Tag Archives: Hawthorn

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“First things first.”

He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.

“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”

Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…

“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”

Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.

After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”

Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.

“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.

“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”

She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…

“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.

“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.

“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.

“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”

“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.

“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”

“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.

“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”

“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”

“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”

“But—”

“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”

Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.

“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.


She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”

Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.

“Computer, display the time.”

Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.

And there was no question of going back to sleep now.

Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.

Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.

“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”

“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.

About anything relevant, damn it!

It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.

“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.

“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”

“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”

“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”

“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”

“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”

“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”

“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.

“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”

The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.

“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”

“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”

“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”

“Apology accepted.”

Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”

She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”

“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”

“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.

Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.

The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.

“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”

Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.

She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.

“Yrsa?”

Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”

And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”

That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.

“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”

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12 – 45

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“And how’s the wide world above?” Walker asked as Milanda stepped off the platform.

“Humming along,” she said wearily. “It took the lads a few hours to find Lord Vex and get him to the safehouse. Which makes perfect sense, considering they’re supposed to be out of sight and he’s the head of an entire Imperial ministry. Still, the communication network they set up seems to be working, and Vex thinks that’s a pretty reasonable turnaround. I’ll take his word for it; I’m not very up on spy stuff, myself.”

“Seems it could be faster if we gave him one of these,” Walker suggested, tapping her earpiece.

Milanda shook her head. “You know exactly why that’s not a good idea. Putting Infinite Order technology in the hands of a man like that is just asking for it to be all over the Empire by the end of the year.”

Walker fell into step beside her, and they walked in silence till they reached the corridor.

“Would that be so terrible?” Walker asked finally. “I mean, on a case by case basis; I’m not proposing to bring the Corps of Enchanters down here to poke around. But weapons aside, there’s a great deal technology can do to improve the lives of people. Convenience, transportation… Agriculture. Medicine.”

“Remind me again how the Order themselves ended up?”

“Dead of their own hubris, which had to do with their ascension rather than the technology which got them there in the first place. And anyway, that’s not really a consideration anymore. Thanks to the Pantheon’s interference, ascension is only even possible at intervals of a few thousand years. I don’t know when the next one is, but I suspect the current gods would prevent anyone from taking advantage.”

“I suspect they’d prevent anyone from doing anything too dramatic with these machines; putting them into wide circulation seems like asking for trouble.” She sighed. “Honestly, Walker, I don’t really think you’re wrong. And I don’t think you’re the only person who’s had this idea; the Avatar has been dropping hints about helping humanity. I suspect he’s got plans beyond the Empire and the Hands. But… I can’t help being leery. It seems like a bad idea to abruptly jump a civilization forward several steps. People don’t always do well handling the powers they have responsibly. Giving them things they haven’t built or earned…”

“Well, you may be more right than you know,” Walker acknowledged. “Humanity managed to turn its original home into a charred ruin without getting jumped forward that way; clearly, responsibility in use isn’t an integral part of a new technology’s development. When the Infinite Order left, the world governments were focused on repairing the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Actually, it was contributing to that effort that earned the Order permission to claim this planet in the first place. Then again… Recorded history to that point was only three or four thousand years, and in that time they escalated from stone tools to spaceships. People here started well ahead of that, and in twice the time haven’t made it as far. Clearly the situations aren’t the same.”

“There weren’t gods on Earth, were there?” Milanda asked dryly.

“Oh, there were gods. Just not real ones.”

“Well, anyway… It’s something to consider, but we have more urgent concerns. Vex was overall pleased with the outcome of the…excursion. Some of the intel I gathered has already proved useful; he may be able to get the Conclave to lean on the Church. Of course, it’s too early to tell what the full repercussions are of my…misadventure.”

“In a way,” Walker mused, “that weapon may help us, there. Those things are known on the surface; they’ve been popping up, off and on, for thousands of years. Any bard’s story about a great warrior being undone by wielding a cursed sword? If it was a tale based on real event, it was probably one of those. An Archpope will either know what it was, or someone will be able to tell him, and that will raise the question of just who owns such a thing and was brazen enough to actually swing it at people. In fact, this may help deflect attention from the Empire. I can’t see anyone working for the Tirasian Dynasty authorizing that.”

Milanda had closed her eyes, and opened them again just in time to stumble into a stack of crates. Walker steadied her, and they threaded their way around, and then through the door to the security hub.

“When I was a girl,” she mused, edging away from that painful subject, “I remember one of my mother’s favorite tragedies was about a Hand of Avei called Ryndra, who took up a cursed sword…”

“Rendre,” Walker corrected, nodding. “Yep. My sisters and I got to see the aftermath of that battle firsthand. She did succeed in cutting through waves of undead to kill Narkroth the Summoner, who deserved just for that name, never mind all the murder. Rendre also cut her own party to shreds, trying to fight in close quarters with them, using that damn fool sword. The wounds that killed her were clearly caused by it, as well. No curse, Milanda, just absurd weapon design. What the bard’s story doesn’t tell is that the Black Wreath arranged for it to fall into her hands. I’ve always suspected Elilial herself dug it out of some Order vault for that purpose. The Sisterhood had the sense to lose it in a cellar somewhere after that.”

Milanda sighed heavily. “Lesson learned. In any case… Vex also had good news. It seems there have been no new outbursts from Hands of the Emperor in the last couple of days, and indications are their general pattern of aggressiveness is leveling off. Walker…is it possible the problem the Church’s agent caused could be self-correcting?”

“Possible,” Walker said immediately, “but I can’t recommend strongly enough that we not count on that. Remember, this system is made at least partially of fae magic. It’s an organic structure, and one thing organic systems have in common is they heal if you damage them. Not all wounds are alike, though. Sometimes leaving them alone is the best thing you can do. With things like cancer, though—or just a broken bone, for that matter—the worst possible thing is to leave it to carry on in its wrong configuration. No, I wouldn’t expect this to go back the way it was. In the best case scenario, it’ll stabilize into something its designers didn’t intend. Do you really want to gamble the Emperor will be better off that way?”

“No, of course not,” Milanda replied, rubbing at her eye with the heel of her hand, as if she could wipe away the fatigue. “Fixing it is still a priority, then… I don’t know how we’re going to find someone who can help. The Empress has this elf shaman who’s been working with her, but…”

“Milanda, I’ve—” Walker broke off abruptly, and Milanda turned to look at her in surprise, finding the fairy wearing a clearly uncomfortable expression. “Ah, never mind. An elder shaman is at least a starting point, as long as it’s someone the Empress trusts.”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, staring at her. Something nagged at the back of her mind about this, some sense that she ought to pursue it…but she couldn’t quite catch the idea to pin it down. She was so tired… After last night, she hadn’t dared try to sleep, and the gifts the Avatar and the dryads had bestowed on her didn’t seem to be helping as much as last time. “Well. Anything to report from down here?”

Walker made an annoyed face. “Nothing significant. No more attempted incursions from without. I have been finding recent access to various things by someone who’s not me. Security cameras, mostly, records, inventory lists… No real pattern. I begin to wonder if showing Hawthorn how to use the computers was a good idea. Actually, I’m glad you brought it up, Milanda. The nature of your anti-Walker security program is that I can’t even query the program to see what’s allowed and what’s not, but I can already tell it isn’t intended to block dryads, since she can use the teleporter and I can’t. There’s nobody more childish than someone who has lived for centuries without any encouragement to grow up. Hawthorn herself could unleash who knows what havoc by blundering around in this facility, never mind if the other two start feeling exploratory. I’d suggest you talk with the Avatar about this. Locking them out might be safest… At the very least, someone should talk with them about what not to poke around it.”

“Great,” Milanda groaned, already picturing how that conversation would go. “Has she been into anything dangerous?”

“Not that I can tell. The only thing that looked like a real attempt to get around security was a rather persistent access of the lifesign readings on those humanoids in suspension down by the hangar. She hasn’t tried to open up any sealed chambers, at least so far.”

“Where is Hawthorn?”

Walker shrugged, glancing around the room. “I guess she went home. I’ve not seen her in a few hours. But…you see my point. I don’t know where she is, and one of the things I’m blocked from doing is setting up security alerts to let me know where people are in the facility.”

“Right, point taken,” Milanda said with a sigh. “All right, I’ll have a word with…her. And with the Avatar. And… I think I need a nap after…”

“First,” Walker said firmly. “Milanda, you are swaying. Go try to sleep.”

Milanda stared blearily at her for a moment. “I’m…a little afraid to.”

“You need to,” Walker said gently. “Humans function poorly without rest. You have plenty of reason to be upset, Milanda, but please don’t torture yourself on top of it.”

“Vex wants me to see a mental healer…” She hadn’t even intended to say that. Gods, if she was tired enough to just blurt such things out…

“That is excellent advice,” Walker agreed. “If you don’t trust anyone he suggests with the secrets you have to keep, which is reasonable…again, talk to the Avatar. He wasn’t programmed for therapy specifically, but he was designed for sapient interaction, and has access to the entire database of psychological science accumulated by the human race. And he’s been shepherding three dryads for decades.”

“That’s a point,” Milanda acknowledged. She hadn’t even thought of that. It would protect the spaceport’s secrecy… But how much could she trust the Avatar? He was definitely working his own angle. She’d already put herself repeatedly at his mercy… But not with the contents of her mind.

“Later, though,” Walker insisted. “Go sleep, Milanda. At least for a few hours.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” she muttered, turning and heading in the direction of the barracks. Luxurious as the Infinite Order’s accommodations could be, she was already feeling lonely for her bed in the Palace, the company of Sharidan and the other concubines. They were the closest friends she’d ever had; cultivating deep relationships within the harem was the only way they prevented anybody from exploding in jealousy. This was the longest she’d been alone in…

“I’ll be right out here if you need anything,” Walker promised, and Milanda paused, turning to smile at her.

“Thanks.”

No, not alone. Not quite.


At least she didn’t dream.

Milanda had more than expected to. If anything, she would have been surprised not to hear the screams and the humming of that damnable weapon, smell the ozone and seared flesh… But there was nothing. It was probably fatigue. She had no clear memory even of getting to her chosen bunk; Hawaiian Night was still playing, and the soothing sounds and breeze fell on her like a hammer. It had been all she could do to reach the bed before losing consciousness.

That lasted until the unspeakable noise roared through the room.

Milanda catapulted herself out of the bunk, landing in a combat stance with the preternatural grace of her new reflexes even before being fully awake. It took about two seconds for consciousness to reassert itself, and the situation to become clear.

One of the screens, across from her bunk at an angle, was displaying a flashing sequence of abstract images. And the noise…was music. Nothing she was familiar with, but that had clearly been a brass fanfare which had awakened her.

While she stared at the screen in disbelief, a male voice began speaking in a low monotone over the tune.

“I think it’s time to blow this scene, get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two—”

“Computer, pause playback!” she exclaimed. Instantly the sounds stopped, and the screen stilled.

“Heeeeey. I was watching that!”

Milanda whirled to find Hawthorn sitting on the bottom bunk, the next row over from hers, looking put out.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” she roared.

The dryad had been scowling and in the process of opening her mouth to deliver one of her characteristic acid comments; at Milanda’s bellow, she froze, eyes widening in alarm, and actually scooted backward against the wall.

“I—I was… It’s really good, Walker suggested it. I’ve only seen three episodes—”

“Hawthorn,” Milanda snapped in a somewhat milder tone, “what are you doing in here?”

“…am I not allowed in here or something? Cos you can’t tell me where—”

Milanda took one step toward her.

“I was sleeping!” the dryad squawked, skittering toward the other side of the bunk. “You get to, so why can’t I?”

“You were—Hawthorn, you have a bed. You have a home you can go back to, with your sisters. You’ve got your own personal world. Why are you not sleeping there?”

“Oh, those two,” she said crossly, folding her arms. “I went back and I was so excited to tell them about everything I’ve seen and they were all ‘where were you’ and ‘we had to do everything’ and just nothing but complaints and criticisms and I was not in the mood. So I came up here to sleep. There was a bunch of junk on all the beds, but you’d cleared one off so I did too. Walker said it would be fine as long as I didn’t bother you or wake you up and ohhhh. Oh. That was kinda loud, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, Milanda, that’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking.”

Milanda rubbed her eyes and turned blearily to examine the room. The tropical night scene was still playing in the wall screens (except the one), but the lights were on now. Also, while she had neatly stacked the room’s stored contents on the beds, the crates which had been on the bunk Hawthorn now occupied had been unceremoniously swept off and piled in the aisle, where they made a neat roadblock preventing access to the kitchen and bathroom.

The dryad at least had the grace to look properly abashed. Under Milanda’s silent stare, she hunched her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to. Um. I can watch it later. Let’s just go back to sleep.”

Milanda dragged a hand over her face. How long had she been out? Not enough to be much less exhausted, now that the adrenaline spike of her rude awakening was starting to abate.

“I think we need to have a talk about you messing around with the computers,” she said.

“I was just watching my show,” Hawthorn said defensively. “Walker said that was fine. It’s part of our cultural heritage! You should watch some more films. There’s great stuff in there! But, just…not while you’re sleeping. I am sorry, that was inconsiderate.”

“Inconsiderate, thoughtless, and dumb,” Milanda snapped. “And if that’s how you’re going to act, you cannot go messing around with the systems or going into sealed off rooms, Hawthorn. Not even opening up boxes. The Infinite Order were evil and completely crazy. There is dangerous stuff hidden in this place!”

“I didn’t do any of that,” the dryad protested, frowning now. “Look, I’m sorry for the noise, okay? But just cos I messed up doesn’t mean you get to accuse me of whatever passes through your head.”

She rubbed her eyes again. This, even more than most conversations with the dryads, was one she should probably have when she was more alert.

“Hawthorn, look,” she said, deliberately calming her tone. “Talk with Walker about that, would you? I am really too tired for this. But you could get hurt in here. Yes, even you. And if that happens, your mother will have a fit. Gods, that’s Tiraas right above us—the absolute last thing anybody needs is a dryad in distress anywhere on the property.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Talk to her,” Milanda insisted. “Will you please? Promise me.”

“Sounds boring,” Hawthorn said sullenly. She sighed heavily under Milanda’s stare. “…oh, all right, fine, I’ll talk to her. But maybe…after we get some sleep.”

“With regard to that,” Milanda continued, allowing her voice to sharpen again, “go home, Hawthorn.”

“But they’re being mean to me,” she whined.

“Deal with it,” Milanda said without sympathy. “If the interactions I saw down there were typical, you’re plenty mean to them. Also, they have some reason. They had to help me with these gifts, and apparently it would have been a lot easier with you there. Look, they’re your sisters, right? They love you, and you love them. Don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Hawthorn muttered.

“Then go talk to them, and work it out. If you care about someone, you have to address these things, not just run away. All right?”

The dryad sighed dramatically, but scooted forward and swung her feet off the bed. “Fine, fine, I’m going. You lecture even worse than the Avatar.”

Milanda folded her arms. “Mm hm. But am I wrong?”

Hawthorn paused in the act of standing up to give her a look, then actually cracked a smile. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I bet you’ll be a really good mother, Milanda. You should have kids.”

Most of the time, she could have brushed that off—and had, more than once. Right now, though, she was sleep deprived, her emotions already stretched nearly to a breaking point, and the offhand comment fixed her in place as if she’d been nailed down.

“See you later, Milanda,” Hawthorn said at the barracks door, yawning and waving absently.

Milanda stood frozen in place even after it had hissed shut behind her.

“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to,” she finally whispered at the empty air. Only the sound of jungle birds answered her.

Finally, she made herself move, settling back onto the edge of her bed. The room was still obnoxiously bright. And whatever Hawthorn had been watching was still on that one screen.

“Computer,” she said with more venom than it deserved, “turn that damn thing off.”

Immediately, the whole room plunged into blackness and silence.

Milanda rubbed at her face again. “No, not… Ugh, just the—put Hawaiian Night back on. Only that part!”

The walls obligingly lit up again, showing the tropical scene, and restoring the warm breeze and scent of flowers through the room. Amazing how relaxing that could be; someday, she would have to see if modern enchanting could replicate illusions like that. Sharidan probably wouldn’t like it very much, though. He was such a realist, always determined to stay grounded, even if he did love adding a little touch of whimsy to so many aspects of his personal life. Carefully grounded whimsy.

He would be a good father. She’d always thought so.

This time, it took her much longer to fall asleep again.


When she did finally dream, she knew that it was a dream, which was unusual for her. Still, she wasn’t about to complain. There was no reliving of the horrors she’d seen—and done—under Dawnchapel, just a tranquil forest scene.

Milanda turned slowly, gazing around her. She had never been to an elven grove, but this was more or less what she’d imagined one would be like. The floor was carpeted in lush moss, peppered with tiny flowers and the odd bush. Towering trees rose at wide intervals, their canopies spreading widely to permit only the occasional sunbeam, but the trunks bare and smooth, reddish in the green-tinted dimness. The air was redolent of loam and moss, and not far distant was the soft murmur of a stream.

Perhaps her poor mind had made something to give her a break from the stress of the last days. Perhaps that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Perhaps Vex and Walker were right; she ought to talk to someone about all this…

Experimentally, she tried to will herself upward. She could often fly in dreams, though usually she didn’t realize that they were dreams, or that there was anything unusual about it. This time, though, nothing. The whole scene had an ethereal quality that was dreamlike, the sense that physical boundaries were not what they should be, but she remained firmly on the ground. Well, even still, it was a beautiful respite.

“Ah, welcome. We meet again.”

Milanda whirled and froze. The man before her was one she’d seen only once, and dream or no, did not want to be alone with. He wore a small smile—an apparently genuine one, which turned up not only his lips, but the corners of his eyes.

His solid emerald eyes.

She turned and bolted.

Milanda tore through the trees as lightly as a gazelle. It wasn’t flight, but she was definitely moving faster than normal. Perhaps—

He hadn’t been there a moment before, but suddenly she skidded to a stop, digging a rent in the moss with her feet, as the enormous, sinuous shape of the green dragon appeared directly in front of her. He swiveled his long neck to peer down at her.

“A moment of your time, if you please.”

The voice was exactly the same in this form as in the other. Not that that mattered to her; Milanda took off in a different direction.

Sometimes, in dreams, she could will herself awake. She tried it now. If it was as hopeless as her attempt to fly…

But for whatever reason, it was not. The world seemed to fray around her as she directed her will at it, and she felt an odd lifting sensation, despite not rising upward from the forest floor. It was as if everything around her, though unchanging, were growing thinner, insubstantial enough that she might burst right through…

Suddenly the world seemed to collapse, and she wasn’t awake, but somewhere…different.

Milanda tried to propel herself through a medium that was not empty space, and yet was—space as thick as syrup. She was entangled in strands of gossamer silk, one node in a vast spider web which stretched in all directions. She knew, despite not being able to see them, that every threat which branched out from her led to another person, each of them their own nexus in the vast pattern, all of them being pulled, suspended, shaped.

And she had the oddest sensation that the tension in the webs connecting to her was not trying to drag her down, but to pull her up.

Then something did drag her down, however. In the blur of the transition, she thought she saw a few strands of silk snap, and then she was back in the forest, her feet firmly on the moss.

Again, the dragon was in front of her.

“Enough,” he stated, leaning forward so that his wedge-shaped head hung only a yard from her own. The sheer force of his personality hung in the air like the sunlight itself, pinning her in place. “This power you carry… You did not gather it yourself. Granted, perhaps…or stolen.”

Horrifyingly, the dragon smiled, baring the most nightmarish collection of teeth she had ever imagined.

“Good. That makes this next part much easier.”

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12 – 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

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

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

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

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

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

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

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

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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12 – 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For you being friends with evil?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda sighed.

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

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

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

Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

Walker nodded mutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not your fault.”

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

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

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

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

At last.

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12 – 33

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

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

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

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

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

“Milanda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, quite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Increasingly, they just sound…insane.”

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

“Oh, dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Freeze!”

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

“Do. Not. Move. Not a finger.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a bomb?” Milanda asked shrilly.

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

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

“You are welcome.”

“What does it do?”

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

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

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

“It’s a sword?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker frowned. “What? Why?”

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

“Computer, diagnose the problem with the sensors.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Physical repair is necessary at maintenance access points.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Walker said with a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems like an arbitrary limit.”

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

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

“Attempting connection. Working.”

Walker and Milanda looked nervously at each other.

“Working.”

“Should it take this long?”

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

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

“What would that entail, exactly?”

She had been asking Walker, but the computer answered.

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

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

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

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

Walker shook her head emphatically. Milanda sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Alert: one pending message.”

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

“A message from who?” Walker demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda frowned. “Arcane teleportation is almost instantaneous…”

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


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

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

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

They weren’t alone in the security hub.

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

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

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12 – 17

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Mylion was accustomed to ignoring stares and whispers after his time in Tiraas, and found it interesting and something of a relief that neither occurred in the Palace. It only made sense; courtiers and politicians were always reserved people, and their servants and guards had to be no less so. If anything, he was made to feel more welcome here than in most of the city thus far. Many paid him no mind at all, but those who took note of his presence usually did so with smiles, bows, and polite greetings.

Fortunately, he was not expected nor able to stop and engage any of them, thanks to the pace set by the Palace steward guiding him, and enforced by the two soldiers bringing up the rear. The steward had not told him so in as many words, but he knew well that their black uniforms signified the Imperial Guard. That was as much as he knew, save that the Empress herself wished to meet with him.

Their path ended in an ornate hall, outside a heavily carved door of highly polished oak. The steward turned to him with a courteous smile and rapped at the door with his knuckles.

“Enter,” came her voice from within.

The steward turned the handle and pushed the door open, then stepped back and bowed deeply to Mylion. There was nothing for him to do but nod in acknowledgment and step inside.

Empress Eleanora was engaged in some kind of paperwork at a roll-top desk; upon the moment of his entry, she was in the process of pushing it aside and pulling down the covering, then stood to greet him. Mylion did not attempt to sneak a glance at its contents. They were unlikely to interest him, and she might notice.

The door shut behind him, and he noted that both the steward and the guards had remained outside; he was now alone in this little drawing room with the Empress. Well, that suggested she meant him no immediate harm. There was that, anyway.

“Elder Mylion,” she said, gliding across the layered Calderaan carpet to him. She offered her hand, somewhat to his surprise, in a customary human handshake, not positioning it for a kiss as seemed to be the custom for noblewomen.

“Your Majesty,” he replied, grasping her hand and adding a shallow bow.

“Thank you for attending me so quickly,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I hope the extremely short notice has not inconvenienced your plans in the city unduly. Your willingness to accommodate me is greatly appreciated.”

“Your concern is likewise appreciated, your Majesty,” he replied calmly. “Your invitation was most polite—also appreciated. Of course, that does not diminish my awareness that a personal summons from the Imperial throne is in no way a request.”

Her expression didn’t alter by a hair. “On the contrary, Elder, I haven’t asked you here to put you out any more than I must. The truth is, I have a favor to ask. If you are unable or disinclined to accommodate me, you will be escorted back to your inn with my thanks, and apologies for the loss of your morning. Please, have a seat.”

She directed him to a chair upholstered in silken brocade, seating herself in an identical one positioned not quite across from it, but at an oblique angle, such that they could maintain eye contact easily without locking their attention upon one another. A small table was positioned between them and enough to the side that it was not in the way, with a gilt-edged wooden box sitting upon it. Mylion seated himself slowly. She had not offered him refreshments, as was polite in most cultures, but then, there were none in the room. He judged that if this woman planned to insult him, she would not do it in such a brash way as eating or drinking while he went without.

This was the first time he had seen her, making it a point as he did to avoid human nobility—a hard-learned lesson from his youth. Eleanora Tirasian was much as rumor described her: beautiful and powerfully self-possessed. She was reputed to be a crafty and ruthless person as well, but so far, at least, had been nothing but polite. Hopefully that would continue. Hopefully her promise on the subject of his release would be kept. Oh, the steward who had appeared at his inn this morning had been very polite, almost unctuous, but it was as Mylion had said to her. One did not refuse a direct request from the Empress. He had decided to avoid needless trouble by not bothering to try.

“First,” she said evenly, “what I wish to discuss with you is a matter of great sensitivity. I must ask for your word, before proceeding, that you will keep this in the strictest confidence. No one can be told of this.”

Mylion regarded her in silence; she simply gazed back, showing none of the impatience that humans usually did when stared at. Well, it only made sense that one of the world’s preeminent politicians would have learned the value of patience.

“My loyalty,” he said finally, “is to my tribe above all. The elves as a whole second, and with them, the balance of nature itself. I am willing to be of help to humanity, and even political groups of humans such as your Empire, but you must understand your position upon my list of personal priorities. I mean no insult, your Majesty, but you ask for a blanket promise under unknown circumstances. I can’t possibly give a guarantee, when I don’t know what effect this matter will have upon my people.”

At that, she actually smiled slightly. “You’re concerned that we have designs upon your groves?”

“In fact, we watch the Empire carefully for such designs. Many elves my own age and more still resent having been pushed into our current lands, from the much broader fields we once roamed.”

“The Elven Reservation Act does grant your people free passage across Imperial territory.”

He smiled in return, very thinly. “It is quite a thing, being allowed to tread upon lands which were our homes for centuries before their current inhabitants existed. But I take your point. No, I don’t suspect the Empire of meaning harm to the groves; it has been a fairly respectful neighbor in recent centuries. Serious human incursions haven’t been a problem since you settled the Enchanter Wars, and your own dynasty has been…diplomatically amenable, when we have occasionally found need to parley. My concern is more general.”

She nodded. “Fair enough. Matters are already uncertain on our part, with elves flitting about and communicating between groves at a rate unprecedented in our history, not to mention actually holding congress with various Narisians. I suppose my request for a blanket statement must seem equally mysterious.”

“I am, of course, unable to comment on grove business,” he said serenely.

The Empress leaned subtly forward. “For our part, we have learned to leave the elves alone, by and large, because little profit has ever come from trying to force our attentions on them. I have only a general sense of why elves disdain widespread commerce with human nations, but in the end, the space between us is largely by your choice. I can only imagine what the last hundred years must have looked like, to immortals. I would certainly understand if you feared coming to the same end as the Cobalt Dawn.”

“No elves I know have ever blamed the Empire for that,” he said immediately. “The Cobalt Dawn tribe lived deep within the Golden Sea; tribes from the borderlands, who actually interacted with the human settlers, warned them not to attempt their conquest, and were ignored. We are a reclusive people, your Majesty. There is little we respect more than a group’s right to defend itself.”

She nodded. “We have made dizzying progress recently, and at a rapid pace. And as I look over the history of the Empire since the Enchanter Wars, the theme that constantly jumps out at me is connection. The more advanced we become, the smaller the world grows. Frictions inevitably result. We all have to learn to live with the proximity of those who used to be only distantly seen. Even the dragons have learned this lesson; I’m sure you are aware of the Conclave of the Winds. I may be wrong, but it appears to me that with the elves have made the same discovery. If it’s not the reason your groves and Tar’naris are suddenly in more constant contact, it must at least be a result.”

She leaned back again, folding her hands in her lap, and regarded him closely. “I did not ask you here for purposes of general diplomacy, Elder Mylion. I have a very specific need, and according to Intelligence, you are the most likely person in the city to have my answers.”

“I?” he inquired.

The Empress smiled again. “There are only a few Elders who leave their groves, and fewer still who happen to be in Tiraas at the moment. I also wished to speak with one who is a shaman of well-known skill. You were the most convenient prospect.”

“I see.”

“But now that we are here,” she continued, “it seems diplomacy is called for, and that is how I see this matter, Elder. I am asking you to meet me in the middle. I will respect your privacy, and you will respect mine. And by doing this, I also demonstrate that the Silver Throne is not too proud to ask for help, when necessary. Perhaps this will set the stage for further reciprocity between us.”

Mylion permitted himself a small sigh. “Rulership must be a relentless teacher… You speak with admirable wisdom for one so young.”

“You flatter me,” she said with a smile. “Twice.”

“Flattery is empty,” he said wryly. “I give compliments when they are warranted, and often with qualifiers. ‘Young’ is not a term of esteem where I am from. I do see the sense of your argument, your Majesty. Very well… I will grant you this. If I can help you without compromising my duty to my people, I will do so. That duty will always come first, and will supersede any promise I make you. I ask only that you consider this, and please do not place me in a position where I have to go back on my word.”

“For my part,” she said seriously, “I can assure you that the Empire has no current designs on the independence of the groves; it is Imperial policy to leave you strictly alone as much as possible, which is nearly all of the time. I do have a concern, however, that this matter will impact your business. Not because Tiraas seeks to interfere with the elves, but because the evidence suggests that elves have tried to interfere with Tiraas. So I caution you, Elder: if you know anything of this, be warned in advance that what I ask of you may bring you into that conflict.”

Mylion frowned. “I am aware of no elven plot against the Empire. If such exists, I would consider myself duty-bound to end it as swiftly as possible. Ideally through the agency of my own people, but it it comes down to a choice, I would consider it more important that whoever has done this be stopped, before they bring the wrath of Tiraas down on us all. Whatever that demands.”

She nodded. “Then we have terms. And an agreement?”

“An agreement,” he replied, offering his hand. She took it again, this time with a firmer shake.

“A final question, then, before we proceed,” the Empress said, taking the box from the nearby table and holding it in her lap. “I apologize for the impertinence, Elder, but were you planning to have children in the near future?”

He slowly raised his eyebrows. “I was not. You pique my curiosity, your Majesty. This is…relevant to your query?”

In response, the Empress thumbed the catch on the box and opened it, revealing a handful of chocolates in brown paper wrappers nestled on a black velvet lining. “Try one, please, Elder.”

He studied the candies, then lifted his eyes to meet hers. She gazed back at him calmly.

“I would hardly poison or drug you at this juncture,” she said with the ghost of a smile, “after all that wrangling.”

“Forgive me,” he replied, finally reaching forward to choose a chocolate. “I didn’t mean to imply that. This simply grows…more and more curious.”

Mylion carefully unwrapped the candy, under her even gaze, and bit off half of it. The Empress simply watched in silence while he contemplatively chewed and swallowed the confection.

He took another moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.

“I see. Your concern is appreciated, your Majesty, but your last question was unnecessary. Sylphreed only works as a contraceptive for women.”

“Ah. Forgive me, but we have almost no current knowledge on it.”

“I can, at a guess, see the shape of this, I believe,” he continued. “The Emperor has yet to produce an heir, this is not so? A state of affairs which seems most odd for such a reputedly virile man who does not lack for dedicated female company.”

She simply nodded in silence.

“I’m curious… If sylphreed is now unknown to you, how…?”

“Through happenstance,” the Empress said with a grimace. “The Palace recently had an uninvited visitor who helped herself to most of the rest of this box of candy, and commented on it.”

“Uninvited visitor?” He frowned. “Who would dare…”

The Elder trailed off, and they gazed at each other in silence for a moment. Then he sighed.

“Arachne?”

“You know her, then?”

“I have had the very great fortune never to make her acquaintance in person,” he said fervently, earning a small smile. “I doubt there are any elves who don’t know of her, though.”

“This has been perfectly characteristic of her,” the Empress said with the faintest tightening of her mouth. “Unexpectedly helpful, in the course of being obnoxious.”

Mylion sighed. “What a mess. I can show your alchemists how to test for the presence of sylphreed in food, which I suspect that are currently unprepared to do. My methods may be different, but I’m confident they can adapt them. And beyond that, your Majesty, I will certainly assist you in this matter, in whatever manner I can—with the previously mentioned proviso. No, in fact, in pursuit of that same objective. Securing the welfare of my people demands that I help you hunt down the source.” His expression fell into a concerned frown. “I don’t know where this came from, or who has brought it here, but they are jeopardizing the stability of both your people and mine. If elves are involved in this, I assure you, they will rue it.”


“You believe me?” Milanda asked in some surprise. “Just like that?”

“Your story is not difficult to understand or accept,” the Avatar replied. “We likely would not take it at face value in the absence of any corroborating evidence, but in fact we have that. His Majesty recently came to visit us to inquire about the stability of the system, citing unusual behavior in a Hand of the Emperor. Subsequently, Apple has probed at the transcension field effect supporting the Hands and detected irregularities.”

“So did I!” Mimosa added brightly.

“And didn’t bother to tell anyone,” Apple snapped at her.

Hawthorn grunted around a mouthful of the apple Milanda had brought, which she had nearly finished eating. “Wouldn’t have mattered. Not like either of you came up with details, just funny feelings. Now we’ve got stories from up top that match it, though. I figure this is a real problem.”

“So you came down here to fix it?” Apple asked Milanda, who nodded.

“Yes, if that can be done. Do…you know how?” she asked the Avatar, choosing not to mention Sharidan’s order to find a way to destroy the system if it couldn’t be salvaged.

“That is difficult,” the Avatar replied seriously. “As it is, we cannot even diagnose the problem accurately, nor determine its source. At issue is how the Hands are made, and how the linkage between them works.”

“Can you explain it to me?” she asked.

“Eee, story time!” Mimosa squealed, folding her legs under her on the divan. Hawthorn snorted again.

“This function is executed through Administrator Naiya’s personal transencsion field,” the Avatar began, “the source of energy you know as fae magic. It is a hybrid structure, requiring these dryads both for their extremely high levels of energy and control necessary to maintain it, and also because their status as avatars of Administrator Naiya enable high-level access to the Infinite Order equipment when form the other part of the system.”

“We help!” Mimosa said with apparent delight, clapping her hands. Hawthorn rolled her eyes, while Apple threw an arm around Mimosa’s shoulders and jostled her affectionately.

“I…don’t think I understood all of that,” Milanda said carefully. “If I follow correctly, this Infinite Order… That’s the Elder Gods?”

“It is the name of their organization,” the Avatar replied, “which may now be considered effectively defunct. I have confirmation of the survival only of Naiya and Scyllith, and also confirmation of their lack of collaboration since the Order’s collapse. There may be other survivors, but there is no conclusive evidence for it, and they appear to have been inactive in the eight thousand years since, if indeed they do still exist.”

“I see,” Milanda mused. “So this…this trans…”

“Transcension field!” all three dryads chorused.

The Avatar nodded, smiling at them. “It is a technical term. Your society refers to the effect as ‘magic,’ which is not incorrect. Transcension fields were first conceived, in part, as a way to create what had previously only existed in fiction.”

“In a word, magic,” she said with a smile.

“Precisely.”

“So…this thing with the Hands runs partly on these dryads, and partly on some surviving equipment of the Elder Gods? The stuff in the mithril hall up there?”

“None of the machines which serve that function are actually housed in or near that particular hall, but you have the idea. The complex itself is extremely large, occupying a great deal of the space under this mountain. Since it was sealed off, the Tiraan have only been able to access that very small portion. In fact, that is the core of our problem. Considering the limitations involved, Empress Theasia’s creation was quite ingenious: with the aid of the dryads and the very limited jury-rigging she was able to perform of the still-accessible equipment, she cobbled together the network empowering and sustaining the Hands of the Empress—now, of the Emperor. The necessary drawback of the system is that it is not fully understood even by its creators.”

“I miss Theasia,” Apple said wistfully.

“Here’s our problem,” Hawthorn stated, directing herself to Milanda. “We don’t do magic, in the way you humans do. No…finger wiggling or spells or anything to make specific effects. We are magic, but really all we’ve got is the gifts our mother created us with. So we can sort of sense things about the condition of this magic, but actually doing careful and specific alterations?” She shook her head. “Hopeless. I don’t even feel any of the irregularities these two are talking about. Frankly, I suspect Pinky here of making her part up to sound smarter than she is.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said stridently, then scowled. “And what is that supposed to mean?!”

“Do not sell yourself short, Hawthorn,” said the Avatar. “You have a more methodical and linear style of thought than your sisters. It makes you somewhat less sensitive to intuitive matters such as this, but may be helpful in resolving this problem.”

“So…there’s nothing we can do?” Milanda asked plaintively.

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Apple said, chewing on her lip. “Crap, that’s bad. We gave the Hands a lot of power. If it’s making them crazy, they’d be real dangerous. I hope Sharidan’s okay…”

“What is necessary,” said the Avatar, “is the aid of someone capable of using the Infinite Order’s systems.”

“Someone like you!” Mimosa said, grinning.

He shook his translucent head. “As you know, girls, when I consented to my removal from the systems of the facility to be re-installed on a closed network here, I gave up direct access to the main systems above. The facility itself is now run by the sub-OS, which will require a skilled user to make any significant alterations in the absence of an Avatar.”

“Can you be…put back into those systems?” Milanda asked.

“Yes,” he said seriously, “but not without completely resetting the entire network. My current position is part of it. This might de-power the Hands, or contribute to their decay. Or virtually anything else; I’m afraid the irregular nature of this structure results in great unpredictability.”

“They could even explode,” Mimosa said solemnly, making an expansive gesture with her hands. “Kaboom.”

“Unlikely,” the Avatar said with a smile, “but not, I’m afraid, out of the question.”

“So it is hopeless, then,” Hawthorn mused. “Hmm. Sounds like the most responsible thing we can do, here, is shut down the whole damn thing.”

“But we’ve worked so hard at it!” Mimosa said plaintively.

“Oh, shut up,” Hawthorn snorted. “Literally our entire contribution has consisted of lazing around here in kept luxury and occasionally screwing people.”

Milanda blinked. “Um. Screwing people?”

“Yeah!” Apple said brightly. “Y’know, Emperors, prospective Hands. It’s how we bond them to the magic!”

Milanda turned to stare at the Avatar.

“Due to certain idiosyncratic design features Administrator Naiya instilled in them,” he said with apparent calm, “their sexuality is a rather central aspect of their limited ability to access magic. This particular system involves ritual magic which does, indeed, have a sexual component.”

Milanda closed her eyes. Sharidan. No…he only inherited this mess. She rather doubted he had found his role in it objectionable, but this had been designed by his mother. Which brought up mental images she could have done without.

“That’s interesting,” she said aloud, “but doesn’t really help. There doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this. Can we shut it down from here?”

“Possibly,” said the Avatar, “but before we commit to that course of action, your statement is not entirely correct. There is a known individual skilled in the use of Infinite Order technology—one who is immediately accessible, in fact. She is currently imprisoned in the holding facilities above.”

Milanda went pale. “That…creature? Sharidan told me never to let her out. She threatened to kill me!”

“The Emperor’s warning was wise,” the Avatar agreed solemnly. “She is extremely dangerous to any biological life which exists in her vicinity, and not altogether mentally stable.”

“Wait a sec,” said Apple, frowning. “Who’ve they got up there?”

“She is known in current folklore as the Dark Walker,” said the Avatar.

“I have no idea what that means,” Apple said crossly.

“I do,” Milanda whispered. The Dark Walker was the kind of story used to frighten children into going to bed. Supposedly, she simply walked in straight lines, over mountains, under oceans, across continents and through cities, leaving behind a trail of blackened grass and dead bystanders, killing everything she encountered simply by existing near it. Milanda was no scholar of folklore, but she had read in passing that the Walker, like other horrors of the Age of Adventures, had credible evidence supporting her existence, but had not been actually sighted in so long that much of that was dismissed as myth.

Of course, if she had been locked away in recent decades, that could also explain it. Omnu’s breath, that thing had been under the Palace.

“She dates from the era of the Infinite Order,” the Avatar continued, “and had in fact been an assistant to Administrator Naiya. She can operate the computers. I suspect she would even be willing to bargain for her freedom, which provides a means of securing her cooperation.”

“How’s she supposed to cooperate with this critter if it’ll just kill her?” Apple protested. “Honestly, we just made a new friend, and you wanna kill her? Rude!”

“I’d prefer to leave the…Walker…locked up,” Milanda agreed.

“Actually, there is a means of rendering you invulnerable to her dangerous traits,” said the Avatar. “She, like the dryads, draws her power from Administrator Naiya’s transcension field. However, while their access and expression is very direct, hers is…inverted. She ends life, while they support and sustain it. A strong magical tie to the dryads will shield you. That, in fact, is how the Hands of the Emperor were able to capture her: they are immune to her power. If we make you a Hand, you can safely release and work with her.”

“Ooh!” All three dryads cooed in unison, straightening up and beaming at Milanda.

She flushed. “Oh. Um. Well.”

“If you find the prospect uncomfortable,” the Avatar said with a smile, “let me point out that we will need to modify it in any case. If we introduced you to the system as it currently is, you would immediately be subject to the same flaws which are causing the Hands to degrade. The dryads are not affected, which signifies that they are not the source of the trouble, and should be impervious. I believe I can design a different means of creating something similar to a Hand of the Emperor, enough to provide you the requisite protection, without making you vulnerable to the system’s current failures. It should be a relatively simple matter of making do with the resources available here, and not tying you into the network. And, if you wish, it should be possible to do this in a way which does not require any greater intimacy than you are willing to offer.”

“Aww.” The dryads simultaneously deflated, pouting.

“That sounds perfect,” Milanda said firmly. “What do we need to do?”

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12 – 16

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She landed in an awkward heap, having scraped her lower back badly on the lip of the door, her legs folded under her at a painful angle. A moment later, the damn apple thumped softly to the grass next to her head. Well, she was about due a stroke of luck; if it happened to roll back through the doorway, at least it wasn’t sitting up there in the hall for the Hands to find.

Wait, grass?

Milanda untangled herself as quickly and gracefully as possible, sitting upright to take stock. She managed to collect only a quick impression of her surroundings: it seemed she was now outside, somehow, atop a hill on a much sunnier day than it had been in Tiraas. That was as much as she could spare for the scenery; immediately her attention was focused upon the other person present.

Directly in front of her stood a pretty young woman, completely nude and with fists planted on her hips in an annoyed posture. Her expression, however, was quizzical. She was taller than Milanda and far more lean of build, nearly flat-chested and just short of bony, but it was her coloration which was most eye-catching. Though not as bad as the creature in the cell, it clearly wasn’t natural: she was pale-skinned, with a very peculiar complexion of subtle striations rather like willow bark, and had a mane of feathery hair which seemed to have been dyed in patches of pale green and white. Her eyes had white irises.

“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re new. Are you the jackass who threw that apple?”

“I’m very sorry about that,” Milanda said, getting to her feet and sketching a polite curtsy. “I was just trying to see if the door was safe. I didn’t hit you, did I?”

“Please, I’m far too nimble for you to hit,” the girl said scornfully. “It’s rude to toss crap into people’s homes, though.”

“Again, I apologize. I didn’t realize—”

“What was that?”

Milanda blinked. “Um. What was what?”

“That…thing.” With an irritated expression, the naked girl did a very brief and awkward pantomime of her curtsy. “Looked like you were dancing.”

“Oh. It was just a curtsy. It’s like a bow. It’s polite, meant to show respect.”

“Hm. Weird.” Her expression cleared somewhat, though. “Still, respect is good. You seem sorta nice, if clumsy. What are you doing here?”

“Well, as to that…”

“Hey!” Another young woman appeared over the crest of the hill, waving exuberantly. She was shorter and rounder than the first, but just as nude, with a rosy complexion and hair shimmering in shades of pink and red. “Whatcha got there, Hawthorn? Who’s this? Someone new?”

“That’s what I was just finding out,” Hawthorn said irritably. “If someone would shut up and let me talk to her.”

“Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here,” the new arrival said, frowning as she came up to join them. “Only—oh, no!” She gasped in horror and pressed her hands over her mouth. “Oh, I know what this is, it’s just like before! Sharidan’s dead, and now there’s a new one! Oh, that’s so sad! He was so sweet, and we didn’t get to say goodbye…”

“Don’t be a ninny,” Hawthorn said crossly. “The Hands would come tell us if he was dead, like last time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Use your head!”

Milanda took advantage of their brief quarrel to surreptitiously peer around. The hill could have been like any in the Tira Valley: thronged with lush grass, wildflowers and small bushes, with stands of trees in the near distance. The sky was brilliant blue, trailed with wisps of cloud. It was disorienting, though… Almost as if there were no horizon. The ground simply fell away to the sides of the hill, as if it were floating in the sky. The sun, too, was low against the ground off to her left, but it didn’t look right. It was too large, the light too pale…

“Maybe we can eat her!”

Milanda’s attention snapped back to the arguing women at that development.

“Oh, that’s what you think about everything,” the redhead said crossly. “Honestly, I don’t see how you can even consider eating people at this point. It was fine when they were rare and strange, but how many of ’em have we gotten to know, now? It’d just be weird.”

“Maybe I like a little weird now and again,” Hawthorn replied, now eyeing Milanda in a way she didn’t like at all. “Why else would they send us a girl? We don’t need one.”

“Hey, wait a sec,” the redhead said, suddenly stepping toward Milanda, who froze. Not so much because of the approach, but because she had just recalled that a hawthorn was a kind of tree, and put it together.

Dryads.

She was alone who knew where with a pair of dryads. The prisoner’s warning suddenly rang very true. They probably would kill her. They usually did.

The red-haired one grabbed her by the arm and tugged her close, burying her face in Milanda’s hair and inhaling deeply. Milanda kept still, trying to breathe as little as possible. Neither her youthful education in Viridill nor her court-learned political skills had prepared her for this. Fairies were known to be generally insane; there was no telling how these two might react to anything she did. The only real certainty here was that she had no hope of physically extracting herself from the dryad’s grasp.

“Mm,” the redhead mused, finally pulling back. “Come smell her.”

“So we can’t eat her, but you want me to smell her?” Hawthorn folded her arms and looked snide. “Apple, are you trying to piss me off, or just being a nitwit?”

“You’re such a jerk,” Apple said without rancor. “Fine, if you’re too good to see for yourself, I’ll tell you. She smells like Sharidan. He’s all over her. So no, I really don’t think you should eat or otherwise hurt her, because I bet he’d be very upset.”

“Hnh. Well, fair enough, I suppose.” Hawthorn turned a challenging stare on Milanda. “All right, then. Who are you, and what are you doing in here? We’re supposed to be a secret.”

Apple had released her but not backed up; Milanda shifted her weight slightly to gain some personal space, but decided not to risk antagonizing either of them by trying to get further away. “I’m here because the Emperor is in trouble. Do you two know anything about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Course we know about the Hands, we make them,” Hawthorn snorted.

“Wait, hold on,” Apple interjected. “What do you mean, Sharidan’s in trouble?”

“Something has gone wrong with the Hands,” Milanda explained. “They’ve started acting very erratic and unhinged, and strangely aggressive. They’ve begun threatening people who don’t deserve it, even the Empress. And they are developing abilities they didn’t have before. Some kind of teleportation.”

“Nonsense,” Hawthorn stated. “We don’t mess up.”

“Hah!” Apple pointed triumphantly at the other dryad. “I told you! I said something was weird!”

“Oh, please, you and your weird feelings don’t add up to something wrong with the Hands.”

“Me and my weird feelings plus someone telling us that something is wrong with the Hands adds up! You’re just being snippy because you were wrong!”

“I wasn’t wrong,” Hawthorn retorted, her voice riding in pitch.

“Well, I know a way we can settle this quick enough,” Apple replied, turning around. “Hey, Avatar!”

Milanda turned to follow her gaze, finally beholding the other side of the door she had come through, and was immediately disoriented again. It was way too far away; she hadn’t moved from the spot where she’d fallen from the step, but the thing was a good two yards distant. Also, it hovered motionlessly two feet above the ground. Apart from that, it looked like the door she had entered, its black frame carved into complex, blocky shapes, blinking here and there with tiny lights, all framing a seamless pane of blue light. It had the little glowing panel on the left of the frame, but also a very large one on the right, the size of the door itself and hanging lower so that it nearly touched the ground. This one was fully transparent.

At least, at first. At Apple’s hail, an image appeared in the glass pane, like a reflection, showing a thin, bald man wearing a peculiar tight suit, his skin and clothing a uniform purple. The image was translucent, but solid enough that she had no trouble making out details.

“I heard the entire exchange,” the purple man said in a peculiar voice, resonating as if echoing down a tunnel. He bowed to Milanda, who belatedly stepped forward after both Apple and Hawthorn made their way toward him. “Greetings, madam. I am Avatar Zero One, the administrative AI originally responsible for the planetary spaceport, and currently the personal custodian for these three avatars of Administrator Naiya and their private residence.”

She didn’t even try to untangle all that, well aware it would only get her lost in endless questions. She curtsied more deeply in response. “Greetings, sir. I am Milanda Darnassy, companion to his Majesty the Emperor, Sharidan the First.”

“Ooh, that’s a pretty name!” Apple trilled. Hawthorn rolled her eyes.

“Thank you,” Milanda replied with a smile.

“I am distressed to hear that the Emperor is imperiled,” the Avatar continued, serious-faced. “I believe we should discuss this in some detail. However, there may be a more urgent consideration. Do I infer correctly, based upon the circumstances as you describe them, that you are in this facility without the authorization of the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Yes, but I do have Sharidan’s authorization,” she said quickly. “He sent me here to look for a solution to the problem. But he wasn’t able to tell me what to expect down here due to the geas upon the place, and right now the Hands are considered untrustworthy.”

“I see. That being the case, and considering the ability of Hands of the Emperor to observe access to the facility, I surmise that one shall be here presently to investigate.”

“Oh.” Milanda went pale. “One was approaching when I came in… I mean, the prisoner out there said…”

“Prisoner?” Apple asked curiously.

“Then we should make haste,” the Avatar said quickly. “On the surface I am inclined to believe your account, which means you should swiftly absent yourself from view of the door. Apple, would you kindly escort our guest to the nexus?”

“Glad to!” Apple chirped. “Ooh, this’ll be fun! We get to be sneaky!”

“You do realize he’s sending you because I’m the only one smart enough to lie to a Hand, right?” Hawthorn asked smugly.

“Girls, please,” the Avatar said firmly as Apple turned to scowl at her sister. “Make haste. There may be little time left.”

“Oh…fine. C’mon, Milanda Darnassy. Can I just call you Milanda?” the dryad asked, already marching off downhill.

“Actually, I’d prefer that,” Milanda replied, jogging to catch up. Despite being no taller than she and rather plump in build, Apple set an impressively brisk pace. Perhaps she’d taken the Avatar’s warning to heart. “It’s much more comfortable that way, between friends.”

Apple gave her a sunny smile, her pique of a moment ago seemingly forgotten. She glanced pointedly over her shoulder and pressed a finger to her lips in an exaggerated motion. Milanda, feeling equal parts foolish and amused, nodded and winked. Well, foolish and amused was much better than fearing for her life.

The walk was even more disorienting than what she had seen thus far. They proceeded down what seemed to be a steep and ever-steepening hill; it looked like it must surely fall away into a vertical drop at any moment. Yet, her sense of balance told her she was walking on perfectly flat ground. Risking a glance back, Milanda discovered that the door had disappeared over the horizon. In fact, when she peered about, the scene looked very much as it had from the doorway itself, albeit with different trees and bushes in sight: as if she were standing on top of a hill.

Only belatedly did she put it together. This thing was round; it was a whole world. A very, very tiny one. Where had that door taken her? Surely there wasn’t a miniature planet under the Palace…

Apple led her silently toward a gap in a particularly large stand of trees up ahead, and Milanda focused on the sight of it heaving up over the shrunken horizon. It approached with disquieting speed as they traversed the rolling landscape, enough that soon she realized this was actually a sizable hill, ringed by a crown of towering oak trees. Only when they reached the treeline itself did she discover that the hill was hollow, its slope concealing a deep basin. And there, the surprises continued.

She could see at a glance that what lay below had originally been the product of the same intelligence which had created the facility beneath the Palace. This wasn’t made of mithril, looking more like burnished steel, but the depression was completely regular, with an octagonal floor in the center and flat metal panels forming its sloping walls. Two of these had metal steps attached to them, with accompanying handrails; she couldn’t see the one onto which Apple was leading her, but the one opposite had pale green lights glowing from beneath each stair. In the center of the metal floor stood a thick column, apparently of glass and bordered with a steel framework, containing two swirling substances suspended together; there was a heavy, glowing green stuff that seemed liquid based on the way it moved, while all around it roiled a pale blue gas, whirling as if caught in a hurricane. Panels like the one in which the Avatar lived by the door stuck out from this column on two sides. Two of the sides of the basin itself had large glowing screens thrust vertically up from them, as well.

Atop that, though, was all the evidence of long habitation. Furniture of clearly modern make had been brought here, a disorderly profusion of beds, sofas, chairs, and random scattered cushions and rugs. A lot of it was in rather poor repair, and there was even a pile of smashed chair pieces shoved into one corner. Shelves were lined with books, there was a pianoforte set near the glowing pillar, and a wild profusion of more personal items and knicknacks were strewn over every surface. One corner of the space had clearly been given over to food—which meant meat, apparently, to judge by the well-gnawed animal corpses present in varying stages of freshness. Amazingly, she detected no odor of decay.

Apple bounced cheerfully down the steps, Milanda following more slowly, taking it all in. No sooner did she reach the bottom, though, than a pile of rugs strewn over a nearby settee suddenly heaved up to reveal another dryad, this one with pink hair, blinking sleepily at her.

“Who’s this?”

“Shhh!” Apple waved her arms frantically over her head. “We’re being sneaky!”

The pink one blinked slowly, twice, cocked her head, shifted to study Milanda, and then shrugged with supreme unconcern. “Kay.”

“This is Mimosa,” Apple said as the new dryad swung her legs off the couch, yawning. “Mimosa, this is Milanda Darnassy, one of Sharidan’s mates.”

“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said haughtily. “It’s unnecessary elvish. It’s pretentious.”

Apple rolled her eyes. “Sharidan made the mistake of telling her what ‘pretentious’ means. We haven’t been able to make her grasp the connotation.”

“It means I think I’m better than everyone!”

“That is not a good thing!” Apple said in exasperation.

“How could it not be?!”

Milanda cleared her throat. “Um, sorry to interrupt…but we were trying to be quiet, I think?”

“Oh.” Apple winced. “Right.”

Mimosa yawned again. “Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“Milanda says the Hands have gone crazy!”

“Huh,” Mimosa mused, sitting back down on her erstwhile bed. “Guess you were right about something being off. I thought I felt something funny with the attunement…”

“You could have said so,” Apple said, annoyed.

Mimosa shrugged. “I wasn’t sure enough to be worth arguing with Hawthorn. She always ends up calling me stupid. So what’s wrong with the Hands?”

Both dryads turned to look expectantly at Milanda.

“Hadn’t we better wait for Hawthorn and the Avatar?” she asked, somewhat nervously.

“Oh, why bother?” Mimosa snorted. “I wanna know now.”

“If we wait, she won’t have to explain it all a second time,” Apple said. “Be a little sympathetic.”

“Pff, once we understand, we can explain it!”

She was spared having to intervene in this by the appearance of Avatar 01 in one of the screens flanking the central column.

“For what it is worth, girls, I concur with our guest. It would be polite to wait for Hawthorn; her feelings will be hurt if we proceed without her.”

“She hurts my feelings all the time!” Mimosa shouted, causing Milanda to wince.

“I know,” the Avatar said with a kind smile. “And don’t you enjoy having the opportunity to be the better person?”

“That—I mean, yeah!” Mimosa nodded vigorously. “That’s right, I am the better person. She wouldn’t wait for her to come!”

“If she weren’t waiting, she wouldn’t need to,” Apple pointed out.

Mimosa blinked at her. “Huh?”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry about the noise,” the Avatar said to Milanda, who appreciated the distraction. Her first meeting with dryads hadn’t ended with her expected gruesome death and she was still disappointed; they acted like unruly children, and not particularly bright ones. “It is barely audible from the gate’s current location, and in any case, shouting is quite characteristic of our residents. I assured the Hand that no one had entered, and he took me at my word. Hawthorn will join us presently.”

“Thank you very much,” she said fervently.

“Not at all,” the Avatar assured her, serious-faced now. “I am designed to assist. It appears to me that we have a great many important things to learn from one another.”


The villagers milled about, coughing and waving away the dust, while Hasegawa stared in disapproval at the wreck. Fortunately, the new mill was on the outskirts of town, and the sudden drop of the enormous millstone hadn’t damaged anything but the ground, already torn up by the construction work around it. Even more fortunately, no one had been underneath. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and let it out the same way, glaring his disapproval at the crane set up just this side of the crates of enchanted equipment which, allegedly, would make the completed mill run without the aid of wind or water.

Hasegawa waited for everyone to calm, looking to him for direction, before speaking.

“Ishimaru,” he said flatly, “someone could have died. Explain this failure.”

The crane operator had already climbed down, pale and shaken. “I—I don’t understand, Headman. I—I checked the knots. I checked them, three times, like I always do! I don’t know what—” He broke off, swallowing heavily, then bowed as deeply as he was physically able, his upper body dipping below parallel with the ground. “I take full responsibility, Headman. I am very sorry.”

“Excuse me?” Hasegawa turned his stare on his daughter, who had actually climbed up the crane to examine the knots. Hasegawa Kanako had a habit of inserting herself where she wasn’t invited, and not for the first time he felt he ought to rein her in…but she never spoke or acted with anything less than the utmost respect, and more often than not, her borderline presumptuousness resulted in something useful. This appeared to be the case now. “Father, these ropes were cut.” She held up one of the now-dangling lines. “In fact, they were frayed. See, there are four scratches across this; the weakest one snapped when Ishimaru hoisted up the stone. This was done with claws.”

Once again, Hasegawa heaved a deep sigh. This was the fourth time in the last month. He of course had made all the requisite offerings at the shrines bordering the Twilight Forest before initiating any construction in his village, had even been far more generous than tradition demanded. And the offerings had been taken; had the kitsune ignored them, he would not have dared proceed. There was also the slim comfort that if the fox-goddesses were legitimately angry, they would make it plain. But these little incidents… This was more than the usual run of pranks.

“It can’t be helped,” he said. “We will replace the ropes and proceed again. Ishimaru, oversee this. Your ropework is always meticulous.”

“Yes, Headman!” Ishimaru said with clear gratitude.

“If I may?”

Hasegawa turned at being addressed from behind, and only his very keen awareness of the dignity of his office kept him from gasping and stepping back as most of his fellow villagers did.

She simply lifted a hand, and the millstone rose seemingly of its own volition. It drifted through the air, settling gently into its intended resting place inside the still-roofless mill.

“On behalf of the village, I thank you very much for your help, Teruwan-sensei,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I don’t know what good fortune has brought you here, but we are in your debt.”

“Oh? I don’t remember introducing myself,” Tellwyrn said with a smile.

“Forgive my presumption, Teruwan-sensei. No elves live in Sifan, and your distinctive appearance is part of your legend. If I have named you wrongly, I humbly apologize.”

“It’s close enough,” she replied, still smiling, her characteristic golden spectacles glinting. “I see you are in the middle of something and won’t take any more of your time than I must.”

“Our time is yours, in thanks for the help you have given,” he said politely, inwardly cringing. What next? It was an old trick to place someone in your debt before demanding a favor in return, and who knew what this alien creature out of myth wanted? What was she doing here? “How may we aid you?”

“All I need is a little advice, from someone familiar with the lay of the land.” She shifted and tilted her head significantly at the distant treeline. “How have they been, lately?”

Ah. Well, that he was glad enough to tell her.

“Lately?” Hasegawa replied, frowning. “Unusually…playful. When the kitsune are displeased, they are not subtle about it. We have not been punished, so I don’t believe them to be upset. Recently, though, we have had the honor of witnessing many of their little jokes. Unusually many. Something has roused them… What it may be, or what they truly feel about it, is not for such as me even to guess.”

“I see,” she mused. “Then I’ll have to be extra careful not to irritate any of them, for the sake of everyone in the region. Kuso. I hate being careful; especially now, when I don’t have time for it. Regardless.” She bowed politely to him. “Thank you very much for the warning, Headman. I regret that I cannot stay to talk more politely, but as I said, my business is urgent.”

“I would not dream of impeding you, sensei,” he replied, bowing in return. “When you have time, please visit us again, so we may properly repay your kindness.”

She smiled. “You are too kind; I will remember the invitation. Farewell.”

He stood in silence, watching her proceed down the road, before it occurred to him that there was a lot of standing in silence going on in the general vicinity. Hasegawa turned to scowl at the assembled villagers, who immediately scattered back to their tasks. Having the millstone in place so soon helped their schedule a great deal, but there was still much to be done.

Kanako approached him rather than her work, though. “Is that really all right, Father?” she asked quietly. “We should offer her hospitality, at the very least.”

Hasegawa held up a hand, and she fell silent. In the legends, elves could hear even better than kitsune, but he couldn’t recall if there was any specific reason his daughter would know that. He resolved to rectify that hole in her education; with Tiraas an ever-growing menace looming on everyone’s horizon, it could not be safely assumed that the people of other lands were not their business any longer. The Queen attended to such matters, usually, and yet… The elf was here.

“This is for the best,” was all he said. Indeed, it was better than having the infamously troublesome elf a guest in their village. Hasegawa’s people already had to deal with their own terrifyingly powerful immortals without catering to foreign ones, too. Let them deal with her.

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