Tag Archives: Brother Arlund

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The apparent leader of the Rust was a more visibly impressive specimen than most. Fully half his face was covered by a coppery mask, accented by wires which appeared to be brass; his left eye was a blue glass orb which gleamed from within. Though he had no beard, the half-mask did not extend over his scalp, and he sported a full head of luxurious hair trailing down his back, once black and beginning to shift toward gray. He wore only a kilt, serving to accentuate both his lean physique and especially the reddish metal which covered him. His entire right arm was of machinery, except, somehow, the flesh-and-blood hand attached beneath some kind of cloth wrapping which obscured the junction. It was a more elaborate arm than the rest of his followers sported, physically bulkier as if housing additional machinery, and attached to a shoulder mount which extended partway across his chest. A green glass disc was situated above his heart, emitting dull flickers of what looked like contained lightning. Below the kilt, his left calf and foot were machine, the right human but with odd patches of metalwork and protruding wires, as if he had machinery implanted beneath the skin.

The supreme confidence of his smile was somehow more unnerving than his collection of unnatural attachments.

Gabriel finally broke the silence. “Yeah, well, if you’re expecting to do anything about us, mister, you may be taking too many things for granted.”

“So I may,” the cultist replied, then suddenly hopped across the gap between his giant mechanical mount and the door platform, causing the lot of them to reflexively shift backward. Seeming not to notice their reaction, the man swept a deep bow. “I am called Ayuvesh, speaker for the Infinite Order. And already, it seems I have spoken out of turn. After all, it is protocol in many places to attend to old business before raising new, is it not? Mandip!” This last was spoken in a sharper tone, the cultist turning his head to direct himself back at the throng of his followers below.

A man stepped forward from the group, and Toby drew in a deep breath. The cultist stared up at them through narrowed eyes, and made an abortive move as if to fold his arms, which did not work as he had only one. The other was metal from the shoulder to the elbow, where it ended in a small profusion of tiny coppery struts and wires, almost like a miniature scaffold. At that distance, whatever was inside it was hidden from them.

Mandip continued forward; as he stepped upon a growth of lichen-like machine parts which had crawled across the stone floor, a column pistoned up out of the ground beside him, bringing a small panel of buttons to chest height. On the wrong side, forcing him to twist awkwardly to push three keys. That done, he continued on with incredible aplomb as a series of hinged struts and pulleys manifested from various pieces of the surrounding machine overgrowth. They swung swiftly and precisely into place for each of his footsteps, forming an impromptu staircase whose every step withdrew behind him, some re-positioning themselves to assist him upward. In moments, he stood upon the platform with them and Ayuvesh.

Then, to their surprise, Mandip bowed deeply.

“I owe an apology,” he said in a stiff tone. “It is not the way of the Infinite Order to push, provoke, or defy. I should have departed the Omnist compound once asked to by the monk. For that, I am sorry.”

An incredulous silence hung for a moment before Toby cleared his throat. “Well. On behalf of the faith of Omnu, apology accepted. And perhaps one is owed to you, as well?” He turned a pointed look on Juniper.

She frowned back at him. When Toby did not back down, the dryad sighed softly and shrugged. “Yes, well…you were right. You had no business inserting yourself there when they told you to go, but…yeah, I guess I may have reacted a little more harshly than was…necessary.”

Mandip had straightened, and now stared at her through slitted eyes which belied his polite tone. “Perhaps a little.”

“Well, then, I’m sorry, too,” Juniper said, folding her arms. Mandip’s nostrils flared once.

“There!” Ayuvesh proclaimed grandly with a broad gesture of his metal arm. “All friends again! And perhaps, if you are so inclined, honored guests, the return of Mandip’s arm would be a conciliatory gesture.”

Toby glanced at the others, receiving shrugs from Gabriel and Teal; Juniper was still watching Mandip as though expecting him to spring, a gaze he returned in equal measure.

“I can’t exactly promise that, at this point,” Toby finally answered. “It’s in the possession of the Crown. But we have a little pull with the King and Queen, and I can’t think of any use they’d have for it. Yes, that’s fair. You have my word I will attempt to secure its return for you.”

“Mm.” Ayuvesh folded his arms, lightly drumming his flesh fingers against a metal forearm. “Yes, I suppose by now you’ll have learned all you can from it.”

“Nobody’s ever learned all they can,” Fross opined.

“How very wise!” Ayuvesh said, grinning broadly.

Ermon cleared his throat. “There is other old business to attend.”

He was gazing down below, where another figure had appeared from a side passage, this one familiar and accompanied by a female Rust cultist who strode on two mechanical legs with digitigrade feet like a dog’s.

“Ah, yes!” Ayuvesh said, turning to follow Ermon’s look. “Brother Arlund, thank you for joining us. I believe your friends would like to be reassured as to your status!”

“I am well,” Arlund said curtly, his voice projecting easily through the cavern. “I cannot say whether I am a prisoner, as I have not yet tried to leave. My invitation to come inside was polite, but…insistent.”

Ermon’s eyes flicked to the Rust’s leader, then back to his fellow Huntsman. “You are unharmed, though?”

Arlund’s mustache shifted enough that his sneer was evident even from a distance. “These machines are an unholy abomination, and the dogma I’ve been forced to listen to is the most asinine drivel I have ever imagined. But I cannot fault their hospitality,” he added in an openly grudging tone.

The cultist with him cracked a sly smile at that, and bowed; Arlund just gave her a sidelong look and set off for the stairs which followed the wall up to the door platform. Nobody volunteered to trigger a moving mechanical staircase for him, which was probably for the best.

“So!” Ayuvesh turned back to the students, now wearing a patrician smile, and folded his hands behind his back. “That is the past, attended to. Let us now discuss the present.”


Due to Walker’s probing of the whole region via magic—transcension field, as she irritably corrected Milanda when thanked—they had a complete three-dimensional map of the mining tunnels. It was the work of only minutes for Milanda, following Walker’s guidance, to slip through a series of turns to a dark little dead end, where she planted herself on the ground with her back to the wall, the detached viewscreen laid across her lap. Its dimensions made this slightly awkward; the thing seemed not to have been designed for human use, unlike the highly ergonomic Infinite Order computers with which she was familiar.

“Only one risk I can think of,” Walker buzzed in her ear. “Gabriel Arquin is a Hand of Vidius, and while there is no precedent for what that means I’d be astonished if he doesn’t have at least one of my sisters hanging around him at all times. Probably Yngrid, she was always a little boy-crazy. I also don’t have a basis for comparison between a valkyrie’s extradimensional senses and the modern enchanting that keeps you invisible. So it’s not impossible that you’re being watched.”

Despite herself, Milanda raised her eyes to glance around the tunnel. It wasn’t quite pitch-black, there being a faint glow from the piece of technology she held, but even so it took all of her dryad-augmented senses plus the enchantments on her hood to give her a clear view of the apparently empty corridor. A normal human would be all but blind down here.

“As long as none of the physical ones followed me,” she replied. “Valkyries can’t touch anything on this plane, right?”

“Only on Vidian holy ground or where dimensional barriers are abraded for other reasons. Again, though, there are unknowns. It was Infininte Order technology that cast us to the dimensional insulation layer in the first place, and it does not appear that these Rust people understand what they’re fooling with. I can’t say what might have resulted from all their button-pushing.”

“Mm. I’m going to consider that a remote possibility, all the same.”

“Probably for the best. Just don’t get complacent.”

“What, me? Complacent? You jest.”

“You sure didn’t go out of your way to befriend those adventurers.”

Milanda ignored that, studying the screen again. She had selected this one for the indicators that it had its own attached power source and transcension field connection, icons which Walker had coached her on how to recognize. Unfortunately, it was also the largest of the screens which had been attached to the walls by the gate; between that and its peculiar shape, it was awkward to hold the thing with one hand while navigating the touch screen with the other. Still, at least it was working.

“These menus are all different from the ones in the spaceport,” she muttered, flicking and tapping with one fingertip. “I mean, it’s clearly the product of the same intelligence. Same…what did you call it? Operating system. But it doesn’t do any of the same stuff. Everything’s set up differently.”

“Hm. Touch screens are a fallback for when holographic interfaces are turned off; if it’s set to some kind of minimal settings, you can try closing every active window. If there’s a base desktop below them, it may have labeled icons to identify any installed programs.”

Milanda paused, raising her eyes to frown into empty space. “What are holographic interfaces, and why don’t we have them back home?”

“It’s a long story, and because the Avatar apparently disabled them when setting up his system with Theasia. I couldn’t say why, except that voice commands and touch screens are simpler for novice users. Anything?”

“Yes, actually.” She hadn’t been able to close the active programs running, but had managed to move them into a neat stack onto one side, exposing the screen’s base layer. There were, indeed, icons. “I can’t read them, though.”

“Oh…it’s probably set to Esperanto. That makes me wonder how the Rust are interfacing with the computers if they’re not set in a language they recognize. Tap the background twice on a spot that’s away from any icons. A menu will appear; you want to touch the line that says ‘Settings.’”

Milanda did this, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “None of them say that. None of them are in Tanglish.”

“…oh. Right. Try ‘Agordoj.’”

“That’s the goofiest word I ever heard,” she muttered, touching the appropriate line. At least Esperanto apparently used the same alphabet, more or less.

With Milanda guiding and translating, she managed to switch the machine to Tanglish—or English, as it was labeled.

“There we go,” she said in satisfaction as the labels beneath the icons changed. “Now, these are more sensible. Network, hardware… What is Silverfox?”

“Silverfox? That’s Druroth’s personal web browser. What a weird thing to find on… I mean, it can’t possibly still work, Naiya disabled the transcension field the Order’s systems used to communicate with each other. Unless they’ve piggybacked it on one of the others, like we did…”

“It just says there’s no connection when I pull it up.”

“Well, that tells us a bit. The Rust clearly don’t have much control; they may not even be using the software themselves. Which, of course, just raises more questions. If has to be connecting to something if it’s working, otherwise it would be a mass of error messages. Maybe tachyon or radio transmission…”

“Nanite control,” Milanda muttered. “Walker, what does ‘nanite’ mean?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never heard the word. You’re sure it’s in the right language?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“English and Tanglish are maybe ninety percent identical, there are bound to be some words that don’t translate exactly. Hang on, let me call the Avatar and ask him.”

Milanda nodded absentmindedly, forgetting that Walker couldn’t see her, and touched the icon.


“And we’re back to us getting dealt with,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“I wonder,” Ayuvesh mused, “how aware you are of the circumstances into which you have stepped?”

“You’re effectively holding Puna Dara hostage,” said Teal. “Behaving barely enough to avoid provoking the King to clamp down, while trying to undercut his authority.”

“Oh?” He grinned. “Tell me, what have I done to undercut his authority?”

“Attacking and disabling a Silver Legion is an inherently hostile act,” Fross charmed. “The ruling monarch of the country in which you did it can’t help but interpret that as a threat!”

“Just so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “Let us follow that line of thought, then. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Infinite Order are behind the fate of the Fourth Legion, clearly we would have the power to overthrow the government in Puna Dara. And yet, we have not. If we are not behind it, this whole subject is moot.” He spread his hands disarmingly. “By your logic, my actions would seem to make no sense!”

“Perhaps you could elucidate for us?” Toby suggested. “Your perspective on these events is one thing we do not have. I was very much hoping we could learn more about it.”

“Ah, so you are here to learn.” Ayuvesh’s smile broadened slightly. “And so naturally, you chose as your delegation two paladins, a Huntsman of Shaath, and an unstoppable archdemon in the thrall of the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me?” Teal exclaimed. “I am in no one’s thrall.”

“The Narisian robes are an interesting touch,” Ayuvesh acknowledged, pointing at her chest. “You clearly have complex allegiances. I am mostly interested in that fascinating pin you wear.”

She raised her hand to touch her Talisman of Absolution, the icon bearing the holy sigils of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius, and marking her an ally of the gods despite Vadrieny’s nature.

“Interesting,” Gabriel said, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “That sounded like a threat assessment, but no mention of Juniper, who you already know can physically tear your machine men apart.”

Ayuvesh again folded his hands behind himself, and this time turned to stare at the walking contraption he’d ridden up to the platform. “We are heirs to a truly ancient legacy. The Infinite Order, as we call ourselves, were first a group of scientists and philosophers from another world, who came here to pursue the greatest of all possible goals: the unlocking of humanity’s full potential, and the ascension of the universe itself to its next higher state.”

“They have gone on and on about this,” Arlund grunted, folding his arms. “The prattle about empowerment and being beyond limits isn’t just for personal appeal. Apparently, they think the universe is trying to evolve and consciousness is one of its means of doing so.”

“I thought the Infinite Order meant the Elder Gods,” Fross chimed. “That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing.”

Ayuvesh’s long hair shifted as he nodded slowly. “Indeed. The Order…lost their way. Their means of seeking that most noble of goals was to attain godhood for themselves, which ended every bit as badly as history tells us. Absolute power is extremely unhealthy for mortals. They descended into vile selfishness and cruelty, and were rightly brought down by rebellion from within.” He glanced back at them, his faint smile visible in profile. “Naiya, of course, aided the Pantheon’s revolt. Scyllith helped passively by refusing to take sides—a grave loss for the Order, as she commanded their greatest destructive powers. Tarthriss, however, was the one who truly planted the seeds for the salvation of the Order’s vision.”

Toby frowned. “Who?”

“He is sadly forgotten by this world,” Ayuvesh said softly, again staring out over the cavern. “The greatest of them; the greatest god, in fact, who ever lived. He aided the Pantheon in bringing down his comrades, even sacrificing himself in the process. More importantly, he left all this behind.” He held his arms wide, as if to embrace the chaos of crawling machinery which had overgrown the huge chamber. “And the records of the Order’s original purpose. So you see why we may have a problem with agents of the Pantheon today.”

The cultist suddenly turned to face them again, grinning, and executed a mocking little bow. “While we seek only peace in which to practice our faith and pursue our vision, the Infinite Order and the Pantheon are still in a state of declared war, eight thousand years in abeyance only because the Order was thought crushed and its survivors weakened or contained. And worse, we have been brought into modern politics not of our choosing. You see, children and Huntsmen, we are not the only souls to have unearthed fragments of the Elder Gods’ power. Both the Tiraan Empire and the Universal Church possess such artifacts. Possess…and use.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Perhaps you, as Hands of two of the greatest gods, know something of this?”

Gabriel and Toby exchanged a puzzled glance.

“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Juniper said bluntly.

“Don’t you?” Ayuvesh raised his only eyebrow. “Well, whether you do or not, I shall give the benefit of the doubt and explain. Both activated and used their respective systems against one another in a shadow war which, inevitably, exploded into real violence. And this, students, upset the delicate political balance in Tiraas. The Throne and the Church cannot be openly in conflict; the Enchanter Wars are too recent and vivid a memory for that to be a palatable option. So they sought out a scapegoat. A patsy.” His grin took on a distinctly hostile cast. “Someone possessing and using the machines left behind by the Elders, who could be falsely blamed for having intervened and caused the infraction.”

“I realize you have no reason to trust us,” Toby said slowly, “but upon my word, I know nothing about any of that. I can do my best to find out, but…if it was the Church and the Throne, even my cult may not know. It will take time to make those inquiries, however.”

“While you are taking time,” Ayurvesh said, folding his arms, “consider our position. Unjustly condemned by Sharidan and Justinian for their misdeeds, we are forced to be wary of Pantheon or Imperial agents. And the sudden arrival of an entire Silver Legion, with backing of Salyrite casters from all four Colleges… Well. That demands more than simple wariness, does it not?”

“I can see,” Teal said slowly, “how the arrival of paladins and Huntsmen and maybe even me would look to you in that case…”

“The particular means of your arrival, I have to say, do not assuage my concerns,” he replied.

Toby drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right… Let me ask you this, then. Whatever you did to the Fourth Legion has kept them incapacitated. Can you lift that…curse, or whatever it is?”

Ayuvesh raised his eyebrow again. “I? When have I acknowledged responsibility for such a thing? A convenient event for us, to be sure, but still tragic. I wish no ill upon anyone who wishes none upon me and mine.”

“Oh, you smug little—”

“Juniper,” Toby snapped, cutting her off with a warning look.

“We, if left alone, are a threat to none,” Ayuvesh said. “Not the Empire, not the Church, or their gods, and certainly not the Crown of Puna Dara. Rajakhan is a good King, and I do not desire the chaos that will erupt in my city if his government is overthrown.”

“You have to understand that it’s no longer that simple,” Toby replied. “After what befell the Legion.”

“Of course,” Ayuvesh said, nodding deeply. “But so it is with all the great powers of the world; they respect one another out of fear that war between them will be more destructive than profitable. Those with no claws to bare are snapped up or crushed. All we desire is to be left in peace, and sadly, that requires that we demonstrate the means to insist upon it.”

“Then maybe we have grounds to begin reaching a compromise,” said Toby. “If your story is true, than you are victims in this. We have little pull with the Empire, but Gabriel and I can command at least some action within the Church. The Archpope has no obligation to listen to us, but we have influence to wield.”

“And you will do this for me, out of the goodness of your divine hearts?” he replied pleasantly. “How noble.”

“Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, man,” Gabriel retorted. “If it comes down to claws, as you put it, you might not survive the night.”

“Gabriel!” Toby exclaimed.

“But!” Gabriel held up a hand. “We’re in the same position as you, basically. It would be for the best if everybody backs off and no one further gets hurt. So, what we want is for you to release whatever hold you’ve got on the Fourth Legion and provide some assurances that you aren’t going to upend Puna Dara. What you want is assurance that the Empire, the Church, and the Punaji aren’t going to land on you. Yes?”

“Succinctly stated,” Ayuvesh agreed, nodding again.

“It strikes me,” said Ermon, “that those are a very difficult set of goals for anyone here to attain.”

“Yes, they are,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Ayuvesh. “But not inconceivable… And even in them, I see potential for common ground. After all, it best serves us if the Church and the Throne are both prevented from underhanded shenanigans. We can start with small gestures. For instance, Mandip’s and Juniper’s apologies, and Arlund’s safe return. We can procure and return Mandip’s arm to complete the cycle. Little things, in the grand scheme, but they at least show good faith. It’s something on which to build.”

“And in the meantime,” Teal added, “perhaps we can all work on…deescalating. The Punaji are just about up in arms; I believe we can persuade the King to show further restraint, if he’s provided with a reason.”

“You have something in mind?” Ayuvesh asked mildly.

“Several of the Legionnaires have already died,” Toby said. “I understand the curse on them seems designed not to kill, but anyone that weak is vulnerable to other maladies. If there were a way to lessen—”

Abruptly the light in the huge chamber changed to a deep red, and a cacophonous series of whistles and sirens began shrilling from dozens of points among the machines crawling across the walls.

“What is that?” Juniper exclaimed.

“That,” Ayurvesh replied, bracing his feet in a wide stance and baring teeth, “is the sound of saboteurs being caught.”


“He wouldn’t say!” Walker’s voice when she abruptly returned to the line was excited. “The Avatar refused to answer questions about nanites, which means they’re a classified Order technology. That has to be the Rust’s weapon!”

“I know!” Milanda replied in the same tone, fingers working furiously at the screen. “This thing is showing me a map of nanite distribution on its front page—they’re all over Puna Dara, but concentrated here in the mines, in a spot out under the harbor, and in a big knot up in Rodvenheim! This is what we’re looking for!”

“I’m searching the sub-OS for information,” Walker said. “It won’t tell me anything directly but there may be mentions of them among other literature. Anything might help me extrapolate in general what we’re dealing with…”

“I bet this thing’ll tell me a lot more,” Milanda said, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Hum… There’s a list of processes. What does that mean?”

“Assuming it means the same as in computer terms, those are tasks the nanites are performing.”

“There’s a red warning, here…insufficient resources. There are more processes pending than being executed. Walker, does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means these things are a finite resource, and they’re being stretched way beyond what the Rust want to do. Which means we officially know their first weakness.”

“Finally, some good news,” Milanda said with a vindictive grin. “I wonder if I can make their problems even bigger…”

“Step very carefully,” Walker cautioned. “We still have no idea what these things are. Why are they invisible and undetectable? Learn details before trying to make changes.”

“Right, you’re right. Let’s see if it’ll tell me more.” She touched one of the pending processes, choosing it for the only term she immediately recognized: Fabrication Plant One. The line of text indicated maintenance and repair. That line immediately shifted forward at her tap and grew to cover the middle of the screen, but changed color from pale blue to yellow, and additional text appeared above it. “Huh. Walker, what does ‘retinal scan’ mean?”

“That’s a secur—Milanda! Don’t look at the screen!”

Too late; the whole display flashed, and a new line of bright red script informed Milanda that this access was unauthorized.

“Um,” she said warily, “now it’s telling me that this activity has been logged and reported…”

“Oh, no.”

Her entire screen turned red, and began emitting a shrill tone. Not shrill enough that she couldn’t also detect similar noises echoing through the tunnels from a much louder source deeper in.

Milanda cringed behind her mask. “That…is not good, is it.”


Gabriel clapped a hand to his forehead. “The woman in black. I told you.”

“Aw, nuts, she took one of those shiny thingies,” Fross fretted, darting back and forth. “The one that controlled the door and who knows what else…”

“A woman in black,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “How mysterious.”

“She’s the one who opened the gate,” Toby said quickly. “She wouldn’t speak to us and as soon as she’d got it open, ripped off a piece of your machinery and fled. We don’t know who she is or what she was doing there, but she knows something about these machines of yours, obviously.”

“Oh, obviously,” he said flatly. “And somehow, has gone undetected. We perceived you approaching before you even entered the mine, but not this enigmatic woman in black.”

“I realize how this sounds,” Toby began.

“Oh, please,” Arlund scoffed. “That is not believable enough to be a lie. A woman?”

“You should not talk anymore,” Juniper informed him.

“Please listen to me,” Toby said urgently, but Ayuvesh held up his hand to forestall him.

“I will indeed listen, Hand of Omnu. And in fact, I am still willing to negotiate. But we must have parity, don’t you think?”

Before they could react, he whirled and bounded back to the top of his machine, his agility astonishing considering how much he had to weigh with all that metal in his body. Ayuvesh whirled lightly into the seat, placing his hands on control panels affixed to its arms.

“You have aided your negotiating position with a show of force,” the Rust’s leader said with a broad grin. “Well done! I salute your brinkmanship. Now, allow me to reply in kind!”

 

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13 – 9

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Brother Arlund appeared in the front doorway again; it was hard to tell if he was scowling as they hadn’t yet seen his face wearing any other expression.

“Still nothing,” the Huntsman growled. “How long do you plan to wait? The Rust prance unimpeded through the city while we loiter in one spot where they may or may not even return today.”

Juniper set down the crate of fish she had just picked up and turned to face him. “Hunting,” the dryad said pointedly, “requires a lot of patience.”

“It’s a solid lead,” Toby said in a much gentler tone, adding a smile. “That’s better than wandering through the city at random. And this way, if they don’t show up today, at least our time wasn’t wasted. If you’re bored, we can always use another pair of hands.”

Arlund’s eyes flicked from him to the fish they were in the process of loading onto the back of a battered old carriage. His expression altered slightly, though his thick black beard made it hard to read. With a soft grunt, he turned and strode back out into the sunlight.

“What an asshole,” Juniper muttered.

One of the Omnist monks working with them, Jahi, had discreetly picked up Juniper’s crate and added it to the truck bed. He now covered a grin with his hand and clambered into the driver’s seat, clearing his throat. “A thousand thanks for your help. I have to get this lot to Mudhi’s as quick as possible.”

“Glad to help,” Toby said, turning to the doors. “You need…?”

“I have it, thanks,” Anita replied, and indeed she had already pushed one of the storehouse’s wide double doors open. Jahi waved at them as he carefully guided the carriage full of fish out into the street beyond.

“Who’s Mudhi?” Juniper asked.

Toby had stepped forward unasked to pull the door shut again, so Anita answered her. “He runs a factory that salts and dries fish, and very generously donates his services to our pantry, so long as we don’t ask too much. Fish does not keep well unless you take steps to preserve it, and any fish we get is usually a day old, whatever didn’t sell down at the docks. So getting it preserved is always our first priority. The rest of this is relatively easy!” Smiling, she strode over to the remaining boxes. “Just inventory and sorting. The system isn’t too complex, we just prefer to keep different kinds of things together so it’s not impossible to find anything in here; the only somewhat challenging part is moving boxes and bags as you go, so older stuff is always near the front and gets used faster. I already did the inventory so you don’t get to see the boring part, I’m afraid.”

“Wow, you got a lot of stuff,” Juniper said, impressed. She had elected to wear her disguise ring when out in the city, and only stood out a little; Stalweiss (which the ring made her resemble) weren’t especially rare in Puna Dara, and her choice of attire drew more attention. Lately, the dryad had begun trading out her sundresses for clothes in the wood elven style, which had to have been made for her specially as they fit and she was more full-figured than practically any elf. The monks at the Omnist food pantry where she, Toby, and Arlund were spending the day hadn’t said a word, though both had stopped to stare a couple of times when Juniper effortlessly picked up and carried loaded crates as if they weighed nothing. Omnist monks in general weren’t suspicious or confrontational, and besides that, being with Toby gave her a lot of credibility.

“Omnu provides,” Anita intoned, bending to a pick up a sack. “Potatoes, very good; these keep wonderfully and are very nutritious. We don’t grow many locally, so they are always a valued gift.”

“Sounds like the people of Puna Dara provided,” Juniper grunted, casually gathering up six heavy bags of potatoes. “Where to?”

“Ah, this way,” Anita trotted off toward one side of the warehouse, Juniper following along.

“Yes, well,” Toby said, repressing a grin and picking up two sacks, “if Omnu provided with his own two hands, he’d be a neighbor and not a god. He encourages the spirit within people that urges us to help one another.”

“It’s a sign of the times,” Anita added. “The Punaji look after each other. In times of trouble or even just uncertainty, we always see more donations; those who are blessed anticipate that there will be a need and contribute more than they otherwise would.”

“Now that sounds like a good system,” Juniper said approvingly. “I wonder why they don’t do that in the Stalrange.”

“It would be a mistake to judge all the Stalweiss by the Huntsmen,” Anita replied. “Especially a single Huntsman.”

“It all comes back to agriculture,” Toby said thoughtfully.

Juniper had just set down her sacks and turned to go back for more from the big pile of stuff near the doors, but now stopped to frown at him. “Huh?”

“Shaath is the god of the wild,” Toby explained, patting her on the shoulder as he went back for more potatoes. “Omnu is the god of life, which means they have an overlap, but Omnu is also the god of agriculture, and that sort of makes them opposite. Agriculture is what makes the ultimate difference in societies. A Shaathist lodge is basically a tribe, you see. Hunter-gatherers in the truest sense, with each person responsible for acquiring their own food. Well, actually, not the truest sense, as they don’t let women hunt, so that requires a division of labor… I guess elvish tribes are the only true hunter-gatherer societies in that way. But elves are a whole other case, since they don’t need much food and their very presence keeps the environment healthy and productive. Hunter-gathering works for them as a lifestyle, to a degree of success that humans can’t achieve without agriculture. Carrots?”

“There’s a bin over here,” Anita said, pointing.

He picked up a crate of carrots and trotted in that direction, Juniper doing likewise and still listening as he continued. “Agriculture means food surpluses, and complex divisions of labor. Societies that farm have farmers, people who specialize in producing food, and make a lot more than they need. If they do it well, more than the whole society needs, so it has the resources to expand. But ultimately this is what makes everything else possible, all that sapient creatures do which other animals don’t. Not only different jobs with specialists, but every kind of advancement. Artists create culture, inventors create new technology, and that only works because…well, people take care of each other. I guess you could say the measure of a society’s ability to advance is its ability and willingness to support people of…dubious utility.” He set the carrots down with a grunt and turned to grin at Juniper. “Without people who have the luxury of sitting around tinkering with stuff, nothing new would be created. What sets a civilization apart from a primitive tribe is that it doesn’t let people starve to death just because they apparently deserve to.”

“Interesting.” She dusted off her hands, peering at him quizzically. “And…did you change the subject, or is this coming back around to Shaathists?”

“Ah, yes. Sorry; agriculture is Omnu’s purview, like I said. It prompts me to go off on tangents. Anyway, yes, Shaath being the god of the wild… To Huntsmen, civilization just means too many people in too little space with too little respect for nature. So we have a…difference of opinion.”

“Well, I have much the same opinion of civilization, but here I am, helping. Because I’m not an asshole.”

“Here, let me handle the tomatoes,” Anita said, bustling past them. “They’re more fragile. Would you two mind loading the apples into those barrels over there?”

“On it,” Juniper said, heading for the crates of fruit she indicated. “Wow, where’d these come from? This isn’t apple country.”

“I suspect that’s why we have them,” Anita said wryly. “Outlanders are always importing apples, but they never get popular around here. I’m glad even the merchants would rather feed the poor than just dump them in the harbor when they don’t sell.”

“See,” Toby continued in a more pensive tone while picking up a box of apples, “the process of taming a wild animal begins with feeding it, and ends with making it dependent on you. To Shaathist ethics, that’s a horrible thing to do to someone. Anybody in need would find shelter at a Shaathist lodge; they don’t skimp on their hospitality, or judge people for being in bad circumstances. But in the long run, they won’t support someone who doesn’t contribute, and they don’t do charity. The Huntsmen feel that teaching and empowerment are the only true compassion, and giving people things they haven’t earned weakens them, which is cruel. You’ll find them quite eager to share their ways—not just their doctrine, but their skills, the ability to provide for oneself in any situation. That’s their idea of kindness. Like the saying goes: give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish—”

“And since he can get his own damn fish he gets to sneer at people who’re doing actual work to help others?” She balanced her box on the rim of the barrel and paused to give him an exasperated look. “Toby, this obsession you have with seeing the best in everybody is gonna get you in real trouble someday. This really isn’t a doctrinal issue. That other Huntsman, Ermon, he’s nice. I haven’t heard him speak to anyone with anything less than complete respect since we met him. Arlund isn’t an asshole because he’s a Huntsman of Shaath, he’s an asshole because he is an asshole.”

“He is a fanatic.” Anita approached them with another box of apples; she also balanced it on the rim of an open barrel, but then began carefully moving apples from the crate into the barrel itself, prompting them both to do likewise. “You can see it in his eyes, the way he glares at everything with that…that specific blend of ardor and anger. Those are the eyes of a man who despises the world for failing to meet his expectations, and means to correct it.” She frowned into the barrel as she continued to shift fruit, careful not to bruise them. “They crop up inevitably among any religion. I have seen eyes like that before… Rarely among Omnu’s faithful. Never on someone in whose company I felt safe.” She deposited the last apple and let the wooden crate dangle from one hand, turning a concerned look on Toby. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, Tobias, but…be careful around that one, please.”

“I appreciate your insight, sister,” he replied seriously. “I am pretty confident I can handle anything that comes up from working with the Huntsmen, but I won’t get careless.”

“Omnu’s ways are gentle ones,” she said with a sigh. “In my years working directly with the general public, I have gradually come around to the viewpoint that some people just cannot be handled gently. Judge me how you must for this, but I truly think people like that are better left for the Avenists to deal with.”

He smiled at her. “I would never judge—”

A shadow darkened the warehouse’s smaller front door as Arlund himself appeared, this time bursting eagerly into the room, practically quivering with energy. “He’s come!” With that terse announcement, he whirled on his heel and strode back out.

Toby turned to Anita. “Sister, I’m sorry to have to duck out…”

“Don’t apologize,” she said with a smile. “I’m way ahead of schedule on these chores thanks to you two. This is a good time for a break, anyway.”

The Omnist complex in Puna Dara was actually one of the city’s larger temples, but just because the structure was mostly utilitarian. Its actual temple stood next to the open gates: a tall, square stone edifice furnished only with low benches and scarcely large enough for a dozen people to convene in its one open room. It connected to the long barracks along the western edge of the compound, which housed the kitchens, living space for the handful of monks in residence, and the available beds for anyone in need of a roof over their head for a few days. On the north was the broad storehouse, with doors into the barracks and the central courtyard, and the big carriage gates opening onto the quiet street behind. An L-shaped wall blocked off the eastern side of the complex, and half the north adjacent to the front gate; within this was sheltered a large garden in which plants grew in raised beds, fenced off from the central courtyard. Pillars supported a sloped roof extending into the courtyard from the barracks, providing an open-air shelter in which tables and chairs were set up and where those who came here in need of a meal were served. Down the center of the courtyard, from the front gates to the warehouse doors, ran a long strip of open space between the garden and the seating area.

It was in this that the Rust preacher had appeared, and was now holding court.

The courtyard wasn’t that expansive; they could hear him clearly immediately upon stepping outside. The man had the characteristic reddish metal arm, and spoke in a voice which projected well without seeming to be yelling. “Food and shelter are but the basics of life,” he was saying earnestly, “but basics can easily become a distraction. There is more potential within you than you can imagine until you have touched it!”

“He doesn’t come every day,” Anita murmured, the four of them including Arlund now standing just outside the storehouse. “But when he does, it’s always him. They’re organized; they each have their own turf to preach. I suspect he makes rounds to other places when he’s not here.”

“Those people look cornered,” Juniper said quietly. Indeed, the street preacher’s audience consisted of three uncomfortable-looking monks and a dozen or so people in ragged clothes lining up for lunch. Most were local Punaji, and most were ignoring him, but the cultist’s current focus was on a Sheng family who had just been seated and were trying to eat—a man, woman, and two small children. They were visibly nervous.

“That is why this bothers me,” Anita said. “We have not wanted to challenge him, because he’s harming no one, and this place should be open to all who come here in good faith. But he makes the people we serve reluctant. They should feel safe here.”

“And so you ignore him,” Arlund scoffed. “Perhaps you feel such as he are better left for the Avenists to deal with.”

Anita made no reply, but glanced at him sidelong and very subtly shifted her weight to the balls of her feet.

“People,” Toby said firmly, “are not to be dealt with. Their actions, however, are another matter.” With that, he set off toward the Rust preacher with a long, even stride, Juniper immediately hurrying after. Arlund followed at a somewhat more sedate pace.

“Hard circumstances only seem overwhelming. The power to face them, to overcome anything life—”

“Excuse me!”

The cultist broke off his speech and turned to Toby, who approached him wearing a friendly smile.

“Welcome, friend. Are you hungry?”

“My needs are met,” the man said, his expression almost quizzical. He apparently was unused to being confronted by the Omnists here. Toby wore nothing to advertise his rank and his simple shirt and trousers did not exactly match the robes the local monks wore, but they were of the same rough cloth in the same shade of brown.

“That’s good to hear,” Toby said earnestly, still smiling. “Do you need a place to stay? There are several beds open.”

“I thank you for your concern,” the preacher replied, now with a wry note, “but I lodge with my brothers and sisters. We want for nothing.”

“Ah, I see. Did you perhaps need help finding work?”

“I don’t—”

“We have good relationships with several merchant guilds, dockmasters, and factories,” Toby continued blithely. “Omnu’s people are glad to feed those in need, but we are even happier to help people back to the path of being able to support themselves. If you’re willing to help with some of the compound’s chores for a few days so we can vouch for you in good faith, we can almost certainly arrange employment with one of our friend.”

“That isn’t—”

“I hope you’re not embarrassed about that metal limb,” Toby said solicitously. “I’m very sorry if you have experienced prejudice because of it. People can be nervous about things that are unfamiliar to them. Situations like that are exactly when the credibility of Omnu’s monks can give you just the boost you need. We find that most people have the strength inside themselves to prosper in the long run, but everyone needs a little help once in a while. There is no shame at all in that.”

The Rust cultist, apparently realizing Toby was not going to be brushed off so easily, finally turned to face him directly, and even sketched a shallow bow. He was an older Punaji man, gray-haired and with a lined face, like the woman from the docks yesterday—and like her, more fit and vigorous than it seemed someone his age ought to be. He had no additional metal touches, however, only his right arm. Its design was unique compared to hers, lacking any visible wires or pulleys and the fingers having a distinctly spider-like quality.

“All of this is very encouraging to me to hear,” the cultist said, once again using the booming voice with which he proselytized. “I could not agree more—the power is within all of us, all the power we could ever need. For just that reason, I have no need for charity. I come to spread that power, to awaken my fellow beings to their own glorious potential!”

“Ah, I see,” Toby said brightly. “Well, we always welcome volunteers! I assure you, no profession of faith is required to either receive or offer help here. There are plenty of things to be done around the compound. I can introduce you to the Abbot, if you want to help—he can most efficiently show you where we most need another pair of hands.”

Juniper had been grinning openly throughout this conversation, and now smothered a giggle behind her hand. The Rust cultist glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Toby.

“I… That is, I am not at liberty to involve myself with…the cults, so directly,” he said, his voice softening as he was clearly thrown off his rhythm. “I only come to spread the truth.”

“In that case,” Toby said, still with his welcoming smile, “I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”

The pause which followed emphasized the silence that had fallen over the courtyard. Monks, petitioners, and Toby’s group alike now watched this confrontation as if afraid to breathe.

“It was my understanding,” the cultist said finally, “that this space was open to all.”

“That’s precisely it,” Toby agreed. “All are welcome here. Anyone may come and receive a helping hand, without expectation of repayment or pressure to convert. No one here shall be preached at, unless they ask to learn more of Omnu’s teachings.”

“Ahh.” The man from the Rust tilted his chin up, looking satisfied as if he had scored a point. “I understand, now. Perhaps Omnu feels threatened by a voice which speaks with power, and does not parrot his dogma.”

“Omnu is threatened by nothing,” Toby said calmly, his smile undiminished. “And more importantly, Omnu does not permit anyone under his protection to be threatened. Or harangued, or pressured. Not by his own monks, and not by anyone else. Now, may I offer you a bowl of rice before you go?”

“If Omnu is not threatened, why are you?” the man countered. “I don’t see Omnu here telling me I cannot share my thoughts with others.”

“I’m not sure this one understands how gods work,” Arlund snorted. A few soft chuckles sounded from the assembled watchers. The cultist glanced fleetingly in their direction.

“More to the point,” he continued forcefully, “you will find that the truth is not to be silenced.”

“I have no interest in silencing you,” Toby said pleasantly. “I encourage you to live your truth and share it however you will. Just not here.”

“You bail a leaking boat with your hands,” the man retorted, pointing dramatically at Toby with his metal hand. “All the tools you need to plug the hole lie within easy reach, but you will not see them. And worse, you try to hide them from those who do! Here you sit, growing tomatoes and handing out rice, and what does it do for the world? I speak of change. Of progress. Of power! The power to—”

“I asked you to leave.” Toby’s smile had vanished, and his voice now grew notably more even. The watching monks watched with increasingly visible alarm. “Please, friend, don’t compel me to insist.”

The cultist actually grinned. “Or perhaps your tomato vines will silence me for you? Nature is well and good, my child. Too much reliance on it blinds you to the truth, however. The truth that you can become more!”

He punctuated this pronouncement by brandishing his right arm high, forming a metal fist; the short sleeve of his shirt fell to the shoulder, displaying more of its coppery surface.

“You think you’ve improved on nature?” Juniper said suddenly, stepping forward.

“Hah! Why ask the question? Trust your eyes, my sister.” The cultist, still grinning, now held out his metal hand toward her. “My frailty has become my greatest strength. Flesh and blood is only—”

“You’re all just animals, you know,” she said. “Flesh and blood and spirit and mind. That’s nothing but a tool. You haven’t conquered or overcome or changed anything, any more than a monkey using a rock to crack a coconut.”

“Wherever a voice is raised in opposition to my message,” the cultist declaimed, “it does so with exaggerations and lies—those who oppose the truth have no better weapons! I stand before you, living proof that mortal man is more than nature would have him be. And there is nothing unique in me! Within each of you is the power—”

He was interrupted by the chorus of gasps as Juniper removed her ring. Most of the assembled Punaji looked nonplussed, clearly unfamiliar with dryads. A few reacted with wide eyes, however, and the monks dropped to fighting stances in unison. The Sheng mother and father immediately abandoned their meal, grabbing their children and retreating to the far corner of the courtyard.

She stepped forward, while the cultist gawked at her in astonishment, and grabbed him by the upper arm before he could retreat.

“Nature,” she said, seizing him just above the wrist with her other hand, “always wins. Always.”

With a dreadful screech of rending metal, she ripped his forearm clean off at the elbow. The cultist yelled in alarm, staggering backward with sparks flashing from the wrecked joint. Arlund’s derisive laugh boomed across the courtyard, almost drowning out the imprecations which followed. Almost, but not entirely.

“You whore!” the cultist raged, skittering back a few steps from the dryad. “You brutal—you vicious…thug! Animal!”

“Not so eloquent now,” Arlund observed. “Was the silver tongue located in your wrist, maybe?”

Baring his teeth in a snarl, the preacher took a step forward. “Give that back!”

“Oh?” Juniper said innocently, holding his arm behind her back. “You want me to even those up for you?” She grinned broadly and directed her gaze to his left, flesh and blood arm.

For a tense moment, the man glared at her, bristling with rage.

Then, suddenly, her smile collapsed. “Get the hell out of here,” she ordered curtly.

He stood his ground, clenching his remaining fist.

Juniper very deliberately brought the metal arm up, stuck it between her teeth, and bit down. With a sound that was physically painful to the ear, the whole thing bent noticeably in the middle.

Still spitting curses, he turned and fled back into the street.

“Fool,” Arlund grunted. “Had he been smart, he would have controlled the situation by agreeing to help do chores when you asked him to. If they are all as prideful and as stupid as that, this will not be a difficult hunt. I will see where he goes.” He nodded respectfully to Juniper and then strode out, turning in the direction the preacher had gone.

Toby heaved a deep, long sigh, then turned to his classmate. “You okay, June?”

“Yeah…I think so,” she said, now frowning pensively down at the metal arm in her hand. The odd spark still flickered from its elbow joint, and as they watched a tiny arc of electricity snapped in the tear just made by her teeth. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m a little nervous about being that aggressive, but… At the same time, it’s part of me, y’know? Sheyann says repressing it would probably just backfire. It’s like Professor Ezzaniel is always saying: control, control, control. Only exert force to the degree you can control it. I’m doing my best to harness those predatory instincts.”

He nodded, reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “You are more than just a predator, you know.”

“All the sapient races are predators,” she said in some irritation, then pointed at her face with two fingers. “Eyes on the front of the head is for depth perception, so you can gauge the distance between you and what you’re chasing. Herbivores have eyes on the sides of the head, to scan for threats.”

“Huh.” He blinked. “I’ve…actually never noticed that. You’re right, they do.”

She nodded, looking smug. “You’re not the only one who can be pedantic. Well, anyway.” Grinning, she held up the bent arm. “Fross wanted a sample, after all!”

“Yeah.” He sighed and gazed around them; the monks were only just beginning to relax, but everyone who had come for lunch was now huddled against the walls. “Well…so much for not riling up the Rust. I wonder how much luck the others are having.”

 

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