Tag Archives: CT-29

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“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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13 – 29

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After its previous chaos, the darkness and quiet of the fabrication plant was oppressive. It also served to alarmingly magnify the sound of rushing water.

“Looks like something’s still switched on,” Gabriel said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of the group crept back in behind him. Indeed, directly ahead, lights still glowed in the central command station. It was the only source of illumination aside from the transparent ceiling, which barely emitted enough sea-filtered light to stand out from the darkness.

“I will go check it out!” Fross chimed, and zipped forward before anyone could stop her. The pixie vanished into the station and the rest of the party watched her silver glow dart around within while they lined up at the base of the metal stairs.

“Wouldn’t your valkyrie friend make a better scout?” Milady murmured. “Undetectable and invulnerable…”

“She’s already looked, says its safe,” Gabriel replied quietly, then grinned. “Fross saves all our butts twice in an average week; I don’t like to discourage her from jumping in.”

“Time is a factor,” Principia said pointedly, glancing at the nearest spout of water, which glistened faintly in the dim glow of the command center, and stepped forward off the stairs and onto the walkway proper.

Before she got any further, Fross returned. “It appears safe!” the pixie reported. “There are still some lights turned on in the machines built into the walls and floor and I couldn’t tell what they do but nothing that was nailed down reacted to my presence. There is something else there, though, some kind of golem, I think. It looks like a trash bin with metal spider arms and one of those little flat display panels for a face, and it makes bell noises almost like me!”

“See!” Juniper exclaimed. “Giant mechanical spider! I told you!”

“Oh, a Caretaker unit,” Milady said eagerly. “That’s good news! They’re meant to look after Infinite Order facilities like the Avatar, but they’re kept separate from the machines and their programming can’t be altered. Poor guy’s probably the only thing holding this place together; we couldn’t ask for better help in fixing it. Come on!”

She set off down the walkway, Principia close behind her. Fross shot ahead again, a silver streak zooming back into the alcove. The rest followed more slowly, peering warily around at the darkness as they went.

Their approach was halted just before the entrance to the command alcove, when a chunk of the machinery within detached itself and moved to sit in the doorway. It was very much like Fross had described: a squat tube on wheels, bristling with multi-jointed mechanical arms and with a single flat panel on the front of its upper segment which glowed with lines depicting a stylized face.

“See!” Fross chimed, zipping back to hover above the golem. It emitted a chiming noise in response, the lines of its “face” altering to form a broad grin. It made unmistakable beckoning gestures with two of its arms and retreated back into the alcove.

“And…you’ve seen those before?” Toby asked warily.

“One,” Milady admitted. “And…it wasn’t turned on. But I’ve had their functions described to me in detail.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” Principia said. “Caretakers are perfectly harmless at worst. They’re designed to be annoyingly friendly and helpful. The Mysterious Stranger here is right, this is a stroke of luck. C’mon.”

She brushed past Milady and stepped into the alcove after the Caretaker golem, leaving the rest to follow.

The platform was octagonal, with entrances on two sides for walkways and walls of glass that sloped outward; it had no ceiling, being open to the roof of the plant itself with its view of the murky seawater above. The original construction seemed to have included transparent panels at waist height, horizontal and slightly angled, which housed the controls. Several of these were knocked out, though, and more machinery had been installed, in a rather haphazard fashion. The additions looked altogether tacked-on and seemed to be the product of a different mind than the clean, glossy aesthetic of the Infinite Order. With moving parts, blinking lights, protruding hoses and wires, they looked rather like things modern dwarves might build, or even the workings of an enchanted factory. These ran along the edges, a couple were installed onto the floor itself, and several extended from the upper edges of the slanting walls to hang overhead. Altogether the whole looked too heavy for this platform to support, but the metal felt as solid beneath their feet as the very ground, not vibrating at all when stepped on.

One entire wall had been knocked out to make room for a flat display which protruded half out into space, and this was the source of most of the light still active. It was a broad, flat table with a three-dimensional map of the middle part of the continent, its geography obvious to those familiar with it, centered on the Golden Sea and with the Wyrnrange, Stalrange and Dwarnskolds forming borders, apparently crafted of solid light. Hovering above this, also formed from light, was a slowly rotating globe. It was difficult to gather around the map because a large gate of some kind had been installed attached to it, little more than an empty metal door frame on a thick base with built-in machinery and control panels. This jutted out into the center of the alcove, taking up much of the available space.

The Caretaker wheeled over to this apparatus and began gesticulating at it and at them with its multiple arms, whistling and chiming urgently.

“Okaaay,” Ruda drawled. “So…it’s a map, and a globe of the world.”

“That’s not the world,” Juniper said. “Look, the continents are all wrong.”

“It’s a world.” Principia slipped past the Caretaker and leaned partly over the map display, peering closely at the planet hovering above the continent. “That’s Earth.”

“I thought this was earth,” Toby said.

“What?” Milady frowned at him. “I’ve never heard it called that.”

“Every word for the world I’ve encountered in any language means some variation of ‘dirt,’ ‘land,’ or ‘home,’” said Fross, now orbiting Earth and casting very odd shadows across its luminous surface. “I guess planets only need names if there’s more than one, otherwise it’s just a constant, like the air or sky. And there aren’t any other planets within sight of our telescopes or astro-scryers, so…”

“Adventurers and their bantering,” Principia muttered. “That is Earth, the planet the Elder Gods came here from, thousands of years ago. Where the human species originated.”

“Okay,” Ruda repeated irritably. “What the fuck is it doing hovering over the Golden Sea?”

“Hey, there’s Last Rock!” Juniper said, pointing to the protrusion of the familiar mountain near the edge of the map.

“It’s their escape hatch.” Everyone turned to stare at Gabriel, who himself was staring off to the side, frowning in concentration in the way he did when relaying words from Vestrel. “It’s… Okay, the thing itself isn’t here, but this gadget is clearly some kind of link to it. Apparently… The Elder Gods were prepared for their experiments here to go badly, so they set up a permanent portal back to where they came from. Except, not exactly there.” He paused, his frown deepening. “It’s…not exactly Earth, but an alternate dimension. That’s what a lot of their technology was based on, traveling between dimensions. It’s how they came to this planet without having to spend years in—Vestrel, do we really need to know that part? Okay, so they opened a portal to this alternate Earth that was almost identical to theirs, at a fixed point in the past where a lot of their favorite myths and stories came from and where the technology was advanced enough they wouldn’t be dealing with ignorant savages, but not so much that the people there could have stood against them. If they had to abandon this planet, they were gonna go there and conquer it.”

“That,” Ruda stated, “is vicious, cowardly, and generally fucking despicable.”

“Sounds about right,” Milady remarked.

“And apparently the gate still works and is still open.” Gabriel transferred his pensive stare to the map display. “And…it is in the center of the Golden Sea, which is what causes the whole region to be spatially unstable. Huh. The things we learn.”

“I am just kicking myself for not spending more time asking Vestrel about the past,” Fross chimed in agitation, now zipping back and forth in midair. “Of course I can’t exactly talk to her but there have to be workarounds there and I didn’t realize how old she is but oh the things she must know!”

“Vestrel would like everyone to know that she’s not an encyclopedia,” Gabriel said wryly. “And also I’m to add to our enigmatic friend here that if she wants to hear long-winded valkyrie explanations, she knows who to ask.”

“Oh, good, that fun conversation isn’t done, then,” Milady muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

“None of which explains what the fuck all this is doing here,” Ruda said loudly. “This place is flooding as we fucking speak, guys. Archaeology later, fixing this shit now!”

“That is a point.” Principia, now frowning deeply, slid out of the group and began prowling around the edges of the alcove, studying the panels. They were active, emitting a faint glow, but displayed nothing but the Infinite Order’s sigil. “We told this thing to reboot, right? I can’t help noticing that nothing is booting up. I realize this place is wrecked, but the central computer was functional enough to talk to us. Should it take this long?”

“You’re asking us?” Juniper exclaimed. “I thought you were the expert! Isn’t that why we brought you?”

“Vestrel recommends percussive maintenance,” Gabriel reported. “If that means what it sounds like, I have…doubts.”

The Caretaker began chiming loudly. As they all turned to stare, it backed up to the far edge of the alcove, and then retracted all its metal arms until just the clawed grabbing mechanisms from each protruded from its central body.

“Um,” Juniper said hesitantly, “what’s it doing—”

She broke off as the golem suddenly burst into motion, charging across the alcove to slam its body against the side of the metal gate. It rebounded, chiming in agitation, and toppled over; Toby reflexively dived to catch it, and then yelped and was borne to the floor under the golem, whose weight he had clearly underestimated.

“Oh, that’s grand,” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought you said that thing would be helpful!”

Suddenly, all the lights in the room flashed, and the panels turned red. A hum rose in the air as technology came to life around them. Everyone froze, though moments later Juniper un-froze at Toby’s grunt and resumed heaving the Caretaker off him.

“I am not going to say that,” Gabriel muttered into the tense silence which followed. “If you want to tell people you told them so, get somebody else to summon your spooky ass.”

The oddly resonant, feminine voice from the panels outside suddenly spoke, though not comprehensibly. Several of them jumped in surprise, while the rest just frowned at the unintelligible jabbering.

“I recognize some of those syllables,” Fross said thoughtfully.

“You’re doing better than I am,” Toby grunted, brushing himself off. The Caretaker chimed apologetically at him, extending an arm tipped with an actual brush to help.

“Is this…progress?” Principia asked.

Milady cleared her throat. “Computer, set language to—”

“Dialect identified,” the computer’s voice declared from all around them. “English, North American, twentieth century. Warning: there are multiple leaks emitting seawater. The facility’s structural integrity is below seventy percent and in danger of collapsing from water pressure. Warning: the Avatar governing intelligence has suffered catastrophic corruption and cannot be safely booted in its current state. Warning: there has been a category one security breach resulting in nanite contamination of the planet’s surface. Warning: this facility is flooded. Warning: widespread damage to the facility has reduced the production capacity of this fabrication plant below twenty-five percent. This facility’s condition is beyond critical. Multiple immediate actions are urgently necessary.”

“No shit!” Ruda exclaimed. “How the fuck do we fix this?!”

“Uh, computer!” Fross said loudly. “What course of action do you recommend to begin repairs?”

“That’s what I just said,” Ruda growled.

“The major repairs necessary will require the guidance of this facility’s Avatar.”

“But the Avatar’s broken!” Principia exclaimed. “That’s the whole damn problem, you hunk of—”

“A fresh iteration of the Avatar can be loaded,” the computer informed them. “Corruption resulted from the installation of unapproved equipment, which can be removed with the Avatar’s guidance. Recommendation: the extant iteration of the Avatar program should be isolated behind firewalls and left inert, and a new iteration loaded from the last stable restore point to oversee repairs. It should be possible to complete repairs before the Avatar becomes too corrupt to function, and then either debug its program or load another fresh iteration.”

The computer stopped talking, and they all peered around at each other in varying degrees of confusion.

“Did you guys follow any of that?” Toby asked.

“I think so,” said Fross. “If I understand correctly, it sounds like sense.”

“Yes, actually,” Milady said slowly. “I think that would work.”

“Vestrel agrees,” Gabriel added. “Okay, then, if there are no objections? Then I think you’re still nominally the voice of Naiya here, Juno. Care to do the honors?”

“I, uh…” The dryad shrugged fatalistically. “Oh, why not. Computer thingy! Do the…stuff you just said. The plan. The iterations and loading and all of it.”

A musical chime sounded from the air around them, and a circular image appeared on all the surviving screens, slowly cycling down.

“What was that, now?” Ruda demanded.

“Two ascending chimes is an affirmative acknowledgment,” said Milady. “It’s doing it. So now, I guess, we wait…”

And then the screens cleared, and patterns of light appeared all around them in the air. From one rose a three-dimensional, translucent projection of the bald man in tight purple clothing. Unlike his previous appearance, he was calm and composed in aspect, smiling slightly at them with his hands folded.

The Caretaker began chiming in delight, brandishing its arms victoriously overhead.

“Greetings,” his resonant voice said soothingly from the machines all around. “Welcome to Fabrication Plant One. I am Avatar Zero Two, the governing intelligence of this facility. And… I am extremely embarrassed.”


“Are you seriously going to stand there doing drugs?”

“You should try some of this, Eleanora,” the Emperor said with a smile and a hint of mischief.

“I will not,” she said scathingly.

“There’s barely enough coffee in here to be detectable,” he said, taking another sip and ignoring her growl. “It’s mostly milk, sugar, whipped cream and…some kind of syrup. This is basically a warm mug of dessert.”

“It’s called a Tiraano, your Majesty,” Underminister Shanaar said tremulously. A mousy woman with large spectacles and a habit of holding her thick folder of paperwork before herself as if she could hide behind it, she was clearly overwhelmed at presenting her report to the Imperial couple in person. “It’s… Ah, that particular one is from La Chez, a Glassian cafe which has pioneered artisanal coffee in the city. I have procured samples from six other establishments if you wish to try—”

“That will not be necessary,” Eleanora said frostily, and Ms. Shanaar cringed, shuffling surreptitiously behind her cart of warming mugs. The rich scents of coffee, cream, and flavored sugar filled the room headily, drifting from the steam her “samples” emitted.

Sharidan gave Eleanora a reproachful look, and she repressed a sigh, but deliberately moderated her expression. He was right; there was nothing to be gained by bullying hard-working public servants just doing their jobs as ordered.

Shanaar cleared her throat and began shuffling papers pointlessly, lowering her eyes to them. “Yes, well, um, your Majesties… As you can see for yourselves… Or, uh, not, if you prefer… Most of the uses of coffee in the city’s upscale cafes are relatively harmless. The flavor of the raw stuff is quite unpalatable and the upper class don’t seem to take to it without heavily mixing it with more, ah, wholesome ingredients. The temperance movement is targeting them mostly because the rich are usually the source of major social impetus. My report clearly indicates the only potential public health risk is from the less-common uses of the drink in its purer form, which is beginning to catch on among the working class. The Thieves’ Guild has begun to make institutionalized use of it, and it’s increasingly popular among factory workers… Actual risks are uncertain, we haven’t linked coffee to specific diseases. It simply grants a rush of energy when consumed. The, uh, long-term effects… There’s just no data, yet. We need time to study. It will take years to know the full implications.”

“The short-term effects are already known,” Eleanora said brusquely. “And this is beginning to grow popular in the city?”

“The first coffee crops planted on the continent have been harvested, processed, and distributed,” Shanaar said timidly. “Not much yet, but it’s a start. They’re out in the Onkawa highlands, the only region with the right climate in the Empire. With that, the price has suddenly dropped, and… That is, yes, your Majesty. My department has recorded a nearly four hundred percent increase in use over the last five years. That began from negligible numbers, of course, but still. Coffee is still much less popular than alcohol or glittershrooms, but it is catching on.”

“It seems simple enough to me, then,” Eleanora said, turning her disapproving stare back on her husband, who continued to sip appreciatively at his mug of the drug under discussion. “We add it to the list of proscribed narcotics and begin issuing exemptions for establishments that want to sell it, just like alcohol or opium. We silence those temperance harpies and gain a new source of revenue…”

“We can’t do that, your Majesty.”

Shanaar quailed at Eleanora’s cold stare.

“Can’t?”

“Th-the active ingredient is called caffeine,” the Underminister sputtered. “I-it is also the source of th-the stimulant properties of tea and ch-chocolate. If the government declares it a health hazard, entire industries will be massively disrupted, channels of trade—”

Quentin Vex suddenly strode into the room; the Hand of the Emperor standing discreetly in the corner looked at him but did not otherwise move, indicating he detected no threat. Vex stepped to one side of the door and coughed softly into his fist.

“Underminister,” the Emperor said smoothly, “you will please excuse us. Thank you for your report; we will finish this meeting at a later time.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Shanaar squeaked, pressing her folder to her chest and scurrying gratefully out. Vex shut the door behind her.

“Well?” Eleanora demanded.

“Tellwyrn, Vadrieny, and the Sleeper were all in the city a few minutes ago,” the spymaster said immediately. “Fortunately, that ended as well as it possibly could have. Tellwyrn bound the warlock—the Masterson boy—from using magic, then allowed Vadrieny to abduct him. She headed off in the direction of Tar’naris with him in tow.”

“Well, that’s one way to resolve that,” Sharidan murmured. “Narisian justice might be exactly what that little beast deserves.”

“Further,” Vex continued, “I have addressed the issue of the traitors by informing Tellwyrn of their probable destination.”

“I suppose that means we won’t be getting that airship back,” Eleanora said sourly. “Really, Quentin, you usually prefer a lighter touch.”

“Desperate times, your Majesty.”

She shook her head. “And the situation in Last Rock?”

“Is under control. She did not mention it.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, she didn’t mention it?”

“Just that, your Majesty. She made no reference to the renegade Hand on site. Thanks to Fedora’s appeal to his surviving connections in the city, we know she must be aware. That she did not request further help with the matter tells me she is addressing it. As I said before, your Majesties, Tellwyrn putting him down is an optimal outcome. She has nothing to gain by exposing Imperial secrets or using them as leverage against us.”

The Hand present glanced at him again, then resumed his ceaseless survey of the room.

“Unless Fedora is working against her, as well?” Sharidan suggested.

Vex shook his head. “If there is one child of Vanislaas I trust not to bite the hand that feeds him, it’s Fedora. He only turned on us because he had neared the end of his usefulness to the Throne, I would soon have needed to get rid of him, and he is too intelligent not to discern those facts. Tellwyrn can keep him busy potentially forever. No, I rather expect she’ll find Murgatroyd a surprisingly loyal agent. More than any of his kind I’ve encountered, he desires stability. Further, we have independent confirmation from Colonel Azhai that she warned Tellwyrn to the best of her ability. She and Reich both smelled a rat, but Azhai toed the line. Reich was willing to defy the renegade Hand’s direct orders to get back in touch with Intelligence. I suspect the Archpope’s influence there.”

“And she didn’t mention this.” Eleanora turned to stare at the window, frowning deeply in thought.

“Nora,” Sharidan said quietly, finally setting down his absurd coffee-laced beverage, “I have never pried into this, but you haven’t exactly made it a secret that you’ve got some personal grudge with Tellwyrn. Be mindful of your bias, here.”

“You’re right,” she said, then returned her stare to Vex, noting for the first time that he looked physically haggard. The man had apparently not slept in two days. “Quentin, in your professional opinion, what is the error in judgment Arachne Tellwyrn is most likely to make?”

He hesitated only momentarily before replying. “She is rather prone to overestimating herself, your Majesty. So…your point is taken. That Tellwyrn believes the situation in Last Rock to be under her control does not necessarily mean it is so.”

“What, specifically, do we know of the situation? Beyond the presence of the renegade Hand and his intentions?”

“…little, your Majesty. He has recruited Reich and several local civilians. With the departure of the zeppelin in that direction we can assume someone in the Archpope’s conspiracy has knowledge of these matters and an interest in intervening. We do not know his exact plans or timetable. I have dispatched agents to investigate, but it will take time for them to get in position. And there is also the inherent danger of irritating Tellwyrn.”

“Damn Tellwyrn and her precious little feelings,” Eleanora barked. “She lost control of one of her students, who has cause a major crisis with that hellgate, assaulted Narisian diplomats and apparently was just in the capital. Quentin, can your people penetrate her wards on scrying and teleportation?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said warily. “In theory. But…so doing will, of course, provoke a response. She’ll strengthen the wards and it will be that much more difficult the next time. With Tellwyrn, that could very quickly make them impenetrable, even to us. Again, I prefer not to poke at—”

“Sharidan.” She turned to the Emperor. “Am I overreacting?”

“You’re reacting more personally than usual,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But…no, Nora. I think you’re right; the combination of the Sleeper, the conspiracy, and an apparent connection to Justinian’s plots, plus our own renegade, and you’re right. I believe the time for the hands-off approach has ended. Quentin.” He turned back to the spymaster. “I want you to shift every scryer you can spare to punch through those wards. Find out what is happening in Last Rock, in detail.”

“And,” Eleanora added, “have mages standing by to teleport troops on site.”

“Now that may be too much,” Sharidan warned.

“Invading the University in force would be a disaster,” she agreed, “as I bet the renegade is about to learn. But if what we learn from scrying indicates that the situation there is as out of control as I fear, we should be ready to move in support of the Professor. A small force, comprised of specialists.”

“Very good,” the Emperor agreed, nodding. “Put a strike team and a squad of the Imperial Guard on standby, but do not deploy anyone without our express order. I’ll want your report on the situation on the ground ASAP, Quentin.”

Vex, in defiance of both his customary demeanor and all formal protocol, heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes, your Majesties. Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.”

Then, while they watched in bemusement, he stepped forward, picked up one of the steaming cups of coffee from Shanaar’s tray, and took it with him as he strode out to make the arrangements they had ordered.

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