Tag Archives: Ildrin Falaridjad

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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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Till next time, friend.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, your Holiness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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…”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”



“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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10 – 42

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Though they still mostly lacked the paving of the Empire’s modern, carriage-friendly infrastructure, the ancient roads of Viridill had been designed to withstand time and the elements without needing major upkeep; most of them had been built when the province of Avei’s faithful had been beset on all sides by enemies, rivals, and marauding nomads, and needed to rapidly convey troops at minimal notice. The road, thus, was still a road and still navigable, but after nearly a century of scant use and no maintenance, it was in bad enough shape to throw up impediments to five people fleeing along it in the dark. Grasses had taken root even in its hard-packed surface, decades of wind and rain had gouged ruts and enormous potholes, and debris from the dense forest surrounding had fallen everywhere. All three priestesses ran with golden glows radiating from them, which helped a lot, but members of the party still tripped and stumbled often.

No one gave up. Even had anyone been so inclined, the sounds of what was coming after them would have spurred them onward. The eerie keening of whatever was running in an apparent group continued, but far worse were the long, aching screams, the far-too-human sounds of absolute pain and despair. And they were all growing steadily closer.

Ami proved to be in remarkably good shape; she was not only keeping up, despite awkwardly clutching her guitar case as she ran, but managing to hum almost continuously. It wasn’t quite full bardsong, but she lent what she could to the group. Schwartz, too, had cast a quick enhancement over them to keep them going once they all assembled on the bank beyond the frozen river. Between them, they had done what they could, and their efforts showed, but the group had been running for more than a quarter of an hour, and only Jenell and Basra were really trained for such exertion—and even Jenell was starting to falter, having to make the dash in armor.

They were all lagging. What was chasing them was still gaining.

Finally, Branwen lost her footing on a half-hidden tuft of grass and stumbled to her knees, barely catching herself against both palms and letting out a soft sob of pain and exhaustion. Around her, the rest of the group faltered as well, turning to look.

Basra kept going a few more steps before stopping and turning around. She stared down at the fallen Izarite for half a moment, then glanced up at the darkness swallowing the road in the direction from which they’d just come, then finally trotted back, reaching down to none too gently grasp Branwen under the shoulder and tug her upright.

“Not much further,” she said curtly, and even she was slightly out of breath. “The treeline is only a hundred yards ahead. Once we’re in the open, the armies will see us and help.”

“They don’t stop,” Ildrin wheezed, sagging forward and panting. “Why don’t they—”

“You shut your noise hole,” Basra snapped.

“They never forget, never forgive,” Ami said, clutching her guitar case as if for comfort; she was pale and utterly lacked her usual haughty poise. “They won’t stop till every drop of Tiraan blood falls. Once they get the scent—”

“That is not helping!” Basra exclaimed. “Come on, all of you, pull it together! We’re nearly out of the woods. Schwartz, is there any more you can do?”

“Very dangerous,” he croaked, panting heavily and with one hand pressed to his chest. “Messes up th’body… Natural capacity…”

“None of that will matter if we’re all—”

And then something burst from the trees beside the road, not ten yards behind them.

In the roughest sense, it was humanoid, pink and fleshy, but unformed as a scarecrow. Spindly arms were totally out of proportion to its body, tipped in fingers so long they resembled tentacles; for a head it had only a misshapen lump without apparent eyes. It had a mouth, though, a huge, gaping maw lined with uneven, flat teeth, dripping streams of viscous drool that glinted in the light of Basra’s aura. And it was easily fifteen feet tall.

The thing opened its mouth still wider and screamed, that same wail of anguish that had been following them since the fortress. This close, it was far louder, and somehow even more horrible. Ildrin and Branwen both staggered backward from it with muted cries.

Basra stalked forward, sword upraised; after a second, Jenell joined her, drawing her weapon and raising her shield.

Before they even reached the front of the group, the monstrosity wailed again and came charging toward them. Its speed was terrifying.

Schwartz spat a few unintelligible syllables and hurled Meesie straight at the thing, right over the heads of the two Legionnaires.

The mousy little elemental exploded in a massive fireball in midair.

What landed on the road between them and the monster of Athan’Khar was the size of a pony and more resembled a lion than a rodent, with a halo of seething flame for a mane. The creature didn’t so much as slow; letting out a deafening roar of challenge, Meesie charged forward, lunging to grasp one of its legs in her powerful jaws.

The elemental’s weight yanked the brute off-balance, and they tumbled sideways into the treeline, the monster emitting another anguished scream, this one sounding distinctly angrier. Meesie whirled to her feet and lunged on top of it, snarling and savaging the thing with fiery claws.

“Keep going,” Schwartz shouted, seeming to have recovered some of his breath. “She can’t hold it long!”

Branwen needed a tug from Ildrin to get moving again, and did so with a slight limp, but in the next moment they were all going, markedly slower than before, but still going. The sounds of battle receded behind them, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort. In the distance but growing ever closer were the shrill, whining notes of the other kind of monster chasing them; not far behind the first beast came another ululating wail.

With a sharp pop and a flurry of sparks, Meesie appeared out of midair, again mouse-sized, and landed on Schwartz’s shoulder, squeaking in dismay.

“Out of time,” he panted, not glancing back.

“Almost there!” Basra shouted, pointing ahead with her sword. “See?”

Indeed, they were close; in the darkness they head nearly reached the treeline before being certain, but once they topped a small rise, a gap widened before them. The forest gave way to a wide plain, kept clear as a barrier against just the kinds of things now pursuing them; in the distance, two fortresses were visible, brightly lit with modern fairy lamps, and the torches of encamped armies even closer. Even in the dark and at this distance they could tell the forces massed there were significantly greater than when they had entered the woods the previous morning.

Topping the small hill seemed as if it would take the last strength from them, but they picked up speed running down the other side; for a wonder, none of them tripped or lost balance. In just a few moments more, they were emerging from the trees onto the plain, the road leading straight toward the fortress looming in the distance to the west.

The howl came from behind them, terrifyingly close.

And this time, the smaller shrilling of the other things was even closer.

They poured out of the trees only a dozen yards behind the fleeing humans, having seemingly avoided the road. There were easily a dozen of them, pasty white things like cave salamanders with far too many limbs, but they bounded along more like monkeys than spiders. That was all there was to them, seemingly: a central blobby mass and uneven numbers of gangly legs, with no signs of eyes or mouth. Nothing to indicate what produced that high-pitched keening.

Basra turned to face them again, her aura brightening and a shield flashing into place around her. “Schwartz, got anything else?”

“One las’ trick,” he wheezed, but was already moving as he did so, tucking his hands momentarily into his wide sleeves. He waved both of them in wide arcs, spreading his fingers; a hail of what seemed to be gravel flew from his left to strew across the ground, while he released a gout of powder from the right, which hung in the air, forming into a small grayish cloud.

Jenell pushed past him, raising her shield, as Basra stepped up on the other side; Ami and Ildrin huddled behind them, Branwen actually slumping to her knees in defeat.

The moment the first of the creatures crossed beneath Schwartz’s cloud, the night exploded into brightness.

A dozen small bolts of lightning slashed across the space between the cloud and what he had thrown to the ground. The spider-blobs kept charging heedlessly forward, and as soon as they lunged into the trap they were blasted to the earth by searing arcs of electricity. At the speed they were moving, it took only seconds for all of them to lie charred across the road, several still twitching feebly.

“Well done,” Basra panted.

Then the towering monster burst out of the treeline.

It bore long claw marks, oozing green ichor, as well as several burns, but it wasn’t slowed. Opening its mouth wide, it howled even louder than before at them, hurling itself forward in a mad charge.

Before anyone could stop her, Basra went pelting right at it.

The brute lunged forward, slashing at her with one of its gangling hands, fingers throwing off sparks as they scraped across her glowing shield.

The exchanged that followed was too rapid for the exhausted onlookers to make sense of, but in the next second, Basra was staggering backward, her shield collapsed under the sheer force of the blow, while the creature’s severed hand flopped to the road.

The howl it emitted was physically painful in volume. It hesitated barely a moment, brandishing the stump of its arm at them, before charging again.

Suddenly, black shapes swarmed around the group from behind, a whole wall of them planting themselves between the humans and the monster and raising a line of triangular shields. More darted forward, slashing at its legs.

The beast faltered, wailing and swiping ineffectually at the dark figures, which seemed like little more than shadows in the faint moonlight. They moved far too adroitly for it to strike.

Several more dashed into position, carrying long polearms; two of these charged at it from the sides, and deftly impaled the creature’s central body, then planted the butts of their weapons in the ground and held them down. It wailed, tugging back and forth and nearly dislodging its attackers, but even as they faltered, two more appeared, adding their own long shafts to hold it in place.

All the while, the milling shadows below went to worth with slashing weapons which were as indistinct as they in the darkness, ripping into its legs and actually beginning to carve chunks out of them. Wailing in fury and pain, the monster was progressively borne to the ground, the polearm warriors shifting position to keep it contained as it was systematically hacked to shreds.

Once they had its legs effectively removed, the shadows swarmed over it like ants, swiftly disabling its arms and then going to work on its central body. In only seconds more, its cries were silenced; mere moments thereafter, it stopped moving entirely.

The five humans stared at this over the shoulders of the shadow-figures between them and what remained of the monster.

Schwartz summed up everyone’s thoughts


One shadow detached itself from the group, stepping toward them and lifting its hands to its head. It removed a helmet, an act which oddly made the dimly-glimpsed shape make sense; it, and all the others, were warriors in armor which had been treated with something to make it pitch black and non-reflective. The same effect had been applied to the blades of their long polearms and the sabers with which they had dispatched the monster.

Helmet off, the being revealed aquiline features, elongated ears, crimson eyes in a dark gray face and white hair cut in a bob that hung just below her chin.

“Drow?!” Jenell said in astonishment.

“Ah, good,” the drow said tonelessly, glancing at her. “A scholar. Bishop Syrinx, I presume?” she added, bowing to Basra. “I would ask how your negotiations went, but that would appear to be a formality.”

Another wail rose up very close by, and the drow commander’s gaze snapped in the direction of the forest.

A towering beast, seemingly identical to the first, lunged out of the treeline, pausing for a moment on the open ground to orient itself. Seconds later, a third emerged ten yards or so on its left.

The drow advance fighters scattered, forming themselves into a wide arc with pikemen interspersed along their length, preparing another takedown.

Before they could move, however, a barrage of lightning bolts came flashing out of the darkness to the northwest, carving scorched paths across the prairie grass and blasting the nearest monster off its feet. As it wailed in pain, the fire kept up, keeping it physically pinned down under the sheer fury of the attack even as it was systematically burned to a crisp.

Two squads of soldiers in light Imperial Army uniforms advanced toward them at a trot, their front ranks with staves leveled and firing even as they moved. What looked like a continuous stream of energy blasts was coordinated along the line, lightning flashing forward in a well-practiced pattern that kept up constant fire while allowing each trooper to let his weapon rest and avoid overheating. They came at an oblique angle that kept the drow out of their line of fire; circling around to do it had likely accounted for their late arrival.

The third monstrosity screamed in fury and turned to face them, setting off at a lumbering run; at a barked order from an officer, one squad peeled off, switching their fire to it and changing formation so the soldiers behind came into play, adding their staves to the assault. In seconds it had been brought down, thrashing and wailing while they came on. The first creature was barely stirring now, still under the continuous barrage of the first squad.

Of the humans sheltered behind the drow shield wall, all but Basra and Jenell actually sat down in the road, panting with exhaustion, and now, relief. The drow relaxed at a soft command from their leader, the advance warriors streaming back to join them and the shield defenders lowering weapons.

As the Imperial squads moved up even with the group, there came another barked order and the staff fire ceased. Moments later, orbs of elemental water were conjured in midair by battlemages and splashed downward onto the thoroughly dead and severely charred Athan’Khar monsters, followed by careful sprays that doused the small fires smoldering all over the area.

An officer peeled off from the first squad and trotted up to them, saluting as he came to a stop.

“Bishop Syrinx, glad to see you safe. Colonel Nintambi sends his regards; we’re to escort you back to the joint field command post.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, nodding to him and sheathing her sword, before turning to peruse her bedraggled group. “Is Falaridjad still alive—ah, good. Take that woman into custody.”

He glanced uncertainly at the priestess, who was slumped on the ground with her head resting on her knees, shoulders heaving with the effort to draw breath. “Uh…ma’am? I mean, of course, but with all respect you don’t hold an Army rank; I’ll need a little bit more to go on.”

“Whatever follows from here is her fault,” Basra said curtly. “We succeeded in meeting and beginning negotiations with our antagonist, at which time this insubordinate, grandstanding mortal avatar of stupidity assaulted him with a relic she had apparently stolen from an Izarite temple. Our chance to make peace can be considered effectively squandered.”

Ildrin made no reply at all to this, still seemingly struggling for breath.

“I see,” the lieutenant said grimly, snapping his fingers and pointing to two of his soldiers. “You heard the Bishop; this woman is under arrest.”

“Sir!” the chorused, saluting, and stepped forward, each holding a staff in one hand and using the other to hike Ildrin upright by the shoulders. She offered no resistance, hanging limply in their grip.

“Where I am from,” the drow commander observed, “a person would be slain on the spot by her commanding officer for such conduct.”

“We have different ways here,” Basra replied. “I want her to survive to see the outcome of whatever follows, so she can be publicly held to account for every last ounce of the ensuing carnage.”

“Ah.” The commander nodded, smiling faintly. “I can see the virtue in such an approach.” The Tiraan lieutenant gave her an uneasy sidelong glance.

“The Empire and the Silver Legions I expected to find here,” Basra continued, “but your presence is a surprise. Not that I am anything less than grateful, mind.”

“Forgive me. I am Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, and have the honor of commanding the Narisian contingent attached to the coalition here.” She saluted in the Narisian style, twirling her saber then touching its tip to her temple before sheathing it. “Queen Arkasia was extremely curious at the sudden massing of troops this close to Tar’naris; upon being appraised of the situation, she dispatched forces to assist. The queen takes our treaty with the utmost seriousness. Tiraas and Tar’naris are sisters; whoso attacks one shall contend with both.”

“I, for one, am extremely delighted to see you here,” Basra said, bowing. “I’m sure my companions will concur when they have their breath back.”

Schwartz waved weakly, nodding in agreement.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Basra added somewhat wryly, “but I devoutly hope the rest of this event proves to be a complete waste of your time.”

“So does every sane soldier,” Yrril replied, her thin Narisian smile of courtesy expanding by a few bare iotas to show a hint of real amusement. “Based on your account, however, I fear we shall not be so blessed.”

“Indeed,” Basra said more grimly. “Lieutenant, and… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your rank?”

“I would customarily be addressed by given name by anyone not in my chain of command,” the drow replied, “but if it comforts you, we commonly translate the rank as Archcommander.”

“Archcommander, then. Lieutenant. If you’d kindly lead the way to the rest of those in charge, I have people badly in need of rest and medical attention.”

“Forgive me, ma’am,” said the lieutenant, “but it appears you could do with some yourself.”

Basra shook her head. “In time. First, I have a detailed report to present. The coalition’s leaders have to know what happened and what to expect.” She glanced back at the dark forest, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t say how soon, but we are about to be at war.”

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10 – 40

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Only the twisted trees stood to attest to the horrors that had once plagued this spot. Down below the old walls where they couldn’t be seen, the night birds and crickets made it seem a perfectly ordinary, peaceful night in the country. So, naturally, since Ami was sitting on the battlements where she had a good view all around, she stared fixedly at the disturbingly contorted forest of Athan’Khar.

She sat on a chunk of toppled masonry in the shadow of a half-ruined guard tower, gazing absently across the river and plucking out a tune on her guitar. It was a slow melody, produced one single coppery note at a time rather than making use of the guitar’s ability to harmonize, wistful and somehow lonesome. All in all, it seemed the perfect backdrop to the scenery itself, and Ami appeared quite absorbed in it. She carried on playing and staring while Jenell climbed the nearby staircase and approached, the Legionnaire’s arrival anything but quiet, thanks to her armor.

Jenell came to a stop alongside the bard, glancing out in the direction of her gaze with a slight frown.

“Time for a shift change?” Ami asked without halting her playing.

“Not yet,” said Jenell, “though I don’t mind taking over early if you’re tired of sitting up here alone. At least there’s a view; I’m going stir-crazy down there.”

“Ah,” she replied with a sly little smile, fingers still plucking. “So you’ve come to steal my view and fob your boredom off on me.”

“Well, a girl has to look out for herself.”

Ami chuckled softly, finally bringing the tune to an end.

“You weren’t worried about attracting attention that way?” Jenell asked, glancing at the guitar.

“I thought the point of this was to attract attention. Anyway, it was just a little touch. A perhaps futile effort to add some charm to this forsaken heap.” She wrinkled her nose disdainfully. “I’m not opposed to a little adventure, mind you, but somehow I envisioned something not quite so dangerous and yet boring.”

“That describes most of what war is, so the officers tell me.”

“You don’t strike me as one to listen overmuch to officers,” Ami said, again giving her that knowing smile.

Jenell mirrored it almost exactly. “I was raised by one. I’m very good at parroting what they want to hear.”

The bard giggled softly, pressing her fingertips coyly to her mouth. “Well, I just hope what dear Bishop Syrinx wants to hear doesn’t end up being the death of us. She certainly is brave, coming here just to taunt a fae arch-summoner.”

This time, Jenell didn’t return the amused expression, turning instead to stare out across the river at the darkened woods beyond. “She’s not brave,” she said softly after a long moment. “Not at all.”

“Oh?” Ami arched an eyebrow, the tilt of her head and subtle shift of her posture somehow indicating casual disinterest. “I fancy I’ve some notion of her Grace’s faults, but I never took her for a coward.”

“Courage begins with fear,” Jenell whispered. “Bravery is acting in spite of fear. Someone unable to be afraid isn’t brave.”

“That was almost poetic,” Ami mused.

“Something my father said once. I’d all but forgotten it, but my DS in basic liked to harp on similar themes.”

“Ugh, I could tell you stories about trainers and harping,” the bard said lightly, strumming her fingers once across the strings in an aimless, uplifting chord. “Mostly by people better dressed than the bulk of the company here. Though if anything, the exceptions are even sadder. Who does Bishop Snowe think she’s going to impress in this howling wilderness with her beauty regimen?”

“Whoever we find, I suppose,” Jenell said with a mean little smile. “I have it on good authority that her particular method of…problem-solving…would require some…privacy.”

Ami grinned nastily right back. “Even I’ve heard that one. A reputation so epic would be a shame to waste, don’t you think? I almost hope our mysterious foe comes with something serviceable between its legs, if only so her time isn’t completely wasted.”

“You’re an evil little bitch, aren’t you?” Jenell asked with a broad grin.

“And how long have you been waiting to call someone a bitch without being stomped on by an officer?”

“Oh, you simply cannot imagine.”

The bard’s answering laugh was throaty and sly. “I can imagine a lot, dear. I could even before they trained me for it.”

Jenell shifted her head to stare once again out into the dark, the smile slipping slowly from her features. In the silence that followed, Ami strummed another arpeggio in a major key, subtly lightening the mood without speaking.

“My older brother is a Vesker,” Jenell said suddenly. “My father was furious when he announced he was going to be a bard. Well…he acted furious, because he’s such a man he could never let on in front of his family that he was crushed. We’re a military family, from a long line of soldiers, and seeing the sudden end of that tradition…”

“I suppose he was delighted that you decided to join the Legions,” Ami said mildly.

“I didn’t so much decide as…” Jenell trailed off, then shook her head. “Colin is all but disowned, but he and I still write to each other. He told me a lot about his training… There are whole layers to what makes a bard I never imagined.”

“Well,” Ami began.

“So I know,” Jenell cut her off, “that you’re just playing a role. I’m not so well schooled in literature, but I’ve been the spoiled princess long enough to know her when I meet her, and to know that nobody is such a vain little shit all the way to her core. I’ve no idea why you’re really here or what you’re after, but… For what it’s worth, I appreciate it. It may just be a little vicious gossip here and there to you, but being re-oriented in my old life, just for a few moments, has been like a breath of fresh sanity.”

“Did you like your old life enough you’d want to return to it?” Ami asked quietly.

Jenell heaved a soft sigh. “I suppose someday I’m going to have to think about questions like that, aren’t I? If I live long enough. It hasn’t really come up, though. There’s just the next step in front of me, until…”

Her sentence meandered off into silence, and both of them gazed absently off into the darkness for a few moments.

“Well,” Jenell said in a suddenly brisk tone, “now it really is time for a shift change. You’d best grab some sleep while you can; her Grace is adamant about having half of us awake and alert at all times.”

“I suppose it’s worth a try,” Ami said grudgingly, rising with a disdainful little sniff. “Though how anyone expects me to sleep on rocks I simply cannot imagine. Ah, well…we endure what we must, I supposed.”

She paused for a moment to pack up her guitar and sling its case over her shoulder before turning to head down the stairs. Passing Jenell, the bard stopped suddenly to squeeze her shoulder.

“Facade or no,” she said quietly, “the spoiled princess is no one’s victim. Ever. All the way to her core.”

She gave her one more quick squeeze and then sauntered off, descending into the courtyard without waiting for any reply.

Jenell watched her go for a bare moment before turning back to stare out at the darkness of Athan’Khar.

The camp in the old courtyard was quiet, if not entirely still. Aside from having one person on the walls at Basra’s insistence, two others remained awake at all times, which at the moment were Schwartz and Ildrin, Ami having retired to her sleeping roll. The priestess and the witch both sat near the small campfire, apparently not interacting with each other. Jenell cast the odd glance down at the group in between spells of staring across the river. Her eyes frequently found their way to the still form of Basra, who lay atop her bedroll with her hands behind her head, apparently in perfect relaxation.

For the most part she paced back and forth, working off nervous tension under the guise of patrolling. There wasn’t a lot of space in which to pace, a relatively minority of the wall being accessible. The towers on both ends of this particular segment were partially collapsed, leaving nowhere to go beyond the one stretch of battlements.

Jenell paused finally, turning her back to the camp to stare into the darkness, and letting one hand stray toward the belt pouch in which she had concealed several books under a bag-of-holding spell. It was quiet enough… No, there wasn’t enough light, Basra was right there and she knew very well what a light sleeper she was, and her neck would be justifiably on the line if she let them get ambushed because she was distracted while on guard duty. There had been few opportunities to continue her research of late. That only made sense, given what they had been doing, but part of her just couldn’t shake the suspicion that Basra knew what she was up to, or at least that she was up to something, and had been keeping her on her toes.

She certainly saw to it that Jenell rarely got enough sleep.

The sound of approaching footsteps made her whirl, scowling in anger mostly at herself for being so lost in thought that someone had gotten this close unseen, but it was only Schwartz, carrying two steaming tin cups. He paused, gazing at her with eyebrows raised, but did not seem unduly alarmed by her expression. Meesie, in her customary perch atop his head, straightened up and chittered reprovingly.

“Sorry,” said Jenell, relaxing. “You startled me.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied, coming the rest of the way up the steps. “I guess sneaking up on a soldier on guard isn’t the brightest idea. I just thought you might like some tea. Or…is that against, um, regulations?”

She had to smile at his hesitant expression. “Technically? Yes. But considering the outfit I’m working for, I suspect the Legion’s regulations are really more like guidelines. I would love some tea, thank you.”

He smiled, reminding her of a praised puppy, and stepped forward, handing her a cup. Jenell took a sip—a small one, as it was still quite hot. Not great tea, barely good tea, even, but somehow it was extremely pleasant.

Meesie chirped, looking oddly smug.

“She helped,” Schwartz said with a wry smile. “The little fire down there is barely enough to keep us from tripping on each other in the dark; it really didn’t want to boil water.”

“That’s probably better than attracting the attention of anything that lives in Athan’Khar,” she replied.

“Yes, so the good Bishop said, and I can’t disagree.”

They were silent for a while, sipping tea and staring out into the dark. Schwartz occasionally stole glances at her from the corner of his eye, which Jenell did not fail to notice, and had to repress the smile it prompted. Meesie turned around three times atop his head before curling into a ball, snuggling down into a blond nest.

“Why are you here, Herschel?” she asked quietly.

He blinked. “Um…pardon? If you’d rather be alone, I can…”

“I mean out here, with us, on this fool’s errand.” Jenell half-turned to glance once more down into the courtyard, where Ildrin was now pacing back and forth a few yards from their sleeping companions, appearing to be having some kind of argument with herself. “The Bishop pointedly didn’t insist that anyone come, and yet…everyone did. And everybody is up to something. I don’t know what Ami’s after, but I know it’s something. I thought Ildrin was just trying to get in good with Basra for the sake of her career, but she’s putting up with far too much abuse for that, or for just thinking this is a thing worth doing. Somebody like Branwen Snowe never goes this far out of her way unless she sees an advantage in it for herself. So… What’s your motive?”

“What’s yours?” he replied quietly.

“I asked you first.”

He shrugged. “You did, but I’ve been wondering for a while. I, uh… Okay, honestly, I’m not the greatest at interpersonal stuff, but from watching you and the Bishop these last few days it’s like… You seem to have a strong loyalty to her, but also to…dislike her. Rather a lot.”

“That’s…it’s…there are…”

He glanced at her again, then cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, um, we can just file that under none of my business.”

Jenell heaved a small sigh and took a little sip of tea. “This is why I’m asking. It really is none of your business and not something I care to discuss anyway, but… Part of me wants to. It’s been a very long time since I felt I could unburden myself. I hardly know you, but…”

He smiled fleetingly, giving her another long look, then cleared his throat again. “Well. Um…you’ll probably think it’s silly, but in the beginning…I was just looking to have an adventure. And honest-to-gods go out into the world and do things storybook kind of affair, y’know? You might not think it to look at me,” he added wryly, “but I’m usually a bookish sort.”

“I would never have imagined,” she said, deadpan.

He grinned. “Well, I always have been. My little sister’s forever climbing things and breaking things and scraping her knees. My father was an enchanter, very much a practical type, but his work had him traveling around the continent and he loved every minute of that. My mother was a drill sergeant in the Sixth Silver Legion before retiring to get married, and then became the sheriff of our town.” Schwartz sighed, and shrugged. “I mean, I like my life. I like myself. But I thought, just once, I should go out and see what it’s like. And just maybe gain some insight into what I’ve always been missing and why everybody else always seemed so into it. So when Sister Leraine asked for a fae specialist to travel around Viridill, I jumped.”

“And for that you’re…here?” Jenell shook her head. “Hershel, there’s adventure, and then there’s this.”

“Well, that was then,” he said quietly. “After… I mean, when Bishop Syrinx told us what she planned to do here… Come on, how could I leave then? I just… Well, apart from not wanting to be the designated coward, you guys need your fae expert on this affair. You, uh, girls. Women. Ladies… Damn it.” He groaned and clapped a hand to his face.

Jenell laughed softly. “I will forgive you; I don’t much care about that stuff anyway. Just be glad it was me here and not Ildrin.”

“I am,” he said, lowering his hand and staring down into the river below. Even in the darkness, she could see his cheeks color slightly.

There was another silence.

“Look,” he said awkwardly, half-turning toward her and setting his cup down on the battlements. “I, uh…I’m not very good at… And I don’t want you to think… I mean, it’s not like I really know you all that well and I get the sense you have your own stuff to deal with, and anyway I suppose I’m not the sort—I mean, what you prefer—not that I’m making assumptions—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered, thunking down her own cup and reaching out to grip the back of his neck. She drew herself close, lifting her head, and kissed him solidly on the mouth.

Schwartz stiffened, then shifted as if uncertain what to do with his hands, before settling them gently on her waist, where she couldn’t feel them through the armor. He didn’t seem very practiced at this. And yet…she felt no urge to let it stop.

They stood that way for what seemed a long time. Meesie squeaked, burying her little head in her paws and quivering.

Schwartz blinked rapidly a few times when they finally pulled apart, wearing a goofy half-smile that was somehow the most endearing thing she’d ever seen. Jenell bit her lower lip to suppress a similar expression, just looking up at his eyes.

Suddenly they widened, and his expression changed alarmingly. “Oh…crap.”

“Oh crap?” she said, her eyebrows shooting upward. “So help me, Herschel Schwartz, if you’re about to tell me you’ve just remembered you have a fiancee back home—”

“Jenell,” he said in a low but urgent tone, staring past her shoulder, “look.”

She turned, and froze, reflexively grasping her sword.

The flickering lights massing on the far bank of the river came from what looked like person-sized candle flames drifting slowly across the water, as well as from wispier, slightly more humanoid shapes in shades of luminous blue and green. The light they put off was enough to illuminate the familiar forms of water elementals rising from the river itself, and other creatures seemingly formed of wood and living plant matter. All these were slowly moving toward them across the river, while behind on the bank, lumbering shapes of stone and sand paced back and forth, unable or unwilling to enter the water.

“Herschel,” she said tersely, “are those…”

He narrowed his eyes in concentration, staring at the oncoming beings. “They’re…elementals. Lots of them, but ordinary ones, as far as I can tell. Not the denizens of Athan’Khar. Those are made of strange magic, and they’re rarely this quiet. I think our friend is coming to visit.”

“Keep an eye on this,” she said, stepping backward. “I’m going to go get the Bishop.”

Even as she spoke, an eerie glow rose up amid the trees beyond, a pale green light that seemed to have a shape of its own, creeping forward toward the water like mist. Jenell hesitated a moment longer, staring at this, then turned to descend the stairs as rapidly as she safely could.

She almost faltered a step on finding Basra upright and staring up at her, but continued on her way without pausing. In a moment she had reached the ground, and broke into a run for the last few steps to the campsite.

“Your Grace,” she said quietly, “there are elementals crossing the river toward us—lots of them, multiple kinds. Schwartz thinks they’re not Athan’Khar beasts, but agents of our opponent.”

“Finally,” Basra said with grim satisfaction, then brushed past Jenell without another word, heading for the stairs. Ildrin moved forward to join them, Ami and Branwen also rising to their feet. Clearly, no one had been able to rest.

They made the top of the wall rather crowded; it took a furious glare from Basra to make them all back off from her, several having instinctively tried to crowd around. They finally arranged themselves along the battlements, nervously watching the elementals approach. So far, the creatures were just moving toward them in no particular hurry. None of their behavior seemed aggressive, but there were a lot of them.

And that greenish, glowing mist kept coming. It drifted forward across the surface of the water now, rising upward in a single tower which rose to the height of their wall; as it neared them, its uppermost part swelled and shifted, twisting about languidly like a very slow cyclone.

Less then six feet from the wall, it stopped. All around it, the elementals halted their progress, too, a few on the narrow shore below the fortress wall, but most still drifting on the surface of the river. Only the water elementals seemed to manage this without effort, the rest having to slowly paddle against the current to stay in place.

A soft wind grew around them, shifting in time with the slow whirling of the shape atop the pillar of mist. The small cyclone began to glow more brightly, as if its swirling density obscured a more powerful light source within.

“So. At last we meet.”

The voice seemed to come from the air all around them rather than from the shape before them, but the light within the funnel pulsed in sync with its words.

“Welcome to Viridill,” Basra said calmly, folding her hands before her. “I’m glad you finally decided to address us in a civil manner.”

“I accept your reproach, Bishop,” the voice replied. It was distinctly unearthly, with a whispering quality that made its gender indistinguishable, but was as powerful as a shout. “Circumstance…restrains me. I had hoped some would seek out a parley. I had hoped it would be you.”

“And whom have I the pleasure of addressing?” she inquired.

The cyclone whirled faster for a moment, emitting a rapid pulsing of light that was not accompanied by words before replying. “You know me.”

“I assume that you are behind the recent arrival and activity of elementals in Viridill,” she said evenly. “I would like to know who you are.”

“You seek my name? My race? I wonder to what use you would put such information.”

“All of that is incidental,” said the Bishop. “What concerns us is your motives, and your intentions. Your behavior has been rather hostile up till now.”

“You think me hostile?”

“I shall be glad to speak to you at whatever length the conversation requires,” she said in perfect calm. “If you choose to indulge me by revealing your identity, perhaps I might know enough of the culture from which you come to address you in the courtesies to which you are accustomed. As it is, however, since you decline such a display of trust, I ask in turn that you refrain from wasting my time with riddles and wordplay.”

“Basra,” Branwen warned quietly. Basra held up a peremptory hand a mere few inches from her fellow Bishop’s face. Branwen edged backward from it, grimacing wryly.

Again, the cyclone whirled and pulsed; when it spoke, there was distinct amusement in its tone. “I perceive that I have insulted you. My apologies.”

“My feelings are not easy to bruise,” Basra replied. “It is actions that concern me. Your behavior toward Viridill has been quite hostile. I wonder if you realize how close you are to inviting the wrath of Avei.”

“You threaten me?”

“Let’s…not threaten him,” Schwartz said nervously.

“I warn you,” Basra corrected, shooting the witch a warning glare. “And I don’t imagine you are unaware of the repercussions of your actions thus far. I have come here in good faith, to exchange information and to negotiate if you are willing. I would know who you are if possible, but at the very least I must understand what you seek in order to determine how we might reach an accord.”

“Very good, then,” said the presence, expanding slightly. “We must discuss the future, and the past.”

“You have my attention,” the Bishop said with a very small smile.

“That’s really him?” Ildrin asked, staring at the misty tornado and furiously dry-washing her hands, which were hidden by the wide sleeves of her robe. “This is the person who’s been attacking us?”

“Falaridjad, hush,” Basra said curtly.

“I do not come to attack,” said the voice. “Amends shall be made for any harm done and insult given. I seek no quarrel with Avei or her faithful.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Basra, nodding deeply. “Would you explain what it is you intend?”

“What are you?” Ildrin demanded.

“I apologize for my subordinate,” Basra said smoothly, keeping her gaze fixed on the misty presence. “She is undisciplined and generally annoying, and will now remove herself to the courtyard below preparatory to being sent back to the Sisterhood and permanently barred from working with or near me ever again.”

“I’ve a better idea,” Ildrin said grimly, parting her hands. Something caught between them burst alight with a golden radiance that blinded everyone on the wall top.

“No!” Branwen shouted in horror. “Ildrin, don’t!”

Heedless, the priestess lunged forward, colliding with the battlements, and hurled forward the object she held. It blazed like a miniature sun, all the way till it reached the glowing cyclone atop the pillar of mist. As close as the figure was, it was no difficult throw.

Whatever the object had been erupted with a noise like shattering crystal, flaring so brightly that for a brief instant the whole seen was illuminated as if by high noon. Several of those gathered let out cries of surprise and dismay, which were quickly lost in the howl that tore itself out of the air all around them.

The pillar of mist twisted and writhed as if in pain, veins of golden light shooting down its length. All around, elementals burst into light as well, many letting out eerie cries of their own as they dissolved in a series of flashes. The light spread through the green mist, burning it away in patches; as the onlookers stared in horror, a golden haze tore through the entire expanse of mist, dissolving first the pillar and then working its way across the wide spread that hung over the water.

Like a fire racing along a fuse, it burned backward, incinerating mist as it went, the sparkling glow passing the death throes of the earth elementals on the shore. Beyond, it snaked off into the trees, marking a twisting path back through the forest, apparently toward the source of the mist.

“What did you do?!” Basrsa snarled, grabbing Ildrin by the collar and shaking her violently. “What have you done?”

“I’ve finished this,” the priestess retorted, seizing the Bishop’s wrists and staring back at her with an expression of savage, nearly mad satisfaction. “While you schemed and talked, I took action. Viridill is safe!”

“No, you fool,” Branwen said wearily. “You just doomed us all.”

“It’s dead!” Ildrin insisted. “You saw it! This is over now!”

“What WAS that?” Basra roared.

“Was that a shatterstone?” Schwartz demanded.

“It was,” Branwen said in a mournful tone.

“What is a shatterstone?” Basra snarled, practically spitting in rage.

“They’re used to defend Izarite temples from magical threats,” Schwartz said, frowning in evident confusion. “They sort of transmute other kinds of magic to the divine… One of my teachers would give her left arm to learn the secret of making them.”

“There’s no secret,” Branwen said, still staring at Ildrin in horror. “It’s one of Izara’s gifts. Ildrin, where did you get that?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Ildrin shouted, prying Basra’s hands loose from her collar and taking a step back from the furious Bishop. “It’s done now, and that thing is no more. We can go home as heroes!”

“Well, no,” said Schwartz, wide-eyed. “Those things don’t have nearly enough power to destroy a being strong enough to do what this one has been doing.”

Ildrin froze, staring at him. “…what?”

“That was a projection of some kind,” said Schwartz, shaking his head. “Why would someone so cagey and standoffish reveal themselves in person? You just mortally insulted him, is all. Assuming that trail followed all the way back to the source, you might even have hurt him somewhat.”

“You attacked a diplomat under a flag of truce, in violation of my orders,” Basra gritted. “And now, thanks to you, there will be no more talking from that creature. Now, it’s war. You’d better hope you die in the first engagements, Falaridjad, because you have my word before Avei that I’m going to make it my personal mission to destroy you as utterly as anyone has ever been as soon as we get back to Viridill.”

“I would very much like to know what you were doing with that shatterstone,” Branwen added with uncharacteristic coldness. “They are not given away outside the faith.”

“We have a more immediate problem,” Schwartz said nervously. “We’d better get going.”

“How rapidly can that creature get its act together and come after us?” Basra demanded, turning to him.

“That’s not what worries me,” he said, reaching up to pat Meesie, who stood on his shoulder, bristling like a scared cat. “Ildrin just launched a human-made magical effect that followed a path probably a good distance into Athan’Khar. If anything in there noticed—”

He broke off as a scream echoed in the distance. It came clearly from deep in the woods to the south, a long, ululating wail of mingled agony, sorrow and rage which carried on for a long span of seconds, longer than a human voice could have sustained such a cry. Worst of all, aside from that, it sounded very much as if it was human.

Immediately, another echoed it from the forest to the west, followed by still a third. Before they had faded, another chorus of voices rose, these eerie and unlike anything that could have come from the throat of a living thing.

To the south, distantly among the trees, pale lights began to flicker.

“Schwartz,” Basra said in sudden, icy calm, “can you freeze the river to the north for us to cross, and how fast?”

“Yes, and it will only take seconds,” he said, “though it won’t last long.”

“Long enough to cross?”

“I—if we hasten, yes.”

“Good. Get to it. Everyone, stay on his heels. We run.”

“Wait,” Ildrin said, wild-eyed. “The camp! I have to—”

Basra struck as fast as a rattlesnake, backhanding her across the face so hard she would have tumbled from the wall had Jenell not grabbed her collar.

“That’s a fine idea,” the Bishop said coldly. “You stay here and pack. Everyone whose lives matter, run.”

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10 – 37

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“It even looks evil,” Ami said nervously, clutching her guitar case and staring across the river.

Fort Varansis was situated on a long island in the River Asraneh, directly in front of them. The river, here, was broad and shallow, diverted into two lesser streams by the sizable island in its center. At this time of year, the current was fairly swift but not too dangerous to wade through; to their right, a sequence of crumbling stone pillars extended from the shore to the island, all that remained of an ancient bridge.

The fort itself did not look particularly ominous, though it was definitely in a sad state. After a century of abandonment, it was as much forest as fortress; though trees would ordinarily not have been permitted to grow near the walls of a fortification, and probably not on the island at all, the woods which extended from within Athan’Khar across the river into Viridill had long since overtaken everything. The fortress itself was more Avenist than Tiraan in style, stark and utilitarian—for the most part it had held up fairly well, the only major damage to its walls being where they had been ruptured by the unchecked growth of trees.

It was the trees that gave the scene its unsettling appearance. This was a pine forest, and its denizens were meant by nature to grow straight and tall—which, north of the river, they did. The trees on the island, however, were twisted into clearly unhealthy shapes, with bulbous trunks and clawed limbs, not to mention peculiar patterns on the bark.

“Is my imagination running away from me,” Ildrin asked tersely, “or do some of them seem to have…faces?”

“If it’s imagination, it’s not just yours,” Jenell muttered.

“None of them have faces,” Basra said in exasperation, rolling her eyes. “Are you about done, Schwartz?”

“With you, yes, ma’am,” he said, stepping back from her and eying her over critically before nodding to himself in satisfaction and moving down the line to Jenell, who was last. With Meesie sitting alert on his shoulder, he repeated the procedure he’d performed on all the others, first producing a pinch of powder from one of his pockets and sprinkling it on her forehead. Unlike some of her companions, Jenell didn’t sneeze, though the effort caused her to squint and wrinkle her nose. Schwartz, meanwhile, raised the gnarled wand he had been carrying, which still had some green and apparently living leaves attached to it, and began making slow, careful passes over her, stepping slowly around her to be sure he didn’t miss a spot. How he could tell was anyone’s guess, but he appeared quite confident in what he was doing.

“And actually,” he said as he worked, “it’s not impossible that some of those trees do have faces. Or bark formations that very deliberately resemble them, anyway. I couldn’t help noticing some of the branches look a lot like arms. With the bony fingers, you know?”

“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine,” Ami muttered.

“But they’re perfectly safe,” Schwartz continued blithely. “These woods are cleared now, but remember that for a big chunk of a century they were under the effect wrought on Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. Everything in there went weird, and very hostile. Plants, animals…lots of rather peculiar undead. So, yes, those are biologically normal trees, but they don’t just take on a different shape because the wild magic that shaped them is gone now.”

“Are you sure you can talk while doing that?” Jenell asked pointedly.

“Oh, don’t worry, this isn’t complex at all! Just time-consuming.” Meesie squeaked in confirmation, nodding her tiny head.

“And if he messes it up, the worst that happens is you’ll get wet,” Basra said archly. “I’m certain you’ve been trained for that, Private.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell said stiffly, a faint blush suffusing her cheeks.

“There is something I’ve been curious about, though, just to wrench the subject away from probably-not-evil trees,” Schwartz continued. “It occurred to me when we were passing the defensive lines being set up by the Army and the Second Legion along the border back there. How come the Silver Legions are so…old-fashioned? I mean, I understand religions have traditions and all, but for a cult dedicated to war it appears odd to deliberately fall behind the curve of military tactics and equipment.”

“Look in front of you, Schwartz,” said Basra, staring across the river at the crumbling fortress.

“Actually, please look at what you’re doing,” said Jenell.

“What happened in there changed everything,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “The holocaust of Athan’Khar, the Enchanter Wars which followed. The Legions were instrumental in driving back Heshenaad’s campaign, but it’s also true that Viridill was the first Imperial province to secede following the Bane, and the Silver Legions crushed a numerically superior Imperial force immediately afterward.”

“That was before battlestaves were commonplace,” Schwartz noted.

“And, in fact, the Legions used them, then,” Basra replied, nodding. “Such weapons weren’t issued to the rank and file; they were considered a kind of mobile artillery. But yes…that was then, this is now. Politics is war of a different kind, and in the modern world, the Sisterhood has its base and holy sites within an Empire which remembers the threat an up-to-date Legion can pose.”

“So you deliberately gave up your ability to wage war effectively?” Branwen asked, tilting her head. “I must say that seems odd.”

Basra smiled faintly, gazing across the river. “War is deception.”

“Well, there we are!” Schwartz said more briskly, straightening up and tucking his leaf-wand into one of his billowing sleeves. “All finished and waterproof. Shall we, then?”

“Now, you’re certain the protections on my case are adamant against water?” Ami demanded, clutching her guitar case protectively.

“I assure you,” Schwartz said, smiling, “I took great care with it.”

“Because I don’t mind getting wet, if I must, but if my instrument is damaged, you and I shall have a talk the outcome of which you will not enjoy.”

“I have a little sister,” he replied. “Have I mentioned that?”

Ami raised an eyebrow slowly. “And that is relevant to…what, exactly?”

“That I know very well not to risk damaging a girl’s most prized possession. I promise, Ami, your guitar will be safer for the trip than any of us.”

“Well, I suppose I can accept that,” she said, somewhat mollified.

“If you are quite done?” Basra said acidly, stepping forward into the river without waiting for a reply. Branwen sighed and gave the others a rueful smile as she moved to follow.

One by one, they slipped into the river, following the two Bishops single file, as Basra had ordered. She led the way slowly, taking care with each step. Long ago this river had been deeper on both sides of the island, and had been regularly dug out for defensive purposes. Now, it was broader than deep by far, its basin filled with silt; even the old bridge terminated in mid-stream, ending at the ghost of a shore that no longer existed. Schwartz’s charm work improved their footing as well as keeping them dry and protecting their shoes from being sucked away by mud, but still, fording a river with a muddy bottom and a brisk current was a dicey proposition. They followed carefully in the path that Basra had already confirmed passable, tense and exceedingly cautious.

They crossed without incident, however, and reassembled on the opposite bank, which had to be climbed, being far taller and less approachable than that on the other side. The six of them clustered together, nervously inspecting the nearby fortress and their own oddly dry clothes, with the exception of Basra, who stepped forward to peer across the river at the Athan’Khar side.

It was very much like the smaller forest here on the island, its trees distinctly menacing in aspect, but even bigger. There were no sounds but those of the river and cheerful songbirds, though; shafts of afternoon sunlight made a quite pretty spectacle in the woods on the haunted side. Of course, according to Schwartz’s information, the actually haunting was half a mile distant.

Still. Athan’Khar was feared for very good reason.

“I sense nothing undead, demonic, or otherwise Pantheon-opposed,” she said abruptly, grabbing everyone’s focus. “Snowe? Falaridjad?”

“Nothing,” Ildrin said curtly. “It’s…so empty. That disturbs me. In a place like this, it seems I should feel something.”

“That’s your expectations distracting you,” Branwen said with a kind smile. “Where one expects evil and horror, the absence of anything can be quite alarming. But no, Basra, I sense nothing either. Forgive me if I sound boastful, but my particular skills are rather more suited to this than either of yours. Nothing in the vicinity means us harm, or is even aware of us. In fact, I can’t feel the presence of any intelligence except our own.”

“Mm.” Basra shifted her gaze to Schwartz. “And you?”

“Offhand, the same,” he said, frowning, “but I’d need to set wards and cast a ritual to be certain. My magic doesn’t work the same way as yours. Now that we’re here, anyway, wards are a priority.”

“I thought you said this mysterious summoner was more than a match for you,” Ildrin said pointedly.

“Oh, he or she most certainly is,” Schwartz agreed. “And the whole point of this is to invite a visit from them, anyway, so it’s not as if we’d be trying to ward them off. That’s not what I’m concerned about. That’s Athan’Khar over there. We need forewarning of anything unnatural approaching the fortress. The spirits… They’re all interconnected. Mixed together. If one of them discovers there’s a party of humans camped on the border, more will come. And still more, until they either drive us off or destroy us.”

“Which would be inconvenient,” Basra said dryly. “Very well, you can set that up after we’ve made a quick tour of our temporary home. I don’t want the group to split up at this juncture, and we need to investigate the fortress briefly, at least, before settling in.”

“Ugh.” Ami wrinkled her nose in protest. “In heaven’s name, why?”

“You can’t possibly be that daft,” Ildrin said, staring at her.

“She’s not,” Basra said. “Bards love their little dramas. We’ll be camping in the courtyard, rather than inside the building, which is very likely to be unsafe after all this time. But we will at least look, and diminish the chance of being taken by surprise.” She turned on her heel and strode toward the yawning gates of Fort Varansis, whose doors had long since rotted away to nothing. “After coming all this way and taking all these precautions against fairy summoners and vengeful spirits, it would be awfully embarrassing to get eaten by a bear.”

“Ouvis and Naphthene make a lot more sense to me now,” Darling was saying as they made their way up the twisting dirt passage to the grotto above. “He ignores any attempted worshipers; she’s been known to answer prayers with lightning bolts. I always figured she was just a bitch, playing that unpredictable-as-the-sea bit a little too seriously, but now I wonder if Naphthene doesn’t have the entire rest of the Pantheon beat for simple common sense.”

“Those are the only two who make more sense,” Ingvar mused. He was bringing up the back of the line, and had been deep in thought since they had finally left the Elder Gods’ facility, though he hadn’t hesitated to participate in the discussion. “How many gods have no paladins? How can they? If what we’ve learned… Vesk, for instance. Who ever heard of a bard paladin?”

“Well,” Darling said thoughtfully, “keep in mind we seized upon the word ‘paladin’ to explain what the Avatar was describing… But really, that’s as much a cultural concept as a spiritual or magical one. He said the gods just need someone in whom to focus themselves, right? I mean, the ancient Huntsmen clearly weren’t paladins as we think of them, but they also obviously served Shaath in that regard.”

“I wonder,” Joe mused. “Since you mentioned Vesk. How many bards are there?”

“Practicing Veskers or fully accredited bards?” Darling asked.

“There, see, I reckon that makes the difference. A proper bard is somethin’ more’n just the general run o’ musician, right?”

“I think I see what you’re getting at,” Darling said, his voice growing in excitement. “Actually, you may be more right than you know. Vesk has a reputation for being more friendly and approachable with his initiates than any other god, but only with the actual, fully trained and invested bards. Of whom there are… Well, it’s not like I’ve ever taken a census, but I can’t imagine they number more than several thousand, worldwide.”

“If every bard is a paladin,” Ingvar said, trailing off.

“That seems like it’d jus’ compound the problem, right?” Joe said, glancing back at them. He was again leading the way with his wand lit. “Still. All he’d need to do is hide a handful of ’em in the ranks, an’ if he’s friendly with his bards anyway, an’ the significant ones don’t necessarily look any different than the others…”

“That’s the long and the short of it,” Darling agreed. “Not every god has called paladins, but… That doesn’t mean they haven’t used this…paladin effect, for want of a better term. If anything, it’s probably smarter for some of them not to call attention to their most important followers.”

“Perhaps they learned from Shaath’s case,” Ingvar said with a sigh. “If you do not take care to manage your flock, they can be used against you.”

“Exactly,” said the Bishop, nodding. “I bet a good many of the gods have their paladins invisible under everyone’s noses. Depending on exactly how it works in each case, even the paladins may not know. What I’m curious about now is Vidius. That one went from no apparent paladin to a very public one—suddenly, after eight thousand years. And he picked a half-demon. That deity is up to something…”

“Gods aside,” Joe muttered, “I’m kinda hung up on that bit about gnomes. I’ve suddenly got some hard questions about a certain incident involving a sonic grenade and a saloon. More’n I did in the first place, I mean.”

They emerged rather suddenly into the lovely little grotto under the tree. Joe stepped aside, extinguishing his wands and letting the others emerge. For a few moments, they just stood there in silence, listening to the soft voice of the stream and letting their eyes adjust to the filtered sunlight.

“It suddenly occurs to me,” Ingvar said, “that the air down there was remarkably fresh. It tasted more like a mountain morning than a cave.”

“I guess if you’re the Infinite Order, you don’t have to settle for stale air,” Darling said.

“Infinite Order.” Ingvar shook his head. “I… Quite apart from my quest, from Shaath’s predicament… I don’t know what to do with all this information.”

“Ain’t a whole lot you can do with most of it, seems like,” Joe said, holstering his wand. “And really, how much difference does it make? The world’s still what it was when we got up this morning. We just know a bit more about where it came from, that’s all. I reckon more knowin’ is better than less.”

“Hear, hear,” Darling said firmly.

“Which reminds me,” Joe added, turning to him. “You mentioned something I’m very curious about. What was—”

“Do you plan to stay down here chatting all afternoon?” Mary asked, striding into the chamber from the hidden door behind the tree roots.

“Ah, look who it is,” Darling said cheerfully. “Our standoffish tour guide! I trust you had a good seat from which to watch the action—you certainly weren’t terribly close to it.”

“I’ll be happy to indulge in wordplay with you another time, Antonio,” she said with a slight smile, “when there are not more pressing matters. Ingvar.” The Crow turned to the Huntsman, her expression becoming solemn. “Do you feel you have gained the answers you needed?”

“I feel…” Ingvar paused, rolling his jaw as if chewing on his thoughts. “…I feel I have gained the perspective to ask the right questions.”

Mary smiled more warmly at that. “You do have the seeds of wisdom within you, young man. I had a feeling, from the beginning.”

“Or he’s heard enough of your mystic routine by now to know how to parrot it back,” Darling suggested, grinning at the irritated look Ingvar shot him.

“In that, too, there is some wisdom, as you of all people know,” Mary said pointedly. “Now. First, you three will be needing a meal, I suspect. Or…did you try the nutrition pellets?” The corner of her mouth quirked upward in a mischievous expression. “They really are the most fantastic travel rations; you’d be well served to take a handful home with you. The trick is to swallow as quickly as possible.”

“We declined that distinct pleasure, in fact,” said Joe. “Lunch sounds real good right about now.”

“It would be closer to dinner,” Mary said with a fond smile, “but yes, let us attend to that.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to impose on the grove?” Ingvar asked warily. “Elder Linsheh was polite, but I gathered the distinct impression they elves in general are in no mood for visitors.”

“There is no need to trouble them,” said the Crow lightly, “any more than we will simply by being in their forest, since they will insist upon keeping watch. But no, what we must do next will not require their involvement. They will not, I trust, object to our use of the forest outside.”

She paused, tilting her head as if expecting a response from unseen listeners, but none came.

“What we must do next?” Joe asked. “What’s… I mean, wasn’t that it? We got the information we came for, right, about what happened to Shaath, and how?”

“That wasn’t the full extent of the quest,” Darling said, turning to Ingvar, “but I thought it was pretty well established we can’t do anything for him right now. What comes next will take careful planning and, honestly, effort that could last years. We’ll be there to help, Ingvar, but I at least can’t afford to drop everything and devote myself to this…”

“No.” The Huntsman shook his head. “No, this quest is finished. I know what I need to, and you’re correct; proceeding will take time, and much further study. I thank you, shaman, for your aid; you made this possible. There was, however, the matter of a bargain. You wish to collect immediately?” He turned a questioning look upon Mary.

“The trail will grow colder the longer it is ignored,” she said calmly.

“Bargain?” Joe asked. “Wait…did you already tell me about this? I’m sorry, after the wham-bam of revelations an’ visions over the last couple days I don’t feel like my brain’s runnin’ on all charms.”

“The visions were sent to me,” Ingvar said, folding his arms, “but some outside party whom we can be even more sure now was not Shaath. The Crow is very eager to know who this person is, since he quite deliberately pointed me toward her. And I, I must confess, am as well.”

“Seems like it’d be worth knowing,” said Darling. “What’s the plan, then? Isn’t this something you could handle yourself, Mary?”

“Any shaman powerful and subtle enough to do this would be able to evade my tracking,” she said calmly, “possibly unless I had a great deal more to go on than I do, which is moot anyway. However, they clearly reached out to Ingvar. I believe they will entertain an overture from him.”

“An overture?” Joe scratched his head, displacing his hat. “How? I thought you said these hints came from dreams?”

“And through dreams they can be explored,” said the Crow with a knowing little smile. “The ritual is somewhat involved, and you will, as I said, need to eat first. This is not something to undertake without the full strength of mind and body. From here on, however,” she added, “Ingvar must go alone. This mysterious agent will have nothing to say to either of you, and including you would likely discourage him or her from speaking to Ingvar.”

The Huntsman nodded, then turned and bowed deeply to each of them. “I thank you both, as well, for your companionship. Brief as this adventure has been, you’ve made it even more enlightening than it otherwise might have been.”

“Oh, stop with all the goodbye,” Darling said, reaching out to bop him lightly on the head. “We’re not gonna run off now. You may be doing dream rituals, but that just means Joe and I can laze about nearby. Gods only know what this is going to bring down on us all.”

“If you’re in some kinda dream state, all the more reason to have a couple friends watchin’ your back,” Joe added with a grin.

“I flatter myself that I am a reasonably competent watcher,” Mary said wryly.

“Shush,” Darling ordered. “This is guy stuff. You wouldn’t understand.”

At the expression on her face, even Ingvar had to break into laughter. That, at least, spared him the need to reply to them, which he wasn’t confident he could do with any grace. Things between the three were amiable, now, since the wolves…but very much uncertain, for the same reason.

“Let me ask you a question, though,” Darling said in a more serious tone, frowning at Mary. “Did you send a…what was it? A shadow elemental to warn Malivette Dufresne we were coming?”

She raised her eyebrows sharply. “I certainly did not.”

“Yeah, I figured,” he said, nodding. “That doesn’t seem like your style. Then we should all be aware that a certain mysterious someone with significant elemental powers has been not only tracking our moves, but staying a step ahead of us. Shadow elementals… I’ve only heard of that once or twice. They’re rare, aren’t they?”

“Difficult to make,” said Joe. “Takes a heck of a witch to summon somethin’ like that.”

“The ability to approach through dreams,” Ingvar said slowly. “That is a fae power, is it not?”

“There are techniques within all four schools of magic to do such things,” Mary replied. “It is most easy through the fae, though, and most effectively—assuming the proper skill—the divine. But yes, I see the course of your thoughts, Antonio, and I think you’re correct. When you reach out through the dream, Ingvar, you must be aware that your arrival will probably be expected.”

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