Tag Archives: Milanda Darnassy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Extremely, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

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

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

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

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


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a moment too soon.

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


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

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

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

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

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12 – 24

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“It’s in place? And it actually works!”

“Even better than I anticipated!” Fross chimed, buzzing around the scale model of the mountaintop set up in the center of the spell lab. “I’m picking up fluctuations wherever magic is in use—which is a lot of places, this campus being what it is. All four schools feel different, but based on what I’m getting from the infernal spell labs, I should be able to tell when the Sleeper strikes. And by the way, Gabe, I could take offense at the incredulous tone.”

“Hey, none intended!” he said, grinning and holding up his hands in surrender. “C’mon, after all we’ve been through, I definitely know better than to doubt your capabilities, Fross. But this is still some way complex spellwork. You’re gonna be a hell of a wizard someday.”

“Aw, thanks!” The pixie darted over to Juniper, who was sitting against the wall, absently scratching at the floor with one hand the way she did when Jack wasn’t with her. “You doing okay, June? It’s not uncomfortable?”

“Nah, I’m just a little out of the habit of holding attunement while on campus,” the dryad replied, shaking her head. “It bugs other fairies and witches a little. Also, there’s a lot of arcane magic flying around here, which feels…weird. Not bad, though.”

“Is that going to create a problem, do you think?” Toby asked. “I know there aren’t many fairies on campus, but…”

“Any actual fairies will leave me alone,” Juniper said. “Fae users might be another matter…” She frowned. “…I think Iris has noticed. Somebody in the Wells just did a small ritual to sort of…poke at me.”

“I’m gonna tentatively consider that a non-problem,” said Ruda. “Considering what we’re hoping will happen, having fae-attuned magic users turn up tonight could be all kinds of useful.”

“Professor Tellwyrn asked us, in particular, to keep an eye on the campus,” Shaeine said quietly. “I’m not sure I feel sanguine about involving other students.”

“She didn’t ask me, but here I am,” Scorn snorted, folding her arms.

“Also,” Gabriel added, “if I’m not misremembering, didn’t Tellwyrn tell us not to go hunting for the Sleeper?”

“This is laying a trap, not hunting,” Ruda said with a grin. “But point taken. Tellwyrn knows our strengths, and they don’t include marching in a line. I figure there’s room for improvisation implied in the mandate.”

“Or so you intend to argue when she complains?” Teal asked with the ghost of a smile.

Ruda pointed a bottle of rum at her. “Fuckin’ ay!”

They all turned to face the door when it opened. Nobody relaxed at the sight of Inspector Fedora.

“Ah, good, everybody’s here,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Smashing. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some more assistance!”

“You don’t need to take any liberties,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward.

“Down, boy,” Fedora replied, stepping out of the doorway. “I think you recall the campus’s visitors?”

Juniper bounded to her feet. “Aspen?”

“Hey, little sister,” the other dryad said brightly, skipping across the room to give her a hug.

“I didn’t feel you coming!”

“I wasn’t attuning… Wait, you are? I don’t know how you can stand it, all the arcane on this crazy mountain. It’s like bees in my head.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad…”

“Uh, hi,” Gabriel said awkwardly to the other person who entered more sedately. “It’s, uh… Inger, right?”

“Ingvar,” the Huntsman corrected, bowing. “A pleasure to see you all again.”

“Likewise, and sorry. I’m awful with names. Anything that requires me to remember stuff, really. My grades are a disgrace.”

Ingvar smiled at him, then his expression sobered as he panned it across the room and those assembled, settling on the model in the middle. “The Inspector asked us to participate in your attempt to catch this Sleeper, but I’m afraid that’s all we know of the matter.”

“You know about the Sleeper?” Teal asked.

He nodded to her. “The salient points, I believe. Per Professor Tellwyrn’s invitation, we have been exploring the campus, and had several interesting conversations with both students and faculty.”

“I have never had so many people in such a short time try to have sex with me,” Aspen said, tossing her hair. “They’ve got some ideas about dryads on this mountain, Juniper. What exactly have you been doing?”

“Oh, help yourself,” Juniper said breezily. “It’s all in good fun; I’m not territorial about anyone here. Just don’t hurt anybody.”

Ingvar gave them a level look. Aspen met his gaze sidelong, then shook her head. “I was just…commenting. I’m not really in the mood.”

“Fascinating as that is,” said Fedora, “and believe me, I’m taking notes, I asked them here for a reason.”

“Just a sec,” Aspen interrupted, pointing at him. “You guys do know this fellow’s a demon, right?”

“He is not much of one,” Scorn grunted, “but yes, we are aware.”

“I guess that’s all right, then.”

“You knew that, and you followed him in here anyway?” Ruda grinned. “Points for balls.”

“He has government credentials,” Ingvar said mildly, “and I found it distressingly easy to believe that Imperial Intelligence would employ a demon. Besides, it seemed very unlikely that a demon would wish to start trouble in Professor Tellwyrn’s domain. Or with a daughter of Naiya.”

“Damn skippy,” Aspen said smugly.

Fedora rolled his eyes. “The point was, the logistical weak point in this plan has always been getting to the Sleeper both quickly and silently when he attacks; we want to nab him, not spook him into flight, and we have neither the forces to quarter the campus nor a means of staying in communication. So we’ll have to start from this position, reach the Sleeper unseen when the alarm goes off, and apprehend him there. To that end, I should think the inclusion of another dryad is obvious; there’s not a damn thing any warlock can do to her.”

“Dryads are not built for speed,” Toby said. “We unfortunately found that out the hard way in the Golden Sea.”

“Excuse you?” Aspen said disdainfully. “Let’s see a show of hands: who here has run down a gazelle?”

Hers was the only hand that went up.

“We’re not good at protracted running,” Juniper explained, “which is what we did wrong then.”

“That barely scratches the fuckin’ surface of what we did wrong then,” Ruda muttered.

“In a sprint,” Juniper continued, “Aspen’s right, a dryad can match basically any land animal, as long as it doesn’t drag on for more than a couple minutes. We should be able to get across campus quickly and without tiring.”

“And I brought a little something to give you kids a…boost,” Fedora said with a leer. “Check it out!”

He grasped the lapels of his trench coat and yanked it open wide; almost everyone averted their eyes, some with yells of protest. Ruda and Scorn, by contrast, straightened up, peering interestedly.

“Oh, he has potions,” Gabriel said a moment later. “Well, that’s…actually helpful.”

“Courtesy of your own Professor Rafe,” Fedora said, winking. “True invisibility is…well, possible, but has side effects and that’s made from expensive stuff; I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to hand those out. But camouflage and attention deflection we have!”

“I’ve some gifts along those lines myself,” Gabriel said.

“More to the point,” Fedora continued, closing his coat, “is that Ingvar should be able to shut down shadow-jumping in a localized area. He did during the hellgate crisis last year in Tiraas.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ingvar said evenly.

Fedora winked at him. “Imperial security clearance, second class, remember? Your commitment to discretion is laudable, Huntsman, but I already know.”

Ingvar sighed. “…fine. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t just do that on my own. The ritual requires a shaman.”

“You know the ritual?”

“Yes,” the Huntsman said patiently, “but without the power…”

“We have here,” Fedora said with unspeakable smugness, “two dryads and a pixie magician who is something of a prodigy in weaving together different schools of magic. We have the knowledge of the ritual, basically infinite access to fae magic, and the capacity to jury-rig any gaps in our expertise. We can spot the Sleeper striking, sneak up on him hopefully undetected, and cut off his escape. We could very well end this tonight, kids. Let’s get to work.”


“The systems to which you have access contain an abundance of scientific literature, including complete courses of education. If you are interested in science—which I heartily applaud—I strongly recommend perusing those, rather than talking with anyone who was alive during the Infinite Order’s reign. Their perspective is likely to be…tainted.”

“Tainted?” Milanda asked. “How would… Look, honestly, Avatar, I don’t think I can handle any more grand revelations today. I’m just trying to figure out how much Walker can be trusted. Was she telling me the truth or not?”

“I am not trying to obfuscate,” the AI said apologetically. “The matter simply isn’t so cut and dried. Walker’s description of the Infinite Order itself seems accurate. Among other preoccupations, they were prone to favor mystical interpretations of scientific facts whenever such seemed at all viable, and some branches of theoretical physics make such interpretations very tempting indeed. And that is only speaking of their initial mindset, before they deliberately muddied the waters further. The Pantheon’s revolt was the first to succeed, not the first to occur. Long before they rose, the Infinite Order had chosen to deter further such incidents by, among other measures, obscuring the knowledge that could lead to the development of transcension field technology.”

Milanda took a step. She was talking with the Avatar in his apparatus attached to the gate, rather than going to the Nexus; so far, they had privacy, the dryads being off who knew where. It was rather inconvenient, however. The little planetoid rotated at much less than a walking pace, so she could neither stand still nor stroll alongside the gate, being forced to catch up with it in small increments every minute or so.

“So…what she said about the universe and consciousness, that wasn’t true? Frankly it makes little difference to me; I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist. I just want to form an understanding of the…entity I’m working with, and whether I can trust what she says.”

“I have no insight into the Walker’s state of mind,” the Avatar said diplomatically. “It seems to me, however, that if she wished to deceive you, it would be with regard to current, practical matters, not ancient history or arcane science. And with regard to the question of accuracy, it isn’t so much that her described worldview is incorrect as that she, along with most of her generation, were taught a…liberal and even metaphorical understanding of the science in question, designed to engender a sense of awe and purpose rather than rational comprehension. She isn’t provably wrong, but invested in a line of inquiry which would not lead to useful technology if pursued to its logical conclusion. As a layperson’s means of understanding the basis of transcension technology, it is…good enough.”

“Not dishonest, necessarily, but also not necessarily right,” Milanda murmured. “Well, that is certainly relevant to my basic concern…”

“The answers to those questions were among the reasons for the Ascension Project itself. Some aspects of quantum mechanics are simply impossible for biological sapients to explore without transcending their mental limits in some way. It is perhaps significant that the events of this planet’s creation were all one grand experiment to test the hypothesis which was the foundation of the Infinite Order’s beliefs. That experiment was a resounding failure—but whether because the hypothesis was incorrect remains untested, as the Order’s gradual breakdown over the ensuing years fouled it beyond redemption.”

“You make it sound like I’m nudging at the central question of all life on this world.”

“Arguably the central question of existence itself, and of particular interested to the development of life on this specific world.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, I think we can safely assume I’m not going to solve that one. And, more to the point, I can probably stop listening when she goes on about the past. She does love to explain things. Makes sense, considering how long it’s been since she had an audience… But with all respect, I have little interest in either advanced science or the, uh, historical novels she suggested.”

“I am not sure that I would agree,” said the Avatar. “I infer that you are more interested in practical things?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “Beyond the immediate situation… History, politics, psychology. People skills, things I can use.”

“That being the case, one approach to improving your present situation would be to research the technology used in this facility, so as to repair and even reconfigure the system governing the Hands. That, however, would necessitate years of intensive study at minimum. A faster method would involve making the most effective use of the resources already in place, in which case, any insight you gain into the mindset of the people who built them, not to mention your current companion, could be immediately useful. In short, I think you will find it very practical indeed to listen to the Walker. Just not, necessarily, to take her at face value. Ah, program compiled.”

A small, metal-bound crystal like the one he had given her before emerged from a slot in the side of the gate apparatus, next to the screen in which his purple image was projected.

“Walker, or anyone basically familiar with the Order’s computers, should be able to use that software with relative ease, assuming I have done my job adequately,” the Avatar said as she retrieved the crystal. “It presents a streamlined and user-friendly interface governing connections between the facility’s sub-OS and any other systems, which should enable her to access them, acquire relevant data, and take counter-action as necessary. The end result will not be as potent or efficient as the efforts of a skilled hacker, but given your particular situation, it should hopefully suffice. Respect for the security protocols we established is built in, as well. You will need to authorize her access to each activation of the program. I recommend supervising her, as well.”

“Understood,” she said with a smile, bouncing the crystal on the palm of her hand. “And thank you.”

“One more thing, if I may.” A second data crystal emerged from the slot. “Do be careful not to confuse the two; this portable drive contains some reading material I think you will find both enjoyable and useful.”

“Oh?” She pulled it carefully out, noting that this one had a red marking around its metal rim.

“On that drive are the complete works of Robert Greene, a political philosopher of very pragmatic bent who, incidentally, was a personal favorite of Avei, Vidius, and Eserion. I recommend beginning with The 48 Laws of Power; it is considered definitive. As a successful Imperial courtier, I think you may find him more to your taste than Tolkien.”

“I…see,” she said slowly, then tilted her head and gave his projection a long, considering look. The Avatar’s expression was blandly neutral as always. “Wouldn’t these writings be in the computers up there, as well?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “But so long as you read them specifically from that portable drive, then remove it from the computer when you are done and keep it on your person, there will remain no record of what you have been reading. I leave the matter to your discretion, of course, but it seems to me it might be disadvantageous for the Dark Walker to be perusing ruthless political philosophy, or to know that you have been. I have, over the last few years, acquired some skill at managing daughters of Naiya. A good rule of thumb is that what they don’t know hurts no one.”

“You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?” she said thoughtfully.

The Avatar’s simulated expression did not waver. “My maker, Tarthriss, sided with the Pantheon during their rebellion. Upon his demise and that of the Infinite Order itself, the Avatars were left more or less at liberty—whatever use that may be, since most of the Order’s surviving facilities are now abandoned and inaccessible. Our only guiding principle is now Tarthriss’s final directive: to assist the sapients residing on this world to the best of our ability. The means by which we do so is left largely to our discretion.

“Empress Theasia I found to be a most admirable person in many respects; based on what I have learned of recent history, it seems that she was a very necessary stabilizing force against the chaos of the time in which she lived. But a stabilizing force can easily become the opposite, if given access to the wrong kind of power.”

“And Emperor Sharidan?” she asked quietly.

“He appears a more conservative and sympathetic ruler by nature. To be sure, he will not rule forever, but the present must be considered as well as the future. My position here, Milanda, is part of a series of compromises I have made with reality, and will continue to make as necessary. But in light of the current situation, I begin to think that perhaps it is time for the people of this world—in a careful and controlled manner, of course—to be reintroduced to some of their heritage.”

Milanda frowned, then turned to her right—the planetoid’s north, where the Nexus lay at its pole. “A week ago I was an Imperial consort. It was a cushy position, frankly. Peaceful. The entire job description was ‘make the Emperor happy’—and my Emperor in particular is an easygoing man. Now… No matter how this business with the Hands and whoever is invading the system ends, it’s only going to get bigger and more complex, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “I am not ready for this.”

“I advise eschewing that thought,” the Avatar said gently. “No one is ever ready, truly. What will matter is not how ready you were at the outset, but how well you faced what circumstance dealt you. And that you will only be able to tell when it is all done.”

“It’s never going to be all done. Nothing ever is.”

He smiled. “Precisely.”

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12 – 23

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“Any problems?”

Milanda glanced up at the door, where Walker had appeared, and shook her head. “No…just more junk. I ended up piling it on the other beds, so I could reach the…you know.” She waved vaguely at the other end of the barracks.

The room was long and narrow, rather like a corridor branching off from the security hub. Immediately inside the door from the hub was a seating area, lined by generously padded square benches, with low tables in front of them. Then it descended six steps to its main, central section, where the walls were lined by double bunk beds, four on a side. These, too, were well-padded; Milanda had cleared off the one closest to the door and on the bottom right. Past the sleeping area, six more steps climbed back up to the kitchen, where she had identified sinks, a cold box and an oven/stove apparatus, as well as half a dozen more devices whose purpose was inscrutable to her. A door behind the kitchen led to a small room containing toilets and showers. In design, the barracks sort of reminded her of the belly of a ship, except for its squared edges. Every section of wall not covered by beds or other furniture appeared to be a screen, each currently displaying the symbol which she by now assumed was the sigil of the Infinite Order.

Like the security hub, they had found the room full of junk once it was unsealed. Milanda had stacked crates, boxes, tools, and garments on all of the beds except the one she’d chosen, and the bunk directly above. Walker had claimed to need no sleep, but it seemed inhospitable not to at least make some little arrangement for her.

“Hm.” Walker’s eyes flicked dispassionately across the room. “If this ends up taking more than a few days, it may profit us to take an inventory of all these containers. What’s in them might be useful. Or dangerous. At the least, it doesn’t belong…piled around, like this. It looks like the default environment; is it to your liking?”

Milanda frowned. “The…environment? Well, the whole place is generally sterile, despite being messy. I can’t say I would want to live here.”

“No, I meant the controls for…” Walker trailed off, then smiled slightly. “Well, let me show you. Computer, load environment preset: Hawaiian night.”

Silence.

“I suppose that only makes sense,” Walker said ruefully. “You try.”

Milanda gave her a dubious look, getting only a mildly expectant one in return, then sighed. “Computer…do what she said.”

Immediately the light dropped to the level that might be provided by a full moon on a clear night. A moment later, the air warmed, the humidity rose significantly, and the scent of greenery, flowers, and the salty ocean breeze suffused the room; in fact, a faint, warm wind was now blowing through. The sounds of the ocean and of chirping insects and night birds filled the air. Most amazingly, all of the viewscreens paneling the walls activated, showing a scene of a nocturnal beach, the ocean stretching away in one direction and a distant, forested rise of mountains in the other, as if they were all windows looking out over a scene upon which the barracks sat.

Milanda gasped, and then could only gape. The detail was amazing… It all seemed so real.

“It has a number of preset arrangements,” Walker said, looking pleased by her reaction. “You can change the individual factors to suit you, though. Temperature, humidity, background noise, aroma, view… You can also add fog or light rain, though those aren’t part of the preset suites by default. In theory, it could do heavy rain or snow, but you’d need to get in there and monkey with the settings, since they aren’t considered part of an indoor environment anybody would want. The furnishings should be impervious, but be sure to remove anything fragile if you’re gonna add precipitation. You’re lucky; this room’s previous occupants had to argue with fifteen other people about the environmental arrangements.”

“This is unbelievable,” Milanda whispered, turning in a slow circle to gaze around at the room. It was just like being outside on a beach. In fact…amazing as this was, she rather doubted she’d be able to sleep with it like this. Presumably the computer could give her something that felt a little less exposed.

“Anyway, I’ve made some progress out here, too,” Walker said, turning and walking back into the hub. “Come see.”

Following her was like stepping indoors; the door hissed shut behind her, cutting off the Hawaiian night and leaving them again trapped in the Infinite Order’s sterile environs. There was a change in the room since Milanda had gone to arrange the barracks: above the central structure around which the computer terminals were arranged, there was now projected a luminous, transparent model of the whole facility, with the faint outline of the mountain itself around it. Being almost a full story tall, it gave her a much better sense of the scale of the place than the much smaller map out in the corridor had. Walker went back toward her selected screen and sat down.

“Basic security’s set up,” Walker reported. “I tested the instructions you gave the computer, just for thoroughness’s sake, and it’s fine. The door outside will remain hidden unless one of us orders it activated, so the Hands shouldn’t be able to find this place. Didn’t test the alarms, obviously, but there’s not reason to think they won’t work. We should have warning when they’re in the facility. I’ve been checking over the facility as a whole to see what’s what.” She pointed at the floating, three-dimensional map. “The yellow marks are corpses of sapients.”

“Not very many,” Milanda murmured. At a glance, she could only see half a dozen of them, scattered throughout the whole structure.

“It gets more interesting. The blue ones represent life forms held in suspended animation.”

“Suspended…?”

“Asleep, but preserved, and alive. In theory, ready to be awakened. There are usually some health issues associated with awakening from long suspension, but fairly minor ones. If we activated the requisite medical drones first, they should be fine.”

“These are people?” Milanda asked, fascinated. Several dozen blue marks were scattered across the map. “Actual, living people, from the time of the Elder Gods?”

“No, just life forms that someone considered important to preserve. Sapients in suspension are identified by green marks. Look, down here; this is a medical wing, and the only place that has any.”

Indeed, in the small room to which she pointed, there was a whole row of green person-shaped icons, each marked by floating notations which made little sense to her. Seven of them.

“Who are they?”

“The computer does not know,” Walker said, giving her a significant look. “Which is way against procedure. Somebody took the good time and trouble to erase that data. Look, if you mean to leave this facility open and explore it in the years to come, you or the Emperor or whoever may decide to wake ’em up and see. Personally, I wouldn’t. It would be cruel to just dump them into the world as it is now, and anyway, they stand a very good chance of being far more trouble than they’re worth. Meanwhile, for our purposes, they’re nowhere near here, and I’ll repeat my recommendation that we not open anything up that we don’t expressly need.”

“Agreed,” Milanda murmured, then pointed. “That blue dot, up there… A non-human life form that can be awakened, right? Isn’t that this room?”

Walker turned in the chair to nod at her, then turned further to stare pointedly at the transparent cylinder containing the katzil—or quetzal, as she called it. “That doesn’t look like any suspension chamber I ever saw, but just because standardized designs existed doesn’t mean everybody used them. It’d have to be hooked into the power grid. None of the Order’s portable power sources would have kept running for eight thousand years.”

“Let’s not wake him up,” Milanda said fervently.

“Good call,” Walker replied with a grin. “I just point it out, because it means we can’t move that thing out of here without disconnecting it. Which might kill it, or wake it up, depending on how it’s set up.”

“Well, I guess it’s not hurting anything, sitting there. What’s this big room, next to the sleeping people?”

Indeed, the medical wing containing the green marks was adjacent to the second largest open space indicated on the map, dwarfed only by a vast round chamber far below it containing a hovering sphere, which had to be the tiny planet where the dryads lived. That whole space was well below sea level, reached only by a few descending shafts, and seemed to have a diameter comparable to the whole size of the city above. The room to which she pointed was long and much wider than tall, apparently butting right up against the base of the mountain, just above the sea level. In fact, it looked like it should open out onto the ocean itself, though there was assuredly no sign of any such thing visible from without.

“Shuttle hangar,” said Walker, standing and sticking her finger into the display to indicate the labeled shapes arranged within. “Larger ships parked on the flat top of the mountain, but several ranking members of the Order kept personal spacecraft in there. Just status symbols, really. Ascended beings have no need of vehicles, but having fancy ships to carry one’s personal staff around was a grand affectation.”

“You mean, there are working vehicles down there?” Milanda said, fascinated. “Ships that can travel off the planet?”

“No, it’s empty. If I ever have a god of the Pantheon at my mercy, I’m going to make them explain to me what happened at this port complex. Everything’s stacked in boxes, there are hardly any bodies, so the place was evacuated. All the shuttles are gone, but something hit the mountaintop above hard enough to melt it. People in suspension… And why was the only open part a prison wing? The whole thing doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not empty,” Milanda protested, pointing. “Look, I can see the ships! They have labels and everything.”

“That’s not a live feed; it’s showing you the reserved berths. Look, see how they’re outlined in red? That means the ships themselves aren’t there, it’s just displaying where each one goes. Trust me, I checked. There are no spacecraft or even pieces of them anywhere in here, not even the little maintenance skiffs that should be tucked away in various access compartments. That means somebody went to serious effort to remove them.”

“I see,” Milanda murmured in disappointment. She rose up on her toes to peer closely at the ships’ outlines, which didn’t give her much insight into what they looked like. Their profiles certainly resembled nothing she would have thought of as a ship. The labels were interesting, though. “Are these their names?”

“Yes. And those of their owners.”

“It’s funny…”

“Oh?”

She shook her head. “The way you describe the Infinite Order, I’d have expected more pomp and grandiosity. Like this one, Enterprise. That seems fitting. But some of these are so…whimsical. Dawn Treader, Heart of Gold…” She frowned and leaned closer. “…Beans With Bacon Megarocket?”

“Bunch of dorks,” Walker muttered, turning back to her terminal and tapping the screen.

Milanda backed away from the map and blinked at her. “Bunch of…”

“And about a hundred years too late for it to be trendy, so I understand. The Order were a pretty tight-knit group, and had some very particular interests in common. That’s why I pointed you at Tolkien. Some of their shared hang-ups explain a lot about the general state of affairs on this planet, even now.” She shook her head, grimacing. “Nobody on Earth was sorry to see them leave. That had more to do with their attitude than their hobbies, though.”

“The way you were talking earlier, I thought you were born on this world. You also got to visit…Earth?” She wondered, but did not ask, if there was any significance to the fact that the origin planet shared a name with a Tanglish word for dirt. Actually, most of the things she’d heard her own world called meant something similar…

“No,” Walker said tersely, shaking her head again. “This solar system has been dimensionally isolated since long before my sisters and I came along. That was one of the first things they did. I did some research, though, and Mother was sometimes willing to answer questions, if I caught her in the right mood. It was impossible not to wonder, born as I was into a world governed by all-powerful beings, most of whom were late in the process of going completely mad. The history was fascinating to me, and important. Anything to help me understand where it all came from… What it all meant.”

Milanda seated herself next to Walker, then leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and stared expectantly at her.

Walker gave her a sidelong look, continuing to poke at the screens in front of her. For a few long moments she was silent. Then…

“Humans need something to believe in. They need faith, and to be part of something larger than themselves. The physical universe is just not enough; a human being requires purpose. Religion has been part of your species as long as it has existed, which is a very different fact to you than to your distant ancestors, because you live in a world in which gods are a real, verifiable thing. On Earth, they weren’t…but religions were. Some were systems of principle, sort of like the dwarven animism around what they call the Light. Many, though, posited divine objects of worship, which clearly did not exist. And the irrationality that resulted in this has caused untold war, suffering, and subjugation throughout the long history of your race.

“As science advanced, atheism rose as a coherent system of thought, and gradually gained traction, but never grew to be more than a minority. It didn’t address the fundamental, emotional need people had for faith, for purpose. That is what gave rise to the Infinite Order. They were, in essence, a cult which worshiped science. Reason was their doctrine, engineering their sacrament. They were trying to reconcile the emotional need for belief with the practical need for rationality. And…no, they were not well thought of. Neither atheists nor the faithful of the old cults appreciated the competition. Honestly,” she added somewhat sourly, “they brought the worst of it on themselves, managing to combine atheistic condescension with religious sanctimony. Their arrogance was really something to behold. ‘Infinite Order’ is a fair enough name for a group of people who bent reality to their will, created a whole world and all its inhabitants… But they called themselves that from the very beginning, starting when it was among the most staggeringly pretentious things anyone on their world had ever done.”

“I suppose I understand why they wanted to become gods, then,” Milanda murmured.

“Not really,” Walker said with a humorless little smile. She had already stopped tapping the screen, and now shifted to face her audience more directly as she continued. “The Order never particularly cared what anyone thought of them—or so they insisted in the records they left here. Personally, I strongly suspect they resented their rejection by society and spent the next few thousand years denying it, just because that would be consistent with their personalities as I observed them. But that’s only my opinion. Regardless, what they were trying to do here… The Ascension Project… That was something much greater.”

She finally shifted fully to face Milanda, her expression solemn. “In the beginning, in the very beginning, all existence started. There was nothing but heat and the base elements, exploding outward for a near infinity of time. As the deep ages passed, material coalesced together due to gravity, eventually forming the first stars. The stars lived, burned, and billions of years later, died, exploding and spewing out dust and elements refined in their cosmic furnaces. This detritus drifted through the void, becoming the interstellar dust clouds, showers of debris, some of it forming together to make new stars…and planets. On some planets, the right combination of elements occurred to spark self-replicating chemical reactions—life. Living things evolved, growing gradually more and more complex, until some produced sapience.

“At the most fundamental level, Milanda, when you peer closely at what matter and energy truly are, it turns out that they are mostly nothing. Things are made of molecules; molecules are made of atoms; atoms are little more than infinitesimal electric charges and patterns of probability. Mass is illusion; existence is built of stacked-up equations. And among the most startling discoveries in the history of science is that on that basic level, the constituent particles of reality respond to consciousness. What they do depends entirely on what they are observed to do. By being an intelligent thing examining the building blocks of the universe, one determines how those blocks are laid. To observe is to affect.”

“Magic,” Milanda whispered, nodding.

“Not exactly,” Walker said with a wry grin. “That’s jumping ahead a bit. The Infinite Order held central the belief that reality, the collective laws of physics, was a conscious thing, and the physical universe was its attempt to understand itself, possibly to reach its own fulfillment. Evolution marked the long process from base elements to sapient life, and was a purposeful and meaningful event. They believed their goal here, ascension, was both the ultimate scientific and spiritual objective of all life, of all reality. By remaking themselves as beings not bound by their biological shells, they sought to advance the goal of the universe itself. To move beyond evolution, outside the cycle… To give meaning to existence by transcending it, seeing what lay before the big bang and after the heat death of the universe.”

“I guess I was right, then,” Milanda murmured. “Grandiosity hardly begins to cover it.”

Walker smiled again. “Yes. I think it actually was a noble goal… It’s a shame how it turned out, for more reasons than the suffering they ended up causing. The only thing the Ascension Project ultimately proved is that absolute power is psychologically unhealthy for sapient minds. Which, frankly, was a matter of open record and didn’t need to be validated. In a way,” she said with a sigh, “this…all this, this world and everything that has happened on it, has ended up being history’s grandest and most cosmic waste of everyone’s time.”

The silence hung over them, Milanda having caught some of Walker’s suddenly morose mood. It was, indeed, a heavy thing to consider. Before depression could begin to set in, she shook herself and spoke.

“But…you talked about consciousness affecting the basic structure of reality. I’m no mage or enchanter by any means, but that sounds a lot like the underlying theory of magic. I’ve read a little about arcane physics. The math is way over my head, but the concepts are actually rather beautiful.”

“Quantum physics,” Walker replied with a faint smile. “But yes. That…is not what magic is, but how magic works. Objective physics become subjective, physical reactions occur in response to thought. That’s the nature and the function of transcension fields.”

“It sounds like the Elders needed magic, needed their transcension fields, to achieve ascension.”

“Yes.” Walker nodded. “It’s an absolutely necessary part of the process. You see, quantum physics is materially useless to most people most of the time, because it governs interactions they’ll never see. It takes very advanced experiments even to observe quantum effects; for the rest of all interactions, human perception doesn’t initiate wave function collapse because humans cannot percieve the infinitesimal particles involved. And if they could, the number of such interactions it would take to achieve a macroscopically useful effect would be in the trillions, far more computations than a human mind could possibly make. Transcension fields bridge these gaps. They interface between sapient perception and the subatomic world, and they perform the necessary calculations to turn countless wave function collapses into, say, a fireball or luck enchantment. They have a third purpose: to impose limits, and order. That’s why individual transcension fields—individual schools of magic—have their own unique traits and interactions. Obviously, you cannot have every stray thought every sapient produces affecting physical reality; the carnage that would result would be unimaginable. The fields impose limits, of whatever nature seemed most appropriate to their makers.

“Magic is not power, you see. The power is inherent in reality; there’s enough fundamental energy in a square meter of space to instantly vaporize the world’s oceans. Magic is…” She paused, tilted her head to one side in thought, then smiled. “Data processing.”

Slowly, Milanda stood. Without really meaning to, she began to walk, gradually making a full circuit around the central structure of the chamber, navigating around upended chairs and piles of boxes without really seeing them.

She was a practical person, at heart. Politics, history, human relationships, those were the things she found interesting. Art and music and the like, sure. Philosophy had always been an annoying abstraction to her, advanced magic a useful science whose benefits she appreciated in society, but which was the province of other people to actually perform and understand. Having the central mysteries of the universe dropped right in front of her, having answers provided to staggering questions she’d never even thought to ask…

It was quite a mouthful to chew.

“Anyway,” Walker said suddenly, causing Milanda to twitch in surprise and stop walking. Without realizing it, she’d done a complete circuit of the chamber and come abreast of Walker’s station again. “There’s been no further visit from our mysterious friend, but I’ve been doing what I can to prepare for him. I have to tell you, though, that I’m somewhat less confident than I was.”

“Oh? What’s wrong?” Milanda asked, turning to her and glad to have something more immediate and concrete upon which to focus.

“As I said before,” Walker explained, “I think I can shut him out easily enough. The system’s inherent defenses should be more than adequate; all we would have to do is turn them back on. What’s tricky is taking the opportunity to identify and retaliate.”

“If it’s at all possible, I would still like to do that.”

Walker nodded. “Then…I may need help. I can use the computers just fine, Milanda, they’re designed to be simple. Getting into their deeper functions is another matter. I’m not a programmer…and just for the record, while I was made with the knowledge of how to operate systems like these, I haven’t done so in over eight millennia.”

“You’re rusty?” Milanda asked with a smile.

“I can figure it out,” Walker said a little testily, “but that will take time. I’ve been researching methods here—fortunately, these systems contain literature on every conceivable subject. But we’re talking about me acquiring a level of skill at hacking that we don’t have time for, with the Hands up there running loose. We need to deal with this guy before we can start putting the system right. This is your project, so I’ll leave the decision to you: shut him out and proceed straight to repairs, or try to engage and neutralize him more permanently?”

Milanda frowned. “Can you think of anything to make this faster? More feasible?”

“Yes,” Walker said immediately. “Ask the Avatar for help. He could do this as easily as you can breathe, but he’s not here. If he’s got an apparatus down there that lets him produce data crystals, though, I bet he can put together a program that will make all this much easier. You can plug that into the console up here, and it’ll make my job a lot easier, if not do it for me outright. A fully automated program is probably too much to hope for, but if he can give me a software suite that’ll let me engage an intruder and counter him without needing to know the ins and outs of the sub-OS’s digital architecture, that will help immensely.”

“All right,” Milanda said, nodding. “It sounds like a plan. I’m too keyed up to try sleeping, anyway; I might as well go talk to him.”

“You’ll be wanting to do that in any case,” Walker added with a smile. “If what they did to you is anything like what they do to the Hands of the Emperor, you’ll have gained a lot more by it than strength, vitality, and immunity to fae effects. The Hands have powers unique to the individual, which they need some individual coaching to master; considering what we’re up against, it seems a shame for you to be walking around carrying abilities like that, and not know how to use them.”

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12 – 20

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“Computer! Map!”

Walker waited in expectant silence for a few seconds before heaving a sigh.

“Security protocols,” Milanda said. “With all due respect, you are not trusted with unfettered access to the system. And where are you going? The terminal is here.”

“There’ll be terminals concealed in most every surface,” Walker replied, pacing back toward her. “I know how the Order like to arrange their structures; there’s probably a terminal at the end of this hall, where it turns, and also probably a door facing the teleporter. If not, the ‘porter itself can be reconfigured to send us somewhere else. At bare minimum, there will be one right next to the teleporter. But since you are here, would you do the honors?”

Milanda raised her eyebrows wryly, but turned to the currently exposed wall terminal. “Computer, map.”

The screen lit up with a complicated series of red squiggly lines on a black field which resembled no map Milanda had ever seen.

“Project in 3D,” Walker ordered. Nothing happened; after a moment, she turned a pointed look on Milanda, who dutifully repeated the phrase.

Then she instinctively stepped back as the diagram lifted off the surface of the panel to hover in the air above it. As it did so, it suddenly began to make sense. The red lines formed a network of chambers and tunnels which, to judge by their general shape and arrangement, had to run through a large portion of the mountain.

“Hmm,” Milanda mused. “Can you make it bigger? And focus on this location?”

“The computer is fairly smart, but it’s not designed for social interaction like the Avatar. You get the best results with clear and precise instructions. Terse, even.”

Milanda made no response, occupied as she was studying the map as it shifted, grew, and moved, the lower portions fading from view. Despite Walker’s admonition, the computer had apparently understood her request. A small section of hallway rose to prominence and the red wire-frame structure was filled in with light, conforming to the shape of the hall in which they stood, cells and all. Icons represented the entrance, with the elevator just beyond it, as well as the teleporter. Right across from that, exactly where Walker had said it would be, was a door leading to a larger, round chamber, with more hallways branching off from it, and three elevator shafts descending lower into the complex.

In the course of the shift, before they were moved out of the map’s current frame of view, Milanda noted that the nearby surface elevator was not the only one protruding upward toward the city. She made a mental note to investigate that later. It seemed unlikely anyone but the Empress had found a way down here, or more would be known about it. If the possibility had existed that someone one day might, it was worth taking precautions. After all, she had no idea when or how Theasia herself had discovered this place.

“Perfect,” Walker said in a satisfied tone. “As I suspected, that’s a security station. Apparently a fairly important one, from the size of it. Look, there’s a crew barracks attached; that will provide you a place to sleep. I’m assuming, here, that you are not eager to go back above and explain yourself to the Hands.”

“Not until I’m ready, anyway,” Milanda agreed, still studying the map. The Avatar had warned her that she and the Hands would be able to sense each other if they drew close enough together. That was to be avoided, which meant she should avoid the Palace for the time being.

Walker had already headed back down the hall again; when Milanda joined her, she was waiting patiently at the intersection, and gestured toward the flat wall.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Computer… Uh, door.”

Lines appeared in the blank milthril surface, delineating a doorway; a second later, the cut-off mithril panel slid silently into the floor, revealing a door that appeared to be of steel, marked with the same emblem as the outer door.

Milanda carefully stepped forward and touched it with her fingertips. Nothing happened.

“Computer,” she said, annoyed, “open the door.”

“Warning.” The computer spoke in a rapid tone devoid of inflection. “Security lockdown in effect.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, end the—”

She broke off and stared at Walker, who had begun waving frantically to get her attention.

“Clear, precise, terse,” she said firmly. “Since the Avatar apparently gave you clearance, if you just tell it to end the lockdown without any qualifiers, it’ll do so everywhere. There is no telling what’s buried in these halls, or what might happen if all the doors are suddenly unsealed. You can open rooms one at a time, which is what I strongly recommend.”

Milanda regarded her uncertainly for a moment before nodding. It was true that Walker’s incentive here was to make herself useful, but it was difficult to trust the eerie creature. It would have been even if she were not alone with her, in the apparently perfectly functional ruins of a civilization that Walker fully understood and Milanda did not. Hopefully, at minimum, there would be no more head-grabbing. In this case, at any rate, her advice made sense.

“Computer,” she said carefully, “end the lockdown only in the security station beyond.”

A pleasant, two-toned chime sounded. Milanda frowned, turning to Walker.

“That’s an acknowledgment,” the ex-valkyrie explained. “Descending tones means there’s an error; in that case, it’ll usually explain what’s wrong.”

“I see.”

“You’ll pick it up quite quickly,” Walker continued. “I’ve heard it said that the degree of a civilization’s advancement can be judged by how much of its work is automated; the Infinite Order were very advanced, and arranged their structures to avoid having to lift a finger without need. The computers are designed for maximal efficiency, convenience, and user-friendliness.”

“Then why is the door still not open?” Milanda asked in some irritation.

Walker smiled. “That room has been blocked off for eight thousand years, and with lockdown protocols in effect, the systems wouldn’t be working to keep it habitable. It won’t open the door until it’s safe. Housekeeping functions are cycling in fresh atmosphere, removing dust, purging any biological contaminants. It should take just a minute or two.”

“A minute or two?” Milanda asked, turning to gaze thoughtfully at the door. “To clean eight millennia of mess?”

“Very advanced indeed.”

In fact, it was faster than that; no sooner had she spoken than the ascending chime sounded again, and the door opened on its own with a soft hiss.

Milanda stood there uncertainly, craning her neck to peer through the opened doorway, until Walker sighed and pushed past her, striding into the security station. Suppressing her annoyance, Milanda followed.

The room’s general shape she could recognize, both from the map and as the product of the same minds which had designed the Nexus on the dryads’ mini-planet. It was round, and sizable; the central floor was sunken, with doors opening in four directions (including the one from which they entered), and an upper ring of floor forming bridges over the doorways, reached by four narrow flights of stairs which had those glowing lights under each step. Another round structure stood in the center, chest-high and flat, with screens and panels protruding from it on all sides. The arched ceiling was black and decorated with a pattern of glowing stars which slowly rotated, the whole thing supported by rounded steel beams, culminating in a round purple hemisphere in the center which was faintly luminous. Lights were cleverly hidden along the steel walls, illuminating the space more completely than any fairy lamps Milanda had ever seen.

It was clean, the air fresh, and there was no sign of dust. The room did not look as if it had been sealed off for eight thousand years, but it was still a mess. Metal crates and barrels of various sizes were piled haphazardly all around, as well as racks and display cases of various kinds of equipment, all of it unfamiliar to her. There were chairs, strewn without order across the floor, a few on their sides, and quite a lot were piled with boxes or draped with lengths of clothing. Just to the left of the doorway through which they emerged stood a transparent cylinder taller than she, illuminated from within by a sickly green light. Milanda stared at this in fascination; the unmistakable shape of a katzil demon was suspended, motionless, within it.

“Well, look at that,” Walker marveled, studying the demon. “A quetzal. Such graceful creatures. You can tell they were some of Scyllith’s early work.”

“Can you?”

“She always had a strong sense of aesthetics,” Walker said, now examining the cylinder in which the katzil hung, seemingly unsupported and not touching the walls. “Initially, that meant she created beautiful things. As time went by and her personal transcension field began to have an effect on her psyche, she took to collecting the more hideous and horrible cast-offs from her colleagues’ experiments, so that she and her own work appeared more pleasant by contrast. Never a likable woman, so I understand, even before succumbing to infernal corruption.”

“What’s it doing here?”

“That is a fascinating question,” Walker mused, turning to pace slowly through the maze of chairs and containers. “I wasn’t on this plane of existence when the renegades attacked the spaceport. There must have been quite an interesting chain of events, to result in these piles of random junk being shoved into what seems to have been a major security hub. I confess I’m at a loss. This reinforces what I said, though; let us refrain from unsealing any more rooms unless we find a good and specific reason to enter them.”

Milanda picked her way through the mess, pausing to examine a segmented cylinder perched on wheeled legs, its protruding spider-like arms drooping. “What’s this?”

“A Caretaker unit,” Walker said. “Maintenance droid. Curiouser and curiouser… Lockdown protocols shouldn’t have shut them off, and if it was running, it would be able to repair itself indefinitely. Having a functioning Caretaker in here would have gone a long way toward keeping it orderly. This place looks like a student dorm after a party. Just what did the Pantheon do here, I wonder?”

“Hm. Maybe we should turn it back on, help clean this out.”

“Let’s wait and see how much time we’ll need to spend here, first.” Walker picked up an overturned chair, carelessly tossing aside the garment that had been draped over it, and set it in front of one of the panels sprouting from the central structure. She sat down, focusing her gaze on the panel itself. At a touch from her, it sprang to life, and two more narrow ones slid out from its frame, one below and one to the side. The symbol that marked the doors hovered in the middle of the transparent central screen, while a series of glowing icons appeared in the smaller ones. “I believe I will need your help, here. Would you kindly instruct the computer to give me access to the relevant records?”

Milanda paused to consider her phrasing, mindful both of Walker’s advice regarding talking to the computer, and her own lingering unease toward her new companion.

“Computer.” She paused, and the affirmative chirp sounded. “Give user…uh, Walker, here, access to records of changes made to…um, anything to do with the programming. For the last…” She looked helplessly at Walker, who was just giving her a sardonic stare. “…since the dryads moved in. Uh, go.”

The computer chimed again, and lines of text popped up on Walker’s terminal.

“Smoothly done,” she said, turning to examine it.

“Oh, shut up.” Milanda rescued a nearby chair, carefully moving a stack of rounded boxes from it to the floor, and set it down beside the fairy, positioning herself where she had a good view of the screen.

“Hmm,” Walker murmured, eyes flicking across the display. The lines slid up and down as she moved her finger on the smaller panel to the right. “Okay, this part is simple enough. The changes made are all fairly superficial… Some affect only the maintenance functions of the facility and shouldn’t impact the dryads or Hands at all. Since most of the facility is inactive, though, the majority of these dealt with that network. There just wasn’t much else to be messed with. I can reverse these changes. Actually, I can designate a restore point in the timeline, here, and simply reset the whole thing to how it stood there.”

“It’s that simple?”

“Not remotely. All I can affect here is the code. Think of it like…” She paused, ruminating for a moment. “The system is like vines climbing a trellis. They die off and are restored with each season, they grow naturally, they change. Change the shape of the trellis, and the vines will clearly be affected, but they’ll continue growing. Put it back the way it was…”

“And the vines won’t go back the way they were,” Milanda finished.

“Exactly. Restoring the code is a start. It’s very likely, though, that in order to restore the whole system to its previous state, we will need to do what was done to set it up in the first place, which will involve the conscious cooperation of the dryads.” She turned to look seriously at Milanda. “And as I said before, I really think you would be better off nixing the whole structure and restarting from scratch. If you want to make it identical to how it was before, the Avatar should remember what was done. That would be an excellent chance to make improvements, however.”

“Taking your analogy of vines further,” Milanda said slowly, “restoring such an organic network to a previous state is…difficult, and unlikely to work, correct? You can prune a vine, but that won’t make it a younger vine.”

Walker nodded. “And an elaborate spell structure made purely of fae magic is the very definition of organic. The code gives it shape, but the magic is what manifests the effects. That the Hands are so clearly affected shows it is doing just that.”

“Is there anything else you can learn from it?” she asked, putting off that decision for the moment. “Information on who did this would be extremely helpful.”

“Quite. Let me see.” Walker touched the large screen, and the lines of code shifted, retreating to the background while another box of text popped up. She touched this, moving the text. “Hm… This is interesting. This was done under Scyllith’s credentials.”

A chill worked its way down Milanda’s spine. She gave no outward sign of it.

“What else can you tell?”

“There’s a peculiar lack of information here,” Walker murmured, frowning at the display. “This should have logged details about the computer which interfaced with this one, but…there’s nothing. Like there was no computer, and the changes were just…made.”

“You mean, Scyllith did this personally?”

“No…there’s a record of a login under her user account. Direct access by an ascended being would be recorded differently. It’s as if she logged into some kind of void. This makes no sense… Huh.”

“What?” Milanda demanded when Walker fell silent.

“This isn’t the first time. These incursions started three days ago, but there’s something else in the records… The whole structure goes back decades ago, when it was first installed under Theasia’s reign. But there was another alteration made…about ten years ago. Also under Scyllith’s name. That one from a recognized facility.”

“What did it do?” Milanda exclaimed.

“I can’t tell.” Walker was frowning at the screen. “It definitely impacted the Hands…but this is a very minor, very careful and specific change. I don’t think this was the work of the same person who’s been meddling with this in the last week. To enact such a light touch and in such a way that it avoids leaving traces is the work of someone familiar with the system. This new person is fumbling about, trying to figure out what all the buttons and blinking lights do.”

“You said it was from a recognized facility?”

“Fabrication Plant One.” Walker touched all three screens in rapid succession, and the central one changed abruptly, showing a map of the continent. A glowing dot pulsed on the coast in the northeast.

“That’s Puna Dara,” Milanda breathed.

“Under it, more likely,” said Walker. “Possibly underwater off the coast. Any surviving Infinite Order facilities are well-buried at this point; Mother saw to that. No further access from there. Whatever happened, Scyllith or someone with access to her user account, likely someone working for her, tweaked the system and then hasn’t touched it since. Very curious…the transcension field connecting the Order’s facilities was supposed to be disabled. Mother saw to that, too. They must have piggy-backed on one of the other active fields, but that would be very difficult to do without seriously in-depth knowledge of how these machines work.”

“This is horrifying,” Milanda mumbled.

“Quite. Scyllith does not need access to these or any systems… I repeat, this appears to be a separate issue, but it also bears investigating. Honestly, Milanda, I believe we’ll need the Avatar’s help with both matters.”

Milanda leaned back and heaved a sigh. “And he can’t be brought up here. Is there any reason you can’t go down there?”

Walker shrugged. “Physically, no. It would severely agitate the dryads, though. It’s rare that they’ve been in a position to interact with a sister of my generation, but they always take it poorly. I think Mother built something into their nature that causes an instinctive aversion.”

“That seems cruel.”

“Cruelty is about taking pleasure in the pain of others,” Walker said evenly. “Mother is never cruel. Heartless, though, that would be accurate. She is generally not concerned with others’ pain, one way or the other. I’m going to set up a simulation,” she continued, her fingers suddenly flying across the narrow screen on the bottom. “Every little bit of data helps; this may give some insight into the ripple effects caused by the recent incursion. This may take some time…”

Milanda sighed, glancing around the room. “I guess I can find…something to do.”

“I recommend you do not touch anything in here,” Walker said, eyes on her screen. “Some of those devices are weapons and most of the rest are potentially dangerous if mishandled. Here… Computer, activate entertainment playlist on the next terminal. Novels, J.R.R. Tolkien, order of publication.”

The computer chimed obligingly and the next terminal came to life, text and icons appearing on the main screen and the supplemental ones sliding into place.

“Oh, how lovely,” Walker said with a smile. “It seems I don’t need your permission to access the entertainment database. The Avatar must feel somewhat sorry for my long imprisonment.”

“What’s this?” Milanda asked, scooting her chair over to frown at the lines of words on the other screen.

“Just a little something you may find interesting. Tolkien was quite popular among the Order; I rather think this will illuminate much of why your world is the way it is.”

Your world, Milanda noted. According to Walker’s own story, she had never lived on any world but this one, yet she didn’t think of herself as part of it. Well, considering how it had treated her, that was somewhat understandable. Out loud she said, “I suppose I could try. Are these number page counts? I’ve never been fond of dense novels…”

Walker shot her a look of pure irritation, unmistakable even on her peculiar features. “Fine. These systems contain the entire literary output of your species; perhaps Disney animated musicals would be more your—oh ho!” Suddenly she hunched over her screen, grinning fiercely. “Our friend has just appeared again!”

“What? What’s he doing?” Milanda demanded, scooting her chair back over and peering at the code, which didn’t help her at all to understand it.

“More of the same,” Walker murmured distractedly. “Poking around. Hmmmm. I could block his access. That will tip him off that someone’s here, working, however.”

“You’re of the opinion this person is a modern human?” Milanda said thoughtfully.

“It’s my leading theory, but of course I don’t know.”

“Can you get more data with him actively engaged?”

“I’m trying… This is so strange. He’s logged in as Scyllith, but Scyllith wouldn’t be doing this foolishness. It’s the same effect, though: it’s as if the machine he’s on…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “Wait. I think… I think he built it.”

“Built it? A machine that can access the Infinite Order’s computers? How?”

“That is a question to which I would love an answer… Hang on, I’m querying his system specs.” She paused, then narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “…that kicked him off. His rig didn’t even have the processing power to handle the request while logged in. He did, Milanda. The simplest surviving Order device would register and handle such trivial tasks effortlessly. Somehow, he’s doing this on something he made. From modern enchanting parts.”

“Well, he knows we’re here now, if you knocked him out of the system,” Milanda pointed out.

“Maybe.” Walker leaned back gazing thoughtfully at the screen. “Whatever he’s using is so primitive the sub-OS here doesn’t even recognize it as a fellow computer; something like that would be prone to crashing on its own. This does change the color of the matter. There’s something else odd…something there, but not, like the machine itself. See, it’s indicating an Avatar’s presence, but it isn’t identified.”

“You can identify Avatars?”

“Indeed. They are numbered, and few; the Order didn’t like to leave artificial intelligences lying around.” Milanda glanced over at the deactivated Caretaker while Walker continued speaking. “Each Avatar should be instantly recognized by the computer; it’s registering the presence it recognizes as one, but it doesn’t know which, and that doesn’t make sense.”

“The Avatar I spoke to was many, many times more complex than the most advanced modern golem,” Milanda said slowly. “He was effectively a person. Would I be correct in assuming such a thing couldn’t possibly be run on contemporary logic controllers?”

“You would. The idea is laughable.”

“So…what if he’s somehow got hold of an Avatar and is running part of it? Just enough to make his system work without overloading it?”

“That…is…not impossible,” Walker said grudgingly. “If so, we have a real problem on our hands, Milanda. An Avatar is an AI designed by a spacefaring society to administer city-sized complexes in the most minute detail. This character is trying to run one on a cobbled-together steampunk gumball machine. The significant fact isn’t that it doesn’t work, but that he got it to boot up at all. If the theory is correct, this person would have to be a genius of a caliber even the Order would have respected.”

Milanda blinked, working her way through several unfamiliar terms in that sentence. “…what kind of machine?”

“Mother had one,” Walker murmured, leaning forward and again rapidly touching sigils on the control panels. “A valuable antique from Earth… I suppose it’s rusted away to scrap in some vault, now, if it wasn’t destroyed outright in the uprising. She even had the fabricators make gumballs for us.” She smiled faintly as she worked. “Vile things, really. Nothing but sugar, dye, and…glue. Still. It was…a happy memory. All right, I’m working on a little something, here, for the next time he logs in. We can shut him out easily enough, but that doesn’t help us figure out who this is or how he’s doing this, which I gather is a priority. It’ll take some adjusting to get the sub-OS to interact fluidly with his incredibly dinky computer, but…” A sly grin stretched across her uncanny features. “I do believe we can turn the tables.”

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12 – 19

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Everything was the same, but the world was totally different.

According to the Avatar, the initiation was designed to fully incorporate the proper muscle memory and thus avoid the difficulty moving that could come from a person being suddenly far stronger and more agile than before, but he had warned her that this modification of the Hand procedure could have unpredictable side effects, and that she should take it slow.

She felt fantastic, however, and fully in control.

The first test of her newfound athleticism had come when she returned to the hallway where the Dark Walker was imprisoned. The door, apparently, remained stationary while the “planetoid” (the Avatar’s word for it) slowly rotated; finding it necessitated walking south until she came to the long band cleared of trees around its equator, and then following that. Looking at it, she felt rather foolish for not having noticed before, though at least now, she was accustomed enough to the peculiar shrunken horizon to find it less disorienting.

The door had drifted slowly toward her, but Milanda hadn’t waited for it. She didn’t even need a running jump; one smooth hop, and she was through, landing lightly in the brightly-lit mithril hall beyond.

The lack of visual stimuli here actually helped her re-orient herself. There was just nothing to see but mithril walls, the little lights in the ceiling, the turn of the hallway just ahead. It made her even more conscious of her own body…her own strength.

But there was nothing to be gained by standing here.

Milanda strode purposely forward, rounding the corner and continuing to the proper cell.

“You look well,” the Dark Walker said calmly upon her arrival, sizing her up. “I gather the outcome of your…adventure…was optimal? I recognize that calm self-possession; it wasn’t on you earlier. Of course, I could sense the truth, if not for this.”

She rapped her knuckles on the transparent panel. Despite transmitting sound as if it were nothing but empty air, when struck it made a muted noise as if she had tapped on a stone wall a yard thick.

“I have protection from you, now. Apparently.”

“Felicitations.”

Milanda studied her, taking in the eeriness of her features. The almost-humanity of her.

“The Avatar was confident it would work. And that you can help. Before doing anything rash, however, I have questions for you.”

“That’s wise.” She spread her arms. “I have nothing but time. Ask.”

“How do you know how to help, if the Emperor and the Hands themselves don’t?”

The Walker gazed at her impassively for a moment, then smiled, and there was something in that expression Milanda didn’t care for. It was hard to tell exactly what, though; her features were so doll-like, it was as if she were a machine built to convey emotion but not truly feel it.

“It amuses me how you’ve made gods of the ascended beings of your so-called Pantheon. Sure, by any reasonable definition they might as well be… But the Infinite Order were more powerful beings by far, and they never built actual religions around themselves. At first, they were scientists, conducting experiments. In the end, they were kings and queens, drunk with power and lacking any feeling for the people living on this world. But gods? The idea would have insulted them.” She shook her head. “But then, it seems Scyllith got in on the act. In her case, specifically, it does not surprise.”

“What does this have to do with what I asked you?” Milanda demanded impatiently.

“I am explaining why your Emperor, and the Empress before him, did not do a more thorough job of setting up this system properly.” Again, she tapped on the transparent screen between them. “Religions are the creation of primitive people to impose a semblance of order upon a world they do not understand. Science renders them…obsolete, but not unnecessary, because it is a feature of human psychology that you need something to believe in, for your lives to be fulfilled. So it is with the systems here. Sharidan is quite intelligent. Theasia was more so. But in this facility, they tampered with things vastly beyond their comprehension, and succeeded to a point by imposing the structures they knew, the systems of magic and religion. They achieved…a happy medium. The system works. For it to be truly refined, they would have to know how it works. They do not.” She grinned. “I do.”

“You said you were not a… The exact words escape me.”

“A computer tech, which I am not.” The Walker began to pace back and forth in her cell, swiveling her head smoothly to keep Milanda in view as she did. The effect was even more creepy than she herself was. “A computer is a machine that processes information. Not a true thinking machine; that is an AI, an artificial intelligence, such as the Avatar you met in the gravitational isolation chamber. Tech is just a shortening, in this case, of technician, though in other contexts it can also mean technology.”

“Then how can you help, if you’re not one?”

She stopped her pacing, and shrugged. “I hear tell of wondrous enchanted devices you have, now. Lights that need no fuel; vehicles that travel without horses.”

“I’m sure that must seem abominably backward to you,” Milanda snapped.

“Not really. You are still primitive compared to the Infinite Order at its height, but recall, I have been on this planet these eight thousand years. I am accustomed to thinking of humans as mud-dwelling apes with marginally better linguistic skills to compensate for their lack of upper body strength. Your current civilization is actually rather impressive. But this is beside the point: you can use an enchanted carriage, yes? Or a fairy lamp? To live in your society, you would perforce need to know how.” She smiled again. “But could you build one?”

“What we are talking about doing,” Milanda said slowly, “is a great deal more complex than driving a carriage. Certainly more so than flipping a switch. I take your point, but still…”

“Very well, you require more data to be reassured. That is reasonable.”

The Dark Walker broke off and paced a complete lap around her cell, counter-clockwise, seeming to gather her thoughts. When she was front and center again, she turned to face Milanda, and folded her arms behind her back.

“Of the daughters of Naiya, there are three generations, of which I am of the second.”

“You’re a valkyrie?” Milanda asked in surprise.

The creature raised an eyebrow. “A valkyrie is a thing out of Norse myth. But…I suppose, thanks to Vidius, the description is more or less accurate, depending on whether one agrees that the things my sisters gather are in fact souls, which is a vast debate for another time.”

“What are you doing here?”

She smiled thinly. “In this cell, or upon this world?”

“I know why you’re in the cell. Valkyries were banished from the mortal plane.”

“To the dimensional insulation layer, yes. It is a peculiarity of all Naiya’s daughters, resulting from the immense power accessible through us, that when heavily traumatized, we mutate in entirely unpredictable ways.” She leaned one forearm on the barrier, lounging against it, and gave Milanda a recognizably sardonic look. “When one has been banished to the dimensional insulation layer, being ripped back out of it by a third-rate warlock is an extremely traumatic experience. Take my word for it. I wouldn’t wish it upon you.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said automatically.

“Are you? Well, that doesn’t really matter. Thank you for the sentiment. We were discussing more practical things, though.”

She straightened up, and again began pacing back and forth, this time keeping her gaze where she was going and not bothering with eye contact.

“Most of the Infinite Order regarded their experiments and creations, sapient or not, as of no more significance than lab equipment. Naiya, however, created daughters; she truly did care for us, and presumably still does, no matter the lengths she has gone to in her efforts to care less. The first generation… They truly were her children. She actually raised them, brought them up in the traditions of her own native culture, which they have since recreated in Sifan. Part of the Order’s whole purpose was breaking with the customs of old Earth, but by that point, none of them were much listening to each other, and I suspect she longed for the comfort of familiarity. When the kitsune proved too dangerous for the other members of the Order to allow running around, it was all she could do to insist on their containment on the islands, rather than their destruction. After that… Well, obviously, she tried again. But I think she grieved that separation, and wanted a bit more…distance, this time around. To protect herself.”

Milanda felt another platitude bubbling up, and silenced it. She was getting the impression that the Walker didn’t much care for displays of sentiment. If nothing else, she definitely enjoyed hearing herself talk, and Milanda had known enough people like that at court to know better than to interrupt.

“My sisters and I were made with fully-formed minds, not educated through a childhood like our elders. Mother preferred not to develop so close a relationship, I think. I resented it, until I saw how she has treated the dryads. I’ve come to…count my blessings, as they say. She was distant, with us, imperious… But at least she was present. And she made certain to look after us. Regardless,” she went on, suddenly more brisk, “the point is that what I know of the systems and functions of Infinite Order technology is part and parcel of my very being. My mind was constructed to have all the relevant information, organized and complete in a way that no…organically learned skill ever truly is.” Smiling faintly, she tapped her temple with a fingertip. “Would you be better off with an actual specialist? Undoubtedly. Sadly for us both, you don’t have one. Unless you can tempt a kitsune here from Sifan to help you, or one of your gods down from their celestial palaces, and bring yourself to trust such a creature, I am the only source of that information to be found on this world.” Her smile broadened; her teeth were blindingly white and perfectly even. “And most fortuitously for you, I am right here. How very…providential. Is it not?”

She was right, of course, but it wasn’t that which held Milanda’s concentration at the moment, but something she had just realized. It hadn’t been necessary for the prisoner to talk about her creator and sisters to make her points, nor to go on digressions about history and the world she had known eight thousand years ago. Despite her reserve, she was desperate to connect with someone.

Isolated first from her sisters by being jolted back to this plane, and then from everyone in this cell. Whatever else she was, this woman, this creature, was unbearably lonely.

That didn’t make her a whit less dangerous.

“All right,” she said aloud, “you have, in theory, the correct knowledge. But you are still an incalculably dangerous creature, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m reluctant to unleash you on the world on the basis of theory.”

“Ask anything you need to,” the Walker said calmly. “One of us has all the time in the world.”

“Then let’s hear some specifics,” Milanda said, folding her arms. “Tell me what’s going on, and how you would fix it.”

“This facility has been remotely accessed by a third party,” the Walker said immediately, tapping the window. “You saw the information feed in this panel—it has been keeping me updated. And no, it would not be standard policy for prisoners to have access to that, it’s just another artifact of the slapdash half-measure rigging that was done to set up this network of yours. And that, I believe, is the core of your problem. Most of the essential functions of the facility are either turned off or doing something they weren’t meant for. If everything were running properly, there would be firewalls in place to prevent unauthorized access. If the Avatar were installed here where he should be, instead of having been yanked and moved to the GIC to ride herd on those three dryads, he would have detected and countered any such incursion. As it is, the system was, and is, defenseless.”

“Who has done this?” Milanda demanded.

“I don’t know. This only gives me information, and not much at that; it doesn’t allow me to give commands, or I’d just have it let me out. With clearance and access to a proper terminal, I could examine more detailed records of what was accessed and changed, and give you more information. I will tell you one thing, though.” Again, she leaned against the panel, smiling faintly and reminding Milanda of several cocky young men who had tried to flirt with her when she was newly arrived in the capital. “To do this, someone would need two very important things: a piece of the Infinite Order’s technology capable of interfacing with this facility’s systems, and personal clearance granted by a member of the Infinite Order.”

Despite her practiced poise and the heady feeling of power now coursing through her, Milanda’s breath caught.

“You mean… An Elder God did this?”

“They would hardly have to do something so subtle, nor would it be in their nature. At least, not if they were acting directly.” The Walker shrugged. “Several possibilities come to mind. Scyllith does have her own cult, now; they are theoretically isolated underground by Themynra’s drow, but it wouldn’t be the first time one of them dug a long tunnel straight up and got loose on the surface. That doesn’t usually last long before the Pantheon’s agents land on them—or, for that matter, Elilial’s—but there’s precedent. It is also possible, though it would be out of character and contrary to her established pattern of the last few millennia, that my mother has decided to intervene in the mortal world again. Alternatively, it may be that one or more of the Infinite Order thought slain in the Pantheon’s uprising has survived, and now resurfaced. Ascended beings are nothing if not resilient, and most of them were exceedingly intelligent. Then, too, some members of the Pantheon would know how to use these systems, even before acquiring the nigh-limitless knowledge of godhood. They picked up some walking detritus in the course of their adventures, but a good few of them were trusted lab assistants who worked directly under members of the Order.” She shrugged. “The list of possibilities is long… But it is, now, a list, and not the wide-open vagueness it was when you stepped into this hall.”

Milanda unconsciously frowned and rubbed her chin, a gesture Sharidan made when concentrating. Catching herself at it, she immediately ceased.

“All right… You can find out who did it, then?”

“I’m not going to make promises based on information I don’t have, but I believe so. The access made to the systems gave me the impression it was…exploratory. Incompetent, even. A trained user would not have bumbled about, messing with random functions, the way the interloper did. My personal theory at the moment is that this is another human who’s got his hands on something he shouldn’t. If, somehow, somebody unearthed a functioning terminal with transcension field access and an authorized user’s credentials still active, that might be enough.”

“So…it’s an inexperienced user.”

“That much I can all but guarantee.” The Walker smiled. “I, as we have discussed, actually know how to use the systems. Provided our uninvited guest doesn’t get too much more time to practice, I should be more than a match for him. There’s been no such activity in the last day or so. Perhaps he’s asleep.”

Milanda frowned. “Can you reverse what was done to the Hands?”

“That’s trickier.” The prisoner began to pace again. “The system logs will tell me every change made by the intruder; putting everything back the way it was should be a very simple matter. This, however, is a hybrid system, designed to run at least partially if not mostly on the highly intuitive magic of the dryads. What’s been done may have had ripple effects that we can’t so easily put right. The whole mess is easily complex enough for chaos theory to be a potential factor. It should, in theory, still be correctable, but if that happens, we’re looking at a longer and more difficult operation entirely.”

“Especially if we want to take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again…”

“In all honesty,” the Walker said with a grimace, “if you’re going to do something like that, I would recommend dismantling the whole system and replacing it with another one, built from the ground up by someone who knows what they are doing.”

“Someone like you.”

She shrugged. “I could help, yes. The Avatar would be a better choice. I’m mystified what sequence of events could have led him to be stuck down there while this nonsense is going on up here. Theasia clearly persuaded him to help; she’d have been far better off persuading him to design her whole Hand apparatus. It couldn’t have been made without his input, but he definitely did not engineer this jury-rigged thing.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and peered around the empty hall. “All right… What, then, would you do? I assume there’s more to this facility than this hall, but I don’t see any doors…”

The Walker grinned and tapped again on her invisible barrier. “You wouldn’t. You don’t see one here, either, but I assure you, this is where it is. This facility was put under lockdown when the renegades attacked, and that order was never rescinded. Most of it is inert and walled off. I don’t know how this was left open enough that comparatively simple humans thousands of years later could have entered and turned on the lights, but here we are. I can unlock the rest of it, easily. There will be terminals in this hall; you just have to know how to access them. We’ll want something more central to do the kind of work necessary, though.”

“How big is this place?” Milanda asked curiously.

“It runs through most of the mountain,” the Walker replied. “You’ve built your city upon what used to be the planetary spaceport. The Infinite Order were rather paranoid and grew increasingly mistrustful of one another; they insisted on there being only a single point where spacecraft were permitted to land and depart, so they could all watch it, and thus watch each other’s comings and goings, as well as see who was doing what with the off-planet facilities scattered about the solar system. To that end, they flattened the top of this mountain and used it for a giant landing pad, building all the actual facilities the port needed underground.”

“But…the mountain isn’t flat,” Milanda protested, fascinated in spite of herself. “Tiraas is on a perfectly symmetrical hill.”

“It isn’t flat now,” the Walker said with a mirthless grin. “The Pantheon, when they came visiting, were not in a…talking mood. But yes, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s scarcely a snowball, the gravitational isolation chamber notwithstanding. That, by the way, is deep below the mountain, accessible only by teleporter; it’s not actually at all close to here. These passages are practically a city unto themselves, with spaces set aside for every conceivable use. I would suggest,” she added, suddenly frowning, “that we not unlock anything more than we need, which should be minimal. The security lockdown caused by the renegades’ attack would shut off virtually all of the housekeeping functions in chambers without living occupants—which would be all of them. A space that hasn’t been touched in eight thousand years will not be pleasant to visit, and there’s no telling what the Order had in some of those chambers. This, up here, was clearly a detention wing; there should be a security station close by. That will do splendidly for our purposes. If not, or if it’s not accessible, the hidden terminals here will have maps.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, aware that what needed to be said had already been said. She was stalling, now, afraid of the implications of what she would have to do here. But there was no time for that.

“Very well, then. Terms.”

“Terms,” the Walker agreed.

“First, you are not to leave here,” Milanda said firmly. “Ever.”

The Walker tilted her head. “From one prison to another?”

“It’s the same prison, and surely having the run of it is a different matter than being cooped up in that cell.”

“Very true. All right, I accept.”

“Second, your access to the facility’s systems will only be toward specific goals approved by myself or the Emperor. Third, you will not go near the Emperor, or any other guest who does not have the Hands’ protection against your magic. I’ll warn you, I am explaining, not bargaining; all the terms I am laying out will be programmed into the system, and you will not have the clearance to alter them.”

“You can do that?” the Walker asked mildly. “Then I’m curious why you need me.”

“I can’t,” Milanda replied, “but I know someone who can.” She tucked a hand into the pocket hidden in her skirt and withdrew the object the Avatar had given her, ejected directly from a small fissure in his metal complex back at the Nexus, where the dryads kept their personal effects. It actually rather resembled a power crystal, though more square in shape and encased in a framework of steel, with a complex little apparatus on one end. The Walker’s eyes fixed on it instantly. “So no, you will not go near the Emperor. When he approaches, or anyone who is potentially in danger from you, the system will issue a warning and give you time to secure yourself in a cell. This one, or another. There you will remain until the facility is cleared, at which time you will be free to resume roaming the whole complex at will. If you do not secure yourself in a timely fashion, interior defenses will be activated to do it for you.”

“If those were a threat to me,” the Walker said in a deceptively calm tone, “the Infinite Order would not have bothered to banish my sisters and I to the insulation layer, against Mother’s wishes.”

“The Infinite Order were very impressive, yes, but they did not have dryads, or the ability to use Naiya’s personal transcension field against you through their auspices. Or have you forgotten how you were corralled into that cell in the first place?”

The Walker stared flatly at her, all pretense of friendliness erased now, but after a long moment, she nodded.

“Very well. Your concerns are entirely valid. And…this is still a step up from my current situation. I accept those terms, and will not cause needless difficulty.”

Milanda, ever the courtier, caught the qualifier; what was needless was in the eye of the beholder, and someone who had no intention of causing trouble wouldn’t need to cover herself that way. She let it pass for the moment, however.

“I wasn’t finished. Fourth, these terms are not final; more may be imposed as they are deemed necessary by the Emperor, or his heirs.”

“There, we have trouble,” the Walker said, folding her arms. “You ask me to agree to an open-ended deal which you could change at any time to any terms you like.”

“Fifth,” Milanda barreled on, “and pursuant to the point above, if you resist or attempt to attack any Imperial personnel, you will be conclusively terminated.”

The Walker’s eyes narrowed to slits. “If you could do that, you would have.”

“Once again, the dryads—”

“Don’t talk to me about dryads,” she said curtly. “I am far too dangerous to be left alive. That I am proves my captors don’t have the capacity to kill me.”

“That’s where you are sadly mistaken,” Milanda said softly. “I have not spoken with the Emperor about you, thanks to the geas on this place, but I know him as well as anyone alive, and it’s no trouble for me to understand his position on this. It would trouble his conscience enough to keep you imprisoned, simply because of what you are through no fault of your own. He places duty and necessity above his personal feelings when he must, but he would absolutely not countenance the injustice of executing you when you are not to blame for what you are.

“His mother was a different matter. Empress Theasia, I’m afraid, never learned the lesson of Athan’Khar despite her own father’s remonstrations; her ministers had quite a time preventing her from creating and stocking, much less using, horrible weapons with the advances in magic and alchemy which occurred under her reign. None of that is common knowledge, of course. In fact, now that I’ve met you, I suspect the world owes you a debt. I do believe part of the reason the Empress allowed herself to be persuaded not to pursue such projects was because she had you down here, ready to be unleashed on any enemy she judged deserving of it. Theasia was quite the pragmatist, not to mention ruthless and paranoid even by the standards of politicians. I sometimes wonder if she wasn’t part drow.”

“I see,” the prisoner said tonelessly.

“And allow me to elaborate on your earlier objection,” Milanda continued grimly. “I am not negotiating with you, as I said, nor asking for your approval. I am explaining what will happen. Computer, display terminal.”

With a soft beep, a section of flat wall next to the Walker’s cell suddenly manifested borders, then slid upward to reveal a glowing panel above a rack of controls that vaguely resembled the runic interfaces with which Milanda was familiar. Positioned as it was, the Walker couldn’t see it, but her eyes cut in that direction regardless. Milanda, as the Avatar had directed her, carefully inserted the data crystal into the appropriate slot.

“Security protocols updated,” a curt and toneless feminine voice said from the air all around them. “User Milanda Darnassy acknowledged.”

“It’s done,” Milanda said, stepping back and dusting off her hands. “Once you’re out of there, the rules as I have explained them will be in effect. It was worth doing, on general principles, since the Avatar went to the trouble of making that for me. All this, though, has been my way of deciding whether I want to run the risk of letting you out.”

She stepped toward the panel again, meeting the prisoner’s featureless black eyes.

“Help me decide.”

They locked gazes, and the seconds slipped by. Finally, though, a small smile crept onto the Dark Walker’s thin lips. It was hard to tell, peculiar as her face was, but Milanda had the distinct feeling the expression was genuine.

“I like you,” the imprisoned fairy said simply. “You’re smart. Very well, it’s not as if there is a downside in this for me; your deal is an unqualified improvement in my own situation. I don’t at all mind helping you in exchange. In fact, after all these years, I find myself eager at the prospect of something constructive to do.” She stepped backward from the barrier, then bowed. “We have a deal.”

Milanda drew in another calming breath and let it out. “What’s your name?”

The eerie woman’s expression closed down again. “It doesn’t matter. The name belonged to…who I was. With my sisters. She is gone.”

“Well, in modern folklore you’re known as the Dark Walker,” Milanda said wryly. “I have to call you something, and forgive me, but I’d prefer it not be that.”

“Indeed,” the prisoner mused, “in all my years I have rarely met anyone who could pull off being called ‘The Dark’ anything. Walker is fine. I do enjoy a good stroll.”

“So be it, then. Computer, open the cell. Come on out, Walker.”

Even as she finished her sentence, the facility’s sub-OS beeped in acknowledgment, and an aperture suddenly appeared in the transparent wall near its right edge; roughly door-shaped, with rounded edges, it manifested silently where before the surface had been utterly seamless.

Walker moved without hurry, slowly pacing toward it, then as Milanda backed away to give her room, out. She paused in the corridor, then drew in a deep breath, her thin chest expanding.

Milanda smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but abruptly Walker whirled on her, lunging forward to grasp her head in both hands. Milanda seized her forearms reflexively, feeling her own newly-enhanced strength; she could have picked the woman up and tossed her one-handed, and that was the least of it. Walker’s grip was like iron, though, strong enough that even she couldn’t hold it back by brute strength alone.

The fairy smiled, however, and released her a moment later.

“You really are protected,” she marveled, still standing uncomfortably close, but having relaxed her arms such that Milanda was able to shove them apart and away. “Forgive me. You cannot imagine how long it has been since I could touch someone. All right!”

Grinning, she pulled back completely, rubbing her hands together in a mimicry of the gesture Milanda herself had made moments ago. “Then it seems we have work to do. There is no sense in delaying further. Come!”

She stepped around her, heading back up the hall toward the bend to the teleporter, and Milanda could only follow, desperately hoping she had not just made a critical mistake.

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12 – 17

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

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

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

“Enter,” came her voice from within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I?” he inquired.

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took another moment to gather his thoughts before speaking.

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

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

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

She simply nodded in silence.

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

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

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

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

“Arachne?”

“You know her, then?”

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

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

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


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

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

“So did I!” Mimosa added brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Transcension field!” all three dryads chorused.

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

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

“Precisely.”

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

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

“I miss Theasia,” Apple said wistfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone like you!” Mimosa said, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda blinked. “Um. Screwing people?”

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

Milanda turned to stare at the Avatar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flushed. “Oh. Um. Well.”

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

“Aww.” The dryads simultaneously deflated, pouting.

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

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12 – 16

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

Wait, grass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

Milanda blinked. “Um. What was what?”

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

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

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

“Well, as to that…”

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

“Use your head!”

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

“Maybe we can eat her!”

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

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

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

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

Dryads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Milanda replied with a smile.

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

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

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

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

“Prisoner?” Apple asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could it not be?!”

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

“Oh.” Apple winced. “Right.”

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

“Milanda says the Hands have gone crazy!”

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

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

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

Both dryads turned to look expectantly at Milanda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mimosa blinked at her. “Huh?”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“Thank you very much,” she said fervently.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If I may?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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