As usual, the patch of blackened grass followed her on her way toward the teleporter. It was a convenient time for visitors, the little orb’s rotation having brought the gate within easy view of her construction project. Behind her rose the unfinished white marble columns of a Grecian temple, already twined with flowering vines despite the construction itself being in an early stage.
Milanda came forward to meet her, a hefty box tucked under one arm. After giving Walker a smile of greeting, her eyes shifted to study the new project, and then to the black streaks on the ground, where patches of dead grass and crumbling bushes showed Walker’s path.
“Wow,” she said, coming to a stop about halfway between the temple and the teleporter. “It looks kind of…Avenist.”
“The style is older than that by far,” Walker said, grinning, “but yes, you’re not wrong. Please pardon the destroyed vegetation; I can’t help it. It grows back fairly quickly; the Avatar had to adjust the settings down here, but with the facility already keyed to Naiya’s transcension field, re-growing plant life isn’t very taxing. I must say, lifting and placing marble blocks has been surprisingly therapeutic. I’m stronger than I realized.”
“What about those?” Milanda asked, pointing with her free hand. “Did you manage to create vines that are immune to your effect?”
“Oh! No, those are plastic. Really, decorative touches like that ought to be the last stage of construction, but…I was really yearning for some greenery that I could touch. Even if it’s fake.”
“Wonderful stuff! Lightweight, very resilient, incredibly versatile. It’s made from oils, both petroleum and organic. Having the fabricators produce it avoids the messy by-products of that, of course. Based on what I’ve gleaned of your civilization, I’d guess you’re within fifty years or so of producing something similar through alchemy.”
Milanda nodded, then cleared her throat and held up the box in both hands. “So! Where I come from, it’s customary to bring a house-warming gift when someone moves into a new home. Granted, this is apparently more of a pseudo-Avenist-temple-on-a-tiny-underground-planetwarming gift, but I believe the principle still applies.”
Walker chuckled as she took the box from her, tucking it under one arm to open the top. “I would say that it’s the thought which counts. It really was a very thoughtful…”
She trailed off, her expression falling still, then carefully reached in to extract the object, letting the box fall to the ground. The gravitational isolation chamber’s artificial sun gleamed blindingly on its glossy red paint, steel accents, and glass dome filled with tiny colored balls.
“I asked the fabricator for a gumball machine and it had thousands of schematics,” Milanda said almost nervously. “So…that probably doesn’t look anything like the one your mother had. And, of course, it’s not an Earth relic, I made it less than an hour ago. But I figured, at least… Well, it could be a start at making this a home, and not just a cell. You know. Um, you definitely don’t have to display it or anything, if it’s not to your taste…”
Walker took a step to the side, out of their way, and very carefully knelt to place the gumball machine upright on the ground. Then she rose, stepped back to Milanda, and wrapped her up in a tight hug.
“I just discovered something,” the fairy murmured. “It appears I can’t cry. That hasn’t really come up since I ended up like…this.”
Milanda squeezed her tighter.
It was a long moment before Walker finally pulled back. “You know…at first, I was planning to betray you. To go along with your intentions until I found something I could exploit to get out. No matter what I had to do, or to whom.”
“Was?” Milanda asked quietly. “What changed your mind?”
“I didn’t,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “Or…more accurately, I suppose, I don’t know. I just…happened to think of it at one point, and realized I didn’t want to anymore. I liked working with you, and talking with you. And your project was a challenge. To have something to do after so long… But mostly, I think it was you.”
Milanda grinned back. “Well…I guess I should also admit I was expecting a betrayal and trying to plan for it. The Avatar even gave me a book by Robert Greene to read, to help with outwitting you.”
Walker’s face collapsed in an incredulous grimace. “Ugh. Greene? That amoral, nihilistic, self-satisfied—”
“Yes, I honestly had a little trouble getting into it, though that’s partly because the historical allusions are over my head. You are not a fan, I take it?”
Walker scowled. “It’s a little personal, rationally or not. Greene is a favorite of Vidius. I hold him indirectly responsible for several of my ongoing frustrations. If you want to read Earth political philosophy, I would start with Rousseau. Oh, I bet you would really appreciate Marcus Aurelius, too. Actually, if you’re going to start somewhere, I suppose it should be with Aristotle and Plato, at the beginning. And that’s just the Western tradition! Personally, I’ve always been partial to Musashi, but he was more a warrior poet than a philosopher. Now, Lao Tzu—”
“How about this,” Milanda interrupted, grinning broadly. “You think it over, and pick the best book of philosophy that you’d consider a starting point on Earth’s tradition. Have the fabricator print one up for me on my next visit. And the visit after that, we can discuss it.”
“That…” A broad smile blossomed over Walker’s face. “That sounds excellent. Yes, it’s a date.”
“Perfect.” Milanda sighed, glancing at the teleporter, which had retreated several yards toward the horizon. “Well, I seem to have inadvertently finagled my way into a more central role in politics, and it’s a mess up there right now. The Imperial bureaucracy is resilient and Vex and the Empress held order the best they could, but after most of a week with no Emperor and the Hands acting unstable, there are a thousand fires to put out. Also, the Punaji are having some kind of crisis and Tellwyrn has picked this moment to pull something exceptionally cute.”
“I rather doubt that was personal,” Walker opined. “Tellwyrn isn’t a strategic thinker, and just doesn’t care about the doings of Empires.”
“Gods, I hope you’re right. This is not a good time for her to start caring.”
“It sounds like you had better get back to work, then,” Walker said, smiling. “Thank you for the gift, Milanda. It was just the thing I needed.”
“It’s going to be a hectic few days, but I’ll come down again as soon as I can,” Milanda promised. “Till next time, then!”
“Till next time, friend.”
She watched her all the way to the teleporter before turning to pick up the gumball machine again, almost reverently, and carried it into and through the temple. The roof was not in place, showing only the artificial sky, and sunlight which continued to gleam on the machine’s surfaces. Walker took it to the back of the main chamber, where the altar would be, and set it gently on the floor.
Still kneeling there, she pressed the mechanism, and with a satisfying little clunk, a gumball dropped through the metal door into her waiting hand. A pink one. Straightening up slowly, she popped it into her mouth and bit down.
Nothing but sugar, food coloring, and glue, as she’d said to Milanda, what seemed like ages ago. Saccharine sweetness erupted across her tongue, and with the flavor came an acute burst of memory and emotion.
She chewed in silence for several minutes, before abruptly turning and striding out of the temple. The grounds around were beginning to turn green again, though she unavoidably cut a black swath through them. Walker steered away from the trees—it seemed a shame to kill such sizable things—and set off through an open field for a good walk, leaving behind a path of blackened destruction.
After she was gone, slowly at first, new life began to rise in her wake.
The labyrinthine corridors beneath the Grand Cathedral were useful for more than security; Justinian found the long process of traversing them gave him opportunity to think, and plan. Even here, he kept his expression serene, not allowing any of his thoughts even the slightest exposure. It did not do to let one’s self-control grow even the tiniest bit rusty. This was a fine opportunity to practice; his thoughts were not encouraging.
Naturally, he had kept the true Avatar template far from Rector’s workshop, so the destruction had merely cost years of work, tipped his hand to the Empire and forced him to scramble to cover his tracks, and not destroyed a truly priceless artifact. Merely. The Hands had suddenly reversed their changes, which proved Sharidan had his systems back under control, and strongly suggested there would be extra security on them now. That avenue of attack could be considered closed, and in the process of poking that beehive under the Palace…
The Holy Legion, decimated. He had faith in Ravoud, and even that Khadizroth would come through on his promises, now that he had given his word. The restoration of his maimed soldiers would take time, still, and far too many had been slain outright. Ravoud’s analysis was correct; building the Legion’s numbers back to their previous level would require a slackening of their standards, which he was not willing to do, yet. The plan had always been to open recruitment to less thoroughly vetted men and women, but not until the solid core of elite troops had experience working together, and the Silver Throne was not in a position to object. Neither was yet true.
Khadizroth was his own issue, too. He was growing slowly more ambitious, and the current situation would only further cement his hold on the Holy Legion and Justinian’s organization, in addition to the influence he wielded over the other adventurers gathered at Dawnchapel. Sending them into danger last night had been intended partly as a reminder to him that Vannae, at least, was physically vulnerable, but the improbable survival of every one of the team had rendered that an empty gesture. Justinian had his own theories about that, which he would shortly be able, finally, to test…
And as for last night, the loss of the Tide was a bitter pill to swallow. They had fulfilled the purpose for which he had spent the last ten years recruiting and grooming them: a sect of devoted fanatics, without traceable origins or proof of their true affiliation, ready to be hurled at whatever target he deemed necessary. But it was too soon—far too soon. He had intended them for use much closer to the endgame, when the accelerated pace of events would make such violent methods more appropriate, and the need to introduce chaos more pressing. Now, that joker had been played far too early. There was, at this point, no benefit in trying to rebuild them, not even as seeds for more chaos cults such as he’d deployed in Veilgrad. There just wouldn’t be time.
Justinian did not allow himself a smile, but filed away that jolt of inspiration to be refined into a proper plan. As it was, the Tide were gone, used up for no greater purpose than to maintain deniability against the Throne’s increasing suspicions. Sharidan knew who his adventurers were, and he had made a much stronger show of friendship that way than any words from him could have done. It had been necessary, but the loss still rankled. It would be that much more keenly felt, the farther and faster events progressed; he’d been counting on having the Tide to use when he was in a tight spot. He had every hope that the upcoming confrontation with the Rust in Puna Dara would, at least for a while, cement his fracturing relationship with the Throne. It would not do for Sharidan to find reason to move openly against him too soon.
There was that, at least. The one bright spot in all this: the increasing pressure upon him had provided the leverage he needed to force Szaiviss’s hand. The Rust was her pet project, one he was not supposed to know about, and he had at least manipulated her into deploying them too early. The combined forces about to descend on them would wipe out the cult no matter what armaments they had cobbled together. All he had to do was ensure that any remaining tracks he had left in Puna Dara were covered in the chaos, which should not be hard. It would not do, of course, to think Szaiviss harmless or under control, but at least, now, he was confident she had no more external assets.
Except Scyllith. He had better be careful not to pressure her further; if she felt cornered enough to call her goddess’s attention, there would be no end of disaster.
Setbacks, on every side. This entire week had been a debacle without parallel in his plans thus far. None of these setbacks, alone, was enough to form a threat to his plans, but in aggregation the resources he had lost or been forced to expend seriously hampered his ability to maneuver. Not to mention pushing him close to a precipice. If he suffered one more major loss before he could rebuild his assets, it might all be over.
He put his grim ruminations aside, arriving at the door he sought. Almost mechanically, he passed through its security measures, entering a short hall leading to a whitewashed wooden door, and entered without knocking.
The little cottage inside was still somewhat under construction, but it was clearly a replica of that which had been outside Rector’s last workstation. The walls had just been painted, leaving most of the furniture pushed into the center of the floor, with boxes of smaller objects half-unpacked among them.
Ildrin had been splayed out in a rocking chair, the very picture of exhaustion, but upon the Archpope’s sudden appearance she jumped up.
“Your Holiness! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—”
“It’s quite all right, Ildrin. Please, rise,” he said kindly, helping her up from the kneeling position to which she had dropped. “These events have been extremely difficult for all of us. You are well? Getting enough rest?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, don’t fret about me—I know my limits, and I’ll be sure to rest extra when I’m nearing them. It’s not that time, yet; Rector is still have trouble adjusting. He and Delilah need me.”
“Ah, yes,” Justinian said seriously. “And how is he faring, in your view?”
She hesitated, frowning pensively. “Your Holiness…I feel I’ve gained a new appreciation for Rector recently. He’s a creature of—that is, a man of routine, and it’s been very difficult for him, having all his work undone and then being uprooted. He’s making it difficult for us, too. But at the same time… This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s become clear he knows he’s unusual, and is trying to mitigate his own…issues, for our sake. I feel…quite ashamed of the way I thought of him when I was first posted down here.”
“Don’t,” Justinian advised gently, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving her a warm smile. “I know you’ve not mistreated him, or I would have heard about it from Delilah. We cannot help our thoughts, sister; it is our actions which define us. You have done well, here, and if you’ve learned something of empathy in the process, so much the better. For now, though,” he continued more seriously, putting on a carefully measured frown of contemplation, “I’m afraid recent events both here and elsewhere have forced me to adjust a number of my plans. Among other things, I am in need of trustworthy people in a variety of positions. I am sorry to keep shuffling you about this way, Ildrin, but I will soon need you elsewhere. Not immediately—we want to avoid subjecting Rector to any more abrupt changes than we can help, I think.”
“I’m eager to serve in any way you need me,” she assured him fervently. “I will…somewhat to my surprise…miss this place, and even Rector. But we all go where the gods need us most.”
“Quite so,” he agreed, smiling again. “And now, since I have to interrupt our resident genius again, best to do so quickly rather than dragging it out.”
“Of course, your Holiness.”
She followed him through the kitchen, similarly in a state of partial completion, and to the work area beyond. This was different than the workspace of Rector’s last project; though roughly the same size, it was a rectangular room with walls formed of massive stone blocks, not a natural cavern. Something of the same aesthetic was present, in the enchanting equipment lining its walls in a profusion of pipes, glass tubes, and wires, though that was also laid out much differently. The total apparatus was far bulkier than the previous one, but rather than concentrated in clumps, lined the walls and climbed to a central crystal disc set amid brass and copper fixtures in the middle of the ceiling. Apart from that disc, and the runic control console laid in the center of the chamber and connected to the rest, most of the arcane materials were clearly connectors; the bulkiest parts of the structure appeared to be small shrines spaced around the walls at regular intervals, each prominently featuring the sigils of a god of the Pantheon.
At their entry, Delilah turned and started to kneel, but before she could complete the gesture, Rector barked impatiently without looking up from his console, “There you are! I’ve been waiting!”
“Rector!” Delilah exclaimed, turning to face him. “Don’t speak that way to his Holiness!”
“It’s quite all right, Delilah, no harm is done,” Justinian said soothingly, striding into the room. “I apologize for the delay, Rector, there are numerous demands on my time. It sounds as if all is in readiness, then? Shall I proceed?”
“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, I’ve had it set up for an hour,” Rector grumbled, still fidgeting with the runes on his console, his finicky motions evidently more for something to do than because anything needed to be done.
“Very good,” Justinian said calmly, striding across the room to a shrine set up in the center of one of the shorter walls, linked with enchanting paraphernalia to the two in each of the nearby corners. Prominently featured upon it were the gears and hourglass of Vemnesthis, one of the few gods whose sigil was not widely known—in his case, because he had no worshipers.
All around him rose a low hum as Rector powered up the new device. This time there was no sign of the Avatar, and in fact no display surface in which one could have manifested, but only the activation of various arcane circuits and their accompanying musical tones and azure light effects. Each of the shrines around the edges blazed to life, as well, glowing a mellifluous gold and emitting harmonic tones like the clearest of bells.
Only the shrine of Vemnesthis remained dark, until Justinian reached out to touch its sigil with both his hand and his mind.
There was, and could be, no other device like this in the world. Only a sitting Archpope could invoke the powers of individual gods without drawing their direct attention—and even so, much of the apparatus constructed here served to ensure that what they did would not draw the gods’ notice. At his touch, the time-bending power of Vemnesthis poured into the system with the activation of that final shrine, the only temporal effect in the world guaranteed not to draw the Timekeeper’s swift censure.
With the final activation of the structure, the room was suddenly filled with a colossal spider web.
“Please, be calm,” Justinian said over Ildrin and Delilah’s shouts, loudly enough to be heard but careful to keep his own voice utterly serene. “This will not harm you—it was here before. What we have done is created a bridge between the subtler expressions of reality and human perception, enabling us to see this effect, in a manner which makes sense to our own minds.”
Both priestesses edged closer together, peering around nervously. The web was disturbing to look at, in the way that things in dreams did not quite stay put; its strands shifted position when not watched closely, creating a constant sense of motion out of the corners of one’s eye. It all spread from the crystal disc in the ceiling in a most disconcerting display, at once as if the web were a normal one radiating from that point, and a constant spiral funneling into it like water down a drain. Always in furious motion, yet totally constant. It was almost physically painful to look at; they all quickly decided not to.
“Your Holiness,” Delilah whispered, staring at him.
Justinian stepped back from the shrine of Vemnesthis, lifting his hands to study them thoughtfully. He was linked to the web—in fact, strands lay thick over both his arms, connecting to his fingers, wrapped around his waist and upper body. Every movement he made caused the whole thing to tremble.
“Don’t be alarmed, Delilah,” he said gently. “This is not directly harmful. We are simply seeing, now, the machinations of an entity which does not, at present, exist.”
“I…I don’t understand,” Ildrin said faintly.
“You will find her there,” he said, lifting a finger to point at the swirling vortex of webs in the ceiling. They both reflexively followed his gesture, then immediately averted their eyes. “And this is why it was the power of Vemnesthis, who guards the timeways, that was necessary to finally see it. That creature is dead, and has been for millennia. But it seems that in a time very soon to come, she will not be—and is reaching back through time to arrange things to her benefit. Possibly to arrange her own resurrection. Try not to think about it,” he added kindly, smiling at their expressions. “Causality breaks down in matters like these. That is why Vemnesthis and his work are so important.”
“But why is it all attached to you?” Ildrin squeaked.
“Not just me,” the Archpope said gravely. “I have noticed something, recently. A pattern, which this begins to confirm. Certain individuals, being drawn forcefully together in the face of events—and also resisting grievous harm, coming through trials which ought to destroy anyone, unscathed. As if they are being lined up in a particular formation, to serve a particular purpose.”
“So…it’s…good?” Ildrin asked, frowning deeply. “As long as the webs hold you, you can’t die?”
“Nothing in this world cannot die,” he replied. “But I take this as confirmation of my theory. I suspect that I, and the others who are bound to the strands of this great web, will find ourselves all but impervious to circumstance resulting in our death, imprisonment, disfigurement…anything which prevents us all arriving at that point, ready to play whatever part she intends.” Again, he indicated the crystal; this time, they didn’t look, though Ildrin grimaced with remembered discomfort, wiping her palms on the front of her robe.
“Can’t…Vemnesthis…deal with that?” Delilah asked faintly, glancing back at Rector, who was muttering over his runes, making fine adjustments. “Isn’t that what the Scions of Vemnesthis are for?”
“Vemnesthis has no proper cult,” Justinian said solemnly. “The Scions, with the exception of their leader, are effectively enslaved. They are the mages and warlocks gathered from across history, all those who tried to meddle in the timestream, and were given his ultimatum: serve, or be destroyed.” He shook his head. “No… Aside from the fact that this creature is, or will be, superior in power to their patron, the Scions of Vemnesthis are not a force which will stand against an Elder God. She will be ready for anything they do—able, even to subvert them, which makes it the wiser course not to bring them to her direct attention. This apparatus, however, is a thing which should not be, which no one will expect—not even our Pantheon. This is why the gods needs us, sisters. For all their power, there are things in their service which only mortals can do.”
He turned to gaze directly into the mind-wrenching chaos at the center of the spiral of webs, not flinching.
“It falls to us to thwart Araneid’s return.”
Setbacks…but also new opportunities.
“Hang on!” she shouted over the crash of the waves. “In fact, it’d be better if you sat down, but at least hang on!”
He ignored her, clinging to the bowsprit and staring grimly ahead through the spray, as he had since they had passed through the guardian stones and from calm, sunny seas into this chaos. The boat tipped over the precipice, shooting straight down the colossal wave into what seemed a chasm in the surface of the ocean.
He tightened his grip, wrapping one hand more firmly in the rope. He was stronger than a normal human by far, but even so… They were picking up terrible speed, and seemed about to plow straight into a wall of water thrown up by the undulating sea, taller than the walls of Tiraas. He drew in a breath, and closed his eyes, and they hit.
The boat plunged under—everything was water, roaring and pulling him, and suddenly, it was gone. Everything was gone. The noise, the pressure… Even his clothes weren’t wet anymore.
He opened his eyes, peering around at the flat, shimmering expanse of the ocean around them, glittering calmly beneath a sunny sky, then swiveled to look behind. The boat was in perfect condition, showing no sign of having just passed through that tempest. The towering sentinel stones that ringed Suffering were not to be seen, nor was the island.
“Woo! Made it again!” Karen cheered, pumping one fist in the air. Her heavy black robes prevented him from getting a glimpse at what she really looked like, not that he’d been curious enough to investigate. “I told you it was nothing to worry about. Next stop: Onkawa! Well, the docks below Onkawa, depending on whether you count them as part of the city proper. I do, just for simplicity’s sake. I don’t know what kind of sense it makes to build a city up on a cliff and its wharfs way down below, but hey, what do I know? I’m just the ferryman. Ferry person. I dunno, I’ve had Avenist passengers yell at me for it, but it doesn’t sound right, ‘ferry person.’ ‘Ferryman’ rolls off the tongue, y’know?”
She carried on prattling, as she had from the moment he’d stepped aboard, and he turned his back on her, tuning her out. Other things demanded his focus.
He could feel them again. The others, and his Emperor. But…distantly. Distorted. Altered. Something terrible had happened in Tiraas, something which cut at the core of his Empire. He feared the worst—anything which could alter the Hands had the potential to topple the Silver Throne itself. No wonder she had been so anxious to get rid of him, if something like this were about to unfold.
And that, at least, told him where to start. He would not be able to trust the others, at least until he learned what had happened, and how to free them from whatever the effect was that all but cut them off from his senses. It would be necessary to be cautious, subtle, investigate slowly and carefully. But at least he knew, circumstantially, who had to be behind it.
There was one Hand of the Emperor left, and Tellwyrn would rue the day she turned against the Silver Throne.
She closed the chapel door gently, and paused for a moment just inside to gaze abstractly into the dimness. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, creating shifting patterns upon the floor in the absence of fairy lights, and a heavy floral scent hung in the air from the veritable mountain of bouquets piled around Ravana’s resting place.
Slowly, Tellwyrn paced down the central aisle, turning her head to study each sleeping student without stopping. Natchua, she noted, had a Narisian blessing talisman resting on her chest just above her folded hands—one carefully painted in House Awarrion colors. Nothing had been sent from her own House. Other gifts and tokens lay in each of the improvised beds—coins, candles, notes, flowers, sent by fellow students and family members alike. More than that, in Ravana’s case.
Only at reaching the end, Shaeine’s resting place, did Tellwyrn finally stop. For a long moment, she gazed down at the sleeping drow. Then, moving slowly and wearily as if suddenly feeling every one of her three thousand years, she turned, and sank down to the floor, resting her back against the wood. There, she tilted her head back, gazing emptily through the silence.