Tag Archives: Ildrin Falaridjad

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“You are more!”

The Rust cultist had chosen a good spot, right at a broad intersection where a street running perpendicular to the wharves was crossed by another leading into the city in one direction and onto Kapadia’s pier on the other. It was broad enough that the street preacher could not be justifiably shooed away by the city guard for blocking traffic, though the two standing nearby would dearly have liked to, judging by their scowls. She had indeed drawn a crowd, some dozen loitering about out of the path of vehicles and pedestrians, few looking particularly taken in by the ongoing speech. Their expressions ranged from amused to skeptical to, at best, thoughtful. The preacher seemed not the least dissuaded by this lack of enthusiasm.

“So much of life, of the things which surround us, are nothing more than illusion—in fact, the bars of a cage!” She was really into her sermon now, actually pacing up and down a small stretch of the path, gesticulating with her artificial arm. “The things which bind us to what we think of as our place: our roles in society, our lack of resources, our obligations, these are only excuses! The truth, the only real, ultimate truth, is in here!” She paused, facing her audience directly, and tapped at her temple with one fingertip. A metal fingertip, which produced an audible ping against the piece of metal running along the side of her head. “These things bind us because—and only so long as—we accept them! The true work of life is to decide our own reality. To decide what life we wish, and then to decide that is our life—and by deciding, make it so. In the end, it is nothing but our own thoughts with determine what our reality is.”

She was a Punaji woman in her later middle years, her face lined and hair entirely gray, though in movement she was vigorous as a much younger person. Attired in the traditional baggy pants, cloth wrap wound around her chest, and sailcloth greatcoat, her only unusual aspect of costume was that the left sleeve had been torn off her coat to display the metal arm.

It was clear, from this, where the Rust got their name, assuming all the others looked similar. The type of metal was hard to place; its color was coppery from a distance, but in a flat matte tone which did not gleam under the tropical sun. It was the color of rust, though smoothly even, without the variation in hue that actual rust tended to have. And whatever it was made of, the arm was clearly quite functional, moving smoothly and without so much as a squeak. Her metal shoulder was hidden by the ragged edge of the greatcoat’s torn sleeve, but the elbow was a simple hinge with a rotating socket below that, the wrist similar; a set of taut wired like extended tendons attached controlled the movement of her fingers. In the center of her metal palm was a circular hole in which a red metal frame like a jewelry setting held a wide disc of blue glass. She had a similar but smaller blue piece set between her eyebrows, in the same place where Ruda wore her tiny jewel, though the street preacher’s was attached to a strip of metal which ran from that point to somewhere behind her ear, where it was lost in her hair.

“It can be a painful thing,” she continued, pacing again, “a frightening thing, to acknowledge and accept responsibility—to accept the role each of us has played in creating our own disappointments. But in that responsibility is freedom! When you realize that nothing has been forced upon you, that you have created the reality in which you live, when you truly realize that, then you realize that you alone have the power to make your world anew!”

“This is nothing but arcane mysticism,” Fross muttered in annoyance. The group standing off to one side of the intersection had drawn almost as many odd looks at the Rust street preacher, though with Juniper wearing her disguise ring only Tellwyrn and Fross seemed truly outlandish; Ruda was the only one who was clearly Punaji, and the contrast with everyone else on the docks made it clear from her attire that she was a rich Punaji. “That’s just disappointing. I thought at least they’d have something interesting to say.”

“It’s what, now?” Juniper asked in the same soft tone.

“Oh, I guess Professor Yornhaldt hasn’t really gone into that in the intro to magic classes… Well, if you take a lot of his electives like I do you’ll hear him complain about this. Arcane mysticism, that’s what she’s talking about. The idea that thoughts influence reality, because of stuff that only works on the sub-atomic level. You know, wave functions collapsing when they’re observed, all that.”

Juniper tilted her head inquisitively. “Isn’t that just…magic?”

“Yes!” Fross chimed irritably, raising her voice slightly, though not enough to compete with the preacher who continued to rant. “It’s a description of how magic works, but for it to be valid, you need actual magic. That’s what magic is; that’s the whole point of it! Without magic, you have zero interaction with anything pertaining to arcane physics. Thinking happy thoughts does absolutely nothing to change the world! The world has lots of inertia; thoughts have none at all.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glancing at the pixie. “I’m glad to see you’re not going to go through an arcane mysticism phase, Fross. A lot of magic majors do, the first year or two. There’s a reason Alaric is so annoyed by it.”

“You mean, magic majors at our school?” Fross sounded downright offended. “Oh, now that’s really disappointing.”

“Hey, yeah, question!” Before any of them could stop him, Gabriel raised his hand and stepped out into the intersection. Instantly, he caught the attention of most of the onlookers, and also the preacher, who paused mid-speech to peer at him. “How come you guys attacked the Silver Legion?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. Toby sighed heavily and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

“Real fuckin’ subtle, Arquin,” Ruda muttered, jamming her hands in her pockets. She didn’t intervene, however. Tellwyrn just watched this unfold with an eyebrow slightly cocked.

“You aren’t from around here, are you, my young friend?” the preacher asked, smiling indulgently at Gabriel.

In fact, having black hair and a dark complexion for a Tiraan, he could almost have passed for Punaji, especially in the Punaji-style coat he wore. He didn’t even look as rich as Ruda, aside from his belt from which Ariel and his wand hung: both were clearly expensive. All hope of that vanished as soon as he opened his mouth and displayed an Imperial accent, however.

“Are you?” Gabriel shot back. “I mean, sure, the Punaji have been wearing enchantments longer than almost anyone. These coats would be idiotic in this climate without their weatherproof charms. That metalwork, though, that’s some freaky stuff. Something tells me you didn’t pick that up at a local blacksmith. Does that have something to do with what you hit the Legion with?”

The murmurs intensified, but the street preacher did not betray unease even by glancing around at her audience.

“And why,” she asked, “would you cast blame for such a thing at me?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Who else?”

She shook her head. “That question has countless answers. The one I asked is better: Why do you feel the need to blame me, in particular?” Her kind smile never wavered as she continued. “I have found that people who are eager to cast blame are struggling to create a sense of order in their own lives. If you can identify an enemy, it grants a feeling of control. That is an illusion, though, and a dangerous one. To define oneself in relation to an enemy is to give up all power in one’s own life. Trust me, my friend, you will not find your answers in designating villains—they are in you. Everything you need, you already have, and already know! All you require is to master yourself!”

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “But if I think you guys are the ones who attacked the Legions, doesn’t that make it so?”

At this, a good number of the onlookers laughed outright, and some started drifting away. The preacher showed no hint of unease, however, smiling more broadly still.

“From blame to mockery—you are running down the list of the desperate gambits I’ve seen in everyone struggling to find meaning in life. Farther down that list comes real hardship, friend. If you would like to talk over what is really troubling you, perhaps I can help?”

“Another time, maybe,” Gabriel said noncommittally, turning and sauntering back to the others.

“Well handled,” said a new voice, prompting the students to turn to the spot to Tellwyrn’s right, where Kapadia had been before he’d gone back to oversee his business.

Though he did not wear the traditional furs, which would have been suicidal in Puna Dara’s heat, they didn’t need to see the bronze wolf’s head pinned to the shoulder of his light tunic to recognize the man as a Huntsman of Shaath. He wore his hair long and his beard untrimmed, the former tied back with a simple length of leather and the latter in apparent need of brushing. From his heavy belt hung a tomahawk and quiver bursting with arrows; he carried his longbow in one hand, and had an enormous hunting knife, almost large enough to pass for a short sword, lashed to one boot.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, while behind him the preacher resumed exhorting the passersby to think their way out of their problems. “I was kinda gambling she wouldn’t hex me or whatever in front of all those people. She doesn’t seem to be making much headway, though. Nobody seems really interested; the only ones watching seem to think this is a comedy show.”

The Huntsman shook his head. “They do not need to believe, they just need to listen. We are seeing only part of the strategy here; elsewhere, others of the Rust will be deliberately seeking out the vulnerable. People down on their luck, adrift from the familiar, people in need of a friendly ear. Those are ripe for recruitment into cults. This one is serving to spread their philosophy so that it does not seem as alien when it is encountered more intimately.”

“And you know a thing or two about this strategy, do you?” Teal said flatly, folding her arms.

The Huntsman turned to her and bowed; his beard made it hard to tell, but by the shifting lines next to his eyes, he seemed to be smiling slightly. “Among our duties is to seek out whose who are called by Shaath and guide them to his path. I have often found myself in this role, being less uncomfortable in cities than some of my brother Huntsmen. We, however, do not…preach.” He glanced sidelong at the gesticulating Rust cultist, who appeared to be paying them no attention now. “Some faiths want every soul they can gather in; Shaath only needs those who are truly called to his side. Not for nothing are we the smallest of the Pantheon cults.”

Ruda cleared her throat. “Apropos of nothing, why do I have the feeling you bein’ here isn’t a coincidence?”

He glanced again at the cultist, then lowered his voice slightly and took a step closer. “I had the same thought. Forgive me, Professor Tellwyrn, but you are distinctive, and your habit of bringing groups of your students into crises is known. When I saw you here, amid the troubles assailing Puna Dara and watching an example of their source, accompanied by a group of somewhat exotic young people…” He smiled up at Fross. “Well, I made an assumption. I am Brother Ermon. Well met to you all.”

“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “The Huntsmen aren’t generally interventionist. Why take an interest in this?”

Ermon’s expression fell into a frown, and he again glanced at the Rust preacher. “It’s no secret that my religion and Avei’s agree on virtually nothing. In the end, though, they are sister servants of the gods, however misguided. The cults stand united against such as the Wreath…and I fear this may be something similar. When so many are so brazenly attacked, even the lodges must take notice, and take action. I understand that several of the cults are sending people to Puna Dara. After what befell the Fourth Legion and their Salyrite companions, though, they are doing so less openly.”

“Oh, perfect,” Ruda groaned, rubbing at her eyes with both fists. “That is just absolutely fuckin’ gorgeous. That’s exactly what this city needs right now, half a dozen surreptitious crusades.”

“I think we’d better get a handle on this as quickly as possible,” Toby said seriously.

“No shit,” Ruda growled. “It was real nice meetin’ you, Mr. Ermon, but if you’ll excuse us, we gotta get to the Rock.”

“Wait, we’re going where?” Juniper asked.

“That’s the name of the Punaji palace,” Teal explained.

“Just Ermon is fine,” the Huntsman said, smiling again. “And of course, I quite understand. I will walk you there.”

“Yeah, I know the way, but thanks,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! This is clearly your city, after all. But it’s no inconvenience—a brother Huntsman and I have the honor of being guests of the King, as well. Shall we go?”


All this skulking in alleys offended Ildrin’s sense of propriety, particularly since she was on the side of right, here. Realistically, though, she had already resigned herself to having to do more of it in the future. Especially once Syrinx had finished dragging her name through the mud, it might be some time before she could do much of anything openly again. Events and the need to act wouldn’t wait for that, though, so…here she was.

It was a very discreet house in a very discreet neighborhood, to the point that coming around back to the servant’s entrance, hidden by a tall garden wall and the house itself, seemed almost excessive. Her business here was that sensitive, though, and still not as sensitive as that of the house’s occupant. She could not afford to take risks.

And so, as she’d been directed to do in the case of emergency, she had come here, ignored the kitchen door, and carefully twisted the housing of the fairy lamp next to it in a full circle. Several minutes ago, in fact, and yet here she still stood, her increasingly irritated breath misting on the air. Ildrin shuffled her feet, regretting having chosen to use a warming charm instead of a scarf or hat; it kept her head warm enough, but the little gusts of wind were still almost painful on her ears. Twisting the sconce had caused no immediately evident reaction; she debated doing it again, but still hesitated. If it was anything like a doorbell, standing there and doing it repeatedly would be rude. Still…she had been assured that if she needed to avail herself of this approach, it would always be answered.

She had just given up and was lifting her hand to try a second time when a section of the wall next to her shifted. The seams had not been apparent, being cunningly worked into the pattern of the mortar between the bricks, but now a whole door-sized piece moved soundlessly outward till there was a hairline gap between the edges of the bricks and the wall. Then it swung fully open, revealing the hidden hinges affixed to one side.

Ildrin stood there in affronted silence, glaring down at the figure on the other side of the secret door.

It stood no taller than her knee, apparently some creepy combination of a lizard, monkey, and rat, covered with rough black scales and occasional tufts of wiry fur. It was wearing, preposterously, a tuxedo coat, and staring up at her with gleaming red eyes beneath the brim of a tiny top hat.

After a long pause, she spoke, stiffly. “I need to see Mr. Tanenbaum.”

The imp’s tiny shoulders shifted in a sigh. “Uh…is this really important? The boss is…doing something. This isn’t a great time.”

“I wouldn’t be here, using this entrance, if it weren’t urgent,” she snapped, bitterly resenting having to speak with demon filth, even such a tiny specimen. “I was assured that if I came here…”

“Yeah, I know, them’s the rules,” the imp said with ill grace. “All right, well…you better come on in, then. But you can’t interrupt the boss, okay? He can talk with you when he’s done, which should be pretty soon, but what he’s doing…well, interrupting would be bad.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said stiffly, striding inside. In fact, she stepped over the imp, not waiting for him to get out of the way. To judge by his barely audible mutters, he didn’t miss the implied insult.

She paused inside the cramped little hallway while the imp clambered up the wall, spider-like, to pull a lever at doorknob height, which caused the hidden panel to swing closed again. It was dim in the hall, lit only by a tiny fairy lamp, and there was only one way to go; stairs leading down into darkness.

This time, she waited for the imp to lead the way.

At the bottom it was practically pitch black; Ildrin was still making her way down the staircase, groping carefully for each step, when a scrabble announced the little demon was climbing a wall again, followed by the click of another switch being activated. To her relief, another door swung open, revealing a room lit by the warm glow of oil lamps.

She stepped through quickly, glancing around. It was clearly a study, with a desk on one side and the walls lined with bookcases. Fully lined, in fact; one swung shut behind them to conceal the stairwell. It could have passed for any intellectual’s small private library, if not for the cleared spot in the center of the floor in which the summoning circle had been placed.

There were two occupants already there: a middle-aged man in tweed with a neatly trimmed beard sitting behind the desk, facing a stunningly beautiful woman who stood in the middle of the circle. A woman with alabaster skin, violet-tinged hair, crystalline topaz eyes, spiny wings and a spaded tail. She wore only a crude leather wrap around her waist.

Both the warlock and demon looked up at Ildrin and the imp upon their arrival; the man nodded politely to her, while the succubus sneered, and then they focused once more on each other.

“Forgive the interruption,” he said courteously. “We were discussing your qualifications. Now, of course, I well understand your reason for desiring the position; you needn’t go to further detail on that. Tell me, what would you say is your greatest asset?”

“Well, that’s something I don’t get asked every day,” the demon purred. She cocked her hip to one side, languidly dragging her fingertips down the side of her body in a motion which exaggerated its inherent curve. “If they’re not to your liking, I can, of course, make…adjustments.”

Her heated smile widened slightly, and her body shifted, the curve of her waist drawing inward an inch, her bare breasts swelling. Ildrin repressed the urge to make a disgusted noise, folding her arms and scowling.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat. “Yes, I am of course aware of your innate gifts, my dear, no need to reiterate the basics. There is, however, only the one position, and many prospects who might fill it. I wonder why you, in comparison to other children of Vanislaas I might summon, are uniquely qualified to form a pact?”

“Oh, come now,” she said coyly. “If you’re familiar with my kind, you must know that versatility is what we do. The question isn’t what I’m like, but what you would like me to be like. You’ve already cast the summons; you have me here, ready…and waiting.” She licked her lips slowly, and Ildrin just barely managed not to retch. “Tell me what you want, and that is what I’ll be…master.”

The warlock sighed, shook his head, and closed the book open in front of him on the desk, shifting a sheet of parchment to lie on top of it. From her angle, Ildrin could make out that it appeared to be a list of names, several with lines drawn through them.

“Well,” he said, “I believe that concludes our business here. Thank you for coming, Jezrathin. It appears that you’re not what I am looking for in a familiar at this time, but I will keep your details on file for future needs, and of course I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Hixlpik, the honorarium? Ah, thank you.”

The imp had skittered over to a cabinet beneath a bookcase and pulled out a vial of glittering powder, apparently enchanting dust. Though it was almost as big as his torso, he had no trouble handling it, and in fact easily tossed it through the air into the summoning circle, where the nonplussed succubus caught it apparently by reflex.

“I realize it is an inconvenience to be so abruptly summoned in this manner,” the man said politely, “so consider that a small token of my thanks and apology for the imposition. It’s a sample of very basic arcane enchanting dust, quite versatile for someone who practices the craft, and of course easily transmutable to infernal power. Even if you don’t personally use magic, it will be quite valuable in Hell to those who do. Thank you for coming by.”

The succubus stared at the vial in her hand, then up at the warlock, her previous sultriness giving way to clear frustration. “What are you, some kind of idiot?”

He coughed softly. “Far be it from me to tell you your business, Jezrathin, but as a word of friendly advice, I believe you’ll find that a more professional demeanor opens more opportunities to you. Now, I must bid you good day.”

He gestured almost dismissively with one hand, and the runes on the circle pulsed once with orange light. The demon immediately began fading from view—and from sound, fortunately, as she left them with a string of curses in at least three languages that seemed to linger on the air even after she had vanished entirely. Finally, though, the circle went fully dark. And silent.

The warlock sighed, picked up a pen, and carefully drew a line through another name on his list, then turned to Ildrin and stood.

“Well! Thank you for waiting, I apologize for keeping you. As you can imagine, it is best not to dawdle in these matters, and especially not to discuss sensitive business in front of a child of Vanislaas.”

“That…looked more like a job interview than a summoning,” Ildrin said, intrigued in spite of herself.

“Of course.” Willard Tanenbaum smiled benignly at her. “They are individuals, you know. If one must deal with a Vanislaad, it pays to do all due diligence and select one with the utmost care.”

“And must you deal with them?” she asked skeptically.

“Apparently,” he said with a pensive frown, “the Archpope himself has one on his personal staff. He asked me to find…another. Either as a replacement or to counteract his current Vanislaad, who seems to be growing difficult to manage—as they inevitably do. I strongly doubt the wisdom of bringing another into the equation, but I have observed that his Holiness’s plans always seem to succeed, even when I cannot imagine that they would. It does not pay, I find, to challenge intellects so apparently superior to my own. So! Welcome, Sister Ildrin. Since I was expecting the usual anonymous delivery of reagents, and instead I find you, empty-handed and calling upon my emergency door, I gather something unfortunate has transpired?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “Your source of reagents has been cut off. A group of Eserites stuck their noses in, made off with the lot, and then swiped enough paperwork to reveal the whole method of appropriation and put it in the hands of both Avenist and Salyrite leadership. I was able to protect my Legionnaires and your name doesn’t appear anywhere, but by the time the two cults get through digging into this, both Carruthers and I are likely to find ourselves unable to act within them for some time. Maybe ever.”

“That is a serious problem,” he said, frowning heavily. “Poor Carruthers…the Collegium is his whole life. Well, I will be able to continue the Archpope’s special projects for a while, at least. I can’t use the Topaz College’s resources, as those must be rigorously accounted for, but I have some personal stocks. They will not last long, however.”

“Of course, we’ll find a new source of supplies, and can see about reimbursing you…”

“Not at all necessary,” he demurred, holding up a hand. “Nothing I might do with them is more important than the Church’s work. I simply want to make it clear that my assets are limited.”

“Understood. I’ll pass it along.”

“Eserites, hm.” Tanenbaum stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Do we have any allies in the Guild?”

“We don’t,” she said grimly, “and here is the thing: these were apprentices. They were not supposed to be sticking their noses into other cults’ business, and in fact I understand Boss Tricks is about ready to string them up. That doesn’t help us, though, because Basra bloody Syrinx snatched them from me before I could question them in detail.”

“Leaving,” he said slowly, “the extremely troubling question of where a group of apprentice thieves happened upon enough detail to know of our business.”

Ildrin nodded. “It has to be through one or the other cult, if not both. Since my name is about to be mud in the Sisterhood, I’ve had to delegate Raathi to try to hunt down a possible leak on the Avenist side. That kind of work really is not her strong suit, however. I’m hoping you’ll have a better way to get information from the Collegium.”

“I fear I’m a bit of a recluse these days,” he said ruefully. “Such inquiries would not likely lead me far. However! I think I have just the thing to help us find such a lead, wherever it may lie. Hixlpik, please clean up the circle and lay down a standard djinn containment.”

“On it, boss!” the imp said cheerfully, opening the cabinet again. He produced a handheld duster, which for him was ludicrously oversized, and scampered over to the circle, where he began picking up crystals and candles preparatory to sweeping away the burned-out enchanting dust which made up most of the design.

“You’re keeping a djinn in your house?” Ildrin demanded in horror.

“Ah, I’m afraid that is a misconception,” Tanenbaum replied with an indulgent smile. He stepped over to one of the bookcases and carefully pulled out a single volume. With a soft click, the upper half of the case swung outward, and he selected a single, tall brass bottle from the variety of objects concealed in the hidden compartment behind. “One does not, as such, keep them. Djinn are not contained in the bottles, lamps, and other paraphernalia which are used to contact them, you see. There are but thirteen of the lesser djinn, nowhere near enough for every warlock to summon his or her own. They were once warlocks themselves, a circle who operated in Calderaas centuries ago. They attempted to summon something they should not, and…this is their punishment. Like Vanislaads, they are not proper demons, but human souls bound to Hell. Unlike Vanislaads, they can never leave it. These summonings enable them to interact intangibly with the mortal plane; their ethereal nature gives them vast access to information that way. They seem to pluck it out of the warp and weft of magic itself!”

“What did they try to summon?” Ildrin asked, unable to repress her curiosity.

He grimaced, carefully holding the bottle in both hands. “What we now call a greater djinn. A true djinn. A type of demon which should never be summoned by mortals; they have the power to grant actual wishes, which is what prompts people to try, but they are impossible to coerce or control. The Thirteen came closer than anyone, and…you know, now, what happened to them. I suspect I am preaching to the choir, here, but I’ll remind you that any creature of Hell who does not manifest physical mutation must be interacted with only with the greatest of care. They have the aggression inherent to the infernally corrupted, and express it through manipulation, seeking to create strife on this plane. That is the risk in turning to a djinn for information: they know things that neither fae oracles nor arcane scrying can reveal, but they parcel it out in such a way as to deliberately cause the greatest chaos they can. Ah, thank you, Hixlpik.”

“My pleasure, boss!”

The imp was remarkably efficient; he had swept away the old summoning circle and inscribed one which Ildrin, even with her very basic magical education, could tell was meant not to contain something within, but to block outside influences. At least, she was fairly sure that was what it meant that there was a single ring with all the runes on the outside. Well, presumably Tanenbaum knew what he was about.

Hopefully…

The warlock carefully set the bottle upright in the center of the circle, then gently pulled out the stopper. It came loose with an ease she found vaguely troubling.

Mist immediately billowed forth, quickly resolving itself into the form of a man from the waist up, a quiet cyclone of smoke terminating in the bottle’s mouth serving in place of his legs. He bowed deeply, which was a very odd sight.

“Ah, once again you honor me!” the djinn intoned. “Most esteemed practitioner of the arts, it pleases me more than my paltry words can express that I am graced once again by your company. To be a guest in your exalted home, to be granted an audience with a companion in your quests—these are joys the hope of which sustains me through my isolation in the dark realms below. Tell me, most honored one, how may Ali al-Famibad be of service to you and yours?”

“It is pleasant to see you again, as well, Ali,” Tanenbaum replied, his tone perfectly polite but the greeting seeming almost curt in comparison to the effusive djinn’s. “I have summoned you in accordance with our contract; this guest in my home is an observer to this conversation, but not a participant.”

“But of course,” the djinn replied with an ingratiating smile, bowing again, “nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to assist you, unless it is to do so while upholding my part in a bargain fairly struck.”

Ildrin kept quiet. Part of her bridled at being excluded, but she well understood the point; interacting with this creature, as Tanenbaum had just explained, was inherently dangerous. Much better it be left to a professional.

“I seek information,” the warlock said. “A group of young thieves have intervened in my business. You know the ones, of course.”

“Oh, but of course,” Ali replied, smiling widely. Too widely. How did he already know… Oh, right; warp and weft of magic, and so on. “Most interesting, most interesting indeed. I can tell you little of them, I regret to say. A powerful hand indeed lays heavy upon this affair, one at whose fingers the likes of myself should not pluck.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum mused. “Well, actually, I had not meant to inquire about them directly, but only at their connections. I must learn how they discovered our activities—the source of their information.”

“Ah, the things I could tell you!” Ali exclaimed in tones of dramatic woe. “Alas, ours is a very strict contract, a testament to your most admirable caution. Of course, if you were to relax the terms only a—”

“Quite out of the question, I’m afraid,” Tanenbaum said pleasantly, but with iron firmness.

“Indeed, I greatly respect your wisdom in this,” Ali said solicitously. “Then with my most effusive apologies, honored practitioner, I must be vague.”

“That will be satisfactory,” the warlock replied, nodding.

“I see, indeed, an agent within the house of most noble Salyrene, through whom information flows to these playful young thieves. I see a young man, a man of books and letters more than adventures, a man who nonetheless shies from nothing if pressed. A man who is used to the ways of other faiths. A man who travels with a friendly fireball upon his shoulder.”

A pause ensued, in which Tanenbaum apparently waited for more detail. The djinn only grinned at him, though.

“And that is all you can tell me?” the warlock asked at last.

“Oh, but such things I could tell you!” Ali lamented. “Yet, we have our contract. I must not do less than uphold my part.”

“Tall?” Ildrin said suddenly, frowning. “Dishwater blonde hair, glasses, has a little fire elemental for a familiar?”

“A friendly fireball,” Tanenbaum mused. “Is that description accurate, Ali?”

“Indeed, indeed!” Disturbingly, the djinn appeared inordinately pleased by this turn of events. “Sometimes, I am able to aid my cherished friends even beyond the scope of our formal dealings, simply by connecting one source of information with another. Your compatriot has all she needs to proceed, I believe.”

Ildrin drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, frowning into the distance even as Tanenbaum turned an inquisitive gaze on her.

“Schwartz.”

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Captain Leingardt wasn’t destined for a career in politics; her expression clearly showed the normal reaction of a military officer to having her post invaded by a ranking politician. She managed to speak politely, however.

“Your Grace, what an unexpected…surprise. To what do we owe this…honor?”

The look Syrinx gave her was openly amused, but the Bishop chose not to make anything of it. “Just doing my job, Captain. No need to worry, I mean to do it as quickly as possible and be out of your hair, taking all this baggage with me. So! It seems we have a ‘she said, they said’ dilemma here.” She turned her gaze briefly on Sister Falaridjad, showing the tips of her teeth in a strange little grin, before shifting her focus to the apprentices. “As it happens, I am personally acquainted with all the players in this little drama, and I can attest from experience that these kids are sneaky, unscrupulous troublemakers who evince no care for the repercussions of their antics, nor regard for anyone outside their immediate circle.”

“Now, see here,” Layla began, but Syrinx simply raised her voice and continued.

“And, that being the case, if this were nothing but their word against Ildrin Falaridjad’s, I would still be more inclined to believe them.”

“This is none of your business, Syrinx,” Falaridjad said, practically vibrating with tension.

“As usual, Ildrin, you are cataclysmically wrong,” the Bishop replied, granting her a syrupy smile. “I have spent my morning dealing with this mess in particular—because that is literally my job. We have a tangle of Eserites and Salyrites having created a mess in an Avenist temple, precisely the kind of interfaith issue the Bishops exist to address. As such, Ildrin, I happen to know exactly what transpired on every level of this.” She turned to Captain Leingardt, who was now watching all this unfold without expression. “I have the full reports on the incident at the temple, and no, there was no assault. Of any kind. The only remotely physical altercation was between these two.” She pointed at Jasmine and Layla. “And since they are clearly in league, I rather doubt either intends to press any sort of charge. Further, I made it here so rapidly on their heels because Ildrin, showing her customary lack of basic sense, saw fit to forcibly remove three apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild from the region they most heavily monitor, and was followed all the way here by enforcers.”

Ildrin actually bared her teeth. “That doesn’t explain why you—”

“You will be quiet or you will be punched quiet,” Basra said curtly.

“That is crossing a line, your Grace,” the Captain interjected.

Basra ignored this, continuing. “To answer the question, I was nearby, in the process of being updated by the Eserite Bishop on these very events, and learning the most fascinating things. For example: this was an unsanctioned operation, and Boss Tricks is furious at these little know-nothings for sticking their fingers where they had no business being. However they did, no doubt by accident, manage to accomplish something worthwhile. You see, Captain, the goods they stole were voluntarily returned to the Collegium, along with stolen documentation from both the Salyrite and Avenist sides of some kind of interfaith embezzlement scheme.” She shifted her gaze back to Ildrin, and grinned broadly. “Copies also found their way to Commander Rouvad. And guess whose name featured prominently in this report!”

Slowly, Captain Leingardt turned to regard Sister Falaridjad, and raised one eyebrow. Ildrin herself held silent, glaring at Basra with her fists clenched. The four Legionnaires and three apprentices kept perfectly still, watching all this unfold with wide eyes.

“Well, that was unquestionably a robbery,” Syrinx said, turning back to the Captain. “But it seems their intentions were good, no harm was ultimately done, and in fact both the Sisterhood and the Collegium have benefited. At this point, my own concern is to soothe the ruffled feathers these brats have caused by acting out of line. It’s your call, of course, Captain, but in my official capacity as Bishop I highly recommend, and ask, that you leave the disciplining here to be handled internally by the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You don’t even have to ask, your Grace,” Leingardt replied, nodding. “I reached the same conclusion before you were done explaining. You three can go.” Narrowing her eyes, she looked at Falaridjad again. “I suppose I ought to have this one taken into custody, considering…”

The priestess folded her arms defiantly, but addressed herself to Syrinx, not Leingradt. “You have no cause or authority to do such a thing. I promise you would regret the attempt.”

“The testimony from someone of Bishop Syrinx’s rank, especially backed by documents, is adequate probable cause,” Jasmine said.

The Bishop, priestess, and Captain all turned to glare at her.

“Well,” Tallie drawled, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “as people keep pointing out, if there’s one thing we Eserites understand, it’s the process of getting arrested.”

“You lot were told to shove off,” Syrinx said curtly. “Be about it. And as for you.” She fixed another stare on Ildrin, again wearing a small, predatory grin. “Your last trick involved burglarizing a temple of Izara, nearly killing two Bishops, and almost starting a war. I can’t fathom how your buddies at the Universal Church managed to get you out of that one, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of strings left for them to pull. So I’ll tell you what, Ildrin, for old time’s sake.” She took one step closer; Ildrin stood her ground, fists actually quivering with repressed fury now. “How much trouble you decide to cause me from here out will determine whether I lean on the High Commander with every ounce of influence I have to throw the book at you…” She took another step, her smile widening. “…or lean on her to cut you loose entirely, and notify the Guild you were trying to frame and abduct some of their apprentices. Since you have so little regard for Avei’s justice, perhaps you would find a taste of Eserion’s version…enlightening.”

“You,” Ildrin said tensely, “are a monster.”

Syrinx winked. “And you are just pathetic, Falaridjad. If there’s any justice in the world, I will be there when you learn how very sad you truly are.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Captain Leingardt interjected. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s clearly more personal than this business warrants. Your Grace, I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring political vendettas into my post.”

“For the record, I’m clearly not the one who brought anything here,” Basra said with a placid smile, “but your point is taken. Your cooperation is much appreciated, Captain Leingardt. I’ll leave you to your business.”

She nodded politely to the Captain, turned her back on Falaridjad, and strolled over to the apprentices, where she paused.

“Well? Planning to stand around in here all day?” The Bishop arched an eyebrow at them, then continued on to the doors.

They watched her go, then looked at each other, then back at the rest. Leingardt was already in the process of upbraiding Falaridjad’s four escorting Legionnaires while the priestess glared venom at them. In unspoken unison, they turned and hurried to the doors.

Bishop Syrinx was waiting for them right outside, her breath misting softly in the winter air.

“So! After being hounded very nearly to death by the Svennish secret service, the next thing you decided to do was body-slam your way into dicey interfaith politics you clearly don’t understand. Interesting choice.”

“Hardly the next thing,” Tallie protested. “That was over a month ago.”

“Oh, yes, a whole month.” Syrinx raised an eyebrow. “You kids aren’t the most luminous beacons in the firmament, are you? Well, if for some reason you insist on making enemies, Ildrin Falaridjad is a good place to start. She’s devious, pathologically self-involved, and also a fumbling imbecile.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tallie said dryly, “and the save.”

“If I’d done you a favor you’d better believe I would hold it over you, but it’s as I said: all this is no more or less than my job. Presumptuous neophytes meddling where they shouldn’t make it more interesting, but smoothing over incidents like this is why the cults bother to have Bishops and the Universal Church itself. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go home and supervise the decorators.” She gave Jasmine in particular a vulpine smile. “There was a small fire at my house recently, with the upshot that I’m getting it completely redone for free. Well, free to me, I suppose technically it’s being paid for by everyone who does business with Tallithi Mutual. A Vernisite could explain insurance in detail; I just sign the forms. You know, the police said there were signs of arson. Clearly not by anyone who had thought through the ramifications of that action.”

“Oh, why ever would anyone want to set you on fire, your Grace?” Layla asked sweetly.

Basra grinned at her. “Perhaps the sort of person I could easily make wait to speak with me simply by telling them to leave? I’m so accustomed to dealing with the sharks of Tiraas’s politics; once in a while it’s downright refreshing to toy with presumptuous guppies.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while all three stared at her, Tallie with her mouth slightly open.

“I suggest you kids cast your lines more carefully in the future,” Syrinx finally said, in a flat tone. “You are not ready to sail these waters. Listen to your teachers, and leave the politics to those who understand them.”

With that, and a final superciliously arched eyebrow, she turned and strolled away up the street, tucking her hands in the pockets of her fur-lined coat.

“What a singularly unpleasant woman,” Layla observed, unconsciously gripping her shopping bag in front of herself.

“Yeah,” Tallie agreed, nodding. “She’s kind of awesome, though.”

Jasmine stared after the Bishop in silence, her mouth pressed into a thin line.


“Hey, Mr. Carson! What’d you bring us?”

“Nothin’ more interesting than usual, Hildred,” Fred said, pausing to give her a smile. “Now, don’t go pressin’ me for special treatment. You know how Mrs. Oak likes to keep it a surprise.”

She was clearly going somewhere, carrying an armful of books, and so Fred wasn’t bothered when she just laughed and continued on her way. He went back to his, pushing the empty cart through the gate.

Well, the old gate.

He didn’t stop himself from peering around curiously as he continued on down the path, this stretch of which was longer than it used to be. The land shaping for the campus extension had been finished two weeks ago, rendering this section of the mountain’s slope into terraces like the old campus, and now the main thoroughfare zigzagged a bit, navigating ramps, rather than being the straight staircase that ran down the rest of the mountain. Fred always took the long, back-and-forth path when pushing his full produce cart uphill, but on the way down it was light enough to just drag down the stairs. Thanks to the levitation charms which made it easy for a single person to haul, it didn’t even bounce much on the steps. For the Saturday weekly delivery, of course, he brought the much larger mule cart up, but the daily shipment of fresh produce to the kitchens required only his magically lightened push cart.

Construction had begun on the buildings just a week ago, and there were a few in partially finished states, interspersed around twice their number of still-vacant lots. Fred had actually seen Tellwyrn herself working on one in passing, summoning enormous slabs of marble apparently from thin air and levitating them into place. There were now a few people around in the near distance, hunching over diagram-laden tables rather than doing any construction work. Apparently the archmage chose to tend to that part herself, but just because she could conjure and move parts of buildings with just her big brain did not mean she was qualified to design them, or so Fred had gleaned from the gossip on campus. Architects and surveyors were at work planning the new additions, still, as well as extra magical types who would be working on the additional protections the new research facilities needed. Fred hadn’t approached them personally, but had heard they included both Salyrites from the Sapphire College and secular mages from the Wizard’s Guild, and even that snooty fellow from Syralon who figured himself too good to do business in Last Rock.

Only the new exterior wall was finished, and notably was a lot more serious than the old one—taller, thicker, with a hefty manned gatehouse and actual battlements. As usual, Fred silently chewed on the implications of this as he passed through the open gates, noting the man asleep at the guard post, slumped in his chair with a hat tugged down over his eyes.

“AH HAH!” Rook bellowed suddenly, bounding upright, and Fred yelped and shied away, losing his grip on the cart.

“Omnu’s balls, Tom! What the hell?!”

“Thought I was sleeping, didn’t’cha?” Rook replied, grinning insanely. He still wore his old Army jacket, even after having been discharged, though he had torn off the sleeves. “That’s right, nothing gets past campus security!”

“Does Tellwyrn know you’re pulling that shit on honest tradesmen?”

“Nah, but my immediate boss does. In fact, Fedora’s running a pool on who I can make squeal like a girl. You just cost me five doubloons, by the way.”

Fred snorted, taking up the handles of his cart again. “Any other man I’d pick up the next round as compensation, but I’ve seen how you bet. If he didn’t take your money, somebody was gonna.”

Rook grinned and flopped back down onto the chair. “Yeah, yeah. Take it easy, Fred. See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Fred said dryly as he continued on his way. Behind him, Rook practically bawled with laughter.

He let his expression grow solemn with contemplation as he began the long trek down the mountain. Aside from keeping his legs in top shape, his daily trips up and down gave him plenty of time to think. He had a lot to think about, these days.

Fred liked the people on the campus. Most of the students were good kids. There were one or two troublemakers, but those existed everywhere; even the noble ones, though clearly stuck up, weren’t usually rude. He liked those of the faculty with whom he’d had conversations. He actually liked the groundskeeper, Stew, who despite being an altogether weird kind of a thing struck him as a regular guy, hard-working and amiable. Horns, hooves, and all. The person with whom he had the most direct commerce, Mrs. Oak, was one of the least personable individuals he’d ever met, but he didn’t hold that against her. She wasn’t nasty, just wanted to be about her work with a minimum of chitchat. Fred knew a couple like that in town, too, introverted types who meant no harm but preferred to be left alone.

He even liked Professor Tellwyrn, for all that the likes of him seldom encountered her directly, and despite also being quite reasonably terrified of her. What Fred knew about magic would fit in a thimble; he’d heard somewhere that eating too much conjured food was unhealthy somehow, but even so, it was no stretch to realize that a woman who could summon whole buildings out of her own mind did not need to buy produce from the merchants in town to keep her campus fed. And yet, she did, which was the lion’s share of the reason he made a living. Some folks muttered about it being condescending, mostly perennial malcontents like Wilson who were just never going to be happy about anything. For Fred’s part, he saw it as a sign of respect on the Professor’s part for the little people who dwelled around her feet. Some folks in this world were just bigger and mightier, and it didn’t pay to take that personally, especially when they made an effort not to rub it in.

All this had been the backdrop of existence in Last Rock for his whole life. Lately, he’d had cause to dwell on it pretty heavily, and not very happily.

Fred made it back down and into town on the force of sheer habit, absently returning greetings from his neighbors as he returned to the store and packed away the cart. No shipments today; tomorrow would be busy, due to several scheduled deliveries in town and a fresh load due via Rail from Calderaas. For the moment, though, Rick was manning the front of the store, leaving him more or less at liberty.

He brought his mind back to the business at hand as he folded back the rug in the smaller storeroom, carefully undid the three locks on the trapdoor, lifted it and passed through, then pulled it back down after himself. It was a pricey rug for one tucked away in the storeroom, not because it was pretty but because of its straightening charm. The enchantment was designed to make life a little easier for housewives, but it also served to neatly cover up the trapdoor once somebody had vanished under it.

Fred descended the wooden steps cautiously, hearing voices below. Calm voices, including the one he recognized, so hopefully there was no trouble… Maybe he should’ve checked in with Rick before coming down. Nobody would’ve got through the trapdoor without Rick knowing it.

At the bottom of the stairwell, he rounded the corner into the basement room and paused. The basement’s current resident was there, of course, along with someone Fred recognized and had never expected to see again.

“Ah, Carlson,” the Hand of the Emperor said calmly. “Please, rise. I understand you may be acquainted with Ms. Reich?”

Fred had started to kneel, and straightened as ordered. “Uh…not personally, sir, but I saw her ’round town. Before. Welcome back, ma’am,” he added carefully.

Lorelin Reich gave him one of those Vidian smiles he found so unsettling, all placid good manners on the surface and layers of meaning at which he couldn’t even guess below that. He didn’t know how she did it…but then, maybe it was all in his own head. Last he’d heard of her, after all, she had been hauled away by Imperial Intelligence after being exposed by Gabriel Arquin. Exposed, specifically, for having cast some kind of agitation charm over the whole town. She was not someone he was particularly happy to see back in Last Rock.

“I understand your unease,” the Hand said in his brusque manner, which Fred was only lately starting to realize was just his way and didn’t mean anything personal.

“Oh, uh, I…”

“It’s all right,” Reich said, still smiling. “I’ve certainly earned some mistrust around here; I won’t begrudge you that. All I can do is try to atone for my mistakes, and be careful not to become so caught up again that I lose sight of my judgment, and ethics, in the same way.”

“Her presence here would cause some agitation in the town, obviously,” said the Hand, folding his hands behind his back, “and as such will remain secret for the time being. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, nodding.

The Hand nodded curtly back. “Very good. You are back from your daily campus visit, then? If you are here, I assume you learned something?”

“Nothing solid, sir, but there are rumors now that I think you’ll want to know.” Fred paused, glancing uncertainly at the Vidian priestess.

“Ms. Reich is assisting me, just as you are,” the Hand said impatiently. “You may speak in front of her.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Well, like I said, no official confirmation, but the whole campus is buzzing about Tellwyrn having approved the first major research project. Apparently it just happened this morning.”

The Hand narrowed his eyes. “And have you any idea what the project is?”

“Just conjecture, sir, but here’s the thing: three of the people who presented the proposal to Tellwyrn were warlocks. One from the Wreath and that dwarf from Rodvenheim. Plus! The Salyrite representative, and in fact they actually called back their mage and sent a warlock from the Topaz college, apparently specially for this. Also, that Syralon guy. So…it’s almost certainly some kind of infernal thing, something to do with demons. I mean, I don’t have it confirmed, but why else so many warlocks?”

“I see,” the Hand said, scowling. “Excellent work, Carson, I commend you.”

“Just doin’ my part, sir,” Fred replied modestly, ducking his head. “For the Emperor.”

Turning to Reich, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Forewarned is forearmed,” she said. “I am at your disposal, of course, but there are significant risks if I were to try to investigate personally. I doubt my methods of stealth would beat Tellwyrn’s perceptions. Besides, I have ample proof they are not a match for Arquin, or his valkyrie friends.”

“Arquin has left the campus as of this morning, along with his classmates,” the Hand stated. Fred perked up; that much he hadn’t known. How many people were bringing the Hand information? “I am curious whether that means those valkyries went with him. Can you find out?”

“Hmm.” Reich frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe I can, though it will have to be done with the utmost care. They hang around him, specifically; none would be left stationed at the campus unless he asked it of them. And I am very curious how they are getting along with that incubus Tellwyrn is keeping up there now.”

“This is why I brought you here,” the Hand replied. “Find out what you can.”

She bowed. “Immediately, sir.”

“Carson, you look troubled.”

Fred jumped slightly; he hadn’t been aware that his thought were showing on his face, or that the Hand was watching him. “Oh, uh…it’s nothin’, sir. Just, um, the usual.”

The Hand raised one eyebrow in silence.

Fred swallowed. “I’m just…Tellwyrn’s always done right by the town. I’m with you, sir, don’t worry none about that. It’s just a hell of a thing, is all. I hate to think of her havin’ turned on the Emperor like this.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of considering Tellwyrn either a monster or a saint,” the Hand said firmly. “She is a self-interested individual doing what she deems best to secure her interests. That has long involved protecting Last Rock to a degree, and now, apparently, working against the interests of the Empire. Our task is to protect his Majesty, without hesitation, and without any unnecessary brutality. Don’t waste your time loathing her or feeling betrayed, Carson. Just go about the work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, bowing his head again.

It still didn’t feel right. But what else was he to do? Fred Carson was the Emperor’s man, right down to his bones. If that meant he had to work against the University that provided his own livelihood… Well, the gods weren’t always kind. A man had to do what was right, whether he felt like it or not.


Raathi caught up with her less than an hour later at the prearranged spot. Ildrin did not enjoy loitering in alleys like some Eserite thug, but they had to be extra cautious at a time like this.

“Sergeant,” she said with relief at the Legionnaire’s approach. “Are you all right? The others?”

“We’re fine, no trouble,” Sergeant Raathi replied. “They’re back on patrol; I have to join them quickly. Leingardt grilled us, but our excuse is solid. This was your operation, ma’am, and Legionnaires don’t get punished for following a priestess’s directives in good faith. I’m sorry, Sister. I didn’t enjoy having to throw you under the wheels like that…”

“No,” Ildrin said firmly, “that was exactly the right thing. Leingardt was already after me, thanks to Syrinx. No sense in damaging anyone else’s cover.” She heaved a sigh, producing a brief white cloud, and ran a hand over her hair. “What a mess. I could kill that woman.”

“The Bishop didn’t seem to like those kids much, ma’am…”

“The Bishop doesn’t like anyone,” Ildrin said curtly. “And I need you to be extra careful. Now that we’ve lost the opportunity to interrogate them directly, we’re going to have to ask around to figure out what they know and who they learned it from, which I don’t have to tell you is risky. Probing for information tends to draw the Guild’s attention, and in this case maybe Syrinx’s, which is worse. She’s just as cruel as the Guild at their worst, and often for less reason.”

Raathi nodded. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We have to assume we have a leak,” Ildrin said, frowning. “Those apprentices didn’t do this at random, it was much too targeted. We have no friends in the Guild, so someone either in the Sisterhood or the Collegium had to have tipped them off. Probably not someone highly placed, or they’d have contacted the right authorities and not some random Eserite know-nothings. I’m going to have to keep my head down for a while once this gets out, which means finding their link in the Sisterhood will fall to you. If there is one.”

The Sergeant nodded again. “And the Collegium?”

“I’ll have to reach out to some of our allies for that. Beyond plugging leaks, Sergeant… Find out anything you can without risking your cover about who these kids are. Why are they so connected outside their own cult? Why does Syrinx of all people know them?”

“This is getting riskier by the minute, Sister…”

“I know,” Ildrin said grimly. “You must be prepared for the worst. Not only for danger to us, but for the possibility that we are going to have to silence someone.”

Raathi sighed, but nodded resolutely. “Whatever it takes, Sister.”

“Whatever it takes.”

 

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13 – 3

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“Stop worrying,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Style said not to leave the district, and we’re not. If she hadn’t wanted us to leave the Casino, she’d have said that. Honestly, does that woman strike you as someone who has trouble articulating her intentions?”

“I know, I know,” Jasmine muttered, glancing around. “It just feels…”

“Well, you didn’t have to come.” Tallie gave her a sly sidelong look. “Unless, of course, you were feeling as cooped up as I was.”

“All right, fine, you caught me. Yes, I don’t like being cooped up. Which is why I agreed to join you on this excursion, which I will repeat is silly.”

“It is not silly,” Tallie said primly. “It is annoying and borderline mean.”

“Which is silly. It’s been weeks; we both know Layla doesn’t need a nursemaid.”

“Jasmine, honey, I understand that.” Grinning, Tallie jostled her with an elbow; her silent laugh manifested as puffs of mist in the frosty air. “That is exactly why it’s funny to nursemaid her. She hates it.”

Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know what your issue is with nobles, but honestly, I think you need to get over it. We’re talking about one who specifically turned on her family to be here.”

“Wasn’t even her idea,” Tallie muttered. “She was just following big bro.”

“Regardless, she did, and I note you don’t give him such a hard time.”

“The balls I don’t!”

“Not nearly as—”

“And speak of the Dark Lady!” Tallie said loudly, stopping right in front of one of the ritzy shops which lined the streets around the Imperial Casino.

Layla Sakhavenid had just emerged, carrying an embossed shopping bag, and arched an eyebrow superciliously at her. “And hello to you, too, Tallie. If you’re going to give me a nickname, might I at least request something original? I don’t care to argue the right of way with the Queen of Demons.”

“Omnu’s balls, Layla,” Tallie exclaimed with borderline glee, “were you shopping? At a time like this?”

“Everyone has their hobbies,” Layla replied. “They are having a sale. I may be new to the need to hunt for bargains, but having tried it I find there’s an almost predatory satisfaction in snatching something at a great price. If I thought you were someone who would appreciate it, I’d gladly show you the scarf I…”

She trailed off, her expression going deliberately blank as her eyes shifted to look between them. Tallie and Jasmine stared at her in silent consternation for a second before catching on, and turned around.

Behind them stood a priestess of Avei, identified by her golden eagle pin despite the heavy coat she wore over her white robe. She was flanked by no less than four Silver Legionnaires, their faces unreadable behind winter helmets.

“I thought so,” the priestess said with grim satisfaction. “Sergeant…Collier, was it?” She fixed a stare on Jasmine, then shifted it past her to Layla. “Suddenly on remarkably friendly terms with this…deserter. How nice for you.”

“Hey, look,” said Tallie, subtly widening her stance, “we don’t want any trouble…”

“Yes, you obviously do,” the priestess said curtly. “You three will come with us to the nearest temple. We have things to discuss with you.”

“I think we would rather not,” Jasmine said quietly. “We’re under orders to remain near the—”

“Yet another thing you should have considered before stealing from the Sisterhood,” the priestess said implacably. “You are now in custody. Let’s move along, now, with a minimum of fuss.”

“You are making a mistake,” Layla declared, holding her ground even as two of the Legionnaires stepped around them, moving to box them in. The street was fairly busy, but people simply shifted out of their way on the wide sidewalk; few even bothered to stare. “We are apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“So I had assumed. Anything else you have to say will be listened to when we reach the temple. Now, move.”

“You can’t actually think you’ll get away with this,” Tallie blustered. “You don’t abduct—”

“The word is arrest,” one of the soldiers suddenly snapped. “And knowing the Guild’s policy on resisting arrest, we all know that won’t be an issue, so don’t bother. Sister Falaridjad, with all due respect, don’t engage Eserites in banter. You three, march. Now.”


“Feels kind of exposed,” Gabriel muttered.

“Arquin, the only remotely suspicious thing we’re doing is you glancing around like you’re about to go for somebody’s wallet,” Ruda snapped.

“Hey.” Toby reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “Easy. We’ll be there as quick as we can.”

She heaved a sigh, and then nodded. “Right. Sorry, Gabe. I’m just tense about…”

“No harm,” Gabriel said, shooting her a quick smile. “And I know, you’re right, it’s just… I mean, everybody has to know un-escorted students aren’t supposed to be leaving the area.”

“Well, it was this or try hiking across the prairie,” Fross said reasonably. “It’s doubtful we’d all fit in one of the regular stagecoaches, and I’ve been practicing my teleportation but it’s at a level that I’m positive if I tried to ‘port all of us from here to Puna Dara we would all end up either dead or wishing we were, and upon consideration it turns out I have no appetite for either of those outcomes.”

“I think if anybody was gonna give us trouble, it would’ve been when we bought tickets,” Juniper added, grinning at the pixie. “I mean, Silas let us charter a caravan, so…that’s that.”

Nobody had an immediate comment after that, and a moment later, the group subconsciously edged closer together. They were positioned along the side of the telescroll office facing the prairie, rather than the Rail platform where they were waiting for their chartered caravan to arrive, the idea being to minimize their exposure to onlookers. The people of Last Rock certainly didn’t consider it their business to enforce Professor Tellwyrn’s rules, but a lot of them, as Gabriel had pointed out, knew the basics of campus policy. It would be relatively common knowledge that six students clearly waiting for a Rail caravan without an accompanying professor were up to no good.

It was less private than it had once been, though. Last Rock had begun growing last year, with Gabriel’s calling and the establishment of the Avenist and Vidian temples. The pace had exploded in just the month since Tellwyrn had opened the University’s research division and publicly named the school after the town. Now, they were looking out over a smattering of construction sites being actively worked on across the Rail line and the highway; off to their left, a large stone bridge was in the early stages of development, which would eventually span both, and likely render the current wooden footbridge obsolete.

Juniper casually draped an arm around Teal’s shoulders, and after a moment, the bard leaned against her. Teal’s hair was beginning to look almost shaggy, just long enough now to dangle into her eyes and onto her collar. She had grown comfortable in the Narisian-style robes she now wore, but her efforts at a reserved demeanor mostly made her look tired and sad.

Which may not have been a mask, after all.

They all edged closer again, including Fross, who fluttered over to hover directly above the group rather than drifting about as she usually did. They didn’t speak of it; they didn’t need to. Whenever the whole class assembled, anymore, the absence of its missing members was keenly felt.

“So,” Gabriel said at last, and before he could get another word out the whole world shifted around them.

Teal and Juniper staggered slightly, Fross shooting six feet straight upward with a loud chime of alarm, and Ruda and Gabriel grabbed at sword hilts, stopping just short of drawing.

“Ruda,” Toby said warily, looking around, “am I wrong, or is this…?”

“This,” she said, nodding, “is a wharf in Puna Dara.”

“Well…damn,” Gabriel muttered. “That Rail service is a lot more efficient than I remember.”

It was considerably warmer than in Last Rock and vastly more humid. The sounds of waves and the calling of seabirds formed a backdrop to the noise of conversation around them, which largely came to an abrupt end as their sudden appearance. They were standing on a large pier, with a merchant ship tied just in front of them and dockworkers all around in the process of offloading cargo—all brown-complexioned Punaji, mostly barefoot and the men bare-chested. To the east, the Azure Sea stretched away to a horizon on which light clouds had begun to gather.

“Oh, crap,” Teal muttered.

Slowly, they all turned to face the city behind them.

Professor Tellwyrn stood a few feet away with her arms folded, slowly drumming her fingers against her own bicep, and staring at them over the rims of her spectacles.

“Okay, before you start,” Fross chimed, “we’d already arranged transportation, and frivolously summoning a Rail caravan is misdemeanor abuse of Imperial facilities. It was in Ruda’s name and I’m not sure her diplomatic immunity covers—”

“Your conscientiousness is inspiring as always, Fross,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “even when misplaced. I’ll take care of it. So. I’m not going to claim omniscience, but after you insufferable twerps pulled that stunt at the hellgate last year, you’d better believe I watch for you to be shuffling off en masse to places where I don’t want you.”

“Hey, you pronounced that right,” Teal said nervously. “Most people don’t get Glassian quite—”

“Falconer.”

“…yeah. Sorry.”

“I can’t help noticing that we’re here now,” Ruda said sharply. “You could’ve just as easily put us back in our dorms.”

“A lot more easily, yes,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Just a moment, kids. Hi, Sharad. Sorry to drop in on you like this.”

“Sorry? Sorry?!” The students turned to look at the man approaching them, and with the exception of Ruda now edged backward. He stood almost a foot taller even than Toby, with a full beard in which threads of silver had just begun to appear. Unlike the surrounding dockworkers, he wore boots, a traditional sailcloth greatcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat with feathers rather like Ruda’s. Also, he was coming at them very rapidly, with arms upraised. He stopped short, though, and a broad grin split the darkness of his beard. “Nonsense, this is the best news I’ve had in weeks! Pushta told me a bunch of people hast just appeared and I thought—well, never mind, it’s always a pleasure to see you, Professor! And, I presume, students?”

“Students indeed,” she said. “Class of 1182, this is Sharad Kapadia, an alum and proprietor of this wharf. I try only to disrupt the business of people I actually know.”

“Nonsense, nothing is disrupted,” Kapadia boomed. “Especially since my employees all know not to stand around gawking!”

Instantly, their audience dispersed back to their tasks, with the exception of several sailors who leaned over the side of the ship, watching with naked interest.

“So,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “Raffi Chadrakeran just happened to pass along to Miss Punaji, here, what was occurring in Puna Dara, and she decided to take off and deal with it herself. And you lot came along in a show of solidarity. Right?”

Toby lifted his chin. “We’re not about to abandon—”

“Caine, did I ask you for justifications? I’ll take the lack of denial as an affirmative. Well, here you are, and as Punaji herself pointed out, yes, I brought you here myself.”

“Why?” Juniper asked quietly.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh through her nose. “…how much do you know about what’s happening in Puna Dara these days?”

“Cultists,” Ruda said tersely. “Creating civil unrest, trying to disrupt my father’s rule, and now attacking a Silver Legion.”

“Neutralizing a Silver Legion,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “which is what make this urgent. Nobody knows how they did it, but the fact that they did it means this Rust is suddenly a real player—one that nobody saw coming. A lot of eyes are on Puna Dara now, and they’ll be shortly followed by a lot of fingers.”

“Which is why I need to be here, helping,” Ruda snarled. “This nation is not stable enough to deal with an internal uprising and meddling from the Empire at the same time, and you know damn well the Empire will meddle! We need to solve this fast.”

“And that, all modesty aside, is what we do,” added Gabriel.

“The Empire, in fact,” Tellwyrn said much more calmly, “or at least Lord Vex, has asked me to send a student group here. Let me emphasize how unusual that is. I’ve worked with Vex for over a year, to make sure my little class projects don’t disrupt Imperial business too much. He has pointed out potential trouble spots before, but his only requests to date involve asking me to stay away from certain places. This is the first occasion on which he has specifically asked for help.”

“Is that…bad?” Toby asked, frowning.

“It emphasizes the severity of the situation,” said Tellwyrn. “And the Empire’s dilemma. They cannot afford to overtly interfere in Puna Dara’s internal business. Care to explain why, Miss Punaji?”

“I already have,” Ruda said shortly, glancing at Mr. Kapadia. He was watching her speculatively, and inclined his head at meeting her eyes.

“The Punaji nation is an ally, not an Imperial protectorate,” Teal said softly. “And due to current political and cultural factors, the King can’t be seen to be accepting any outside help; it would make him look weak.”

“Which would just be a problem most of the time,” Gabriel added, “but with these Rust assholes suddenly challenging his authority, Blackbeard acknowledging that he’s not in full control could trigger a complete change of government.”

“Which, most of the time, is a strictly internal matter and usually only a temporary disruption of Puna Dara’s business,” Fross chimed, “but with the Rust as a serious contender for power, the Empire can’t afford to let Blackbeard’s government be destabilized, because they can’t tolerate the continent’s entire eastern seaboard being in the hands of an unstable sect that’s willing and able to attack the Silver Legions! Did we miss anything, Ruda?”

“That’s the long and the fucking short of it,” Ruda said bitterly. “The Punaji have to fix this problem, now, and without foreign help. If we don’t, we’re gonna end up very likely at war with the Empire. And I don’t care who these Rust are or what they’ve got up their sleeves, there’s no power in the world that could win that fight. They’ve gotta be stopped, fast, without undercutting my father’s reign. Otherwise, we’re looking at the end of the Punaji as a sovereign people, very likely with a shit-ton of bloodshed involved.”

“Well, thank goodness for small favors,” Tellwyrn muttered. “I do like it when I don’t have to explain everything for a change. The truth is, I had not planned to send anyone out here for the simple reason that I test my students against challenges I know they can beat. Whatever the Rust did to the Fourth Silver Legion is…without precedent. I don’t understand it at all—nobody does. That means I would be sending a student group to face an undefined peril with no guarantee of their safety, much less success.”

She stopped, and heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m giving you the go-ahead for three reasons. First, thanks to Miss Punaji’s investment in this, and yours in her, it’s clear I would have to ride herd on the lot of you until this was all settled if I decided to keep you from it, and quite frankly, I have too many other things to do. Second… You, of all people, might just be safe, even with the danger as unknowable as it is. Two of you are paladins, and that kind of direct connection to a god changes matters. People who cast any kind of incredibly potent curse on a Hand of the gods draw the direct attention of the deity in question. Hopefully these Rust will have the sense not to try, but if they do, that just might end up putting a stop to the whole business. Juniper may be blocked from Naiya, but she and Fross are inherently quite resistant to such effects anyway. The lot of you will need to keep watch over Zaruda, but you’ve already shown you are inordinately willing to do that.”

“And me,” Teal added.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Falconer, you just might be better off even than the boys. Elilial isn’t an interventionist deity as a rule, but after losing the other six archdemons, anybody who manages to put any kind of whammy on Vadrieny is asking to have an apocalypse shoved right up their butts. Even Naphthene would hesitate to pick that fight. Which doesn’t mean you should go around pissing on wave shrines like Zaruda’s ancestor.”

“Why in the blazes would I do such a thing?” Teal exclaimed.

“I have been working with teenagers for fifty years and I still don’t understand why you lot do anything. If I did, maybe I could control you. Anyway, I have a third motivation for allowing this.” The sardonic levity leaked from her expression. “Honestly…I think you kids have the best chance out of anybody of pulling it off. And beyond the needs of your education, this is a big problem. This isn’t Sarasio or Lor’naris. The fall of Puna Dara would send shockwaves across the continent. Around the world. Much as it pains me to use the term, this city needs heroes. You’re the best I can think of for the job.”

She let that sit for a silent moment before turning back to the wharf master with a sudden smile. “So! Sorry to keep you away from your business, Sharad, but can you direct us to the nearest hub of Rust activity?”

“In fact, I can take you there!” he said. “It’s far closer than I would like—just barely beyond my own wharf, in fact. I’ve had some of my own people come around spouting their philosophy, which is…a difficult situation. Puts me in the same position as the King, on a smaller scale. If I try to shut that down, it raises the question of why I feel threatened by it, not to mention that any fool knows nothing validates a religion like oppressing it. It really is abominable stuff, though. Anyway, don’t you worry about my business, Professor, it’s booming! Since you’re in town, you really must come by for dinner. I think my wife doesn’t actually believe I know you.”

“I appreciate it, but I have pots simmering back in Last Rock that I can’t leave unattended for too long.”

“Nonsense!” he boomed jovially. “You can zip-zap halfway across the world in an eyeblink, it’ll be no trouble. We’ll see you tonight. I insist!”

She lowered her head to stare at him over her glasses. “I’m sorry, you insist? I’m almost curious what would happen if you tried.”

“In that event,” he said, suddenly with deep gravitas, “I would have to make a very sad face. I would do this all night. And you would be thinking about me doing it.”

“…you’re a monster, Kapadia.”

His laugh was practically a bellow. “Fantastic! I will ask Erika to make her curried rice with eel! We stopped arguing over native cuisines by learning to blend them, you see.”

Tellwyrn shook her head and turned to face the city. “All right, lead on, then. Come along, kids. Let’s go see what you’re up against.”


“Sister Falaridjad, this is a surprise,” said the armored woman who greeted them inside the temple. If “temple” was the right word. This was an Avenist facility, all right, but religious iconography aside, it was clearly more military than clerical in function. Its main entrance hall, in which they now stood, resembled a police station more than a place of worship, with desks along one side at which white-robed priestesses sat, speaking quietly with visitors. Armored Legionnaires stood at attention in every corner and bracketing every entrance, a rather excessive display of force for a temple.

“For me as well, Captain Leingardt,” the priestess who had apprehended them replied. “I wasn’t planning on this, but it seems the goddess smiled on us. Two of these I recognize from the robbery at my temple this morning. The third has already implicated herself in the same business.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Tallie demanded.

Leingardt cast a cool glance across them, lingering momentarily on Tallie, before addressing Falaridjad. “I see. Fortuitous indeed that you came across them while accompanied by enough soldiers to bring them in.”

“Indeed, I don’t presume Avei’s favor lightly. Though they are Eserites. Apprentices, but still, they know better than to fight when fairly caught.”

“Guild, hm,” the captain said, her eyebrows lowering fractionally. “Then I hope you weren’t expecting to keep them long, sister. The Guild always extracts its own as quickly as possible.”

“All the more reason to interrogate them immediately,” Sister Falaridjad said firmly, “if you will grant us the use of a suitable room. We actually picked them up a stone’s throw from the Casino itself, so we’re likely to have one of those obnoxious lawyers of their knocking any minute. We are justified in holding them for interrogation, at least, given the charges. Conspiracy, theft, assault—”

“That is a lie!” Layla, when she chose to, could project at a startling volume without raising the pitch of her voice; it lent her an unexpectedly commanding aspect for a sixteen-year-old girl. All around the chamber, activity stopped as Sisters, soldiers and civilians turned to stare.

Falaridjad scowled in annoyance. “You’ll have your chance to defend—”

“Fabricating charges is a very severe offense for a woman in your position, sister,” Jasmine said sharply. She turned to the captain with a stiff nod. “We have no intention of prevaricating or denying anything we’ve done, Captain, but no one was assaulted. Sister Falaridjad was at the temple; I remember seeing her. She knows this.”

“Oh, please,” the priestess said with heavy disdain. “You really intend to press your word against mine? Here? Good luck, girl.”

“I don’t need luck,” Jasmine replied, turning to face her directly. “Just justice.”

A sharp clap echoed through the room, followed by another. Everyone shifted to look at the woman who had just entered the building behind the prisoners and their escort, and now approached them, continuing to applaud slowly while she came.

“Oh, good show,” said Bishop Syrinx. “Very dramatic, the Veskers would be proud. But if you’re quite done fooling around, we should get down to the business of how very much trouble you are all in.”

 

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12 – 64

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As usual, the patch of blackened grass followed her on her way toward the teleporter. It was a convenient time for visitors, the little orb’s rotation having brought the gate within easy view of her construction project. Behind her rose the unfinished white marble columns of a Grecian temple, already twined with flowering vines despite the construction itself being in an early stage.

Milanda came forward to meet her, a hefty box tucked under one arm. After giving Walker a smile of greeting, her eyes shifted to study the new project, and then to the black streaks on the ground, where patches of dead grass and crumbling bushes showed Walker’s path.

“Wow,” she said, coming to a stop about halfway between the temple and the teleporter. “It looks kind of…Avenist.”

“The style is older than that by far,” Walker said, grinning, “but yes, you’re not wrong. Please pardon the destroyed vegetation; I can’t help it. It grows back fairly quickly; the Avatar had to adjust the settings down here, but with the facility already keyed to Naiya’s transcension field, re-growing plant life isn’t very taxing. I must say, lifting and placing marble blocks has been surprisingly therapeutic. I’m stronger than I realized.”

“What about those?” Milanda asked, pointing with her free hand. “Did you manage to create vines that are immune to your effect?”

“Oh! No, those are plastic. Really, decorative touches like that ought to be the last stage of construction, but…I was really yearning for some greenery that I could touch. Even if it’s fake.”

“Plastic?”

“Wonderful stuff! Lightweight, very resilient, incredibly versatile. It’s made from oils, both petroleum and organic. Having the fabricators produce it avoids the messy by-products of that, of course. Based on what I’ve gleaned of your civilization, I’d guess you’re within fifty years or so of producing something similar through alchemy.”

Milanda nodded, then cleared her throat and held up the box in both hands. “So! Where I come from, it’s customary to bring a house-warming gift when someone moves into a new home. Granted, this is apparently more of a pseudo-Avenist-temple-on-a-tiny-underground-planetwarming gift, but I believe the principle still applies.”

Walker chuckled as she took the box from her, tucking it under one arm to open the top. “I would say that it’s the thought which counts. It really was a very thoughtful…”

She trailed off, her expression falling still, then carefully reached in to extract the object, letting the box fall to the ground. The gravitational isolation chamber’s artificial sun gleamed blindingly on its glossy red paint, steel accents, and glass dome filled with tiny colored balls.

“I asked the fabricator for a gumball machine and it had thousands of schematics,” Milanda said almost nervously. “So…that probably doesn’t look anything like the one your mother had. And, of course, it’s not an Earth relic, I made it less than an hour ago. But I figured, at least… Well, it could be a start at making this a home, and not just a cell. You know. Um, you definitely don’t have to display it or anything, if it’s not to your taste…”

Walker took a step to the side, out of their way, and very carefully knelt to place the gumball machine upright on the ground. Then she rose, stepped back to Milanda, and wrapped her up in a tight hug.

“I just discovered something,” the fairy murmured. “It appears I can’t cry. That hasn’t really come up since I ended up like…this.”

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

It was a long moment before Walker finally pulled back. “You know…at first, I was planning to betray you. To go along with your intentions until I found something I could exploit to get out. No matter what I had to do, or to whom.”

“Was?” Milanda asked quietly. “What changed your mind?”

“I didn’t,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “Or…more accurately, I suppose, I don’t know. I just…happened to think of it at one point, and realized I didn’t want to anymore. I liked working with you, and talking with you. And your project was a challenge. To have something to do after so long… But mostly, I think it was you.”

Milanda grinned back. “Well…I guess I should also admit I was expecting a betrayal and trying to plan for it. The Avatar even gave me a book by Robert Greene to read, to help with outwitting you.”

Walker’s face collapsed in an incredulous grimace. “Ugh. Greene? That amoral, nihilistic, self-satisfied—”

“Yes, I honestly had a little trouble getting into it, though that’s partly because the historical allusions are over my head. You are not a fan, I take it?”

Walker scowled. “It’s a little personal, rationally or not. Greene is a favorite of Vidius. I hold him indirectly responsible for several of my ongoing frustrations. If you want to read Earth political philosophy, I would start with Rousseau. Oh, I bet you would really appreciate Marcus Aurelius, too. Actually, if you’re going to start somewhere, I suppose it should be with Aristotle and Plato, at the beginning. And that’s just the Western tradition! Personally, I’ve always been partial to Musashi, but he was more a warrior poet than a philosopher. Now, Lao Tzu—”

“How about this,” Milanda interrupted, grinning broadly. “You think it over, and pick the best book of philosophy that you’d consider a starting point on Earth’s tradition. Have the fabricator print one up for me on my next visit. And the visit after that, we can discuss it.”

“That…” A broad smile blossomed over Walker’s face. “That sounds excellent. Yes, it’s a date.”

“Perfect.” Milanda sighed, glancing at the teleporter, which had retreated several yards toward the horizon. “Well, I seem to have inadvertently finagled my way into a more central role in politics, and it’s a mess up there right now. The Imperial bureaucracy is resilient and Vex and the Empress held order the best they could, but after most of a week with no Emperor and the Hands acting unstable, there are a thousand fires to put out. Also, the Punaji are having some kind of crisis and Tellwyrn has picked this moment to pull something exceptionally cute.”

“I rather doubt that was personal,” Walker opined. “Tellwyrn isn’t a strategic thinker, and just doesn’t care about the doings of Empires.”

“Gods, I hope you’re right. This is not a good time for her to start caring.”

“It sounds like you had better get back to work, then,” Walker said, smiling. “Thank you for the gift, Milanda. It was just the thing I needed.”

“It’s going to be a hectic few days, but I’ll come down again as soon as I can,” Milanda promised. “Till next time, then!”

“Till next time, friend.”

She watched her all the way to the teleporter before turning to pick up the gumball machine again, almost reverently, and carried it into and through the temple. The roof was not in place, showing only the artificial sky, and sunlight which continued to gleam on the machine’s surfaces. Walker took it to the back of the main chamber, where the altar would be, and set it gently on the floor.

Still kneeling there, she pressed the mechanism, and with a satisfying little clunk, a gumball dropped through the metal door into her waiting hand. A pink one. Straightening up slowly, she popped it into her mouth and bit down.

Nothing but sugar, food coloring, and glue, as she’d said to Milanda, what seemed like ages ago. Saccharine sweetness erupted across her tongue, and with the flavor came an acute burst of memory and emotion.

She chewed in silence for several minutes, before abruptly turning and striding out of the temple. The grounds around were beginning to turn green again, though she unavoidably cut a black swath through them. Walker steered away from the trees—it seemed a shame to kill such sizable things—and set off through an open field for a good walk, leaving behind a path of blackened destruction.

After she was gone, slowly at first, new life began to rise in her wake.


Setbacks.

The labyrinthine corridors beneath the Grand Cathedral were useful for more than security; Justinian found the long process of traversing them gave him opportunity to think, and plan. Even here, he kept his expression serene, not allowing any of his thoughts even the slightest exposure. It did not do to let one’s self-control grow even the tiniest bit rusty. This was a fine opportunity to practice; his thoughts were not encouraging.

Naturally, he had kept the true Avatar template far from Rector’s workshop, so the destruction had merely cost years of work, tipped his hand to the Empire and forced him to scramble to cover his tracks, and not destroyed a truly priceless artifact. Merely. The Hands had suddenly reversed their changes, which proved Sharidan had his systems back under control, and strongly suggested there would be extra security on them now. That avenue of attack could be considered closed, and in the process of poking that beehive under the Palace…

The Holy Legion, decimated. He had faith in Ravoud, and even that Khadizroth would come through on his promises, now that he had given his word. The restoration of his maimed soldiers would take time, still, and far too many had been slain outright. Ravoud’s analysis was correct; building the Legion’s numbers back to their previous level would require a slackening of their standards, which he was not willing to do, yet. The plan had always been to open recruitment to less thoroughly vetted men and women, but not until the solid core of elite troops had experience working together, and the Silver Throne was not in a position to object. Neither was yet true.

Khadizroth was his own issue, too. He was growing slowly more ambitious, and the current situation would only further cement his hold on the Holy Legion and Justinian’s organization, in addition to the influence he wielded over the other adventurers gathered at Dawnchapel. Sending them into danger last night had been intended partly as a reminder to him that Vannae, at least, was physically vulnerable, but the improbable survival of every one of the team had rendered that an empty gesture. Justinian had his own theories about that, which he would shortly be able, finally, to test…

And as for last night, the loss of the Tide was a bitter pill to swallow. They had fulfilled the purpose for which he had spent the last ten years recruiting and grooming them: a sect of devoted fanatics, without traceable origins or proof of their true affiliation, ready to be hurled at whatever target he deemed necessary. But it was too soon—far too soon. He had intended them for use much closer to the endgame, when the accelerated pace of events would make such violent methods more appropriate, and the need to introduce chaos more pressing. Now, that joker had been played far too early. There was, at this point, no benefit in trying to rebuild them, not even as seeds for more chaos cults such as he’d deployed in Veilgrad. There just wouldn’t be time.

Unless…

Justinian did not allow himself a smile, but filed away that jolt of inspiration to be refined into a proper plan. As it was, the Tide were gone, used up for no greater purpose than to maintain deniability against the Throne’s increasing suspicions. Sharidan knew who his adventurers were, and he had made a much stronger show of friendship that way than any words from him could have done. It had been necessary, but the loss still rankled. It would be that much more keenly felt, the farther and faster events progressed; he’d been counting on having the Tide to use when he was in a tight spot. He had every hope that the upcoming confrontation with the Rust in Puna Dara would, at least for a while, cement his fracturing relationship with the Throne. It would not do for Sharidan to find reason to move openly against him too soon.

There was that, at least. The one bright spot in all this: the increasing pressure upon him had provided the leverage he needed to force Szaiviss’s hand. The Rust was her pet project, one he was not supposed to know about, and he had at least manipulated her into deploying them too early. The combined forces about to descend on them would wipe out the cult no matter what armaments they had cobbled together. All he had to do was ensure that any remaining tracks he had left in Puna Dara were covered in the chaos, which should not be hard. It would not do, of course, to think Szaiviss harmless or under control, but at least, now, he was confident she had no more external assets.

Except Scyllith. He had better be careful not to pressure her further; if she felt cornered enough to call her goddess’s attention, there would be no end of disaster.

Setbacks, on every side. This entire week had been a debacle without parallel in his plans thus far. None of these setbacks, alone, was enough to form a threat to his plans, but in aggregation the resources he had lost or been forced to expend seriously hampered his ability to maneuver. Not to mention pushing him close to a precipice. If he suffered one more major loss before he could rebuild his assets, it might all be over.

He put his grim ruminations aside, arriving at the door he sought. Almost mechanically, he passed through its security measures, entering a short hall leading to a whitewashed wooden door, and entered without knocking.

The little cottage inside was still somewhat under construction, but it was clearly a replica of that which had been outside Rector’s last workstation. The walls had just been painted, leaving most of the furniture pushed into the center of the floor, with boxes of smaller objects half-unpacked among them.

Ildrin had been splayed out in a rocking chair, the very picture of exhaustion, but upon the Archpope’s sudden appearance she jumped up.

“Your Holiness! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—”

“It’s quite all right, Ildrin. Please, rise,” he said kindly, helping her up from the kneeling position to which she had dropped. “These events have been extremely difficult for all of us. You are well? Getting enough rest?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, don’t fret about me—I know my limits, and I’ll be sure to rest extra when I’m nearing them. It’s not that time, yet; Rector is still have trouble adjusting. He and Delilah need me.”

“Ah, yes,” Justinian said seriously. “And how is he faring, in your view?”

She hesitated, frowning pensively. “Your Holiness…I feel I’ve gained a new appreciation for Rector recently. He’s a creature of—that is, a man of routine, and it’s been very difficult for him, having all his work undone and then being uprooted. He’s making it difficult for us, too. But at the same time… This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s become clear he knows he’s unusual, and is trying to mitigate his own…issues, for our sake. I feel…quite ashamed of the way I thought of him when I was first posted down here.”

“Don’t,” Justinian advised gently, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving her a warm smile. “I know you’ve not mistreated him, or I would have heard about it from Delilah. We cannot help our thoughts, sister; it is our actions which define us. You have done well, here, and if you’ve learned something of empathy in the process, so much the better. For now, though,” he continued more seriously, putting on a carefully measured frown of contemplation, “I’m afraid recent events both here and elsewhere have forced me to adjust a number of my plans. Among other things, I am in need of trustworthy people in a variety of positions. I am sorry to keep shuffling you about this way, Ildrin, but I will soon need you elsewhere. Not immediately—we want to avoid subjecting Rector to any more abrupt changes than we can help, I think.”

“I’m eager to serve in any way you need me,” she assured him fervently. “I will…somewhat to my surprise…miss this place, and even Rector. But we all go where the gods need us most.”

“Quite so,” he agreed, smiling again. “And now, since I have to interrupt our resident genius again, best to do so quickly rather than dragging it out.”

“Of course, your Holiness.”

She followed him through the kitchen, similarly in a state of partial completion, and to the work area beyond. This was different than the workspace of Rector’s last project; though roughly the same size, it was a rectangular room with walls formed of massive stone blocks, not a natural cavern. Something of the same aesthetic was present, in the enchanting equipment lining its walls in a profusion of pipes, glass tubes, and wires, though that was also laid out much differently. The total apparatus was far bulkier than the previous one, but rather than concentrated in clumps, lined the walls and climbed to a central crystal disc set amid brass and copper fixtures in the middle of the ceiling. Apart from that disc, and the runic control console laid in the center of the chamber and connected to the rest, most of the arcane materials were clearly connectors; the bulkiest parts of the structure appeared to be small shrines spaced around the walls at regular intervals, each prominently featuring the sigils of a god of the Pantheon.

At their entry, Delilah turned and started to kneel, but before she could complete the gesture, Rector barked impatiently without looking up from his console, “There you are! I’ve been waiting!”

“Rector!” Delilah exclaimed, turning to face him. “Don’t speak that way to his Holiness!”

“It’s quite all right, Delilah, no harm is done,” Justinian said soothingly, striding into the room. “I apologize for the delay, Rector, there are numerous demands on my time. It sounds as if all is in readiness, then? Shall I proceed?”

“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, I’ve had it set up for an hour,” Rector grumbled, still fidgeting with the runes on his console, his finicky motions evidently more for something to do than because anything needed to be done.

“Very good,” Justinian said calmly, striding across the room to a shrine set up in the center of one of the shorter walls, linked with enchanting paraphernalia to the two in each of the nearby corners. Prominently featured upon it were the gears and hourglass of Vemnesthis, one of the few gods whose sigil was not widely known—in his case, because he had no worshipers.

All around him rose a low hum as Rector powered up the new device. This time there was no sign of the Avatar, and in fact no display surface in which one could have manifested, but only the activation of various arcane circuits and their accompanying musical tones and azure light effects. Each of the shrines around the edges blazed to life, as well, glowing a mellifluous gold and emitting harmonic tones like the clearest of bells.

Only the shrine of Vemnesthis remained dark, until Justinian reached out to touch its sigil with both his hand and his mind.

There was, and could be, no other device like this in the world. Only a sitting Archpope could invoke the powers of individual gods without drawing their direct attention—and even so, much of the apparatus constructed here served to ensure that what they did would not draw the gods’ notice. At his touch, the time-bending power of Vemnesthis poured into the system with the activation of that final shrine, the only temporal effect in the world guaranteed not to draw the Timekeeper’s swift censure.

With the final activation of the structure, the room was suddenly filled with a colossal spider web.

“Please, be calm,” Justinian said over Ildrin and Delilah’s shouts, loudly enough to be heard but careful to keep his own voice utterly serene. “This will not harm you—it was here before. What we have done is created a bridge between the subtler expressions of reality and human perception, enabling us to see this effect, in a manner which makes sense to our own minds.”

Both priestesses edged closer together, peering around nervously. The web was disturbing to look at, in the way that things in dreams did not quite stay put; its strands shifted position when not watched closely, creating a constant sense of motion out of the corners of one’s eye. It all spread from the crystal disc in the ceiling in a most disconcerting display, at once as if the web were a normal one radiating from that point, and a constant spiral funneling into it like water down a drain. Always in furious motion, yet totally constant. It was almost physically painful to look at; they all quickly decided not to.

“Your Holiness,” Delilah whispered, staring at him.

Justinian stepped back from the shrine of Vemnesthis, lifting his hands to study them thoughtfully. He was linked to the web—in fact, strands lay thick over both his arms, connecting to his fingers, wrapped around his waist and upper body. Every movement he made caused the whole thing to tremble.

“Don’t be alarmed, Delilah,” he said gently. “This is not directly harmful. We are simply seeing, now, the machinations of an entity which does not, at present, exist.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Ildrin said faintly.

“You will find her there,” he said, lifting a finger to point at the swirling vortex of webs in the ceiling. They both reflexively followed his gesture, then immediately averted their eyes. “And this is why it was the power of Vemnesthis, who guards the timeways, that was necessary to finally see it. That creature is dead, and has been for millennia. But it seems that in a time very soon to come, she will not be—and is reaching back through time to arrange things to her benefit. Possibly to arrange her own resurrection. Try not to think about it,” he added kindly, smiling at their expressions. “Causality breaks down in matters like these. That is why Vemnesthis and his work are so important.”

“But why is it all attached to you?” Ildrin squeaked.

“Not just me,” the Archpope said gravely. “I have noticed something, recently. A pattern, which this begins to confirm. Certain individuals, being drawn forcefully together in the face of events—and also resisting grievous harm, coming through trials which ought to destroy anyone, unscathed. As if they are being lined up in a particular formation, to serve a particular purpose.”

“So…it’s…good?” Ildrin asked, frowning deeply. “As long as the webs hold you, you can’t die?”

“Nothing in this world cannot die,” he replied. “But I take this as confirmation of my theory. I suspect that I, and the others who are bound to the strands of this great web, will find ourselves all but impervious to circumstance resulting in our death, imprisonment, disfigurement…anything which prevents us all arriving at that point, ready to play whatever part she intends.” Again, he indicated the crystal; this time, they didn’t look, though Ildrin grimaced with remembered discomfort, wiping her palms on the front of her robe.

“Can’t…Vemnesthis…deal with that?” Delilah asked faintly, glancing back at Rector, who was muttering over his runes, making fine adjustments. “Isn’t that what the Scions of Vemnesthis are for?”

“Vemnesthis has no proper cult,” Justinian said solemnly. “The Scions, with the exception of their leader, are effectively enslaved. They are the mages and warlocks gathered from across history, all those who tried to meddle in the timestream, and were given his ultimatum: serve, or be destroyed.” He shook his head. “No… Aside from the fact that this creature is, or will be, superior in power to their patron, the Scions of Vemnesthis are not a force which will stand against an Elder God. She will be ready for anything they do—able, even to subvert them, which makes it the wiser course not to bring them to her direct attention. This apparatus, however, is a thing which should not be, which no one will expect—not even our Pantheon. This is why the gods needs us, sisters. For all their power, there are things in their service which only mortals can do.”

He turned to gaze directly into the mind-wrenching chaos at the center of the spiral of webs, not flinching.

“It falls to us to thwart Araneid’s return.”

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


“Hang on!” she shouted over the crash of the waves. “In fact, it’d be better if you sat down, but at least hang on!”

He ignored her, clinging to the bowsprit and staring grimly ahead through the spray, as he had since they had passed through the guardian stones and from calm, sunny seas into this chaos. The boat tipped over the precipice, shooting straight down the colossal wave into what seemed a chasm in the surface of the ocean.

He tightened his grip, wrapping one hand more firmly in the rope. He was stronger than a normal human by far, but even so… They were picking up terrible speed, and seemed about to plow straight into a wall of water thrown up by the undulating sea, taller than the walls of Tiraas. He drew in a breath, and closed his eyes, and they hit.

The boat plunged under—everything was water, roaring and pulling him, and suddenly, it was gone. Everything was gone. The noise, the pressure… Even his clothes weren’t wet anymore.

He opened his eyes, peering around at the flat, shimmering expanse of the ocean around them, glittering calmly beneath a sunny sky, then swiveled to look behind. The boat was in perfect condition, showing no sign of having just passed through that tempest. The towering sentinel stones that ringed Suffering were not to be seen, nor was the island.

“Woo! Made it again!” Karen cheered, pumping one fist in the air. Her heavy black robes prevented him from getting a glimpse at what she really looked like, not that he’d been curious enough to investigate. “I told you it was nothing to worry about. Next stop: Onkawa! Well, the docks below Onkawa, depending on whether you count them as part of the city proper. I do, just for simplicity’s sake. I don’t know what kind of sense it makes to build a city up on a cliff and its wharfs way down below, but hey, what do I know? I’m just the ferryman. Ferry person. I dunno, I’ve had Avenist passengers yell at me for it, but it doesn’t sound right, ‘ferry person.’ ‘Ferryman’ rolls off the tongue, y’know?”

She carried on prattling, as she had from the moment he’d stepped aboard, and he turned his back on her, tuning her out. Other things demanded his focus.

He could feel them again. The others, and his Emperor. But…distantly. Distorted. Altered. Something terrible had happened in Tiraas, something which cut at the core of his Empire. He feared the worst—anything which could alter the Hands had the potential to topple the Silver Throne itself. No wonder she had been so anxious to get rid of him, if something like this were about to unfold.

And that, at least, told him where to start. He would not be able to trust the others, at least until he learned what had happened, and how to free them from whatever the effect was that all but cut them off from his senses. It would be necessary to be cautious, subtle, investigate slowly and carefully. But at least he knew, circumstantially, who had to be behind it.

There was one Hand of the Emperor left, and Tellwyrn would rue the day she turned against the Silver Throne.


She closed the chapel door gently, and paused for a moment just inside to gaze abstractly into the dimness. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, creating shifting patterns upon the floor in the absence of fairy lights, and a heavy floral scent hung in the air from the veritable mountain of bouquets piled around Ravana’s resting place.

Slowly, Tellwyrn paced down the central aisle, turning her head to study each sleeping student without stopping. Natchua, she noted, had a Narisian blessing talisman resting on her chest just above her folded hands—one carefully painted in House Awarrion colors. Nothing had been sent from her own House. Other gifts and tokens lay in each of the improvised beds—coins, candles, notes, flowers, sent by fellow students and family members alike. More than that, in Ravana’s case.

Only at reaching the end, Shaeine’s resting place, did Tellwyrn finally stop. For a long moment, she gazed down at the sleeping drow. Then, moving slowly and wearily as if suddenly feeling every one of her three thousand years, she turned, and sank down to the floor, resting her back against the wood. There, she tilted her head back, gazing emptily through the silence.

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 26

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”

“Him?”

“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”


“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”


“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”


“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”


“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.


“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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Prologue – Volume 4

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Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.

He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.

“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.

The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.

Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.

Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.

“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.

“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”

“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.

In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.

“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.

Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”

Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”

Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”

“Oh?”

“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”

“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”

“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”

“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”

“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”

“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.

Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”

“Oh?”

“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”

The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”

“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”

“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.

“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”

The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.

As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.

Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.

In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.

“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.

“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”

“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”

“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”

“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.

Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.

“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”

“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”

He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.

“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”

“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.

“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.

He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”

Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.

That, perhaps, was just as well.

He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.

“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”

“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”

He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.

Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.

He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.

The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.

A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”

“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”

“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”

“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”

“Indeed I do.”

She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.

“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”

“Charmed!”

“Pleasure.”

“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”

“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”

“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”

“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”

“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”

“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”

“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”

She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.

Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.

Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.

Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.

In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.

Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.

“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”

“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”

“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.

The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.

“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”

“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”

“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.

The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.

“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”

The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.

A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.

Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.

Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.

When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.

It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.

“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.

The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.

“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”

The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.

“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.

Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.

“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.

At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”

“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”

As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”

“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”

He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”

“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”

She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.

“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”

Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.

“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”

The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.

“The future.”

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