“First things first.”
He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.
Then he spoke again.
“You will be silent.”
The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.
“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”
Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…
“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”
Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.
After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”
Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.
“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.
“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”
She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…
“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.
“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.
“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.
“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”
There was silence again, while she digested this.
“Why?” Milanda asked finally.
Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”
“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.
“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”
“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.
“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”
“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”
“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”
“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”
“Meaning you,” she said quietly.
“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”
“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.
He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”
Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.
“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.
She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”
Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.
“Computer, display the time.”
Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.
And there was no question of going back to sleep now.
Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.
Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.
“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”
“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.
About anything relevant, damn it!
It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.
“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.
“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”
“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”
“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”
“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”
“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”
“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”
“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.
“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”
The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.
“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”
“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”
“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”
“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”
Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”
She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”
“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”
“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”
“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.
They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.
Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.
The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.
“Akane,” Walker whispered.
The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.
“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”
“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.
“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”
Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.
Right now, the kitsune had started moving.
She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.
She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.
Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”
And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.
“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”
That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.
“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”