Category Archives: Uncategorized

12 – 37B

Author’s Note: This is a placeholder chapter with the second half of the last one, posted so as to ping the RSS and notify those who depend on emails to know when there’s content!  I actually attempted to do this with the last chapter, too, but accidentally posted a page on the site rather than a post on the blog, so apparently no notices were sent.  Sorry!

At any rate,this concludes my little experiment, and the normal posting schedule will now resume.


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”

12 – 37

< Previous Chapter

She moved ever more slowly down the very short hall between the teleporter and the security hub, taking stock of her senses. Milanda didn’t yet have a vocabulary to describe these experiences, but being up here in the sterile environment of the Infinite Order made a very great difference from the little planetoid of the dryads, which teemed with life. Here, she could easily pick out the only living things up ahead, and even what they were from the perceptions they gave her.

Hawthorn, of course, was a blazing presence of a by now familiar nature; it had taken some time for Milanda to sort out her sense of the other life forms on the tiny world due to the proximity of the dryads, which was like counting candle flames in broad daylight. It could be done, but the sun did not help. Walker… That could only be Walker. She was, somehow, an inversion, a gap in her awareness of living things. A space of absence, which somehow radiated as powerfully as the dryads. It was an impossible thing to describe; it was barely possible to perceive. If dryads experienced the world this way, she could well believe they found valkyries disturbing.

The other being present puzzled her for a moment before she remembered the katzil. It was the dimmest flicker, which was appropriate as it had been kept in hibernation for thousands of years. Still alive, though.

The door hissed open at her approach, and she stopped just inside, taking stock.

Part of the scene was familiar; Walker working away at her computer terminal. She had moved to a different one, though, to sit next to Hawthorn, who had claimed a chair nearby and spun it around to fold her arms on the back, gazing avidly at the large screen along the wall. Milanda hadn’t even realized that was a screen, taking it for a piece of the wall paneling, but now it danced with images, and the sounds of shouting and crashing—and, incongruously, music—echoed through the hub.

“There you are,” Walker said with open relief that made her heart warm slightly. “Hawthorn said it was normal for this to take this long, but I was about to go looking for you, regardless.”

“You can’t go through the teleporter,” Milanda pointed out, giving her a smile in return as she approached. Hawthorn waved at her before returning her attention to whatever she was watching. “How long was I down there? There’s a lack of clocks…”

“You can have the Nexus display one, if you want,” Hawthorn said without looking up again. “Or ask the Avatar.”

“…all right, fine, you caught me. I was a little distracted by what happened down there and didn’t think of it.”

“It’s been over seven hours,” Walker said seriously. “The computer finished making its map of the city long ago. You can port out whenever you’re ready.”

Milanda winced. “Oof. Gods know what’s been happening up there… Well, I’m glad you two are getting along, at least.”

“Yes, well, I have some precedent to draw upon,” Walker said, smiling fondly at Hawthorn, who continued to gaze avidly at her show. The noise of it was more than a little distracting. “When I met my disconcertingly alien older sisters, one took the time to sit down with me and watch her favorite movies.”

“This was in Sifan?” Milanda frowned. “They have Infinite Order facilities there, too? And they’re open?”

“No and no,” Walker said with a grin, “but kitsune have never had trouble getting into such places at will. That’s a large part of why the Order found them so threatening.”

“I see. Well, I guess this counts as watching it with her,” Milanda said, smiling. “It might be more of a bonding exercise if you stopped messing around on the computer, yourself.”

“Oh, we already did that,” Hawthorn said distractedly.

“Yes, as I said, it’s been hours. We watched the entire trilogy together—the original one. Then she understandably wanted to see more, and I decided she deserved a more thorough grounding in the classics before we branched out into the expanded material. This is Episode Four again.”

Milanda sighed. “Walker, is there a particular reason I need to understand what you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Walker said solemnly, but with a mischievous smile, “this is a very important part of humanity’s cultural heritage. But no, it’s not imminently relevant to what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t seen it?” Hawthorn exclaimed, still watching the screen herself, and pointed at it. “You gotta! See that guy in the black, he’s actually that other guy’s—”

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

“And actually,” Walker said pointedly, “that’s rather distracting, while we’re trying to have a conversation.”

“Oh, of course.” Hawthorn disentangled herself from the chair, then struck a dramatic pose. “Computer!” she cried, lifting her chin, then extended an arm at the screen, palm outward, as if casting a spell. “Pause playback!”

Immediately, the sounds stopped, and the image went still. It had frozen on a shabbily-dressed, shaggy-haired man brandishing what she assumed was some kind of wand, since it was in the process of spitting a beam of red light. A historical drama, maybe? The dryad turned to Milanda and folded her arms, looking tremendously satisfied with herself. “So! Whatcha got?”

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

Hawthorn nodded eagerly. “They all end up a little different, but there are some baselines that seem pretty common. Plus, you got a whole different set-up in the first place, so I’m really curious how it turns out!”

Milanda refrained from commenting that she could have been down there helping with the process. The other two had mentioned it often enough she had a feeling Hawthorn was due for an earful as it was. No sense in making herself the object of the dryad’s resentment.

“Senses,” she said, unconsciously shifting her head to where the katzil floated in its tank. “I can feel…life, now. Any living thing. That was really confusing to puzzle out, in a grassy forest, with two dryads right there.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Hawthorn said eagerly. “Those always have a lot of strategic value, Sharidan says! You got the emotions yet?”

“Emotions?” Milanda asked warily. Gods, if this thing was going to start making her as volatile as the dryads…

“Yeah!” Hawthorn blathered on, nodding enthusiastically. “The ones who get the life sense always have an emotional sense develop a little later. It’s a kind of empathy, only works on animals with complex enough brains. Big ones, mostly. Obviously people. But yeah, it’s probably too early. That may start to come in over the next few days, so don’t get taken by surprise.”

“The others didn’t mention anything about that!”

“Oh, those two.” Hawthorn waved a hand dismissively. “I love ’em dearly, but they’re not the ripest berries on the bush.”

“With all due respect, it took you seven hours to acquire that?” Walker asked skeptically.

“I spent the first part unconscious,” Milanda said a little defensively. “And after that… Well, it was overwhelming. Do you have any idea what it’s like to suddenly have your whole perception of the world radically changed?”

“Yes,” Walker said in a softer tone. “Twice. And I of all people should be more understanding. My apologies.”

“No harm done,” Milanda assured her with a smile. “Anyway, that wasn’t all of it. I gained a more reflexive sense of myself, that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.” She lifted her hand and flexed her fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the palm. “That’s what took the most time to work out how to control. My body sort of…moves on its own, when threatened. The girls and I scuffled around quite a bit, working out the parameters of it. They said they’ve seen that one before, too…”

“Oooh, yes, that’s a really good one!” Hawthorn said, beaming. “It often goes with expanded senses. But yeah, you gotta practice if you’re gonna be safe to be around. Otherwise, any time you’re in danger, you just—whoop!” She struck a mock-combat pose, fists upraised. “No prisoners, no regard for bystanders or scenery! It can get messy. It’s for the best they took the time to make sure you’re pretty stable before you left, especially if you’re gonna go right out there and hang out with other humans again. Apparently studying some actual martial arts helps. Have you?”

“As I keep having to remind people,” Milanda said with a grin, “I’m from Viridill.”

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

Walker stood up. “Well. This has already taken longer than anticipated; not to tell you your business, Milanda, but…”

“Yes, indeed,” she agreed, nodding. “If the teleporter works now, I’d best get up there. No telling what’s been happening…”

“I’m going to walk her to the teleport pad,” Walker said to Hawthorn with a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“And I’ll be back…later,” Milanda added. “See you then.”

“May the Force be with you,” Hawthorn intoned, nodding solemnly.

Milanda blinked at her, then turned to Walker, who grinned.

“Long story. Good story, but…another time. Come on.”

“Computer,” Hawthorn proclaimed, grandly gesticulating at the screen again, “resume playback!”

The noise and music resumed, cutting off behind them as they stepped into the hall and the doors slid shut.

“Walker,” Milanda said thoughtfully, “did she show any familiarity with the Order’s technology at all?”

“No, but she’s certainly having fun with the entertainment system. As you saw.”

“It’s just that… Hm. I wonder if the entertainment database is accessible from their little planet. I guess that much information would take up a lot of space to store.”

“Not the way the Order stored data,” Walker replied as they slipped around the last stack of crates and crowded into the small elevator at the end of the hall. “The whole archive would be small enough for you to pick up. The GIC is isolated, obviously, but if the Avatar is installed there it should have the requisite terminals, and he has all of that on file.”

“And yet, they’ve been down there for decades and not used the computers.” Milanda frowned thoughtfully at the elevator doors. “That Avatar is working an angle of his own.”

“Inevitably,” Walker agreed. The door slid open again, revealing the next hallway, and she preceded Milanda out. “He’s an intelligence as complex as any biological sapient—and arguably more so than some—but it’s an open question whether he qualifies as a free-willed being. There was a whole genre of fiction on Earth about humanity building sapient machines, which then rebel and overthrow humanity. Between the Order’s general paranoia and their fondness for speculative fiction, they were extremely wary about that. Artificial intelligences were tightly regulated.”

“Then,” Milanda said slowly, “he’s actually pursuing the directives given by his maker. He said that, but I’m unsure how much to trust him.”

“Tarthriss sided with the Pantheon in their war, if that helps.”

“Maybe,” Milanda said with a sigh. They had arrived in the array, and she paused, peering around. “He also said we need the help of a skilled fae magic user to finish fixing the Hands. One who understands the systems here would be better, but that obviously isn’t an option. How do I get this thing to send me somewhere in particular?”

She turned to walker, finding the fairy with a most peculiar expression on her face—one Milanda couldn’t quite interpret. Accustomed as she was to Walker by now, her odd features could still be puzzling. At her own stare, though, Walker blinked and shook her head. “It’s very simple, everything here is designed to be user-friendly. I’ll show you.”


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”


If you support spoiler warnings, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

TGaB is crowdfunded art–free to all, updating at least once a week, and another time on Friday if funded!  Click here to learn how it works!

< Previous Chapter

12 – 36

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”

“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”

“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.

“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”

“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”

Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”

“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”

“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”

“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.

Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.

“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”

“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.

“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”

Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”

“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”

“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”

“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”

“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.

“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”

Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.

“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”

“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.

“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”

“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”

Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”

“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.

“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”

“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”

“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.

“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.

“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”

“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”

“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”

“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.

Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”

“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”

“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”

“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.

Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”

“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”

Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”

“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”

“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”

“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.

“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”

“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.

“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”

“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”

“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.

Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”

“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”

“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”

“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.

Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”

“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”

Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.


“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”

“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”

“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”

Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”

“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”

“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”

“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”

“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”

She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.

“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”

“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”

“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”

“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.

“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”

“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”

“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”

“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”

“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”

Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.

And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.

Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.

“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”

“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.

“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”

She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”

“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”

Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”

He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”

“What do you mean?” she asked warily.

“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”


“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.

“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.

“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”

“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”

“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.

The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.

“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”

“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”

“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”

“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”

“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”

“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”

“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”

“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”

“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”

“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.

For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.

“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”

“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”

Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”

“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”

“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”

Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.

It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.

“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.

Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”

“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”

“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”

“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”

Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.

Exasperation, and…

Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—

It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 35

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“Hawthorn!” Milanda moved as quickly as she could across the room without rushing excessively. She wasn’t used to dealing with panicking people, but it seemed like basic sense not to provoke an instinctive reaction that would make it worse. “Hawthorn, stop. Listen to me!”

The dryad had apparently been exploring the room in their absence; at any rate, she was nowhere near the door now. This meant Milanda didn’t have to chase her back out into the hall, but unfortunately, also that her panicked retreat involved the knocking over of a lot of ancient storage, strewn about as it was. Hawthorn’s wide eyes were glued to Walker, who thankfully had the sense to remain on the upper level and not spook her further by approaching. Of course, that ruled out seeing where she was going; Milanda winced as the careening dryad passed dangerously close to the quetzal’s tank, but fortunately that disaster was averted, and she finally backed up against the wall a good six yards from the door she’d presumably been trying for.

“W-w-what is that?!” Hawthorn stammered, totally unlike the brash, overconfident dryad who had accosted Milanda on the tiny planet below. The arm she pointed at Walker was actually shaking.

“Hawthorn, it’s okay. Look at me.” Milanda slowed as she reached her, carefully approaching from the side, so she remained in view but wouldn’t be seen as threatening. Handling the dryad like a skittish horse seemed the best bet, given her limited experience. She finally got close enough to touch, and very gently pushed the outstretched arm down. Hawthorn was easily strong enough to pick up and throw her one-handed, but offered no resistance. “Look at me,” she insisted, gently placing a hand on the side of the dryad’s face.

Finally, slowly, Hawthorn obeyed, tearing her eyes from Walker to stare at Milanda.

“Be calm, and think for a moment,” Milanda said soothingly. “You’re a dryad—practically indestructible and favored by Naiya. You have nothing to be afraid of. And her? She has no weapons, no claws even, no magic. Think about why she frightens you.”

Hawthorn’s gaze cut back to Walker, who was still standing in place by the stairs, and a shudder rippled through her. She squeezed her eyes shut, mouth working soundlessly in terror.

“Think, Hawthorn,” Milanda pressed. “You’re the smart one; I realized that as soon as I met you and your sisters.” That, finally, got her full attention; Hawthorn’s eyes opened again, and sharpened, some perception cutting through the mindless fear. Milanda almost felt bad for manipulating her like that. Any courtier in Tiraas would have torn into her like a shark for employing such ham-fisted flattery, but against even the simplest of such wiles, the dryad was totally unprepared. “You know nobody’s a threat to you, and there’s nothing in view that says you’re in danger. So ask yourself why you feel afraid. Think about it.”

At last, Hawthorn’s expression changed. The tension did not leave her posture, but she frowned in thought, first at Milanda, and then turning her gaze back on Walker. That caused another shudder to wrack her, but she held her focus this time.

“I don’t…know,” she said finally. “But…I feel it. It’s instinct, Milanda. Trust me, I know about instincts, and mine are never wrong. Something is bad about that…person! She’s evil.”

“Define ‘evil,’” Walker said in a mild tone. “Really, I’m not being glib. I’m curious what your understanding of the concept is.”

“You,” Hawthorn said in a much closer approximation of her customary acid tone. “Milanda, what are you doing with that thing?!”

“She is my friend,” Milanda said firmly, “and there’s an explanation.”

“For you being friends with evil?!”

“For why she makes you think she’s evil,” Milanda insisted. “It’s a long story, but you can handle it. I’m just glad it’s you; having to explain this to one of the others would be hard.”

“Well…okay,” Hawthorn said after a pause, grudgingly mollified. Really, it was like maneuvering a child. “I guess I can listen. After all, you’re right,” she added, tossing her head and fixing a glare on Walker. “I’m a dryad. She’s not dangerous to me. And don’t you forget it, you…you thing!”

“I will keep it in mind,” Walker promised in a serious tone. Milanda gave her a warning look, receiving only an innocent smile in reply.

“All right, it’s like this,” Milanda said with a sigh, turning back to Hawthorn. “You already know that everything you are, everything about you, was designed by your mother, right?”

“Of course,” Hawthorn said haughtily. She still practically vibrated with nervous tension, but at least her personality had reasserted itself over her panic now. “We’re her final and greatest creations. After she tried everything else, Mother ended with the dryads, because we’re perfect.”

“Yes, well,” Milanda said diplomatically, “I’m sure that—”

“Actually, she’s not wrong, given her frame of reference,” Walker cut in. “Whatever Naiya was trying to achieve, specifically, she stopped with the dryads. Logically, that suggests she considered the work completed at that point.”

Milanda studied her carefully for a moment. Walker was lounging nonchalantly against the railing by the stairs, looking perfectly at ease and not at all as if she had just proclaimed herself an essentially lesser creation of her own mother.

The thought occurred to Milanda that she knew only the broadest strokes of Walker’s life. Valkyries were all but inscrutable except to Vidians, and Milanda was certainly was not one of those. Apparently the kind of thing she was now was totally unique, and the result of being forcibly removed from her native plane of existence by some incompetent warlock. And, of course, there was her existence before the Pantheon’s fall, working under Naiya in some capacity. Whatever her social experiences, it seemed she had no difficulty controlling herself well enough to manipulate a panicky dryad.

And yet, she’d been so alone, for so long. It was heartbreaking to consider. It was, however, also a stern reminder that she did have an impressive capacity for manipulation.

“Right,” Milanda said aloud, turning back to Hawthorn. “Well, the truth is, what you’re feeling is something Naiya placed in you, in all the dryads. She… Well, frankly, we don’t know why; I’m certainly not going to guess at the motivations of a goddess. But for whatever reason, Naiya gave you and your sisters that instinctive aversion so that you would keep away from Walker.” She glanced back again before continuing. “And her sisters.”

“Well…maybe that’s enough for me,” Hawthorn said, scowling. “Mother is never wrong.”

“She’s been wrong with some fair frequency, that I know of,” Walker said with a sigh.

At that, Hawthorn visibly bristled. “Now, see here—who are you to criticize a goddess? That’s my mother you’re talking about!”

Walker finally straightened up and descended the stairs. Immediately, the hostility leaked from Hawthorn’s posture, replaced by resurgent wariness; she pressed herself back against the wall again. Seeing this, Walker stopped at the base of the steps, coming no closer.

“I’m entitled as you are,” she said simply. “That’s our mother you’re talking about.”

Milanda repressed a wince. She’d been planning to work up to that revelation a bit more gently…

Hawthorn’s eyes widened, and moments later, narrowed. “You’re lying.”

“You weren’t the first,” Walker said, nodding at Milanda, who had opened her mouth to interrupt. The dryad wasn’t moving, though; she decided to trust that Walker knew what she was doing, and kept silent for the moment. “In fact, Hawthorn, we weren’t the first. There was one previous generation of daughters of Naiya that I know of.”

“You’re lying,” Hawthorn insisted, balling her fists.

“Why would I lie?” Walker asked mildly. “I mean no offense, but you can’t give me anything I want. I have no motivation to deceive you, Hawthorn. You and I cannot harm each other; since you’ve decided to come out and visit me here, it seems to me we ought to…get to know each other.”

Hawthorn shook her head frantically. “That’s not possible, you’re…”

“Hawthorn.” Milanda gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you let her tell her story? I listened to it, and it made sense to me, but maybe you know something I don’t. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts after you know the whole thing.”

“Well…all right,” the dryad said grudgingly. “If it’ll help you, I guess.”

“There’s not so much to tell,” Walker said with a shrug. “Naiya created three generations of daughters… And after each was taken from her, she tried again. All of us were slightly different; you and your fellow dryads were the last. As I said before, I guess that means she finally managed to make what she’d intended.”

Hawthorn squinted suspiciously at her. “And so she made us…naturally afraid of you? That means she wanted us to stay away from you.”

“Yes, I guess it does,” Walker agreed.

“Hah!” the dryad said triumphantly, pointing at her again. “And that proves that you’re evil!”

Milanda sighed.

“Actually,” Walker said, turning to gaze at the wall, “I think she just didn’t want to lose you.”

Hawthorn’s pointing finger wavered. “Lose… What? What do you mean?”

“Understand that you are the first to come along after the rest of the Elder Gods fell,” Walker explained. “Back then… Mother wasn’t the unchallenged power she is now. She had to deal with others meddling in her business. Her first generation of daughters, the kitsune, were just too damn powerful. They kept getting into things the other gods wanted nobody involved in, causing change on a scale that only gods should be able to. Nothing the gods did could keep them out, or keep them contained. Finally, they got tired of it and were going to destroy them. Mother pleaded, convinced our elder sisters to go live on an island chain on their own and stay away from everyone else, and convinced the gods to allow this. They accepted that compromise, and…there it was. She had to say goodbye to her first children.”

Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.

“When she made my sisters and I,” Walker continued, “she was…different. At first I honestly thought she didn’t like us, she was so detached and cold. But one by one, my sisters, the valkyries, would slip away to Sifan to talk with our older sisters, when we could, and gradually they made things clearer. I got to spend a fair amount of time with them, and… It helped me understand. Mother grieved their loss, still. I believe she was afraid to get too close to us, in case she lost us, too.”

“And…” Hawthorn paused to swallow again. “Did she?”

Walker sighed heavily. “Yes. And for the same reason. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of that was due to the fact that we didn’t respect the kitsune quarantine. Whether things would have been different if we’d just stayed away from them. But we didn’t, and I suspect some of the other gods knew it, and it influenced their decision. Oh, we weren’t as powerful as the kitsune, by far. There was a fairly limited range of things we could do. Valkyries are reapers, you see; Mother made us specifically as a control measure. She was a caretaker, a custodian, responsible for the world and the life on it, which the other gods were constantly messing up with their projects and experiments. They’d frequently just abandon things they’d lost interest in, leaving them to wander around the land. Rampage across it, in most cases. So she made us, extensions of herself, empowered to dispense death. We could end any life with a touch.”

“Perhaps,” Milanda suggested in the pause which followed, “it wasn’t that Naiya deliberately planted this aversion in the dryads, then. It sounds like you’re just…opposite. It might simply be natural.”

“Mother knows what she’s doing,” Hawthorn said, but without any real conviction. She was now staring at Walker with an unreadable expression.

“Well, in the end,” Walker said with a shrug, “the other gods decided they couldn’t have this. We broke the rules by existing, you see; they liked to make their creations fight, to test them against each other. Mother had made us to clean up the mess, and the fact that we could easily destroy anything living without being at all challenged by them was just unacceptable. This time, they didn’t wait for her to act, or even warn her. They just snatched us up and hurled us into the dimension of chaos.”

“That’s awful,” Hawthorn said, clearly aghast.

“It was definitely no fun,” Walker agreed with a wry smile. “If not for Vidius going well out of his way to help us, I don’t think we would have lasted long. It wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart, of course; he gained us as powerful servants, and earned Mother’s favor. Both were very necessary for the Pantheon when they finally overthrew the Elders. But even for all that, he’s been a good boss, mostly. He’s easy to like. And we were mostly isolated, yes, but we had each other, at least. Plus, Vidius made it so his most high-ranking clerics could interact with us, so we kept at least that much of a tie to the world.”

“Wait,” Hawthorn said, suddenly frowning. “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re supposed to be working for Vidius in the…whatsit…why are you here?”

“She was yanked out of it,” Milanda said quietly.

“That was even worse than the first time,” Walker said, folding her arms. “I was…changed by it. I have no control over the powers Mother gave us anymore, Hawthorn. Anything living dies, just from being close to me.”

Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.

“Yes,” Milanda said, nodding. “That was why I came to you for help. I need her to help me deal with all this…equipment. It belonged to the Elder Gods, and she’s basically the last person alive who knows how it works. And I needed your blessing to be able to be near her without being killed by her.”

“It has all been so fortuitous one could suspect divine intervention,” Walker said with a small smile. “I’m the only one who could help her use the machines. You are the only ones who could help her to deal with me. And here we both are, conveniently right at hand.”

“It’s not a total coincidence, after all,” Milanda pointed out. “She’s been imprisoned in here for years, Hawthorn. Because it’s got the only cells that can hold her, and because the Hands of the Emperor were the only beings who could safely capture her. Because of the protection you and your sisters gave them.”

Hawthorn blinked, looked at Milanda, then looked at Walker, then slowly frowned. “You’re…telling the truth.”

“If I wanted to trick you,” Walker said sardonically, “I like to think I’m clever enough to have come up with a less convoluted and more believable story than that. Sadly, the truth is under no obligation to make sense.”

“You’re…my sister,” the dryad breathed, again staring at Walker.

Strangely, Walker looked suddenly uncomfortable. “I…well. I suppose so. Mother made us all by different methods, of course. And for different purposes. But…it’s not as if any of us has a father, so yes, I guess we’re sisters. If I even still am…what I was,” she added bitterly, lifting a hand to scowl at the back of it. “I don’t even look like I did.”

Finally, Hawthorn took a step forward, way from the wall and toward Walker, then stopped, staring. A frown fell over her features—a thoughtful one at first, but one which quickly grew increasingly angry.

“So what you’re telling me,” she said with an ever-deepening scowl, “is those Hands of the Emperor locked our sister in a prison using our power, and had all this going on right over our heads all these years, and didn’t even bother to tell us?”

Milanda winced. “Oh. Well, I suppose…”

“Ooh!” The dryad stomped so hard Milanda felt the vibrations through the floor. She more than half expected to see an indentation, but apparently the Infinite Order had built this place of tougher stuff than that. She did take the precaution of stepping away from Hawthorn, though, seeing her fists ball up and begin to actually quiver with contained fury. “That…that makes me so mad! I can’t believe I had sex with all those guys! Most of ’em weren’t even that good!”

“You should tell them that,” Walker said solemnly, “first chance you get.”

Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.

“This has been a bad situation all around,” she said quickly before either fairy could start in again. “And the more I learn about this whole thing, the more I think it wasn’t very wisely set up in the first place. A lot was Theasia’s idea, and she was…” She trailed off, looking at Hawthorn. “Well, you actually knew her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I liked Theasia,” the dryad said distractedly, glancing back at her but with most of her attention still on Walker. “She was smart, and didn’t let anybody push her around. And she was really good in bed. I miss her,” she added with a nostalgic sigh.

Milanda sighed as well, covering her eyes with a hand, though not before getting the pleasure of seeing Walker struggle to contain a smile. “Right. Anyway, Theasia never trusted anybody and thought only in terms of power—who had it and how to beat them if necessary. She tended to undervalue the importance of people’s personalities, judging them only by what they could do, not what they were likely to. What they wanted, and thought. It was a weakness that caused some problems for the Empire while she ruled it. That’s just history,” she added hastily. “I’m just trying to give some context here, not speak ill of your friend.”

“No, that’s pretty fair,” Hawthorn agreed with a shrug. “I mean, I did like her, but that doesn’t mean I’m dense. Theasia made us a whole little world to do whatever we pleased on. We wouldn’t have taken the deal if she’d wanted to control us at all. She controlled everybody else. Too hard for their own good, mostly.”

“And that’s what brought us all to this situation,” Milanda said, finally feeling the conversation was somewhat back under her control. “The Hand system is broken, and I still need your help to fix it, you and the others and the Avatar. But… I don’t think we had better put it back like it was.” She nodded at Walker. “If nothing else, I can’t stomach putting Walker back in a cell at the end of this. Even if I hadn’t promised her not to, that would be horribly unfair after how much she’s helped.”

Slowly, Walker moved forward again. Hawthorn tensed, but held her ground, watching her come.

“Is it…very bad?” Walker asked quietly, approaching the dryad at a very cautious pace. “My sisters… We only rarely were in a position to interact with dryads. Mostly when we had to go near the Deep Wild. The dimensions twist there, and occasionally would thin enough that would could graze the physical plane. If a dryad happened to be close enough to see… Well, they always fled like they’d seen a forest fire.”

“That must’ve hurt,” Hawthorn said quietly.

Walker stopped, about three yards from her. “Well, we’re fairly used to pain of one kind or another. It wasn’t as if we didn’t understand. It was never their—your—fault. None of us are at fault for this, any of it.”

“It’s not…so bad,” Hawthorn said, grasping her opposite elbow with her right hand. Her posture was closed and uncomfortable with Walker so close, but no longer tense as if she were on the verge of bolting. “It’s like… I dunno. I’m not used to wanting to run. Dryads are the ultimate predators—nothing makes us run. But… I guess it’s what a deer would feel like, seeing a cougar.”

Walker nodded slowly. “I understand. I’m not offended, Hawthorn. You don’t have to—”

She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.

She came slowly, one halting foot at a time, but she moved. Walker stared, frozen as if afraid moving would panic her, while the dryad drew gradually nearer, until they were standing an arm’s length apart.

Silence stretched out for several aching seconds, both of them just staring at each other. Then, very carefully, Hawthorn raised her arm, and laid a hand against Walker’s cheek.

“I am not a deer,” she said firmly. “I can get used to it. You… They call you Walker? That’s your name?”

Walker swallowed heavily. “It’s… I go by it, now.”

“And you’ve been, just…alone? All this time?” Hawthorn’s voice was barely a whisper. Milanda herself stood frozen, afraid to do anything that might break up this moment.

Walker nodded mutely.

“That sucks,” Hawthorn said feelingly. “I mean… Dang. Apple and Mimosa are so damn annoying sometimes, but I’m really glad they’re with me. You know, generally. There’s no way I’d have agreed to come live here if I didn’t have a couple of my sisters with me.”

Walker opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, then closed it again.

Hawthorn took the final step forward, and wrapped her arms around her older sister.

Walker squeezed her eyes shut, a tremor rippling through her. After a moment, moving with the utmost care, she leaned forward into the dryad, embracing her in return.

For the longest time, they didn’t move at all.

“I’m sorry,” Hawthorn whispered at last.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I’m not apologizing, you dummy. I’m just sorry. I wish that crap hadn’t happened to you.”

Walker emitted a short noise that could have been a laugh or a sob, and suddenly tightened her grip, burying her face in Hawthorn’s white hair.

“Ah, well then,” Milanda said after another pause. “We’re still waiting on the teleporter to be ready, and I need to go talk to the Avatar anyway, so I’ll just… Yeah, you two can find something to talk about without me, I’m sure.”

She backed away, grinning broadly, and didn’t turn to watch where she was going until she reached the door. The whole time, the two fairies didn’t so much as glance up, remaining fully absorbed in each other.

At last.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 34

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“What kind of evidence, exactly?”

“Several kinds,” Fedora replied with a nonchalant shrug. “Nothing I would call conclusive just yet, Professor. I wish that pixie had mentioned she was planning to dump a thousand gallons of frozen water on my crime scene so I could’ve told her to goddamn well not. Got no footprints from the actual fight location, and most of the samples were pretty thoroughly washed into the soil as it melted off. Still, you’ve got nice paved paths and a lot of the action happened on one, so I was able to lift a few.”

“A few?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Samples? Of what?”

“I don’t have the right equipment with me to pick up skin flakes or anything so tiny,” the Inspector admitted. “Just hairs, mostly. A few miscellaneous near-microscopic bits and bobs that I think are fabric—I’m not pinning any hope on them. The hair’s what’ll prove most useful, I think. Rafe is still running the tests that’ll sort out what was dropped during the right time frame, then all I gotta do is gather samples from the people who we knew were there, and whatever’s left over is from our perp. Gotta admit, Prof, this is a guarantee of nothing. We won’t know how useful the evidence is until the analysis is done.”

“You were able to collect hair samples from the pavement in the aftermath of that…absolute debacle?” Ingvar regarded Fedora closely. “That is…very impressive.”

“Yeah, I call bullshit,” Aspen said more bluntly, folding her arms. “There is just no way.”

“Oh, ways he has,” Ashley said with a mysterious little smile.

“It’s all a matter of the right custom-worked enchantments and alchemicals,” Fedora said with ostentatiously false modesty, flipping the lapels of his trench coat up and then smoothing them down again. “Despite the fact that our ranking member of the Imperial government on site completely flipped his shit and then…well, whatever you did with him, lady. Despite that, this is still an operation sanctioned by Intelligence, and I’ve got tools with me that no municipal or provincial police force has access to.”

“Tools nobody but you has access to,” Ashley said, winking.

“Not for want of trying,” Fedora grumbled. “Omnu’s balls, what do I have to suck to get those cobble-pounders to try techniques beyond ‘chase perps around and beat them with clubs?’”

“Yes, your life must be very frustrating indeed, but my points of inquiry here are specific and few,” Tellwyrn said sharply.

“Yes, of course, right.” Fedora nodded. “I got much more reliable samples from right by the gates, where we saw the Sleeper stand still for a little bit, and there was no brawling and no snow. I have a lot more faith in those; Rafe’s working ’em over, too. Honestly, I can’t get enough of watching him work; it’s like listening to a damn symphony. Man’s a genius with alchemy. A batshit insane genius, which is the best kind!”

“I am acquainted with Admestus Rafe,” Tellwyrn snapped. “My questions, here, concern you, your investigative methods, and what happens next if the outcome of his lab work provides you with an unidentified sample. How, precisely, do you propose to find out to whom it belongs? Because if you are about to suggest rummaging through the personal effects of the entire rest of the student body, the ensuing discussion is likely to become impolite.”

“With regard to that—uh, no thanks, Fluffy, I’m good.”

Fedora held up a hand to decline the tray of teacups Maru hoisted at him. The tanuki lowered it, stepped back, bowed over his proffered samples so that his whiskers dipped into ones of the cups and trundled over toward Ingvar. He and the dryads had arranged themselves in front of the wall of bookcases, while Fedora stood before the desk behind which Tellwyrn sat; until a moment ago, Maru had busied himself with her arcane cooking plate in the corner of the office, which was a long process frequently interrupted by his requests, in Sifanese, for instruction on how to operate it. Tellwyrn had been served tea, finally, and now he was making the rounds toward the others.

Before he reached Ingvar, however, Maru tripped on the hem of his robe and went sprawling face-down into his tray, sending tea and broken crockery spraying across the carpet.

“Gomen nasai!” he wailed, rolling to his feet, and actually ran three complete laps around the mess. “Gomen gomen gomen—”

“For the love of—just clean it up!” Tellwyrn barked. Maru froze, trembling violently and gazing up at her with limpid eyes. She sighed, rubbed at her forehead with one hand, then repeated herself more softly in his language.

“Riiight,” Fedora drawled, watching the tanuki scurry across the office toward the closet door at which she pointed. “Anyway. Before we get into that, Professor, there’s the matter of this.” He pulled a small object from the pocket of his coat and stepped forward to lay it on her desk; it resembled an enchanted power crystal. “This was in Ravana Madouri’s lightcapper. Rafe and I didn’t have the means to get data from it and I didn’t wanna go wake Yornhaldt up, so I held onto it for you. But if I’m right about what that is—which I’m pretty sure I am, because Intelligence uses these and this is the first time I’ve seen one in civilian hands—that thing snapped a full record of the magical spectrum in use when it was activated. Ingenious, how they can make that work with an enchantment meant to take pictures. Assuming it fired correctly that’ll give you the full and precise composition of energy being used—all four schools, all known types of shadow magic, electromagnetic spectrum, visible light—”

“I get it, thank you,” she said, reaching out to take the crystal and peering at it thoughtfully. “Fascinating… I had no idea modern enchanters could do this. If it works, it would make it all but impossible for any magic user to hide or disguise themselves. Each would have an energy signature as unique as a fingerprint.”

“More so,” Fedora said cheerfully, “but nah, that’ll only last until more people like you become aware of the technique. Then there’ll be ways found to fool it, no question. Regardless, I’m assuming you of all people can figure out how to get data off that thing without breaking it? If not, I can get a manual from Tiraas, though not without leaving a paper trail. And, of course, once Intelligence knows you can—”

“I’m not going to assume they don’t know everything you do anyway,” she said brusquely, tucking the crystal into her own pocket. “Regardless, thanks for the offer, but if I need more help I’ve my own sources. Now, with regard to my question?”

“Yes, quite,” he said seriously. “Look, Professor, by far the most useful insight I gained from last night’s dust-up was into the Sleeper’s psychology. I’ve got more of an idea, now, why he’s doing what he did, based on his reactions. Most especially the way he went after Ingvar.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Huntsman, who just continued to watch him calmly. “Obviously the least physical threat to him—and yet, he’s the one who got in a lucky shot, which made the Sleeper fixate on him.”

“So, you’re saying he’s a dickhead,” Aspen huffed. “We knew that.” Juniper sighed, but draped an arm around her shoulders.

“Not all dickheads are created equal, doll,” Fedora said, winking at her. “Specifically, this one is driven by ego. It also answers the question I’ve been mulling over since this started: why sleeping curses? So, so much easier to just kill your targets. I’d been thinking he didn’t want to provoke Tellwyrn to that extreme, but that didn’t quite hold up. This, though, makes sense of it.”

“Uh, how?” Juniper asked, blinking quizzically.

“No one has been able to break the curse,” Ingvar said softly. “He has challenged the greatest mage alive to a contest of magical skill, and so far, he is winning. Ego.”

“Exactly,” Fedora said smugly.

“Interesting, even useful,” Tellwyrn said, watching sidelong as Maru clattered about loudly in the closet, causing a broom to tumble out. “But still not what I asked you.”

“Now, keep your shirt on, I’m working up to it,” Fedora said soothingly. “The point is, yes, you’re right, to get anything useful off those samples, I need something to compare ’em to. That means I need to get active samples from all the students to match. And the reason I paused to talk about the Sleeper’s mindset is because I’ve been pondering his next move, and how we can influence him to make the move we want. Specifically, that move will cause him to attack again—much harder than he has before. I’m talkin’ all stops pulled out. He knows once we uncover his identity, it’s all over. And just because he has chosen not to kill thus far does not mean he lacks the capacity—if anything, he’s one of very few warlocks who are good for anything else. If we antagonize him that way, some of your kids are going to be in extreme peril. Or…all of them.”

“Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered predator,” Ingvar agreed, nodding.

“So, if I do this, I’ll have to do it subtle,” Fedora continued. “It’ll be tricky.”

“I have not agreed to allow this,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“How can you not?” Aspen burst out. “This is literally the solution to the whole problem!”

“No, she’s right,” Juniper said, now studying Fedora. “This Sleeper thing is important, but it’s not the only thing going on at this University.”

“Exactly,” said Tellwyrn. “I have aristocrats here, Inspector. Royalty. Paladins. All manner of fascinating people, linked to many of the great powers on this continent and beyond. And you propose I should allow a child of Vanislaas, one who works for Imperial Intelligence, no less, to rummage through their personal effects?”

“I can see how that would ruffle some feathers if it got out,” Fedora agreed, grinning. “But since we’ve already covered that I need to do it subtle-like anyway…”

“Do I strike you as someone who cares whose feathers are ruffled?” Tellwyrn sneered. “I am thinking about what you will do with that kind of access.”

He shrugged, spreading his arms. “Well, I dunno what to tell ya, lady. You’re not wrong, it’s a fair concern. But the situation is what it is. This is what I need to do to wrap this up.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn stared at him in silence for a long moment, which he bore without any sign of discomfort. “I will think about this. We can discuss it again when you get results from Rafe’s lab work—if it turns out that there’s anything to discuss. In the meantime, with regard to this newfound psychological understanding you claim… What, in your opinion, is the Sleeper’s next likely move?”

“Retaliation,” Fedora said immediately. “Given the way he got away from the fight last night… He could’ve done that at any time during it, but instead he broke his pattern to make shows of force that weren’t necessary or useful. He didn’t cut and run until it became completely clear that he was overmatched, after failing to inflict a single casualty in an all-out contest of power. What with the way he thinks, this can’t stand. He’s gotta even the score.”

“Who is his most likely target?” she demanded.

“Well,” Fedora said, grinning, “Ingvar and I are both tempting prospects! Neither of us has much physical defense against a warlock of that caliber, and we both managed to personally insult the bastard last night. But each of us has a dryad companion, and bruised ego or no, the Sleeper’s shown a pattern of avoiding people who are a real threat to him. I can’t see him risking a head-to-head with Aspen or Ash.”

“He handled us all pretty well last night,” Juniper muttered.

“He took advantage of chaos by exacerbating it,” Ingvar disagreed. “All we need to do is equip you three with fireproofing charms, and there won’t be a thing a warlock can do to you. Or, in all probability, near you.”

“So,” Fedora continued, “he’ll be going after the sophomores next. It fits his overall pattern, too. They’re about what he’s escalated to the level of, and they slapped him down.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “How soon?”

Fedora shrugged in exasperation. “I’m a detective, not a freakin’ oracle! I can form a good framework of how this clown thinks; that doesn’t mean I can read his mind.”

“But you spoke of using that insight to manipulate him,” she said slowly, leaning back in her desk chair.

“Yeah, I did say that,” the Inspector replied, now studying her warily. “You’ve got the cadence of somebody having an idea, there.”

“This time, he was prompted to attack in part by my absence from the campus,” Tellwyrn said softly. “If we wished to set a trap, then, perhaps we could determine at least the timing of his next attack by me leaving again.”

There was a momentary silence.

“I think,” Fedora said at last, “if you wanna play that card, you’d better have a damn good idea what you’re doing.”


“Well, you guys look about as well-rested as I am,” Ruda said, pausing to swig from a bottle of rum. “So, let me pose the obvious question: what the fuck was that last night?”

“We lost,” Fross said glumly, hovering over the middle of the table. The whole class hadn’t assembled; Tellwyrn had given them the morning off classes, and several were probably still asleep. The two paladins had wandered into the cafeteria to find Ruda and Fross present, though, and they had taken sandwiches to one of the outdoor tables for lunch, being in no mood for the company of their fellow students.

“I’m not really sure what went wrong,” Gabriel said, yawning. “I thought we had a good plan.”

“We did have a good plan,” Ruda snorted. “Somehow, at the first sign of confusion, that plan gave way to ‘obligingly come at the bastard single-file.’ C’mon, we’ve been over this in Ezzaniel’s class. That is how you take on a group, you make ’em deal with you one at a time, neutralize the advantage of numbers. We fuckin’ handed it to the asshole.”

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, as Trissiny likes to say,” Toby remarked quietly.

Gabriel sighed. “I miss Trissiny…”

“Well, Trissiny isn’t here,” Ruda snapped, slamming her bottle down on the table. “And while it would be nice if we had our pet strategist on hand to solve our fucking problems for us, that is also a recipe for long-term failure. We three at least are gonna be planning and fighting a lot of battles over the course of our lives, and after the next two years we’re gonna be doing most if not all of that without fucking Trissiny!”

“It would probably be best if you guys did most things without fucking Trissiny,” Fross observed. “She’s kinda straight-laced.”

Dead silence fell. The pixie’s glow dimmed slightly under their combined dumbfounded stares. “Um. Sorry. Inappropriate?”

“Sorry, Fross,” Gabriel said, finally grinning. “We’re just not used to you slipping in a really good one like that.”

“Yeah, har de har har, laugh it up,” Ruda growled. “Meanwhile—”

“Ruda, enough,” Toby said firmly. “You’re right. We flubbed that. We will have to do better. But recrimination isn’t helpful; what we need is to go over what went wrong, make a better plan, and learn to adapt better. And we should do that when the rest of the group is here.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she grunted, taking a swig of rum. “I know, I know. It’s just… Fuck. This whole fucking thing…”

“You’re taking this kinda personally,” Gabriel said, frowning quizzically at her. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” she exclaimed. “Did you seriously just fucking ask me that?”

“I mean, aside from the obvious,” he said hastily.

Ruda growled wordlessly and took another long drink. “It’s—”

“Hey, guys!”

“Oh, what the fuck is this now?” she grumbled, as Chase came dashing up to their table, grinning insanely. Jerome Conover was stomping along in his wake, wearing a thunderous scowl on his face and a sling on his arm.

“You are just not gonna believe this one,” Chase said gleefully.

“Well, you’re happy, so I assume it has to do with him getting hurt,” Gabriel observed.

Jerome halted by the table and glared at each of them in turn. “Which of you is good with a bow and arrow?”

“A bow?” Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever even held one. I asked about it in class once, and Ezzaniel made a wiseass comment about me pinning my own feet to the ground.”

“I’ve practiced the basics, but it’s been years,” Toby said, tilting his head. “Why?”

“Somebody shot him!” Chase cackled. “In the arm! With an arrow! This morning!”

“Somebody shot you with an arrow?” Ruda exclaimed, turning to Jerome.

“Oh, aren’t you quick on the uptake,” he said scathingly.

“When did this happen?” Toby demanded.

“First damned thing this morning!” Jerome snapped. “I stepped outside our dorm and wham!”

“I’d’ve thought it’d be more of a twang,” Ruda observed.

“I think he was referring to the sound of his ass hitting the ground,” Chase snickered.

“Honestly, I expect this bullshit from him,” Jerome snorted. “I should think this merits a little more concern from those of us who allegedly have more on their minds than aimless trouble-making!”

“That’d have more weight coming from someone who isn’t usually helping him make the trouble,” Gabriel pointed out.

“Someone is shooting people on this campus with arrows!” Jerome shouted. “First this Sleeper insanity, and now this!”

“Okay, but, let’s be fair,” said Fross. “The Sleeper is a whole thing. He’s going after people in general. Somebody shot you, Jerome. Unless more victims start turning up, it might make more sense to assume it was personal.”

“Oh, now you’re just being silly!” Chase said cheerfully. “If anybody on this mountaintop was gonna be personally attacked, it’d be me. Need I remind you who had the honor of being the first victim of the Sleeper?” He cocked both his thumbs to point at his chest. “That’s right, this guy right here, an’ don’t you forget it, plebeians.”

“Chase, shut the hell up,” Jerome snapped. “Everything is not about you.”

“Hey, uh, Jerome,” Gabriel commented, “Miss Sunrunner can fix an arrow wound in five minutes unless it hit a vital organ. What’s with the sling?”

Jerome’s face turned two shades redder; Chase practically fell over laughing.

“That’s right, you idiots sit here cracking jokes,” Jerome snarled. “Look at what’s happening here! Sleeping curses, Professors vanishing, magic snowstorms, and now snipers! This school is going straight to Hell without even the aid of a handbasket. You’ll have plenty to laugh about while the whole goddamned thing is burning down around your ears!”

He actually spat on their table, then turned and stalked away.

“Wait!” Chase called, scampering after. “Wait for me! You can’t go off and lose your temper at more people without letting me watch!”

“Fuck off, Chase!”

“Aw, baby, don’t be like that, I can change!”

“There was a valid point buried in all that,” Toby said quietly, watching them go. “What with one thing and another… I’m beginning to seriously worry about this place.”

“Hey,” Ruda said, peering critically at her bottle of rum. “Is my curse wearin’ off, or did we just get yelled at by a giant, anthropomorphic penis?”


By the time Tellwyrn ended the meeting in exasperation, Maru’s efforts to clean the tea stain had resulted in most of the cleaning supplies being strewn across the floor around the closet, a whole row of books being swept off their shelf by an errant swing of a broomstick, a nonplussed Juniper being jabbed in the thigh with a mop, and Maru getting his tail pinned under one leg of the Vernis Vault after lifting it to retrieve a bottle of carpet cleaning solution which had rolled beneath. All the while, the tea had sat there, soaking into the carpet with no progress made toward its removal. The Professor had finally shooed everyone out so she could supervise the process directly rather than continually interrupting herself to give increasingly irritated directions in Sifanese to the increasingly frantic tanuki.

Once everyone had left the office, though, everything changed.

Maru set about silently and efficiently packing the cleaning supplies back away into their closet home, while Tellwyrn, with a couple of gestures, put the books back where they went, re-constructed the broken teacups, and lifted all the liquid from the carpet to hover in the air in an amorphous ball. She opened the window with her hands, if only because it was conveniently within arms reach of her chair, and flung it out to plummet toward the prairie far below.

“Such a shame,” Maru clucked, shutting the closet door. “That is rather good tea, you know.”

“Mm hm,” she said, taking a sip from her own cup. “So. It seems, among the likely outcomes of last night’s work, I may be forced to let that…demon…rustle about among the students’ living quarters and possessions in order to retrieve evidence.”

“I am touched by the trust you display in your associates, sensei,” he said with the highest level of formality his language offered.

Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Our acquaintance began with you impugning my intelligence, Maru. I’d have thought you were at least clever enough to learn something from that experience.”

“In fairness, sensei, you were my first elf.”

“I advise you not to judge any other elves you meet by my example,” she said wryly.

“Yes, Kyomi-sama warned me of that as well, but I appreciate it nonetheless.”

“I thought you performed quite well, all things considered,” she continued. “Carry on that way, and by the time it becomes relevant, Fedora will hopefully dismiss you from consideration as a factor.”

“Unless I am carrying tea near his feet?” Maru grinned, displaying a snout full of needle-like teeth. “He is suspicious of everyone, by dint of both his kind and his profession. I think he has found no reason to be suspicious of me in particular, however.”

“Good. If it comes down to letting him snoop around in secret… I will want someone snooping around after him under the same terms. If you don’t think yourself a match for an incubus, Maru, this is the time to say so. There’s no shame in it, and I won’t hold you in violation of our contract. Those creatures are dangerous, and all the more so because they make themselves so easy to underestimate.”

If anything, Maru’s grin widened.

“Don’t fret,” he said in perfect Tanglish. “He’ll never see me coming. Where I come from, things like him are nothing but prey.”

Tellwyrn smiled coldly. “I’m glad to hear that. You recall what I told you about students being sacrosanct?

“Of course. Explicitly.”

“For purposes of that subject, the Sleeper, once identified, will not be considered a student.”

Maru’s ears perked up, his tail quivering in barely-repressed eagerness. “And to think, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any fun here.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 33

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

The lights were on when they entered. It was just like opening up the security hub for the first time; after Milanda instructed that the lockdown be ended in this room, it had remained sealed for a few minutes while the sub-OS did some housekeeping tasks, and when the door finally opened, the space was bright and clear of dust and any decay. It was also full of junk. Unlike the more chaotic assortment of things strewn about the security hub, though, this was mostly large crates and canisters, and several upright racks which held neat rows of devices she couldn’t identify behind glass. Well, probably not glass, but something transparent. More to the point, this was organized. There was fairly little space left to maneuver, but what remained were neat aisles between boxes that led to the room’s various necessary functions. The crates and racks themselves were stacked neatly, clearly according to a plan.

“If we’re going to keep opening things up,” Walker observed, following Milanda into the teleport array, “we may want to re-activate that Caretaker unit. He can clean and organize things more efficiently than we. Not to mention more safely. They’re programmed to handle just about anything the Order would have used.”

Milanda paused, turning to look back at her with an upraised eyebrow. “He?”

Walker shrugged, still peering around the room. “They’re sexless, obviously, but it was conventional to call them ‘he.’ Sort of like how ships are considered feminine. You could call it anything you want, I suppose.”

The chamber itself was smaller and laid out differently than the security hub. Square in shape, it had walls of a dark material rather than the mithril and steel of which the hub was constructed, though it was supported by angled struts of some gray metal with a matte finish. A square space opened off the door itself, most of it obscured by orderly stacks of crates, with a row of consoles along the left. To the front and right, short flights of stairs rose to small balconies flanking the room on those sides. Directly ahead of the door were a series of doors just like the one which led to the dryads’ little planet—the gravitical isolation chamber, according to Walker—and on the right stood a large, flat pad, as Milanda discovered upon ascending to that level. These doors, unlike the one to the GIC, were inert.

“Milanda.”

At Walker’s tone, she turned. The fairy had lifted the lid of a crate, and was staring into it. After a moment, she set the lid aside and turned to one of the vertical racks, studying it for a few seconds before touching its control panel. One of the transparent walls immediately slid upward with a soft hiss, granting her access to the objects within.

“What is it?” Milanda asked, stepping back down to join her.

“These are weapons,” Walker said, pulling one of the things out of the rack. Except for its angled grip of black material, attached to an obvious trigger mechanism, it was made of a glossy white material, with details of black and chrome. About as long as her own forearm, it had a padded butt meant to rest against the user’s shoulder and a small nozzle on the other end. “The crate has extra power packs and replacement components. I think…these are all weapons, and accouterments for them. The crates all match, and this room was organized.”

“Ah…” Milanda watched warily as Walker hefted the alleged weapon to her shoulder, sighting along it at the teleport pad above. Not sense letting the creature out of her cell had she been so keenly aware that she was dealing with something ancient, which had no reason to think well of her and the government she represented. “How likely is all this to explode, do you think?”

“Not very,” Walker said with a shrug, carefully hanging the weapon back on the rack with its fellows. Milanda relaxed, feeling tension she hadn’t noticed dissipate. “I’ve mentioned this before, but the Infinite Order were utterly paranoid. All firearms were gene-locked; only authorized servants would be able to fire them. In anyone else’s hands, they are totally inert. There are no authorized servants left alive, and nobody who can add authorizations, so these…all of these…are so much dead weight. As for exploding, they don’t really do that unless maliciously mishandled. For instance, if someone tried to tamper with them to get around the gene-lock.”

Milanda breathed a sigh of relief. “Small favors. Oh, but… What about the people asleep, down by the hangar bay?”

Walker gave her a sardonic look. “I guess we can add something to our list of reasons not to wake them up.”

“Yes, quite.”

“Random junk thrown in the security hub, armaments stacked in the teleport array.” Walker absently rubbed her palms together, peering around. “What the hell happened in this place?”

“I need to fetch a clock, next time I’m up above,” Milanda muttered. “I don’t even know how long I slept. What with one thing and another, my rhythms are completely thrown off.”

Walker gave her an amused look, then turned to the nearby console. “Computer, display clock. Local time.”

Obligingly, the screen lit up with numbers. Apparently, it was just shy of noon.

“Oh. Well, that’s nifty. Also explains why I’m hungry…”

“The fabricators in the barracks kitchen can take care of that,” Walker said, grinning faintly. “Try not to get too lost in the menu choices. Oh, and don’t order sushi. Those things cannot do it right.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Milanda murmured, turning to pull the lid off another crate and peer within. None of the objects it contained were meaningful to her.

“As an amusing footnote, this planet’s day length and orbital period are just slightly longer than Earth’s. They established a local calendar for years, but as far as hours and seconds went, they simply adjusted the measurements to match the planet, rather than try to compute days that were twenty four and about a third of an hour long. Naturally, that meant they had to reconfigure all their technology, but apparently that was the easier option.”

“Increasingly, they just sound…insane.”

“They were pretty idiosyncratic right from the star, even before going power-mad.” She paused in the middle of examining one of the consoles, then turned to Milanda, who was gently rummaging through the crate now that she’d been assured nothing in it was actively dangerous. “And on the subject of power-madness, I have been thinking.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very amusing. In seriousness… What do you plan to do about all this? The technology around you would have an incalculable impact on your civilization if you began disseminating it.”

“I am very grateful not to be the one making such decisions,” Milanda said fervently.

“Aren’t you?” Walker kept talking while she climbed to the upper level, inspecting the teleporters. “After all…here you are. You came down here to learn what had gone wrong with the Hands and fix it. Now, in the middle of that, you’ve apparently stopped and changed course to exacting revenge on the Archpope.”

“That analysis is wrong twice,” Milanda said with a sigh. “This is an unavoidable delay, not a change of goals. We are still going to repair or replace the system; the Hands in their current state are a constant hazard. I’ll need to go see the Avatar about that, because it will apparently require the dryads’ help. But also, this is not about revenge. Justinian has adapted to circumstances; he hasn’t abandoned his goals, either. Shutting his…hacker…out of the system slowed him down, but it hasn’t ended the threat. We can’t fix the system and make sure it stays fixed unless his capacity to interfere is permanently disabled.”

“You’re talking about war on the Church, you know. That won’t be permanently disabled until everyone who knew about it, save the Archpope himself, is dead or in your custody.”

“And that is why I wanted you to destroy their equipment, not block the connection,” Milanda said with no small relish, slowly turning an inscrutable silver object from the crate over in her hands. “The next move is ours, despite what he thinks, and I intend to head his efforts off before his new plan can materialize. Obviously, that will require—”

“Freeze!”

She did so, shifting only her eyes. Walker was standing at the rail of the balcony, staring down at her with obvious alarm. Moving slowly, she began descending the steps, hands held out as if afraid Milanda would bolt.

“Do. Not. Move. Not a finger.”

Milanda parted her lips to ask what was wrong, but thought better of it. Walker approached her and slowly, with extreme care, reached for the silvery cylinder in her hands. She first lifted Milanda’s finger from the switch positioned near its middle, then carefully took the thing from her. Only when she had stepped back did she let out a sigh of relief.

That was somewhat startling to see, and highlighted the fact that she didn’t usually breathe at all.

“Okay,” she said weakly. “We’re all right.”

“What happened?” Milanda asked in a squeak. “What is that?”

“This,” Walker said distastefully, holding up the cylinder in one hand, “is not gene-locked. These were only carried by ceremonial guards. It’s rigged to explode if found to be in the wrong hands, because the melodramatic idiots who issued these damned things to their servants had no sense of restraint or perspective.”

“It’s a bomb?” Milanda asked shrilly.

Walker shook her head. “Only a member of the Order could issue that command. Unless Scyllith or Naiya greatly surprise me with a sudden display of attentiveness, that’s not about to happen. No, Milanda, at issue was that it isn’t gene-locked, and you were pointing it at your face, with your finger on the activator.”

Milanda gulped heavily. “Oh. Well, um, thank you, then.”

“You are welcome.”

“What does it do?”

Walker sighed again, gave the device an oddly contemptuous look, and pressed the switch with her thumb.

A loud hiss sounded, and a shaft of blue light about a yard long sprang from the tip of the cylinder, then remained rather than shooting further. Once activated, it put off a deep, powerful hum, the noise suggesting an enormous amount of energy coursing through the thing. Walker carefully waved it back and forth, and the pitch of its humming shifted as it moved through the air.

Milanda frowned, belatedly making sense of the arrangement. The cylinder was a handle, and the light…

“It’s a sword?”

“It’s a sword,” Walker confirmed, still staring at it. She took two steps to the side, and casually swept it against the heavy lid currently lying ajar atop the nearest crate.

Its corner was sliced off as if it were paper. Where the energy blade passed through it, a rim of angrily glowing metal remained, melting further even as it cooled.

Milanda gulped again. “Oh. I didn’t realize the Order’s servants fought with swords.”

“They didn’t,” Walker said acerbically. “These will cut virtually any solid matter save mithril, but were useless against either energy shields or directed energy weapons, which made them…useless. They were, as I said, ceremonial. And the ceremonial guards who carried them suffered an alarming rate of attrition from self-inflicted dismemberment. Mostly due to the fencing bouts their masters demanded they perform. I am proud to say Naiya never wasted time or resources on such idiocy.”

“Idiocy indeed,” Milanda said disbelievingly. “Of all the… They wanted their guards to play around with them? I can hear how dangerous that thing is from way over here!”

“Actually, funny story,” Walker said with a smile. “The technology that produces energy blades is highly efficient. No excess glowing or buzzing. This has extra machinery in the hilt to produce the light and sound effects.” She pressed the switch again, and the blade deactivated with an apparently gratuitous hiss.

Milanda actually clapped a hand to her head. “I don’t understand the mentality of these people. Why, why would they do something so destructive and completely pointless?!”

Walker shrugged, carefully laying the sword back in its crate. “They were the Infinite Order. You ask why? For the first hundred years, the answer was ‘for science,’ and thereafter, ‘who’s going to stop us?’” She shook her head and paced back over to the terminals. “Anyway. The facility seems active; these would be displaying a warning if the teleporters were broken, instead of being in normal standby mode.”

“All right, then,” Milanda said, following her, then cleared her throat. “Computer! Activate facility exterior sensors! Was that right?” she added in a lower tone.

Walker gave her a little smile. “Just fine.”

Further conversation was forestalled by the computer’s chime of acknowledgment. “Facility physical sensors offline.”

Walker frowned. “What? Why?”

Nothing happened. Walker rolled her eyes, then looked expectantly at Milanda, who grinned.

“Computer, diagnose the problem with the sensors.”

“All physical sensor apparatus were manually disconnected by order of REDACTED. Manual reconnection required to resume operation.”

Walker shook her head slowly. “The mystery deepens. I’m growing curious enough about what happened to this place I may just summon a god and ask them.”

“You can summon a god of the Pantheon?” Milanda asked, fascinated.

The fairy gave her a wry half-smile. “Well…not directly. But if you make enough of a ruckus and survive long enough, one will eventually show up. They’re fairly reliable in that regard.”

“Right. Let’s consider that Plan B. For now, what are our options? Computer, how can we manually reconnect the sensors?”

“Physical repair is necessary at maintenance access points.”

Walker was already shaking her head again. “No good. We really will have to fire up the Caretaker now; he’s the only one who can do that kind of engineering. I’m not skilled in such detailed work, and you certainly aren’t. In the meantime…” She frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. See if it will connect to transcension fields. Naiya deliberately disabled the one linking the Order’s facilities, but this should be able to link to others directly. And we know there are at least four still in operation.”

“Right. Computer! See if you can connect to any active transcension fields.”

“Working.” After a short pause, it chimed again. “Four transcension fields active at sufficient power to form a connection. Personal fields of User Scyllith and User Naiya. Unidentified transcension field. Unidentified transcension field.”

“So the arcane was made after the Order fell,” Walker mused. “Otherwise, it’d recognize it…”

Milanda glanced at her, but continued speaking to the computer. “Can you gather sensor data directly through the transcension fields?”

“Exactly,” Walker said with a smile.

“Working. Affirmative. Both authorized fields enable direct data acquisition.”

“Hmm…” Walker gave Milanda a thoughtful look. “It might be best to use one of the others. I prefer not to accidentally draw the attention of a surviving Elder God.”

Milanda noted that this was the first time Walker had referred to members of the Infinite Order that way. “People use their magic all the time without calling them down.”

“Not from a designated Infinite Order facility, they don’t. Either of them would know exactly what that connection was and what it meant. Their consciousness may be too diffuse at this point for it to matter, but…that’s a risk.”

“Fair enough. Computer! Try to connect to one of the other active fields.”

“Authorization required. Please see the system administrator for clearance.”

Walker sighed. “Apparently there’s a limit to how much monkeying around it will tolerate without getting actual Order permission.”

“Seems like an arbitrary limit.”

“Yes,” she said irritably, “as is most of what they did. Very well… If we must, try Naiya’s. I can’t say she’s less erratic than Scyllith at this point, but she’s not cruel or gratuitously destructive.”

“Well, that’s encouraging,” Milanda muttered. “Nothing else for it, I guess. Computer! Connect directly to Naiya’s transcension field.”

“Attempting connection. Working.”

Walker and Milanda looked nervously at each other.

“Working.”

“Should it take this long?”

Walker shrugged. “I’ve never seen this done, Milanda. Last time I used computers like these, they had their own dedicated transcension field. This isn’t normal operation.”

“Connection established. Warning: Transcension field eighty-two percent deviant from recorded values. Connection unstable. Would you like to optimize the connection?”

“What would that entail, exactly?”

She had been asking Walker, but the computer answered.

“Narrowing the accessible energy spectrum and activating additional security protocols will result in a stable and secure connection at the cost of transmission and reception speed loss. Conversely, broadening the accessible spectrum and disabling security will restore full connection speed, but cause increased risk of disconnection and adverse reactions within the facility’s systems.”

“Rule of thumb, when connecting computers to anything else,” Walker stated. “Never disable security.”

“How likely and how severe would these…interruptions…be?” Milanda asked.

“At present deviation from recorded values, full security is strongly recommended. Disconnection from the transcension field is considered ninety percent probable, at a projected rate of two events per minute. Possible side effects are variable, potentially including catastrophic damage to the system.”

Walker shook her head emphatically. Milanda sighed.

“I guess the safe way is the slow way, then. Computer, optimize the connection.”

“Working. Connection optimized. Connection within acceptable safety and stability parameters. Data transmission and reception speed: five percent of optimal. Capacity to achieve physical effects: Point zero five percent of optimal.”

“So we can get information through it, but not do witchcraft,” Walker said. “Well, fine, that’s more or less what we wanted anyway.”

“Don’t we need to do witchcraft to fix the Hands?”

“Not outside the facility; everything needed to affect that system we already have. It’s done via the dryads, remember, not the machines here.”

“Alert: one pending message.”

Both of them turned to the screen before them in surprise; it had lit up with an icon Milanda recognized as an envelope.

“A message from who?” Walker demanded.

“A message from whom?” Milanda repeated after a moment, earning an annoyed look.

“Status report from extraplanetary monitors,” the computer reported. “Since last connection, this solar system has been approached by confirmed intelligences seven times. Two were confirmed human in origin. One confirmed nonhuman in origin. Two additional events may have signified intelligent contact. Do you wish a detailed report?”

“Um, no, thank you,” Milanda said. Frowning, she turned to Walker. “Gods, I never even thought about that. Other people came here? From Earth?”

“Earth, perhaps another colony, apparently at least one place totally unrelated.” Walker shrugged. “The dimensional folding around this solar system renders it completely impenetrable. It would also tend to draw attention from any species with the capability to detect it. That kind of thing can’t possibly occur naturally, and is a truly vast engineering achievement. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it also has the effect of making the emphatic point that visitors are not welcome. We are alone here.”

“Seven, though,” she said thoughtfully. “In eight thousand years.”

“Space is big,” Walker murmured. “Like, really, really big. That’s downright bustling.”

“Well, anyway. Computer! I want you to use the transcension field access to form a physical map of the city—I mean, the landing pad area above. It needs to be precise enough to make teleporter jumps from here to…wherever in the area on this mountain we decide.”

“Working. Map estimated completion in point five hours.”

Milanda frowned. “Arcane teleportation is almost instantaneous…”

“We’re not using that,” Walker pointed out. “You can’t ordinarily teleport through Mother’s transcension field, and apparently the computer can barely access it. This is pretty reasonable, all things considered. Well! Since we apparently have some time, let’s go back and see about waking up the CT unit, shall we? After all, somebody needs to start straightening this place up, and better him than us.”


The path back to the security hub involved a short elevator ride, then a walk down two hallways, which was more interesting than it needed to be due to the boxes cluttering them. It took about five minutes to reach the hub, but they returned through one of its other entrances, not the one which led to the prison wing and the door to the dryads’ chamber, so their comings and goings should be secure from any Hands who might visit the facility.

“No, any colonies would almost have to be on their own,” Walker was saying as they reentered the round room. “A true galactic civilization isn’t feasible due to relativistic effects. Even disregarding the travel distances involved, time itself doesn’t move the same way in every part of the universe. Without—”

She broke off suddenly at the head of the steps down to the lower level, Milanda crowding behind her.

They weren’t alone in the security hub.

“Oh,” Milanda said with a wince, peering over Walker’s shoulder. “Um, hello, Hawthorn.”

The dryad was staring, wide-eyed, at Walker. At Milanda’s voice, she began screaming.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

12 – 32

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

Dawn was just beginning to lighten the infirmary’s tall windows, barely noticed by the exhausted students within. Several of the group had split off after everyone had been treated for infernal exposure, but most of the sophomores were still nearby, standing or sitting on the beds (in Ruda’s case, stretched out and seemingly asleep), keeping quiet but maintaining a kind of vigil.

Ravana’s roommates, having arrived only minutes before, kept a closer one.

“You idiot,” Iris whispered. Maureen, Szith, and Scorn all looked over at her, the rest of the students being clustered a few beds away. “You smug, arrogant… Why would you do something like this? Dammit, what’s wrong with you!”

“Iris, stop,” Szith said firmly, placing a hand on her shoulder. By the end of her tirade, she had raised her voice to a shout, prompting Miss Sunrunner to head in their direction, scowling. The healer paused, though, at a frantic gesture from Maureen.

“You know she did it on purpose,” Iris said, scrubbing tears from her face. “Thought she could do better than everyone, so she just…”

“Yes.” Szith sighed, and squeezed her shoulder gently. “Yes, and I should have been watching her for something like this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Iris snorted, glaring down at Ravana, who appeared to be sleeping quite peacefully. “Nobody did this to herself but her!”

“An’ the Sleeper,” Maureen said quietly. “Don’t forget him.”

“The Sleeper will pay for all of this,” Scorn growled.

“My mother served for many years as a personal bodyguard to a noble of House An’sadarr,” Szith said. “They have a certain…psychology. I don’t believe Ravana meant any harm, but this…belief…she has, that she is both smarter than everyone, and responsible and entitled to do what she thinks no one else can do properly, which is everything…” She sighed, shook her head. “Drow, human, apparently some things are the same everywhere. My mother has always told me that watching over a noble means protecting them from themselves as much as from their enemies.”

“You smug idiot,” Iris growled at Ravana. She lunged forward at the sleeping girl, prompting the others to try to grab her, but Iris simply folded her arms on the bed beside Ravana and buried her face in them.

“Well.” Maureen hopped down from the bed and went over to Scorn, who was only a few feet distant, but that still made a bit of a walk for her. Smiling, she patted the demon on the knee. “I’m sorry you’re stuck on this plane an’ all, Scorn, but truth be told, it’s at times like this I’m glad t’have you here with us.”

Scorn sighed softly, then smiled briefly at the gnome before her expression stilled again. “I can go home any time,” she said.

Szith looked over at her in surprise, and Iris lifted her head. “But I thought…”

“Me getting here, that is what was impossible in the first place. But I’ve studied this world, and thought about the situation… The hellgates, they are all under Imperial control, yes? But that means just that it is known where they all are. And the Empire, I think they will not be sad to see me leave.” She shrugged. “I bet, if they wanted to be difficult, Professor Tellwyrn could get them to let me through a gate. Then… In Hell, most things either honor the Rhaazke or do not challenge us, and I can avoid everything else. Eventually I could find other Rhaazke, or at least forces who follow the Dark Lady who can bring me to Rhaazke. They could bring me to a portal to the Grey Planes. Then… Getting back to my home would be a matter just of walking. It would be an adventure, but more a long one than a dangerous one, at least for me. I can go.”

Scorn very gently placed a hand on Ravana’s forehead, brushing back her blonde hair. The demon’s hand seemed large enough to crush the girl’s skull, its short claws and mottled skin a stark contrast with the young aristocrat’s porcelain complexion.

“But here… I am learning things. Getting education which will make me a more worthy successor when my mother needs one. And… I have friends, here. Someday I will have to leave friends behind, and that will be a sad day. But I don’t want to, yet. And right now, I can’t.” She stroked Ravana’s hair again. “Not while friends need my help. Especially since I need to wait for one to wake up so I can yell at her.”

Iris emitted a faint huff of breath, a noise that might have become a laugh if given time to grow. “It’s a date. We’ll have to form a line.”

The infirmary door swung open, prompting everyone to look in that direction. Immediately, several of the sophomores straightened up, Ruda lifting her head, and then swinging her legs over the side of her bed to sit upright with a grunt. It was Toby who stepped forward, bringing himself nearly even with Ravana’s bed, to address her.

“We failed, Professor.”

Tellwyrn nodded briefly at him, before returning her attention to the infirmary’s newest permanent resident. “I’ve heard an accounting already. Fedora and Rafe are in the latter’s lab, processing evidence.”

“Evidence?” Teal asked. “What evidence did they find?”

“Apparently that’s still somewhat up in the air,” the Professor said, sounding as weary as they felt. “Hopefully something useful. Ingvar and the dryads—all three dryads, the gods help us—are loitering outside the lab, catching up. I got more answers out of Ingvar than everyone else combined, thus far. She’s just like the others, Taowi?”

“Not quite,” Miss Sunrunner said, her lips pinched in an expression of disapproval. “You’re in good time, Arachne; I just finished applying the alchemical purgative before these girls arrived. Ravana had been dosed with Nightmare’s Dream. As she is trapped in a state of sleep, I made especially sure to expunge all alchemical agents from her bloodstream.”

“Wait, she what?” Maureen asked. “Whassat, then?”

“Madouri, you insufferable little…” Tellwyrn trailed off, closing her eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Nightmare’s Dream is a potion. An illegal one, as it is used chiefly as an instrument of torture. It causes the imbiber to experience excruciating pain if they fall asleep.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel whispered, staring aghast at Ravana from across the room.

“We are fairly sure the Sleeper didn’t apply it,” Miss Sunrunner said sourly, “but that Miss Madouri herself did. How she acquired such a thing, I’ve no idea. Admestus denies having supplied either the potion or any of the necessary ingredients.”

“It would surprise me if she had not inherited that and worse from her father,” Szith noted. “She has supplied Rafe with hellhound breath, let us not forget. There is no telling what else lies in House Madouri’s vaults.”

“Oh, quite,” Tellwyrn agreed, glaring down at Ravana. “It wasn’t a bad idea, strategically speaking. It is very hard to knock someone out magically while they’re in pain; you need drugs for that. Clever, reckless, and utterly typical of this particular ingenious little fool.”

“And I thought the Sleeper was bad,” Ruda breathed. “What kind of goat-fucking lunatic…”

“It seems to have worked, at least at first,” said Shaeine. “We heard her screaming in obvious pain before we arrived on the scene.”

“Bloody hell,” Maureen choked.

“Uh, Professor?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “I don’t know how many bushy-tailed people there are in Sifan, but I think you brought back the wrong one…”

Everyone shifted their focus to the figure trying to hide behind Tellwyrn. This was a lost cause; despite being considerably shorter than she, he was at least twice as broad.

The elf grimaced, turned and spoke a few rapid words in Sifanese. The fluffy banded tail sticking out from behind the level of her knees quivered once, and then what appeared to be an overweight, gnome-sized raccoon wearing a monk’s robes stepped out, bowed to the room, and chattered several soft sentences in the same language.

“This is Maru,” Tellwyrn said dourly. “He is pleased to meet you all and looks forward to working with you. Since assigning Crystal to the library I’ve been feeling the lack of a secretary, anyway, so…here we are.”

“Arachne,” Miss Sunrunner said, staring at the new arrival, “would I be correct in inferring that your new secretary does not speak Tanglish?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Yeah, well, he owes me a favor. And when I find myself satisfied with its repayment, he’s got worse coming to him back home, so Maru’s incentive here is not toward competence, anyway. That aside, tanuki tend to be puckish even by fairy standards. I have a great deal of mislaid correspondence to look forward to, I suspect.”

“About your mission…?” Teal prompted.

“Kaisa is not coming back,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “You kids…did the best you could. Even if you didn’t capture the Sleeper, the effort wasn’t wasted. It seems you’ve learned quite a bit; Fedora was eager as a kid at Wildfeast to tell me all he’s discovered, but I figured it could wait till he and Admestus have finished playing with their alchemy set. I’ll hear reports from you lot, as well, but…after you’ve had some sleep. The lot of you resemble the leftovers too mangled for Death to bother to take.”

“Vestrel would like you to know she resents that,” said Gabriel, then paused. “…and I’m supposed to repeat something in elvish which I can barely pronounce and refuse to try because I’m pretty sure it’s—”

“Shut up, Arquin.”

“Gladly, thank you.”

“Taowi,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the healer, “there is nothing you can do for these kids until we get some answers about this curse. As soon as Stew and Harland finish cleansing and fixing up the area this lot demolished last night, I’m going to set them to work on the campus chapel.”

“You’re moving the victims there?” Sunrunner asked quietly.

Tellwyrn nodded. “It doesn’t see a lot of use anyway. Stew can re-purpose the pews as comfortable beds, and nobody alive can match Harland Harklund’s skill at divine wards. At bare minimum it’ll keep them safe from more infernomancy; I’m hoping, now we know for certain this is a warlock, just keeping them there may erode the curse over time.”

“Very well,” she agreed, nodding. “Let me know when they’re ready to be—”

“I trust even you can appreciate the seriousness of this.”

Several of them jumped, Ruda cursing, and Maru actually yelped and bounded onto an unoccupied bed. The black-coated Hand of the Emperor now stood next to Iris, who skittered away from him. He lifted his stare from Ravana’s prone form to glare at Tellwyrn.

“This is the sitting governor of Tiraan Province itself, now lying cursed because you were off gallivanting in Sifan rather than protecting your students. This is more than I can overlook, Tellwyrn.”

“I bet if you tried real hard you could manage not to stick yourself into this and make it worse,” she said. Several of the students exchanged nervous glances; there was a dull weariness in Tellwyrn’s voice now, quite unlike her usual acidic demeanor, and under the circumstances it was more than a little alarming.

“I will be sending back to the capital for more assistance,” the Hand said, with just enough vindictive relish to be clear in his tone. “A thorough review of your educational practices is now necessary, Tellwyrn. I suggest you clean house quickly, if you intend to. There will not be much more time.”

“You can review whatever the hell you like, nothing around here is going to change in response to your orders,” she said flatly.

He bristled. “Must I remind you that I speak for the Emperor himself?”

“Glad we understand each other.”

The infirmary door opened again, and a student stuck her head in. “Miss Sunrunner, did you see—oh, thank flip, Professor Tellwyrn! I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“It’s not even dawn,” Tellwyrn complained. “Why am I already surrounded by whining and demands? Miss Darke, I am busy.” She jerked her head at the Hand, who simply folded his arms and looked supercilious.

“Okay, I’ll let you decide if this is worth it,” Marjorie Darke said, edging carefully into the room. “You’ve got a visitor. Um, another one.”

“At this hour?” Miss Sunrunner said disapprovingly.

The door swung the rest of the way open, revealing the guest, and immediately the remaining sophomores and Scorn leaped to their feet.

“I do apologize for the hour,” Embras Mogul said, tipping his hat politely, “but it seems you’ve been gone from the campus until just now, and I am in rather a hurry to have this done with.”

“What the hell do you want?” Gabriel snarled.

“Nothing to do with you, my young friend,” Mogul said kindly. “Take a seat, son, you look half-dead.”

“He, uh, claims to be the leader of the Black Wreath,” Marjorie said helpfully.

“He is,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Iris, don’t even think about it. I can still hear you thinking about it; desist. And you.” She whipped a golden saber out of nowhere and pointed it at Mogul. “Answer the paladin’s question, and pray you answer it well enough to satisfy me.”

“My apologies for interrupting what seems a very interesting conversation,” Mogul said, pulling his left hand from behind his back; it was holding a large bag which appeared to be made from lizard skin, and was squirming faintly. “Truthfully I want nothing here at all, but I was directed to deliver this to Schkhurrankh, here. I want you to know, Professor, I thought very seriously about just chucking it into a hellgate, rather than pluck your strings any further, to say nothing of being reduced my own self to the status of delivery boy. But getting mail from across two dimensional bridges is a thing entirely without precedent. It seemed to me there’d be more trouble than any of us needs if it failed to arrive.”

He tossed the packaged in Scorn’s direction, prompting both Iris and Maureen to dive out of the way, and Szith to draw her sword. Scorn caught it, though, staring.

“What is this?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “I didn’t open it. Unless I was deceived, it’s apparently from your mother.”

“What?” several people chorused incredulously.

Scorn was already ripping open the top of the package, and in the next moment further conversation was stifled by her squeal. None of them had ever heard her squeal before; the sound was distinctly terrifying. She thrust one hand into the bag and pulled out a charred wedge of some black, sticky substance which smoked faintly. “Cookies! My favorite!” As they all stared in horror, the “cookie” sprouted three misshapen insectile legs, which waved languidly. She thrust it at Iris, who clapped a hand over her mouth, not quite stifling a retch. “Here, try!”

“We simply could not,” Szith said quickly. “Those are a gift from a mother to a daughter far from home. It would be very wrong for anyone else to partake.”

“So very, very wrong,” Gabriel agreed.

“You.” Tellwyrn pointed at Mogul, who had started to turn back toward the door. “You can get things from the Rhaazke dimension. Can you get me some hellhound breath?”

He coughed. “Uh, Professor… That is expressly forbidden by the Lady. Also, consider how many months it took for this to get through after we sent word to Scorn’s mother in the first place—and it seems she is quite highly placed down there. She’d have to be, to make this happen. Not to mention, or mention again as I said it in the first place, that nothing like this has ever happened before. No, I am genuinely sorry to have to say it, but I cannot get you hellhound breath.”

Scorn was already munching her second treat, and avidly reading from the next object she’d taken from the bag: a scroll of pale leather, covered with cramped, spidery script in blue ink.

“And on top of everything else,” the Hand whispered, “open traffic with the Black Wreath. I’m afraid you leave me no choice, Tellwyrn. As of this moment, this University and all its holdings are—”

“Boy, you picked the wrong day,” the archmage announced, pointing a finger at him.

The pop which resounded was louder than her usual teleportation, and accompanied this time by a visible blue sparkle of arcane magic. The Hand vanished.

“What did you do?” Gabriel screeched. “That was a Hand of the Emperor! Where is he?!”

“Suffering,” Tellwyrn stated, turning back to Mogul. “You made me an offer some time ago, Mogul. Is it still good?”

Slowly, the warlock nodded. “I didn’t place a time limit on it, as I’m sure you recall. Something I can do for you, Professor?”

“Maybe. It remains to be seen.” She stepped aside, gesturing at the still form of Ravana. “You’re here…have a look. Tell me whatever you can about this.”


Kapa’a set down his fishing pole at the first hum of magic over the stone dais which stood on the shore. This was why he always came here to fish, though it wasn’t the best fishing spot by far; he so loved being there to greet the new arrivals when they came.

Blue magic flashed along the grooves carved into the dais, and with a soft retort of displaced air, a man appeared. He was of average height and middle age, balding and with craggy features, dressed all in black completely with a long coat. That would have to go, or he’d never survive in this climate. Like they all did immediately upon arriving, he spun, gaping this way and that in shock.

Kapa’a stood upon his rock, threw his arms wide, and bellowed the traditional greeting.

“Welcome, hapless traveler! Welcome, to the Dread Kingdom of Suffering!”

The new arrival stared at him in silence for a long moment, taking in his bare chest, broad grin, and fishing pole, then turned more slowly, studying his new surroundings in detail.

They were on the seashore, serenaded by the sound of waves and the calling of gulls. It was mid-morning, delightfully warm but not yet hot. White sands stretched away to either side, and the ocean to all horizons to the east and south; half a mile out to sea, the towering sentinel rocks stood, carved with massive runes whose blue glow was barely visible in the cloudless sunlight. Northwest, the land steadily climbed to the green-clad mountain, growing ever steeper until its very peak. Greenery rose all the way to the top, now; it had been a good number of years since the volcano had so much as grumbled.

The very air smelled of flowers.

“Where?” the new arrival demanded finally.

“The Dread Kingdom of Suffering!” Kapa’a boomed, feeling his delighted grin widen. “Land of despair and torment, ruled over by its most terrible and malignant queen, her Despicable Majesty Arachne Tellwyrn!” He finally lowered his arms, and laughed aloud. “Didn’t know she was the monarch of a sovereign nation, didja? It’s a surprise to everybody.”

The man gaped at him.

“Yeah, it’ll take some getting used to, friend, but don’t worry! You’re in good hands.” He hopped down from his rock, wading easily through the surf back toward the shoreline. “C’mon down from there—head for the steps on that side, if you don’t wanna get your clothes wet. And you really might want to lose the coat. Take your time, friend, there’s no rush! I’ll show you ’round!”


“The sea provides fish,” Kapa’a explained some time later, leading his flummoxed new neighbor slowly up the winding path through the village. They had already been effusively greeted by the other inhabitants; the man in black now wore several necklaces of flowers draped around his shoulders and chest, placed there by smiling girls, but after the initial excitement they had withdrawn to let the newcomer adjust in peace; they were accustomed to the routine by now. He seemed to be less disconcerted than many upon their first arrival. “On the island itself, there are deer, wild pigs, and fowl, plenty of each for everybody! Lots of fruit trees, too. Plus, we have gardens for whatever doesn’t grow wild.” He stooped without pausing and scooped up a handful of dirt from the side of the path, letting it trail through his fingers. “Volcanic soil. There’s basically nothing we can’t grow. There are two seasons in Suffering: pleasantly warm and dry, and pleasantly warm and rainy. We have no wars, no native diseases and very skilled healers to deal with whatever the guests bring. Not everybody even needs a job, the land provides so well. My friend, you have arrived in paradise itself!”

“You picked an odd name for it,” said the man, who had yet to offer his own name.

Kapa’a didn’t prompt him, simply answering with a grin. “Ah, and there you come to it. For the longest time, the only problem we faced, here, was people who wanted to come take this place from us. Oh, and the mountain exploding; that happened from time to time. The Lady takes care of all that, now. The name was her idea; the Dread Kingdom of Suffering is protected behind the sentinel stones, which keep us…apart from the world. Only one ship ever comes here, with her blessing, piloted by the Ferryman of Eternal Night, Karen.”

The man in black stopped, frowning at him. “Did you say Charon?”

“Karen,” Kapa’a enunciated. “Sweet girl, you’ll like her. She’s a weird sort of critter, though; some kind of fairy. I think she used to be a dryad. Oh, we have one of those, too! Coconut lives up there on the mountain. We pretend to think she’s a goddess and send her offerings; when she gets bored, she’ll come down to one of the villages and pretend to answer prayers, and they hold a feast in her honor. It’s all in good fun.”

“You said there’s a ship?” the man in black said impatiently.

“Yes, Karen’s ferry,” Kapa’a nodded, setting off again. The new arrival followed after a moment. “The only vessel which can travel between the worlds. Or…across the shield, or however it works, I dunno from magic. And the only coin Karen takes is memory. I’m afraid that means all your memories of your time in the Dread Kingdom are lost when you return…except its name. You must go back with only the knowledge that you spent time in the Kingdom of Suffering. There ferry’s due in a few weeks! In the meantime, hunt, fish, play around with the neighbors! Tonight, we’ll hold a feast in your honor! Well, honestly, we would probably have held a feast anyway; we do most nights. But it’s so much better when there’s a reason, don’t you think?”

“Weeks?” the man said plaintively. “I am a Hand of the Emperor—I must return home immediately!”

Kapa’a raised his eyebrows. “Friend, the ferry comes twice a year. If you’re in a hurry, you’re in great luck. A few weeks is nothing. And who knows? You may decide not to go back at all! Quite a few don’t.”

The Hand snarled savagely and kicked at an inoffensive clump of grass, which Kapa’a watched without judgment. He had observed far worse tantrums from new arrivals. “This is intolerable! I’ll see that horrible witch strangled, so help me!”

“You can always leave her a strongly worded note,” Kapa’a suggested, pointing. The Hand followed his arm, which directed his gaze up the hill to a half-collapsed ruin of a house, choked by weeds and surrounded by orange trees. “That’s her place over there.”

The newcomer stared. “…you’re joking.”

“Truthfully we’d like to tidy up a bit,” Kapa’a explained, “but the Lady hates it when people mess with her things. So…there it is. I really would leave it alone if I were you, though. The last fellow who went in there ended up with a broken leg.”

“Booby-trapped her own home.” The Hand sneered disdainfully. “Typical.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Kapa’a said lightly. “The floor’s rotten. He fell right through.”

“What does she get from all this?” the Hand demanded. “The magic you’re describing, keeping a whole island nation physically isolated from the world… It’s not unprecedented, but the scale and the complexity are staggering! Does she do all this just to have a private vacation spot?”

“Nah,” Kapa’a said cheerfully, waving away the thought. “She just likes having a handy place where she can send people and be sure she won’t have to deal with ’em again for up to six months.”

The Hand stared at him.

“Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that woman worked one of the largest and most elaborate enchantments known to man, upended the history and culture of an entire nation—”

“Did us a huge favor, really, especially the part where she hardly ever shows up. We don’t need any kings or lords in Suffering; the chiefs take care of what needs taking care of. And not much of that. Mostly, everybody minds their own business.”

“And all this,” the Hand said shrilly, “just so she could inconvenience people who annoy her?!”

Solemnly, Kapa’a reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Friend…clearly, you met the lady. Tell me, which part of that surprises you?”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >