all, but some. That is the way of humans. There are always the stupid and destructive, and always the brave and stalwart. We must find the right kind. Thank you, friend, for the warning.”

He gave a warning in kind, now that he knew Silver could make sense of words.

Hellgate.

It took some further work to express exactly what that meant, but Silver got the message. When he did, he jerked back, rearing up and whinnying in sudden fear. Not for himself—for his home. For Yvette. For what was coming.

“They have already passed to the east,” the elf warned as Silver wheeled away, raising his voice. “Be wary! Warn your people if you can, but do not let them surprise you! They are coming!”

Heedless of the danger, Silver galloped through the dark, making directly for home. It was no longer due south; he knew the direction unerringly, and his course had brought him miles to the west of it. The Marchand ranch was more east than south now, and it was that way that he ran.

Silver forgot fatigue and suppressed fear. He had to keep going. Had to reach her. The urgency heightened swiftly to desperation.

Because now, as the elf had warned, the foul smell of demons was in front of him.


Too late.

Everything was too late, and it all turned to disaster.

He didn’t make it all the way home to the ranch. Heading straight there, he made it a day’s travel before finding them. Yvette had eventually come in search of him…too late. Raoul had gone after her, and arrived too late. Silver was the last there; he came upon them on a long moor just a few miles northwest of the ranch, only barely in time to do anything at all. Too late to do enough.

The smell of the demons had become an omnipresent stink; he had even seen several in passing, creatures which moved in weird ways and resembled nothing he had ever seen. He ignored them, and some ignored him. Some had tried to chase him, but Silver outdistanced them quickly. After his frantic all-night journey, he arrived tired, but what he found sent a spike of pure, desperate adrenaline through him that spurred him on.

He could smell the evil of them before he heard the battle, and the sound of carnage reached him before he came in sight of them. By the time he was close enough to see, he could smell them, the familiar scents of Raoul and Yvette, even through the demon stench and the frightening tang on the air of blood.

Rounding a copse of stunted trees, he found the scene of the confrontation just as the familiar scream of Cannelle, Raoul’s mare, ripped through the air. The thing that had torn at her throat was quickly dispatched by his rapier even as she fell, but there were more of them. Different kinds—things that were almost like dogs, and almost like spiders, and almost like birds. Things designed by someone who enjoyed mocking everything that was beautiful in nature.

Silver bellowed a challenge, charging straight at the group. One of the long lizard-dog beasts turned and scuttled right at him; he came down on it with his full weight on his front hooves, just as he had those wolves. It was not nearly so fragile, but it was slower, and still no match for the force he brought down on it. He left the dying monster and thundered toward the others.

Raoul was bleeding heavily, slashing and stabbing with his rapier as quickly as he could but unable to move as rapidly as fencing technique demanded with a leg injured. He had slain several demons already, but the rest smelled weakness and were quickly losing respect for the whirling steel which had felled several of their companions.

Silver hit them like a landslide, stomping through the cluster of spidery things as he would a low thicket and reducing most of them to smears and fragments. It cost him, though; at least two seized his legs and scuttled up his frame, piercing in multiple places with claws and fangs. He screamed in fury, bucking and thrashing to hurl them off, but they clung tenaciously, working their way up toward his neck. And before he could even finish dealing with that, one of the flying things landed right behind his head, the beating of its wings all but deafening him.

And then Raoul was there, spearing the bird-demon with his sword and flinging it contemptuously aside. He slashed one of the spiders off, and seized the other bodily with his free hand, hurling it away.

Silver wheeled and charged past him to crush the other lizard-dog monster as it came at Raoul from behind. The man was nearly immobilized, but Silver cantered in a circle around him, crushing demons under his hooves and wheeling back close when one tried to jump onto him to be ripped apart by Raoul’s sword.

It was over so abruptly that the silence almost had physical force. They stood, looking around at the carnage and gasping for breath, both streaked with blood and pierced in multiple places. The stink of demon filth hung with tangible weight, though the bodies themselves were even now dissolving away to clumps of charcoal and black ash.

Then he saw her.

Emitting a shrill cry of anguish, Silver dashed to her side, bending his neck to nudge at Yvette with his nose. She made no response. Blood streaked the ground around her, as well as a dozen black smears where demons had fallen. Silver snorted, raised his head to whinny piteously, and ducked back down to desperately nuzzle at her face. He felt no breath upon his nose.

Barely able to use one of his legs, Raoul only reached them seconds later, and fell at her side, dropping his sword. Landing in an ungainly heap, he nonetheless lurched to a semi-kneeling position, and pulled her into his lap. Raoul cradled her close, hunched over her and rocking slowly in place. Silver bent, leaning his forehead against the man’s, just over her still form.

“This is our fault,” Raoul rasped. “I caught up too late. Should have known she would follow you. Of course, she would. Stupid. It was my idea, I as good as killed her…”

Silver didn’t so much as snort. This was his doing as much as Raoul’s. It was true; they should both have known she would come. She had always been there for him. But he hadn’t been for her, at the end.

He wished he could weep the way Raoul did.

There was no telling how long they remained there, holding her, but the long, ululating cry demanded their attention. Man and horse raised their heads, turning to look to the north.

The things practically covered the moor. They were crawling forward, flying through the air… It would be minutes, at most, before they overtook them.

Raoul and Silver looked each other over. Bloodied and exhausted both, there would be no outrunning this.

Resolutely, Raoul lowered Yvette back to the ground, shrugged out of his coat, and draped it over her. Silver nuzzled at her face once last time before it was covered, then stood aside to allow Raoul to retrieve his rapier.

“Well, old man,” he said, his voice hoarse, “here we are. I’ll have to ask to borrow your legs.”

Silver studied him. He had struggled getting back to his feet; the man couldn’t walk, much less run. With a snort, he lowered his front half, kneeling on the cold ground.

Even with a leg useless, Raoul got astride him smoothly; he had ridden horses since he could walk.

Silver stood, carefully, but his rider held his mane with one hand, keeping the other free to wield his sword. He was steadier on Silver’s legs than his own. Together, they turned to face the oncoming monstrosities.

“Then all that remains,” Raoul declared, “is to make sure, when we get to Hell, they already know to fear us!”

Silver pawed the ground once, then tossed his head and surged forward. His bellow of challenge was matched by Raoul’s roar, both of them unified in unrelenting rage.

They slammed into the horde, and everything was blood, pain, and chaos. But the monsters that survived learned something of fear that day.


“Whoah! Easy, boy, take it easy. Your battle’s over now.”

Tossing his head and bucking, he only belatedly calmed, and still pranced in place for a moment, taking stock. He was…he had been…wait, where was he?

It didn’t even look like a place. There was no smell…there was really nothing. It was as if the whole world was made of light. It was serene and gentle, not glaring, but still eerie.

Right in front of him stood a woman she didn’t know, but immediately he couldn’t help liking her. She was pale, with golden hair like Yvette’s, and dressed in some kind of ragged gown that seemed to be stitched together from scraps of armor and various garments, every piece in solid black. And she had wings. Feathered wings. He’d never seen a person with wings before.

But she smiled, and calm approval seemed to radiate from her. The winged woman stroked his nose, grinning up at him.

“There you go,” she said soothingly. “That was a hell of a stand—you have a lot to be proud of. Now, there’s somebody you’ll want to see, I think.”

She stepped aside, and bent to pick up a long scythe which had been thrust blade-first into the ground nearby—an odd sight, as there wasn’t really any ground, but just a point where the omnipresent misty light seemed to coalesce into something hard enough to stand on. But past her, previously hidden by her wings, was Yvette.

She rushed forward and Silver whickered happily, coming to meet her, and then her arms were around his neck. Yvette stroked him, murmuring contentedly. He stood, nuzzling at her and just…being there. This, finally, was good.

Raoul was there, too, sword still in hand. He stood back somewhat, and said nothing, but reached out to stroke Silver’s nose.

The two of them had never been close, but now…there was an understanding between them, at least.

“All right,” the woman with the scythe interjected finally. “It’s time to go. This way, everyone.”

She casually swiped her weapon through the air, and it seemed to carve away part of reality. A doorway opened up, peeling back from the wound she had made in existence and forming into a vague shape made of light. Beyond it, things looked more clear; there was a path leading through a brilliant forest, and ahead in the distance… Silver couldn’t make it out, but he knew it was good.

With an encouraging whicker, he nudged Yvette forward. She and Raoul went first, hand in hand, with him trotting along behind.

“Just a moment,” the valkyrie interjected, placing a hand against his chest. He paused and snorted at her in annoyance. Yvette and Raoul stood right on the threshold and stopped, as well, turning to look. Yvette frowned in consternation. “It’s only for a moment,” the valkyrie assured them all. “You two, come with me. Somebody wants a word with you, Argent. Believe me, this is a particular honor, and the reason you’re with us. We don’t ordinarily bring horses. You’ll want to hear her out before you catch up. Come on.”

He laid his ears back, only belatedly realizing that she wasn’t speaking the language he knew. His name had always been a word, something that meant something; in a different tongue, it was nothing but a sound. It meant nothing but him. He wasn’t sure whether he liked that.

Yvette looked back at him, clearly reluctant, but followed the valkyrie’s urging as though something compelled her to. Argent whickered in protest as she vanished across the doorway.

A hand was laid on his neck.

This presence, despite the abruptness with which it had arrived, somehow calmed him greatly. Something about her…filled the sky. She was there in front of him, a tall woman with waves of dark hair and deep brown eyes, but somehow it was as if he stood within rather than before her.

The way she spoke made the elf’s deepest communication a shallow mockery. There was total union of their thoughts; everything she had to say was expressed in perfect detail, with no words exchanged. It was, in fact, almost as if no thoughts were exchanged. He simply understood, immediately, what she wanted him to.

She was impressed with him, and wanted him to join her horses. She showed him her Hands, a line of paladins stretching back centuries, millennia—hers and those of other gods. It was Avei who kept the stables, who gathered the greatest steeds from across the history of the world, providing mounts for those paladins of every Pantheon god. But with him, in particular, she was very impressed. He was to be a companion only to her own Hands, if he accepted this.

And what would that mean?

Battles, she showed him. Endless struggle. Strife, war, violence beyond imagining. Pain, and in the end, always death. One brave, intrepid woman after another. They fought, until they couldn’t any longer, far past the point where other mortals would have fallen. In the end, they all fell.

Argent snorted in fury and jerked away from her bucking and dancing around. How dare she try to inflict this on him? Was it not enough that he had to see his Yvette fall this way? She wanted him to go through that again? And again, and again? For all eternity? He reared, slashing his hooves menacingly at her face.

Avei reached up to stroke his nose, and looking at her, he could not help calming. Tears glowed in her eyes. The goddess stepped forward, resting her forehead against his own, and showed him.

Those brave, loyal women… It had to be that way. Their duty was too important to forsake, and she simply could not bend the rules of reality enough to save them. But she would never abandon them. They would not fight alone. They would die, but not alone.

Argent lowered his head. Yvette… She had always been there. He had always been with her…except at the end. She had died alone.

He understood. And he decided.

When they turned to pass through the gate together, the goddess’s hand on his neck as she walked by his side, Argent wore the silver armor of the mantle he had accepted. It would never be that way again. For each woman, each warrior, he would be there. As many as it took. No matter how many he must grieve, they would have him by their side. Not one would fall alone.

He had not been there for her, but he would be there for them.

Always.

 

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Bonus #22: Toujours, part 1

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She was there when he was born.

Those were fuzzy, uncertain hours, spent getting to know things—his awkward legs, his mother, the world itself. Throughout it all, she was a presence, indistinct at first but constant and gradually clearer. Her scent and her voice, offering calm to both himself and his mother, expressing happiness, joy, love.

He didn’t, at first, glean any meaning from the things she said while she brushed and caressed him. Their voices were different, the rhythmic sounds musical but not immediately significant. That came quickly, though. Not the words, but what lay behind them. First as an expression of feelings, and over time, more abstract concepts.

The meaning of words came to him over time, over days and months. In those first hours in the barn, though, there was just the sound of voices washing over him, and the comprehension of something meaningful in them as his mind and senses cleared and grew accustomed to existing.

It would be a while yet before he comprehended human speech as they did, but by the time the master of the house came to see him, he could at least interpret the sense of what was being said.

To the newborn foal, this second human presence was a cause of startlement and then fascination; it was like and yet so unlike the one already there, who had helped him into the world. His mother, though, whickered a tired greeting, showing that this person was known and trusted.

“I’m sorry I missed it, Yvette,” the man said quietly, coming to stand in the door to the stall. “It seems you did well, though. Any complications?”

“It was a very smooth birth, monsieur,” she replied, and even when not talking to him, her voice conveyed happiness to the new foal’s ears. “One of the easiest I’ve seen; Laurette was a champion. Of course, he is hardly her first. Neither gave me a moment’s trouble.”

“Still, I’m sorry you had to do it alone. I would have sent Gaspar to help had I known; we would have managed the gelding fine without him…”

“Ah, but would-haves are no use even when things have gone badly, Monsieur Marchand! It all turned out splendidly, so why borrow trouble?”

“Well said,” he replied with a warmth and amusement in his voice that soothed the foal’s curiosity. He was not as gentle a presence as she was, this man, but already he understood why his mother and the girl approved of him. “And what a serious little fellow he is! I never saw a newborn so…focused. Look at him watching us. Almost as if he followed the conversation…”

Something in his voice, now, carried an undercurrent of faint warning. The colt stopped swiveling his ears about and focused fully on the man, trying to understand. He was not quite following their words, but only the gist of it, the emotion behind them.

“Ah… And his color!” Her voice, now, had a slight strain as well, but a different one; not warning, but sensing and responding to the man’s uncertainty. The gaiety in it was slightly forced, all of a sudden. “I thought old Garmond was the sire. Could someone have jumped a fence? He did not get that gray from Laurette…”

“Not gray, Yvette. Look at him, he is a pure white.”

“But…he will darken, no? Like the silver destriers…”

“But he is no charger. Even so young and gangly, you can see it in his build. He’s a draft horse like his parents. See his coat? Not even the faintest dappling. No, he won’t grow to become a gray. You know, Yvette, we Glassians are not the first people to dwell in the Highlands, and the herds we brought are not the first steeds. Once in a while, some of the old blood peeks through. I have seen it before. I know you must recall that untameable filly that old crook Chauvingon tried to unload on us three years ago. Silver as the full moon, like this boy.”

“But monsieur,” she said in gentle, almost reproving disbelief. “That was clearly a racing breed! I remember her, a lithe little thing. One can almost see how that happened. How could there be unicorn blood in a line of draft horses? The creatures are as much deer as horse! Laurette here would kill one simply by stepping on him.”

“Just as they are as much magic as flesh,” he said, and there was a smile in his voice. The foal’s ears twitched furiously as he tried to follow the subtle currents of unfamiliar emotion, so new and strange. “Who can say? For now, we will have to watch and see. Fae blood is unpredictable, Yvette. Perhaps nothing will come of it but his unusual color, or perhaps… Unusual abilities in any creature can be trouble.”

“Abilities like…?”

“We will watch and see,” the man repeated. “And hope for nothing. He could show us something truly remarkable, but if this fellow has surprises for us, they are more likely to cause problems.”

“Monsieur,” she said, and the sudden hesitant nervousness in her made the foal fix his attention fully on her. “You don’t think… That is, I have worked with Laurette since—”

“Now, stop that line of thought,” the man said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Did you give birth to him? Because that is the only way blood can be contagious, Yvette. Elves have been part of life in the Highlands since before our people first came here, and you know you are far from the only half-blood who works with the herds. I never heard of a foal being changed by association like that. And if it had happened, I assure you I would have heard of it. This is life up here, that is all. It is an old land and we a young people upon it, compared to the tribes; mysteries crop up here and there. That is part of what makes me love our home.”

“Yes, monsieur,” she said with subtle relief. The foal nickered at her in concern and stepped over to bump his head against her, earning a laugh and caresses along his neck in return. It was good, how easily he could soothe her unease. It had troubled him, sensing such unhappiness in this warm, golden presence.

“At any rate, you have a new friend! But we should let him and mama rest, for now.”

“Of course, monsieur.” He nickered in disappointment as she stepped away, but his mother had come over by then and began nudging him into the corner, surrounding him with her own presence, and that was good, too. “Don’t worry, little Silver, we will see you again soon.”


His home was a sprawling ranch in what they called the Highlands, the reaches which rose above the rest of Glassiere in both latitude and altitude. Mountain peaks rose around them, most rounded by eons of weather, punctuating endless swaths of moors and valleys. Many of these were left uncultivated; the Marchand ranch occupied a long heath not far distant from the pass which led down to the country’s warmer southern reaches. It was not good country to farm, and got worse the farther in one traveled. Much of the Highlands was unexplored by the Glassians and left to the bands of elves who had dwelled there since time immemorial. Most of the Glassian activity in the northern provinces was in mining and quarrying. The Marchands contributed to these ventures by raising the hardy, powerful Grand Coeur breed of draft horses which performed most of the actual labor.

It naturally took time for Silver to understand these facts. His comprehension grew faster once he realized that he understood things differently than the other horses, and stopped turning to them for explanations. His kind were more alive in some ways; they seemed to feel and experience things more keenly than the humans, but they actually comprehended little. Horses were more sensitive, and thus more erratic; humans by comparison thought deeply and carefully, and yet seemed blind to so many subtleties. He, somehow, stood somewhere between them.

As he grew, his peculiarity did not go unnoticed. The other animals on the ranch were not bothered by him—in fact, the smaller ones, cats and dogs and birds, seemed to seek out his company more than other horses. The humans took note of him, though, and over time he learned to be more careful and subtle about the behaviors that seemed to make them nervous. They did not like it when he stood, watching and listening to their conversations as intently as they did. There was a period when it seemed his fate might be uncertain, whispers about the “fae-touched” horse and what hazards he might portend.

As he grew old enough to begin training with harness and saddle, though, they faded and appreciation grew in their stead. There were many actual dangers in the Highlands to distract people from imagined ones, and Silver’s uniquely unflappable nature proved an asset. Grand Coeur were a steady breed to begin with, but he was especially calm and careful, observing and responding rather than panicking at the unexpected. It got to the point that the younger boys began making a game of trying to spook him. After the fourth time Yvette went at them with a riding crop, Monsieur Marchand himself stepped in and ordered that the pestering be stopped.

She was by far his favorite of the grooms. None of those who worked with Marchand’s horses mistreated them—indeed, the master did not employ anyone who did not actively love his horses. Silver’s relationship with Yvette, though, was special. She had helped bring him into the world, and it was always to her that he returned, whenever he could. Her care of the others in the herd was never lessened, but he sensed that she, too, felt a unique attachment to him.

And it was largely by listening to her that he pieced together the web of relationships among humans which governed the ranch. The key had been understanding how she was linked to the young man who so often visited the barn and kept her company during her duties, the son of the master himself.

“There are times when I want to hurl that woman off the roof!” he exclaimed during one such visit which proved particularly informative to Silver, pacing up and down in the aisle between stalls.

“Please don’t do that,” Yvette replied without much enthusiasm. Her tone was amused; this was an old threat and not a serious one. “If you think she is difficult now…”

“I don’t know why you are so blasé about the old bat,” he retorted. “It’s you she was trying to get Father to send away!”

“When he starts listening,” Yvette said calmly, “I’ll worry. Please calm yourself, Raoul, you make the horses nervous when you prance around like that.”

Silver snorted quietly in disagreement, and she paused in brushing his neck to ruffle his forelock affectionately. True, the other horses did pick up on human agitation—some of them—but everyone else in the barn at that hour was nose-deep in their feedbags.

“Not this one,” Raoul grumbled, giving Silver a long look. “Sometimes I think if he could talk, he could run the barn when Gaspar gets too old. Yvette, I wish you would take this more seriously. It’s not a small matter that Father’s wife has it in for you! Sure he knows better than to listen to her now, but given time…”

“Given time,” she said, still calmly grooming Silver, “a lot can change. Who knows? I might manage to get on her good side. After all, it isn’t me she resents, not really. It cannot be pleasant, living with a reminder that one’s husband once carried on with an elf. And while he was married. To your mother, in fact. Do you not see why she finds that threatening? If Monsieur Marchand—”

“Father,” he interrupted. “By Shaath’s fangs, Yvette, you needn’t play the courtier with me. Everyone knows whose daughter you are. There’s no harm in acknowledging it, at least in private.”

“No?” Yvette shook her head, still rubbing Silver down with her back to Raoul. “The Madame’s fondness of me will not increase if anyone gets in that habit, I think.”

He snorted. “Just don’t ask me to deny my own sister. It’s not as if I have any others!”

“I do ask it,” she retorted, turning to give him a look. “Oh, don’t make faces at me, Raoul, not here in the barn when it’s just us. I have always appreciated you for accepting me. But in public, and especially in front of Madame? Please don’t goad her.” She turned back to Silver, pausing in her work, and he bent his neck around to nuzzle comfortingly at her shoulder. “Everyone is so concerned about my blood. About the elf in me, or the Marchand in me, one or the other. Can I not just be Yvette to works with the horses?”

Raoul heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I know, I know you’re right. It’s an infuriating habit of yours.”

“Well, don’t be hard on yourself,” she replied mischievously. “You are a man, after all. Just think of all the poor boys with no sisters, and how much trouble they must get themselves in.”

“I really can’t stand her, though,” he grumbled. “What was Father thinking?”

“You know very well. Madame is of noble blood, which if almost the only thing he lacks in comparison to the wealthy families in the south. And she is most lovely.”

“She’s handsome, at best, with two very specific exceptions. It’s a sobering thing, learning that one’s own father can be swayed from all good sense and reason by an unusually nice pair of tits.”

“Raoul!” Yvette failed to keep the mirth out of her voice. “Shame, speaking of your own stepmother so!”

“You know she has a carpet hanging on the wall in their bedroom?”

Yvette paused again, turning to peer inquisitively at him. “A carpet? On the wall? Whatever for?”

“It’s from Calderaas,” Raoul said, rolling his eyes. “Beautiful thing, and probably cost nearly as much as the manor. Never mind that no one sets foot in that room except in the daintiest of slippers. Madame’s treasures cannot be soiled by being used in a remotely functional manner! I don’t know why she or Father thought bringing a woman like that to the Highlands was a good idea.”

“It is a fair question,” Yvette mused, returning to grooming when Silver nudged her again. “Another is why, if you have noticed all this, you wonder how she could feel vulnerable in this place?”

“I don’t wonder,” he said sullenly, “I just don’t care.”

“Yes, you do,” Yvette replied with a smile that could be heard in her voice. “And that is why you’re grumpy now, because it’s harder to see someone you dislike is a person rather than a villain. You’ll be so much happier, Raoul, when you stop fighting against your own decency. Being heartless and rough would not make you any more of a man, I promise, but less of one.”

“You even sound like an elf sometimes,” he complained. “Or an Omnist. I can’t think of anyone else who would try so hard to understand a half-crazed bitter fool of a southern noblewoman who has no business on this ranch and irrationally hates you.”

“I worry so for you, Raoul,” she said softly.

“Me?” His voice was so incredulous that Silver raised his head, swiveling his ears forward to study the young man. “You worry for me?”

“Yes, I do. You are so obsessed with fairness.” She shook her head. “It’s going to lead you into unhappiness, the world being as it is.”

Silver whickered softly at him in agreement. Raoul had opened his mouth to answer Yvette again, but paused, turning a long, speculative look on the horse. Silver regarded him in turn, one ear twitching pensively.

“Sometimes,” he said more quietly, “I think that horse is too clever by half.”


It was not an uncommon sentiment on the ranch. By and large, Silver was met with approval, as he refrained from causing trouble for anyone and in fact made himself most useful. He required very little training in the sense that most young horses received it; once he understood what it was his human fellows wanted him to do, he saw no reason not to comply, and after observing the comings and goings on the ranch he generally knew their intent before they got around to trying it on him. It seemed fair, to his mind. Humans provided horses with food, shelter, and care, and horses worked to support the ranch so that providence remained possible. Silver pulled carts, carried people, and performed all the requisite chores without complaint, and with the uncanny (to his two-legged friends) ability to follow verbal directions as precisely as the stablehands did.

It made some people uneasy, but Highlanders were practical people. If the big, strangely perceptive white horse was going to make himself useful instead of making trouble, he was welcome.

He continued to watch and learn, trying to understand the relationships between people the way they did. Silver didn’t much like Raoul, but not in the sense of having anything against him. The young man simply had a large personality and a quick temper, which occasionally made the other horses nervous and grated on Silver’s patience. Likewise, Raoul found him eerie, but never had reason to complain about his behavior. They didn’t favor each other’s company, but avoided any situation that might lead to true animosity. Silver had the distinct impression that the boy was further unnerved by the mere fact of a horse who could reflect such an unspoken understanding so well. But aside from all that, Raoul was very fond (and protective) of Yvette, which caused Silver to approve of him in principle, no matter how annoying he might be. That, too, was mutual.

He appreciated the young man enough, at least, that he gradually absorbed Raoul’s dim opinion of his father’s new wife, whom Silver rarely saw in person. That fact alone did not endear Madame Marchand to him. She preferred to stay indoors, wilted at the comfortable, healthy smell of the stables, and appeared to dislike even dirt. Silver was accustomed to hard-working, cheerful humans who held up in the Highlands’ harsh climate with aplomb and appreciated the rugged beauty of the world. The lady of the ranch seemed as weird and inexplicable to Silver as he did to some of the other ranch hands.

Life was not perfect, but growing up surrounded by people and animals who never expected it to be, Silver absorbed their outlook. Life was good, dangers and discomforts and all. The land was beautiful, even if it was cold and provided scant food. There was a lot of love on the Marchand ranch; Monsieur Marchand himself cared deeply for his horses, for his people, and for his Highlands, and consistently employed those who shared his values, even if he apparently had different priorities when it came to marriage. It was a good place.

But something began to creep up on the ranch, starting not long before Silver was two years old. He might have been the first to sense it; he seemed to pick up on things as intuitively as the other horses and consider them as logically as the humans, and at first was not sure whether the little things he noticed amounted to anything. The odd, acrid smells that came so faintly sometimes when the wind was from the north, the increasing preponderance of wolves coming down from the mountains. Uneasy looks and whispers from humans, rumors circulating between them of something dangerous in the Highlands, repeated sometimes in his presence. He dismissed these things at first, but not forever. Over time, they only grew. Even Yvette tended to frown more often, and seemed to seek out his company for comfort even more than she had when he was a foal.

On the other hand, the Madame stayed even more in the house, which was fine with Silver and everybody whose opinion he cared about.

Eventually, Marchand himself decided to act.


The excitement which hung over the ranch like a thick fog was threaded through with unease, and that did not make the preparations any easier. Even Silver felt skittish, though he restrained himself; the rest of the animals did not have his forbearance and were mostly an impediment rather than an asset that morning. The dogs raced around frantically, as did chickens; not one of the barn cats had been seen all morning, having hidden themselves away as if they sensed a storm coming. The horses were affected, as well, all of them prancing about nervously and spooking at the slightest little thing. Despite the usually stoic temperament of the Grand Couer draft breed, on that day not a one of them seemed able to perform the simplest tasks without the constant supervision of a groom—of whom there were far less than horses, which made for general slowdowns and disorder which caused the mood of the ranch’s human population to further deteriorate.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a great deal to be done that required the contributions of the horses. The Marchand estate was preparing an event, that much was clear, and one of a kind unprecedented in Silver’s experience. People were setting up a large pavilion and smaller tents, and laying preparations for a great outdoor feast. Most of this demanded opposable thumbs and as such the skittish horses had largely been safely tucked away in the barn; even stolid old Laurette had balked at the ranch’s familiar dogs as she pulled in the last wagon of provisions. There were the great wooden tables to be pulled out of the storehouse, though, too large for people to carry and so hauled by horse on skids. Logs had to be brought from the woods to form the three huge bonfires being prepared, and barrels of ale moved en masse from the manor house’s cellar to the feast grounds in its broad front lawn.

Two other draft horses were handling the firewood logs, which woodsmen had been out felling for the last two days, each of them requiring the patient guidance of a groom—and those were the two steadiest of the ranch’s herd, after Silver. That left him, the only one among them who seemed able to put his head down and focus, to do everything else. Fortunately, the barrels didn’t have to go far and the tables were not unduly heavy. Even more fortunately, he was interested enough in the various goings-on that he did not mind the tumult.

Most fortunately still, Yvette was in charge of him, as usual. Her presence calmed him, as his did her.

Strange new people were trickling in from the road while preparations were underway, and joining the master and his wife in a slowly increasing knot of conversation out in front of the manor. Silver watched them in passing, not really needing Yvette’s gentle encouragements to keep on task, but appreciating her nonetheless.

He always watched, and always listened, but their jobs did not bring them close to the discussion; it seemed he wouldn’t learn what was actually going on until he had pieced it together from the grooms’ gossip after the fact.

Or so he assumed, until one of the newcomers approached him directly.

Silver had just dragged the last big table into place and was standing patiently while Yvette detached him from it and two burly ranch hands tilted the thing to slide the skids out from beneath. Facing the other way, she did not notice the strange man making a beeline for them, but Silver did.

He was human, but something about him was…different.

His attire, for certain: the man wore a bushy beard, where most Glassian men preferred to be clean-shaven, and rough leather clothes surmounted by a bearskin serving as a cloak. He carried a longbow and had a quiver and hatchet belted on. Silver could not quite place what it was about this man that was so distinctively unlike the people he knew, though. Something in his scent…in the set of his eyes. He couldn’t decide if it was good or threatening.

For whatever reason, immediately upon spying Silver, he had detached himself from the mismatched group of other humans and come straight to him. He slowed, though, as the horse laid his ears back, his body language shifting subtly but distinctly to express no threat. And yet, while most people would gently soothe an uncertain horse they were approaching, the man remained silent. Silver stood, watching him, as he gradually drew closer, one ear twitching uncertainly.

Slowly, the man in the fur drew to a stop within reach of him. The horse watched, wary, but unmoving. Slowly, he raised a hand, reaching to lay it upon Silver’s nose.

“Ah!” Yvette had finished unbuckling the harness and noticed the newcomer’s arrival. “Your pardon, monsieur, but we are working. This must be finished…”

“It appears to be finished, mademoiselle,” he replied. “What a magnificent creature. I wonder, do you appreciate what you have, here?”

“I appreciate Silver very much, monsieur,” she said evenly, and Silver laid his ears all the way back, picking up on her unfriendliness. Yvette stepped up beside him, placing a hand upon his neck and staring the man down. “As do we all.”

The man simply regarded her impassively, then shifted his eyes to study the horse again. Now that he was not moving, it occurred to Silver what was making him edgy about this person: he behaved like a cat about to pounce. The slow approach, the utter stillness, the absolute attention he gave. No one stared that fixedly unless they were about to do something aggressive.

He snorted once in displeasure.

To his surprise, the man bowed to him. Then, turning back to Yvette, spoke again. “I have not brought gold in quantity, but I am willing to trade. What goods has your master need of, that he might bargain for? My lodge can offer furs, medicines for man and beast alike, and crafted weapons. We will be sure to offer fair value for this horse.”

“Your pardon, monsieur,” Yvette repeated in a low tone of clear warning. “Silver is not for sale.”

“Ah.” He tilted his head back, regarding her down his nose. “But that is up to Monsieur Marchand, is it not?”

Her displeasure radiated from her like the warmth of a fire, and Silver had the very distinct impression that the man could sense it as clearly as he, despite the composure of her expression.

Very deliberately, he lowered his head, bringing his eyes down to the level of the man’s, and emitted a loud snort. Then pawed heavily at the dirt with one of his enormous hooves.

Carefully, the man eased back, and bowed to him again. “Come, girl. Let us discuss this matter with your master.”

He turned and strode back to the group of people talking. Silver snorted again, disdainfully, and turned his head to bump Yvette with his nose.

To his surprise, she took hold of his reins and, still brimming with tension and unease, led him after. Why was she complying with this strange man whom she so clearly disliked? He plodded along, determined to stick close to Yvette, if nothing else. When he did not understand what was happening, Silver had always found that a safe policy.

Though he had been curious about the discussion underway, even more unhappiness hovered over it like a visible cloud, which did not improve his equanimity as they drew closer. The man who had accosted them stepped up beside another man attired in a similar manner, who also turned a too-intense stare on Silver and Yvette as they came to a stop a few yards away.

“Of course, of course,” an unctuous little man too lightly dressed for the climate was saying to Marchand as they arrived, “but you must understand, Monsieur, without anyone but yourself having seen this elf…”

“I confess it did not occur to me to try putting a leash on him,” Marchand said with strained patience, prompting a grin from his son, who stood at his left. His wife was at his other side, looking generally displeased—even more than she usually did. “The elves are always reclusive; the face that they are bothering to warn us is precisely the thing which makes me believe this situation is dire.”

“Yes, yes, but again, while Lord Gracian holds you in the highest esteem, Monsieur Marchand, it requires more than one man’s—”

“The lodge has also been visited by elves,” the other fur-cloaked man interrupted, his voice flat. “We take the word of the tribes with the utmost seriousness. And in any case, their message only confirmed what we have observed ourselves. There are demons in those mountains, squire. My Huntsmen have slain no less than five khankredahgs this moon, and spotted not only living katzils in the skies but seen and stifled the tainted fire they inflict upon the forest. One or two might be only a warlock in the woods, going mad as they all do. But in this quantity? I tell you, there is evil rising in the north.”

The thin little man pursed his lips. “And I tell you, brother Huntsman, that my lord cannot waste resources chasing rumors. Have you brought evidence? A corpse of one of these slain demons, for example?”

“They turn to charcoal when killed,” another man said, this one in metal armor and carrying a short spear, a sword sheathed at his belt. “Your pardon, Squire Leland, I thought this was common knowledge.”

Raoul grinned more widely at that, and the Squire made an even more displeased face.

“Even the Avenists can see what is happening,” the Huntsman said before Leland could reply. “What more proof do you require?”

“My lord requires some sort of proof, at the very least,” Leland said stiffly. “I don’t suppose you can furnish any, Captain Martin?”

“I have scouts sweeping the area even now,” the soldier said calmly. “But Lord Gracian should be aware that the League of Avei is taking this with the greatest seriousness. Reports have been coming to us for months. Months, monsieur. Time enough for word to travel to Viridill and back. High Commander Seluvid has dispatched two Silver Huntresses and an entire Silver Legion to Glassiere because of this!”

“Women playing soldier,” the Huntsman said disdainfully. “I’m sure that will help tremendously.”

“Exactly,” Squire Leland interjected. “With all respect to Avei and her clergy, Captain, what does your leader in the Tiraan Empire know of this fiefdom that Lord Gracian and the King do not?”

“The only reason the King has not sent forces north,” Raoul said sharply, “is because Gracian keeps assuring him nothing is happening here, despite the ample warning he has received!”

“Raoul,” Marchand said quellingly.

“And he is only being so difficult because his head is—”

“Raoul!” Marchand barked. “If you cannot restrain your tongue, you will excuse yourself!”

“What do you think you are doing?” Madame Marchand demanded abruptly, glaring past the group at Yvette standing nearby. “Do you think this is any place for you? Be about your work, girl!”

“I apologize, Madame,” said the Huntsman who had approached Silver, who seemed to defer to his fellow—at least, he had not joined the discussion till now. “I am at fault; I directed the groom to bring this horse here. Do you see what I do, Brother Renard?”

“I do,” the Huntsman said quietly, gazing at Silver with that same fixed, almost predatory attention. “Magnificent. It has been several years since we have seen the old blood emerge among domestic horses.”

“Yes, Silver is our good luck charm,” Marchand said smoothly, clearly glad to steer the conversation into calmer waters. “A more patient and clever horse I have never had the honor of owning.”

“What would you ask for him, monsieur?” Renard asked, still gazing avidly at Silver.

“Silver is not among our wares,” Marchand replied apologetically. “I decided that soon after his birth. One never knows, with…special cases, such as he. Even for so young a horse, he has become indispensable here.”

“I assure you, Monsieur Marchand, we do not regard this as some mere curiosity,” the other Huntsman said. “The old blood is deeply revered among us. You are fond of him, this I can see—as is the girl, here. Such a creature would receive the greatest of care at our lodge.”

“I was under the impression,” Raoul said evenly, “that you Huntsmen disdained the keeping of domestic animals.”

“To be sure,” Renard replied. “That is precisely the issue. This is a spiritual matter, Monsieur Marchand. I mean no insult, but it is troubling to me, very troubling, to see such a beast performing menial labor. Perhaps this is an unusual position from which to treat, compared to the trading to which you are accustomed, but take it as a point of my very great sincerity in this matter. I would offer whatever my lodge is able to furnish in trade to bring Silver back with us.”

A short pause ensued, in which the Squire and the captain both looked annoyed at this digression. The Huntsmen remained focused and unreadable. The Marchand family themselves were a study in contrasts, the master looking thoughtful, his wife increasingly irritated, and Raoul generally uncertain where this whole situation was going. Yvette clung to Silver’s reins as if afraid he would be torn from her grasp; he felt her tension and unease, and it wore heavily on his own equanimity.

“Such as what?” Marchand asked finally.

“Oh, but monsieur!” Yvette burst out, her voice anguished.

“How dare you!” Madame Marchand erupted, with a violence that startled all those present, including Silver, who shifted back a half-step in alarm. She rounded on Yvette, stalking forward with her teeth bared. “You little slattern, sticking your nose into the family’s business! I should have you whipped.”

“Amelie,” Marchand protested, reaching out to grasp her shoulder. “Calm yourself, she meant—”

“And you defend her?” his wife screeched. “After all your— In public! In front of a Squire from the Lord’s own court, you would humiliate me so?”

“She hardly requires your help in doing that, Father,” Raoul observed sardonically.

“Hold your tongue, boy!” Marchand roared, whirling on his son with all the fury he seemed not to dare to unleash on his wife.

Raoul’s remark had a similar effect on Amelie—right down to misdirecting the target of her ensuing rage. She twitched violently, half-turning as if to hurl herself at Raoul. At the last second, though, the madame shifted her weight, lunging straight at Silver and causing him to shy back in alarm.

He was not her goal, however. Yvette had instinctively moved to calm Silver, and so was not positioned to evade or defend herself when Amelie Marchand drew back her full arm and slapped her, hard enough to hurl her to the ground.

Silver bellowed in sheer rage, rearing fully up on his hindquarters and slashing his massive hooves in the air in the madame’s direction. She stumbled back, as suddenly white-faced with terror as she had been with rage seconds before. The entire group scattered, in fact, instinct propelling them away from the fury of such an enormous creature.

Silver slammed back down to earth with a force that shook it, barely missing Amelie and that only because she was continuing to retreat. He followed, though, seizing her by the upper arm in his teeth and tossing his neck. She hardly weighed anything; he hurled her a good four yards.

In the ensuing bedlam, Yvette regained her feet and frantically moved in front of Silver, trying to urge him to calm. Marchand rushed to his wife’s side, as did Captain Martin, while the Huntsmen simply studied Silver from a safe distance and Squire Leland wrung his hands helplessly.

Snorting and still tossing his head in outrage, Silver whinnied in protest against Yvette’s attempts to calm him. Only because she was bodily blocking the way did he refrain from charging again at Amelie, though he surged forward as if to do so and hesitated barely short of knocking his groom down again.

The madame herself screamed, having just lifting her head in time to see this, and tried to scuttle backward across the ground, while her husband vainly tried to get her to be still so he could examine her arm. The sleeve of her dress was already dark with blood where Silver had bitten her.

“Don’t.”

Strangely, it was Raoul’s calm order which finally cut through his anger, and he stopped tossing his head. The young man stepped in front of him, next to Yvette, and placed his hand on Silver’s nose. The horse snorted at him, but the boy just shook his head.

“Too clever by half,” Raoul said gravely, wrapping an arm around Yvette’s slim shoulders, as much to calm her as the horse. “Oh, I’m afraid you’ve really outsmarted yourself now.”

 

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