Tag Archives: Milanda Darnassy

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The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.

“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”

“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”

“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”

“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”

Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.

The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.

Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.

“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”

The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”

“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”

“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”

“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.

Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.

“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”

“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”

“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.

The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.

“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”

“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”

“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”

She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.

The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.

“Mama!”

That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.

Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.

“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”

“I heard the—”

“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”

“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.

“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”

“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”

“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”

“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.

The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”

“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”

“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”

“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”

Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”

“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”

She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”

“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”

Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”


The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.

“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.

They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.

In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.

“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”

Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.

“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”

Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”

Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.

“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.

“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”

Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”

Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”

“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”

“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.

“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”

“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”

“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”

“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”

Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”

“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.


She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.

“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”

“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.

“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”

“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”

“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.

“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”

“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”

“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”

“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”

 

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12 – 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plastic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Till next time, friend.”

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

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

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

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

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


Setbacks.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, your Holiness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 61

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“I promise to explain everything,” Milanda said a little nervously. Her practiced self-possession was ample to suppress such displays of emotion, but she was in the habit of relaxing her guard when alone with Sharidan—and after the last few days, in which she’d not only not seen him but worried constantly for his safety in the back of her mind, it was an absolute relief to let him see her feeling nervous. “In fact, I’ll undoubtedly have help explaining everything. But…you’ll probably feel the need to spout a thousand questions immediately. Please just trust me, we’ll get there.”

“I will do my best not to act the fool,” he said with a playful little smirk, draping an arm around her waist. She sighed softly, leaning into him. After returning him to the Palace last night she’d had to come back down here and oversee the changes she was about to reveal; they’d had no real time together. By tonight they were both likely to be exhausted. But very soon, he was going to find himself vigorously jumped upon. As if he sensed her line of thought, his smile took on a more roguish note and he shifted his hand to briefly squeeze her rump. “You’ve already broadly outlined the situation. Unless there’s something else I should urgently know before meeting everyone?”

“No…I think you have what’s needed not to be taken by surprise.” The elevator door slid open, revealing the short mithril hallway to the door of the spaceport itself, and she took a deep breath, deliberately settling her expression back to neutrality, before stepping out. “Just…brace yourself.”

“I am never anything but braced, my dear,” he said, and his jocular tone was that of the Emperor, the man eternally in command of himself and his surroundings. It was distinct from the jocular tone of her lover, and at the moment, she appreciated the change. It was the Emperor she needed now.

Milanda stepped forward once more and touched the inner door. It slid smoothly open, and despite her warning, the Emperor froze, blinking in astonishment.

Warm air wafted out of the doorway, accompanied by the sounds of birdsong, chirping insects, and moving water. Milanda paused to smile up at Sharidan before stepping aside, bowing and gesturing him through.

He entered slowly, taking his time to study everything. The mithril was still there, forming the walls, and the basic layout of the short, straight hallway had not changed, but that was all that revealed this was the same place. Now, the floor of the hall had been coated in an undulating mixture of stone and dirt, both decorated by moss, with thick stepping stones forming a path down the center. Just inside the door, a tiny stream chuckled across the hallway, emerging from and then vanishing into small metal devices protruding from the walls on either side. The light, far from the cold purity with which the place had been lit before, was a dappled pattern of golden sunlight, shifting with the movement of trees and branches.

There were indeed, amazingly enough, trees. Small ones, and placed only against the walls so they did not block the view; their branches stretched across the hall above head height, adding decoration without obstruction—though some of the vines and veils of hanging moss did impede the sightline somewhat.

Sharidan paced carefully forward, Milanda on his heels, peering this way and that. The whole ceiling, above the fronds, was apparently a viewscreen, now showing a lightly-clouded morning sky, complete with a sun. All the cells were open, and arranged with a mixture of plants and furniture.

He paused before the cell which for decades had contained the Dark Walker. It was now a tiny grove, with a mimosa tree—or a quarter of one, at least—sprouting in one corner and dipping its fronds over the space. A stone fountain rose from the center, with matching stone benches along two walls and lining the third, a bookcase in the elven style, laden with volumes made from materials which would withstand all the moisture. They were in modern Tanglish, but none were books which had been read on this planet in thousands of years.

“Fabricators,” Milanda mused, drawing the Emperor’s attention. “It takes a lot of power to produce this much material, especially with so much of it being living. But apparently the whole complex is rigged with them. It seems it was fairly simple to set up a—”

“Hiyeeee!” A pink-haired figure skipped into view around the corner up ahead, waving exuberantly even as she scampered forward and launched herself onto the Emperor in a flying hug. “Sharidan! Hi hi hi! We missed you!”

“Mimosa!” he replied, squeezing her back before holding her at arm’s length by the shoulders. “Why, look at you! I like it, you look very sharp.”

“Don’t I, though?” she simpered. “I mean, it’s a little uncomfortable and I’m starting to get tired of it but dang am I pretty! Akane says it’s called a kimono, and apparently there are a lot of rules about wearing them.” Her expression suddenly fell into a scowl. “She’s all about rules. I guess you’ll find out pretty soon. Oh, and by the way, I told you my name is Tris’sini, now.”

“Oh?” He tickled her lightly under the chin, grinning, and Milanda allowed herself a small sigh. “I’m sorry, pet, I thought you were joking about that. You do realize there’s a paladin with that name, right?”

“What?” She gaped at him in disbelief. “A paladin? But…but that’s someone famous! I can’t go around calling myself…oh, pooh.” The dryad stomped a foot childishly. “How come nobody tells me anything? Milanda, you knew about this, didn’t you?”

The newly-decorated erstwhile cells had the doors open in their transparent barriers, but the barriers themselves were otherwise intact, and one now lit up with the figure of a bald man formed of purple light.

“In all fairness, Mimosa, everyone has been very distracted by the events going on. I’m certain nobody intended to keep you in the dark. Your Majesty.” Shifting his visage to face the Emperor, he bowed politely. “It is a pleasure to see you as always—and a relief, this time in particular, to find you in good health.”

“Thank you, Avatar, it’s something of a relief to be in good health,” Sharidan replied, nodding in return. “And it seems a welcome back is in order for you, as well. I like what you’ve done with the place. I never realized before now how dead it all felt as it was.”

“It was really dead,” Mimosa agreed, nodding.

“Thank you, your Majesty, but I cannot take credit for the décor. The current design was crafted to suit dryad sensibilities, as it seems this will be their home for some time to come.”

“And dryad sensibilities are a bit of an issue, when there are three of them to consider,” Milanda added wryly. “Don’t get attached to the scenery. Something tells me it’s going to be different every time you visit, depending on who comes out on top on a given day.”

“Ugh, tell me about it,” Mimosa agreed, rolling her arms. “Those two. No taste at all! Hawthorn wanted it to snow. Can you imagine?”

“I can barely imagine what I’m seeing now,” the Emperor said frankly. “Can you make it snow?”

“Apparently!”

“Hey!” Another head appeared around the corner, this one crowned in patchy green and white, and wearing a scowl. “You lot about done chattering back there? There’s some kind of meeting you’re apparently late for, and believe me, this one doesn’t need to get any grumpier. She’s no fun as it is.”

“Indeed,” Milanda said more smoothly, tucking her hand into the Emperor’s arm, “everyone will be delighted to see you back safe and sound, but we have a very important guest who should not be kept waiting.”

“You are quite right, my dear,” he replied. “On to the little world, then?”

“Actually, no,” she said. “The other way at the turn. I’m afraid you won’t be able to visit the little world anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah!” Mimosa said cheerfully. “That’s how come we made this place dryad-friendly, everybody had to get moved around cos—”

“A-hem!” Hawthorne barked.

“We’re coming, Hawthorn,” Milanda said with amusement. Sharidan ruffled Mimosa’s hair affectionately as he stepped past her, eliciting a girlish squeal.

Hawthorn waited until they nearly reached her, then turned on her heel and flounced back around the corner into the security hub. Sharidan paused at the intersection, glancing back at the teleporter with an eyebrow raised, before turning to examine the new doorway—which had been a blank wall every time he had been here before. The teleporter itself was unchanged, though climbing vines now decorated the walls all around it, but the other door had been framed by stone columns which looked ancient and worn, despite being only a few hours old.

Even Milanda had to gaze around appreciatively as they entered the hub. It had been cleaned up, of course, all the clutter strewn about its floor packed away, but that was only the beginning. Every wall which was not a viewscreen had been coated in intricately carved stone, with the screens active to show a panoramic view of the surroundings of Tiraas itself, as if this room now hovered high above the center of the city. To the upper walkway circling the room had been added stone columns and a low, sloping roof with tiles in the Sifanese style; the floor in the main area was divided into paths and sections of gently undulating grass, themselves laid out with either stone garden furniture or raised beds in which beautiful profusions of flowers thrived.

The computer screens in the center were as before, but their housing had been decorated to resemble a temple altar, crafted from intricately carved white marble. Even the chairs had been replaced; the new ones hovered, rather than rolling, and were each positioned in front of one screen instead of tossed about chaotically, their design a simple wooden style adorned with red silken cushions. Of the clutter which had bedecked the room, all that remained was the katzil’s suspension tank, itself now banded in carved and whitewashed wood upon which flowering vines clambered, making the whole thing resemble an arbor with a frozen demon sleeping in its center.

The ceiling itself was a screen, it seemed. The view of the sky was uninterrupted and fully realistic; there was even a light breeze. Had she not known how far underground they were, and seen this technology before, Milanda would have firmly believed this to be an outdoor space.

Apple was sitting off to the side in one of the new chairs, giggling to herself and spinning in circles, but after a quick glance in her direction, Milanda and the Emperor fixed their attention upon the figure standing in the center of the path ahead, just in front of the main computer station. They both bowed politely.

She was surprised when Akane bowed back, but apparently an Emperor was a thing which demanded certain courtesies, even from an ancient demigoddess.

“And you must be Akane-sama,” Sharidan said. “I am deeply grateful for the aid you have given Tiraas in our time of need. Sifan is truly a beneficent and most cherished ally of the Silver Throne.”

“I am pleased to have been of assistance, your Majesty,” she replied, smiling politely, “and have quite enjoyed my time here. I do not, however, speak for the Queen, or for my sisters. It pleases me that you regard our homeland so warmly, but in this matter, I represent only myself.”

“I assure you, our regard for your country is in no way diminished by that consideration,” he said, “but I thank you for the clarification. That being the case, my gratitude to you, in particular.”

“Okay, okay,” Apple said, listing dizzily in her seat and bracing one foot against the floor. “You people and your manners. Don’t we have actual stuff to talk about?”

“Apple,” Akane said simply, not even glancing at her. One of her pointed ears swiveled in the dryad’s direction, however, and Apple actually cringed, scooting her floating chair a few feet further away from the kitsune.

“You see what I mean?” Mimosa muttered from behind them.

Milanda cleared her throat and stepped forward. “I see no harm in exchanging courtesies, but why don’t we involve everyone who has a stake in this conversation? Avatar, if you would?”

One of the computer panels, untouched, swung outward upon unseen hinges and extended itself, till it resembled a free-standing floor-length window. The purple image of Avatar 01 appeared within, bowing first to Sharidan and then to Akane.

“Gladly. Welcome to the new center of administration for the system governing the Hands of the Emperor, your Majesty. I am certain you must have many questions. We shall, of course, endeavor to explain everything to your satisfaction.”

“To begin with,” Akane said smoothly, “you have already noticed there has been a…shuffling of living quarters.”

“Quite,” Sharidan agreed. “I understand this facility is actually the natural habitat of the Avatar. It had been my impression that he couldn’t be removed from the dryads’ little planet without shutting down the whole system, however.”

“Your impression was correct, your Majesty. And indeed, we were forced to temporarily deactivate the system in order to reboot it, and add some protections to prevent another incursion like the one it recently suffered. My restoration to the central systems of the facility enabled us to keep those to a minimum; with a functioning Avatar governing the computers, any attempt to hack into our system will be summarily rebuffed. I must acknowledge that some components of the previous iteration of this system were features I designed at least in part to limit the ambitions of its human components—including my own isolation and inability to make…improvements.”

“I definitely see the point in that,” the Emperor mused. “If improvements were possible, my mother would never have given you a moment’s peace.”

“Indeed, I observed that her Majesty could be quite persuasive. It seemed most prudent in the short term to orchestrate a state of affairs in which her persuasion was irrelevant, to be possibly revisited with a future heir.” The purple man in the window smiled disarmingly. “And thus, here we are.”

“Girls, do not hover in the door,” Akane said firmly. “This discussion concerns you as well. All the way in, please. Your Majesty,” she continued, turning to Sharidan, “the Avatar raises a pertinent point. We have re-started your Hand system almost entirely as it was, or as close to its previous state as we could arrange. Its somewhat organic nature meant a precise copy was not possible, but the difference should be negligible. The only significant alteration we have made, aside from re-shuffling the living quarters here, has been to build in the possibility of further alterations—if all relevant parties are agreed that they are necessary. And with that, we should include the other individual who shall have a say. Avatar?”

“Activating the link now,” he replied, and indeed another computer screen swung forward and expanded. A moment later, its transparency solidified into an image that appeared to be outdoors upon a sunny hill, with a lean figure dressed in black in the center of the frame.

She had been half-turned, staring into the distance, but upon the screen’s activation shifted her attention to it. Something about being displayed on a viewscreen highlighted the unnatural look of her, the heavily stylized shape of her features. Pictured thus, she actually looked more like a moving doll than a person.

The Emperor took one step forward, his attention fixed on the screen. “Ah…at last. I understand from Milanda that I have you to thank for a great deal of her success here…Walker.”

“Your Majesty,” she said, sketching a sardonic little bow. “I understand from Milanda that you firmly instructed her to keep me in that cell. I hope you are not too disappointed.”

“I never imagined I would one day find myself saying this,” he replied, “but I’m very glad to see you well. It always bothered me, having to see you confined in that tiny space.”

“It bothered him,” Hawthorn muttered scornfully. Mimosa shushed her frantically even as Akane shot a flat look in their direction.

“I believe you,” Walker said simply, her porcelain face impassive.

The Emperor tilted his head slightly. “If I may ask…where are you?”

“Where do you think I am?” she asked mildly, amusement entering her tone.

“Walker,” Milanda said reproachfully, “there’s no need to be obstreperous.”

“Need, no. It’s not as if I have so very many ways to amuse myself.”

“You have the entire catalog of information and entertainment archived in the Order’s files, Yrsa,” Akane retorted. “Don’t be needlessly difficult. And don’t worry, your Majesty, we have definitely not released her into the world. Yrsa’s condition is no fault of her own, but it means that for the safety of all people and living things, she must be contained. We simply found a kinder prison for her.”

“…the dryads’ world,” he said slowly, studying the screen in which Walker was displayed and prompting a grin from her. It was barely apparent, due to the narrow field of view and the fact that half of it was taken up by the metal construction of the nexus, but the horizon behind her was strongly curved, as if she stood atop a hill…or upon a very tiny planet.

“The teleporter has new security measures installed,” Milanda said, nodding. “She can’t come through it, obviously. The only people who can are those with protection from her death field effect.”

“Her sisters!” Apple said brightly, waving at Walker.

“And the Hands,” Akane added with a little smile, “and Milanda. She has access to the machines and database, she has the possibility of visitors now. And she has an entire world of her own upon which to roam, albeit a small one. With its installed fabricators, her ability to alter the landscape is nearly limitless.”

“Which is how come we got to re-do the halls up here,” Mimosa said. “It’s a little more cramped, but they’re opening up some of the rooms for us to explore and the fabricator thingies can make it nice and natural, so this isn’t so bad! We can still visit our little world, but honestly Walker needs it a lot more than us.”

“I was getting tired of it anyhow,” Hawthorn said dismissively.

“As prisons go,” Walker said, now smiling widely, “it barely even is one. This is a happier ending for me than I could have asked for.”

“It’s hardly an ending,” Milanda replied, grinning back.

“Indeed,” Akane said more solemnly. “Your Majesty, there is one more thing to bring up before we discuss the future. While resetting the system, we neutralized an intrusive feature which had been activated ten years ago.”

“Records show conclusively that this was done remotely,” the Avatar added, “from Fabrication Plant One, which now lies off the coast of a modern city Milanda identified as Puna Dara.”

Sharidan’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? What sort of intrusive feature?”

“It piggy-backed upon the energy field governing the Hands to suffuse the residential wing of the Imperial Palace above with the diffuse essence of an engineered plant called silphium.”

“Sylphreed, in more recent parlance,” Akane added.

The Avatar nodded. “It was named for a plant known to have existed on Earth, the world of the Infinite Order’s origin and humanity’s, which was recorded but had been consumed into extinction long before space flight or biological engineering were developed. The plant was an effective contraceptive, and it was for this purpose that the Order created modern silphium. It is a transcension-active lifeform, making it particularly useful for the purpose of this invasion. Its essence was quite amenable to diffusion through a non-physical medium in this way.”

“This intrusion,” the Emperor said quietly, his face having gone blank, “caused the infertility of every woman in the Palace?”

“That would be its effect, yes. Access to the fabrication plant has since been blocked, and there are no further records—and none which identify the perpetrator, except that they logged into the system under Scyllith’s identification. Akane assures me that her personal involvement in this is highly unlikely.”

“Entirely impossible,” Akane scoffed. “Scyllith could be subtle, but we know very well how constrained the remaining Elder Gods are by their condition, and what the Pantheon did to the phenomenon of ascension itself. Either of them taking personal action would be noticed. Scyllith does, however, have a substantial cult of her own, and it would perhaps be naive to assume they are as effectively barred from the surface as Themynra’s drow would have us believe.”

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this,” Sharidan said quietly, frowning.

“It was the least we could do,” the kitsune replied with a polite little smile. “Frankly, to leave such an obvious assault upon Tiraas in place would have been an overtly aggressive act. Bearing you no ill will, we could hardly have done such a thing.”

“I’m afraid investigating it will be up to us, now,” Milanda added. “Though even finding an old Infinite Order facility in Puna Dara will be…well, difficult, to put it mildly.”

“Obviously it’s accessible,” Walker said, shrugging. “Or was ten years ago.”

“So…the effect is over, then?” Sharidan asked, directing himself to the Avatar. “There will be no more infertility?”

“I’m afraid the effects will linger upon all who were subjected to it,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Any woman resident in that part of the Palace will find it difficult if not impossible to conceive for at least another year. There should be no lingering health effects apart from that; even if one happened to have a silphium allergy, the nature of this diffusion would not trigger it. Normal fertility will restore itself over time.”

“In the meantime,” Akane said, her tail twitching once, “we have the present, and the future, to discuss.”

“Indeed,” the Emperor replied, turning to her with a respectful nod. “It seems odd, at this juncture, to speak of trust—you have assuredly proved your goodwill, Akane-sama. These are, however, some of the most central and precious secrets of the Empire.”

“In fact,” the kitsune said with a vulpine smile, “secrets of a most…particular nature. As we have seen, the Hand system is close to the core of Tiraan government, but not essential to it. If the Hands are corrupted, great danger and disruption ensues—but if they are shut off, the Empire will not fall, nor suffer unduly, as evidenced by your instruction to Milanda to destroy the system if she could not repair it. Our improvements should make it impossible for a repeat of this incident to occur; we shall not have to worry about further corruption. And the prospect of terminating the system would only deny the Silver Throne one of its favorite assets, without threatening the integrity of the Throne itself.”

“Is there a particular reason,” Sharidan asked lightly, “we should consider the possibility of the system being terminated?”

Milanda drew in a deep breath. “I set her on this line of thinking, your Majesty. It was necessary to gain her help…and her trust. Anyone who can shut off the Hands has power—not to destroy the Throne, but to ensure that its occupant must listen to them. And…in all honesty, I would not have done this if I thought that an unacceptable compromise. But I believe, honestly believe, that having an outside power who can command the Throne’s attention at need is good for it.”

“I don’t know much about your style of governance, obviously,” Walker interjected, “but when it’s come up, I keep hearing one theme over and over. Milanda may be biased, but she thinks you are a very good Emperor.”

“That is gratifying to hear,” he said, smiling at Milanda and taking her hand.

“But,” Walker continued, “you’re only one Emperor. There will be another after you, and another after that. And they aren’t all going to be good ones. There was that braying jackass who caused the Enchanter Wars, for example.”

“I hesitate to delineate rulers into such simplistic categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’” the Avatar added, “but the point stands: a country will have many governments in the course of its existence, and their various incarnations are not equal. I have already demonstrated, I believe, that you are best related to in an entirely different manner than your own mother, your Majesty.”

“If I may?” Sharidan held up a hand. “You don’t need to persuade me. In point of fact, I find this line of thought reassuring. Especially since we do not yet know who will take the Throne after me. The question I have is the nature of the power you propose to wield over the Throne. Who shall have it, and what they plan to do with it.”

“In short,” Akane said pleasantly, “those of us you see here. And to answer your other question…that remains to be seen. For now, upon reviewing your foreign policies, I find nothing so objectionable that I feel the need to exert influence upon Tiraas. In the future, though…who knows?”

“We have, in essence, created an informal council,” said the Avatar almost apologetically. “Those here are codified into the system, either as individuals or as offices which can be occupied by other individuals in the future. The occupant of the Silver Throne, obviously. Myself, by necessity. Walker, as an outsider bound by this facility but not beholden to Tiraas, and well acquainted with the systems here. Akane-sama, or another kitsune she designates, should she decide to do so. The three dryads present. And finally, this has required that we make Milanda’s position a permanent feature of the system—a Hand of the Emperor, in effect, but not bound to the same network as the others. One less constrained.”

“I like it,” he said, smiling at her again, and squeezing her hand. “You know, I find I like this idea a great deal. The…Left Hand of the Emperor.”

“That was easier to work into the system,” Akane said offhandedly, “because, unfortunately, we lost one in the reboot process. I apologize, your Majesty, but I could not find a way around it. One of the nodes in the network was isolated behind some kind of barrier—something arcane in nature, but fiendishly complicated and whose origins and structure I couldn’t analyze.”

“I see,” Sharidan said, frowning. “When you say lost…”

“I cannot be sure what that means, exactly,” she admitted. “He might now be separate from the system, as Milanda is, either with or without powers. It’s more likely, I think, that the reboot simply killed him. I’m sorry; I tried to reconnect him to the system, but whatever he’s behind warps space and time itself. I couldn’t penetrate it while restoring the entire network.”

“Thank you for letting me know,” he said gravely. “I’m already in the process of calling roll, as it were, but with so many of my Hands scattered across the Empire, that will take time. Now I at least know not to panic if one fails to answer.”

“With regard to our future,” the kitsune continued, “I do have a few considerations upon which I must insist, concerning your continued access to this facility. We are opening more of it, simply because the currently opened parts are not very spacious, considering they will have to serve as the residence of three of my youngest sisters. However, this will be done slowly, piecemeal, and with great care, and I intend to clear anything dangerous we discover into storage and use the space as only that: space. The fabricators will serve to support the facility here, and that is all. I have already had the Avatar seal off the teleportation array, since you have mages to fulfill that need anyway. There shall be no dissemination of Infinite Order technology into the world above. Pursuant to which,” she added, directing her stare at Milanda, “I believe I overheard that Lord Vex is currently in possession of an Order communication earpiece. That will be retrieved and stored.”

“May I ask why you are so adamant about this, Akane-sama?” Sharidan inquired. “Milanda has told me only the very basics, but it seems the world could learn a great deal from the information stored here, if not the technology itself. And after all, isn’t this the legacy of humankind? Don’t people have a right to this knowledge?”

It was Walker who answered him. “In eight thousand years, you have made less progress than your ancestors on Earth did in half that time—and that is not necessarily a bad thing. By the time the Infinite Order left Earth, the planet was practically in ruins. Its climate thrown into chaos, nearly eighty percent of its native life forms extinct, all caused by the reckless use of technology. Cities abandoned, sunk beneath the ocean, reduced to rubble by fighting over the few remaining resources—”

“Yes, it was a great big mess,” Hawthorn said impatiently. “Walker, you’re drifting into a monologue again. We talked about this, remember?”

“She loves to explain things,” Apple added to the Emperor in a stage whisper. “Get her going and we could be here all day.”

“The point is,” Walker said with some irritation, “it was an open question among the Order whether humanity could be trusted with its own technology. They never came to a conclusion—though, in fairness, they had ceased discussing such matters long before they were brought down. Points could be made either way. For my part, I support Akane’s decision. The fact that your relatively primitive society hasn’t utterly destroyed itself shows you are already better off than your ancestors.”

“There also is the fact,” the Avatar added, “that the technology being developed now is based upon transcension fields, which necessarily limits it to this world, as well as directly involving ascended beings who can serve as a further check upon the human race’s self-destructive impulses.”

“I see,” the Emperor said quietly.

“Beyond that,” Akane said, smiling languidly, “I’m sure we can discuss any future changes you wish to make—and any concerns the rest of us may have. For now, I’m sure you are eager to return to the running of your Empire. I, for my part, wish to spend some time re-acquainting myself with my sister—and becoming acquainted in the first place with my three new sisters. You may rest assured that my presence here will not in any way disrupt your government, or your life.”

“Yeah,” Hawthorn said challengingly, as the other two dryads clustered next to her, “we’ve decided we’ve hidden away down here long enough. Now that we have all these resources, we’re gonna get ourselves educated.”

“Quite so,” Akane said beatifically. “They are wild spirits, but I have already grown very fond of them. Soon enough I can teach them—”

“Whoah, no, you don’t,” Hawthorn said grimly.

The kitsune slowly turned to face her, one ear twitching. “…I beg your pardon, Hawthorn?”

“Now, that’s not actually a ‘no,’” Apple said hastily. “I really do want to learn about your culture and stuff. I mean, it’s Mother’s culture, and let’s face it, she’s not gonna teach us anything. But not just that.”

“Girls, believe me, I know what’s best for you,” Akane stated. “In time, you will appreciate—”

“In time,” Hawthorn snapped, “after nobody but you has had a say in our education, we’ll think and do whatever you decide is right. Yeah, that’s not happening.”

“Walker’s gonna show us stuff from the files!” Mimosa said brightly. “History and knowledge and…uh, lore, and stuff! They’ve got everything in these machines!”

“Plus,” Apple added, “Sharidan, could you send us…books? Things from Tiraas? We’d like to learn about the world as it is now, too.”

“Why, I would be only too glad to, my dear,” he said gallantly. “I’ll get to work on starting a library for you right away. In fact…how would you girls like some newspaper subscriptions?”

“Oh, we’d love that!” Mimosa bubbled. “That sounds awesome! What’s a newspaper?”

Akane, meanwhile, had spun to face the screen, her ears flattening backward. “Yrsa.”

“You’ve always been so clever, Akane,” Walker said in a fond tone. “And you have always failed to consider that other people might be, too. I’m so glad to see you again, and have you around. I really do love you, y’know? But they’re my sisters, too.”

“Surely,” Akane said in a more careful tone, “you realize that letting them get into the archives willy-nilly—”

“And also,” Walker continued, still smiling, “no, I will not be helping you gain majority control of this little council, sister. Milanda is my friend. And in fact, I think well of Sharidan, there, too. He tried to be as kind to me as he could—me, the horrible death monster he was forced to keep in a cell. That tells me what I need to know about him.”

Milanda cleared her throat. “This does not mean we value your contributions one whit less, Akane-sama. In fact, if you are amenable, there is a great deal I would love to learn from you, myself.”

The kitsune stared at her through narrowed eyes, then shifted to rapidly peer at Walker and the dryads in succession.

“There, see?” Mimosa said, wearing a dopey smile. “Everything worked out for the best!”

“Oh, everything isn’t worked out, just yet,” said the Emperor, again taking Milanda’s hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “But I think we’ll find we can all work together.”

 

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12 – 60

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“I am not in the habit of divulging anybody’s personal business to anybody else,” Professor Tellwyrn began as soon as she settled herself behind her desk, “a fact for which several of you have abundant cause to be personally grateful. I am, in this one case, going to make an exception because the cat is pretty well out of the bag, and it’s better that those who saw it understand exactly what type of cat it was before the rumor starts flying that there’s a lion on campus.”

“Nice turn of phrase!”

“Shut up, Arquin. Since a classmate’s personal privacy is being abrogated here, I will have to insist that what I am about to tell you travels no further. If it does, the repercussions will be severe and indiscriminately applied to everyone present. And,” she added with rising asperity, “I would have thought all of this went without saying, but I can’t help noticing that this group is already larger than I expected.”

She paused to glare around her office, which in addition to the students who had been present in Last Rock for the Sleeper’s attack, now contained the entire population of the Wells and the sophomore class who remained un-cursed, as well as Scorn.

“Iris is our friend,” the Rhaazke said stidently, laying a heavy hand on Szith’s shoulder. “We care about her!”

Tellwyrn fixed a gimlet stare on her. “And in your mind, this entitles you to be involved in her personal business?”

“That, yes,” Scorn said with an emphatic nod.

Ruda cleared her throat. “So, Iris is a half-demon, right? I mean, that’d explain her being Sleeper-proof, not to mention her fixation on Gabe…”

“What?” Gabriel frowned at her. “Iris is hardly fixated on me. Where are you getting that from?”

“Arquin, you elevate cluelessness to a fucking art form.”

“Iris Domingue is not a half-demon!” Tellwyrn said loudly. “She comes from a respectable old Vernisite family from Thakar, with no traceable demon lineage on either side, and no evidence of demonic corruption that could explain her situation. She is simply, for reasons nobody understands, an infernal savant.”

There was a momentary pause while they all stared at her in varying degrees of confusion.

“So…wait,” Fross said at last. “I know what both those words mean and I can infer what they mean in connection with each other, but that can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know you are all aware, by this point in your academic careers, of the basic nature of infernal magic,” Tellwyrn said, folding her hands atop her desk and regarding them over the rims of her spectacles. “Anyone can use it; the challenge for warlocks is in using it safely. Without the inherent protection granted by full-scale demonic mutation from having one’s entire lineage forged in Hell itself, the infernal is unfathomably dangerous and nearly impossible to control. A significant error can cause catastrophic, usually explosive destruction; even a minor error will cause the first stage of lifelong degenerative disease, with cancers being the most common, though they are not the totality or even the worst of it. Half-demons tend to have both a greater aptitude and a measure of protection, but neither is absolute even for them. And yes, I’m aware you have all heard this lecture before, but you’re hearing it again now, and will every time I find a reason to discuss infernal magic with my students. It is that dangerous.” She paused, and heaved a little sigh before continuing. “Iris Domingue, for whatever reason, can wield the infernal with perfect, intuitive control. Without understanding or even thinking about it, she uses it in such a way that she avoids corruption, either in the form of combustion or illness. And she can do things with it, despite knowing zero technique, that no warlock has even thought to try.”

Another silence descended, marked this time by expressions mostly of consternation.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Toby said at last.

“Nobody has, Mr. Caine,” Tellwyrn replied. “That is why I brought her here. It’s not widely known, because very few organizations are both positioned and invested in identifying and recruiting unusual young people—I haven’t been arrogant enough to assume this, but it’s possible I’m the only one who’s noticed. But within the last decade, roughly since the time the gods retreated and stopped calling paladins, individuals have begun popping up who can use magic in ways that aren’t exactly…normal. November Stark’s case is unusual, but not without precedent; there have occasionally been humans who can touch the divine unaided, just as there are occasionally drow who can wield the arcane. The prevailing theory is that it’s the natural state for all sapients to have access to all magic, and occasionally whatever force bars certain races from certain schools…misses a spot. More seriously, though… No, if there’s ever been a case like Iris before, I’ve never heard of it. And nobody who has studied her has the faintest clue what the cause is. Similarly, I have never heard of any fairy, much less a pixie, who can use arcane magic without simply exploding. Fross is, after all, the effective grandchild of an Elder God, but still. It’s never happened before. Something is up in the world.”

Teal let out a soft breath. “A great doom—”

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

“So, um…” Gabriel frowned pensively. “Now you mention it, Professor, I know this is supposed to be a school for exceptional and dangerous people, but on reflection it occurs to me quite a few of our classmates seem pretty…normal. How many of these secret walking magical anomalies have we got on this campus?”

“Arquin, what did I just say about other people’s personal business?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” the Professor went on more briskly, “that’s the context. This meeting was convened because your classmate and friend has just had a traumatic experience, and needs support, not suspicion. It may be impossible to keep a lid on this; too many people from the town know she got cornered by the Sleeper, and others will wonder how she got away. It’s up to Iris to decide what she wants to tell anybody. It’s up to you lot to be there for her and back her up.”

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

“Aye,” Maureen agreed in a quieter tone. “Thank th’Light it wasn’t more traumatic, though. Way I understood it, she right whipped ‘is arse, an’ more power to ‘er.”

“There’s a lot more to trauma than being physically wounded,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “Consider Iris’s life up until now. She has refused to learn any infernomancy, which shows wisdom, but also has downsides. It’s that technique which makes the infernal useful for anything besides destruction; she cannot shadow-jump, become invisible, summon anything… With training, Iris would be the greatest warlock who ever lived. Without that training, she is a walking weapon comparable in scope to the Enchanter’s Bane. Her decision to eschew all infernal magic and immerse herself in the fae to suppress it is obviously in her best interests, and the world’s best interests. But there are people who care nothing for the interests of the world, and worse, people who care deeply and automatically conflate the world’s interests with their own agendas. The Black Wreath has been after her since before she could walk, and even those who protected her did so with the presumption of repayment. Iris has only grown to adulthood without being conscripted by one power or another because her parents are both bankers, which is the next best thing to aristocrats in terms of ruthless cunning. They’ve managed to play the Universal Church and Imperial Intelligence against each other for eighteen years, but that can’t last forever. I brought Iris here to give her four years to just…be a person. And more importantly, to develop the skills and the connections that will enable her to live her life without becoming anybody’s pawn.”

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

“Fuck yes!” Ruda agreed with much less restraint. “I don’t like to bust out my tiara, but the hell with it; anybody who tries to slap a collar on her is gonna have words with the Punaji nation about it.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think we had better let Iris make decisions about her own life and back her up, rather than declaring our intentions unilaterally. Bad enough we’re having this discussion behind her back.”

“Gods, thank you, Toby,” Tellwyrn groaned. “The rest of you chucklefucks listen to him, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” said Juniper. “Our job’s just to be friends. Wherever Iris decides that takes us.”

“So…what happens now?” Gabriel asked. “About the Sleeper? That warlock you brought in seemed to think he might have gotten killed…”

“He wasn’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “I’ve already verified the presence of every student on campus. None of them appear to have had their asses kicked in the Golden Sea, either, and to find that out in detail I would pretty much have to throw out any pretense of anyone having any privacy or personal security on this campus. For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to do that.”

“When’d you manage this?” Ruda demanded. “Cos you just got back and I know that weird new fuzzy assistant of yours didn’t check up on everybody and report in. He doesn’t even speak the language!”

“Crystal checked in on me earlier,” Toby reported.

Scorn grunted and curled her lip, baring fangs. “That tame incubus of hers was snooping around, too.”

“He’s neither tame nor mine, and don’t you forget either of those things,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “To answer your question, Arquin… What happens now is that you lot go back to your dorms and sleep. Those of you going to the Wells anyway take the time to hug your roommate, and the rest of you leave it be until you see her again normally. Tomorrow… Well, there are going to be some changes around here. Tomorrow will be a big day. You’ll want to be rested up and ready.”


Dawn, as always, was more a shift change than an awakening in the sleepless capital of the Empire. Most people who kept typical business hours were barely awake, much less contemplating breakfast yet, and the city as a whole was still early in the process of rising toward its usual frenetic pace. This was certainly not an hour when those who had been up till nearly midnight would be expected to be already at work, and yet, here they were.

The hour was all part of the pantomime. The Imperial family received their guest in one of the harem wing’s smaller formal parlors, no bigger than the average drawing room in a modestly well-to-do home, but deliberately laid out like a throne room, with a narrow strip along the wall opposite the door raised a single step and two chairs set upon it, with their backs to the windows. Sharidan and Eleanora sat in these, Milanda and Vex respectively standing at their sides. There was no other furniture, nothing for the person called before them to do but stand amid the heavy reminder of their respective stations.

Bishop Darling seemed perfectly calm and at ease, as he usually did, and was doing as well as they at presenting himself as though fully rested and alert. Doubtless he, like the Imperials, had been at the coffee. The stuff was starting to show up on the menus of tea rooms in the city, and rumblings had begun that it should be classified as a drug and regulated as such. Sharidan was considering it, if only to keep the drink out of general circulation and maximize the advantage of those who had access to it. Not that that would have helped today; Antonio Darling would have no trouble getting his hands on whatever he felt himself entitled to.

So far, no one had remarked upon the presence of the two black-coated Hands of the Emperor standing just inside the doors to the room, as impassively watchful as always, nor the fact that Milanda Darnassy was dressed in one of their uniforms, tailored to her figure.

“You are too modest, your Grace,” the Emperor said smoothly in a continuation of a back-and-forth of pleasantries which had now gone on long enough that it was verging on tediousness. “The fact remains that you are owed a great debt by the Silver Throne—you personally, and the Thieves’ Guild as a whole. I flatter myself that I am known to honor my debts.”

“It’s nothing more than the duty of a citizen to aid the Throne, should the opportunity present itself,” Darling said blandly. There came a momentary pause, the briefest hesitation in this practiced social ritual in which the next step was silently contemplated, and finally the Bishop chose to give ground by acknowledging ignorance—a slight concession, and one he was in a position to afford, but a concession nonetheless. “Your Majesty, I have to confess that I don’t understand more than a fraction of what transpired last night.”

Eleanora drummed her fingers once on the arm of her chair, giving Sharidan an expressionless sidelong look—a reminder that Darling wasn’t the only one in the dark on some points. The Emperor allowed himself a slight smile.

“I’m afraid this isn’t like a story in which everything is neatly explained in the end, your Grace. There are details we ourselves have not entirely sorted out—and of course, there are details we are not able to share with you. The entire matter, obviously, is enormously sensitive. That said, I didn’t call you here at this ungodly hour just to express my thanks. After the help you and your enforcers rendered, I want to explain as much as I am able. Even aside from my appreciation of your rescue…we both know some explanations are owed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to make any such demands,” the Bishop said with a bland smile. “But I would of course be glad to understand as much as possible of what I stumbled into.”

“The last part was the biggest mystery,” said the Emperor. “I was not expecting those…cultists. In truth, we still don’t know who they were. Apprehending their leader did us little good, I’m afraid; he killed himself via lethal injection, using a hypodermic syringe.”

A frown creased Darling’s serene expression. “Well, that certainly is…suggestive.”

“Lord Vex?” Sharidan prompted, turning to look past Eleanora at the spymaster.

Vex was the only person present who actually looked sleepy, but then, it was unusual for him to appear alert. He blinked languidly before speaking.

“We are not seriously entertaining the idea that the attackers were Black Wreath. The tactics were all wrong, the Wreath has no motive to have done such a thing, and this is hardly the first time someone has tried to pin the blame on them by donning silly robes before engaging in shenanigans. The syringe and shadow-jumpers were nice touches, more effort than we’re used to seeing at selling this old charade, but the facts stand. We know what the Wreath want, and we know how they fight. They don’t use necromancy, they do use infernomancy, they don’t meddle in politics unless there are demons involved, and there quite simply aren’t that many of them. Or if there are, they at least do not throw bodies at their problems.”

“All of us here,” Darling said quietly, “know of the Wreath’s attempt to meddle in politics. At the highest possible level.”

An absolute freeze descended momentarily. This was as touchy a subject as could possibly be raised in this particular company. Eleanora’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

“That wasn’t the Wreath,” Vex said mildly after a moment, “but their goddess. They are no more in control of her than any cult, and not alone in occasionally finding themselves stumbling over her trail. Most gods are more of a hassle to tidy up after than yours, Antonio. My man in Last Rock reports the Wreath is actually cleaning up one of her messes out there, or rather trying to help Tellwyrn do so.”

“The spider and the scorpion, meeting in the dark,” the Empress said frostily. “Someone’s getting stung, and I don’t much care which.” Sharidan grinned at her in open amusement, which she ignored.

His expression sobered as he turned back to the Bishop, however. “More to the point, your Grace, I owe an apology to you and yours. The truth is, you aided the Empire in good faith, you and the Guild, and we were less than honest with you from the beginning about our intentions. It all turned out as well as I could have hoped, and I certainly would not have agreed to such manipulation had it not been absolutely necessary. Still, I did not like having to deceive you, and I regret doing so—and not only because of the aid you subsequently rendered. You have the apology of the Throne, which I hope you will convey to Boss Tricks as well. We are doubly in your debt.”

“For my part, your Majesty, it’s all water under the bridge,” Darling said smoothly, putting on a magnanimous smile. “As Lord Vex himself pointed out to me yesterday, we’re all old hands at politics, here. These things have to be done, from time to time; there’s no use in taking anything personally.” He deliberately sobered his expression before continuing. “I feel I can say with relative certainty that the Boss will bear no grudge, either. However, with the greatest possible respect, I must remind your Majesty that the Thieves’ Guild is not a thing to be antagonized, particularly from atop a throne. At the core of Eserion’s faith is the command to watch the halls of power, and thwart their overreaches. You risk worsening your problems exponentially by playing the Guild for fools, and I may not always be able to intercede.”

“Well, that’s a little backward, isn’t it?” Sharidan spoke pleasantly, but he suddenly leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees; the change in his demeanor was abrupt and striking. “We’re glad, even eager, to make whatever amends we can for any offense taken by your cult, or anyone in it. But you, specifically, were the one tricked, Bishop Darling—that is, Sweet. And you are the one taking this tone with me now. Are you certain you wanna do that?”

Eleanora, Vex, and Milanda all shifted infinitesimally to stare at him, eyes widening by fractions despite their practiced reserve. This was not what they had discussed before the meeting.

Darling, too, was thrown off enough to cause the briefest hitch in his smooth presentation. “Your Majesty—”

“Okay, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” the Emperor suggested. “We’ll be here all morning at this rate. I don’t know about you, but I have an impossible number of things to do today and it looks like I’m already going to miss breakfast. You and I both know the score well enough to speak plainly.”

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

“In addition to expressing my apology for this mess to your Boss,” the Emperor continued, “I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d carry it to Lakshmi and Sanjay. And not on behalf of the Throne. I hate having abused their hospitality; those two were never anything but kind to me. It rankles, having to leave things like this.”

“I’ll tell her,” Darling said slowly, watching the Emperor with open wariness, now. He wasn’t the only one in the room doing so. “I have to warn you, though, Peepers probably doesn’t want to hear anything from you. Do…you want to let her know who you actually were?”

Sharidan sighed softly, and leaned back in his chair. “…no. No, best not; I can’t see anything but more trouble coming of that. I’m just someone who did her wrong, and regrets it. That’s how things will have to stand.”

“All right, well—”

“But with that aside, we were talking about us.” He actually shifted to lounge against one side of his chair and crossed his legs in a deliberately casual posture totally unlike his normal carriage before guests. Eleanora had returned her gaze forward, but Milanda was watching him with wide eyes. “Here’s the simple truth, Sweet: you are a pain in the ass. You’re everywhere, involved in the government, in the Church, in whatever your Guild is up to on a given day, and yet, nobody knows what it is you actually want. All we know is that you’re one of the Empire’s foremost experts on playing both ends against the middle, and you should know that by this stage in your illustrious career, everybody is getting tired of it. Now, I will gladly—humbly, even—offer my apologies and make amends to the Guild, for the sake of the necessary politics. To Lakshmi as a friend, as well, if such overtures won’t be immediately spat on. But you, Antonio Darling? I won’t do anything as pointless as suggest you pick a role and stick to it, but if you’re seriously going to have the face to stand here and complain about someone playing you false in this game…” Sharidan grinned broadly, the expression showing a lot of teeth and not reaching his eyes. “Blow me.”

The silence was absolute.

Darling cleared his throat discreetly, once he had recovered. “With greatest appreciation for the kindness of your Majesty’s offer, I must respectfully decline.”

The Emperor’s grin softened, becoming marginally more sincere. “Vex thinks you’re a true Eserite at heart. I realize we didn’t exactly spend much time bonding over the last few days, but I’m inclined to lean toward that conclusion myself, after watching you in action. As such, I realize you’re not inclined to trust anyone who sits on a throne for a living—as you yourself pointed out. Just keep in mind that there are powers in this world, and then there are powers, and you’d be wise to consider which of them rule just to rule, and which are trying to help people. There’s a limit to how long you can keep playing this game of yours, Sweet.”

“There are limits to everything, your Majesty,” the Bishop said pleasantly, his poise back in place. “Men like you and I are forced to push them as far as we humanly can. And let’s be honest: we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sharidan heaved a sigh and straightened his posture. “There are a lot of things I wish could be other than they are… In any case. We thank you for accommodating us at this early hour, your Grace, especially after such an eventful night. Your assistance to the Throne is, as always, duly appreciated, and it is our hope that you will convey our sincere gratitude to the Thieves’ Guild as well.”

Long before the end of his speech, he had fully resumed the serenely regal bearing expected of an Emperor, and finished by inclining his head in a kingly gesture of dismissal.

Darling bowed deeply. “It is my honor to aid the Empire however I may, your Majesty. I’m certain the Guild will appreciate your overture. By your leave, then?”

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

Vex was drawing in breath for a heavy sigh before Darling was fully out of the room, and began speaking in a tone of strained patience the instant the doors had shut behind him. “Your Majesty—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

“If anything, I’ve recently found it,” Sharidan said lightly, again relaxing into his chair. “You know what your problem is, Quentin?”

“I very much fear I am about to,” Vex said flatly.

The Emperor grinned at him. “In fairness, it’s not really a problem. You are so fixated on facts, on knowing all the details and angles, you tend to undervalue the squishier variables. People’s personalities, their passions, their hearts.”

“I assuredly do not neglect to consider individual character in my calculations, your Majesty,” Vex said with open annoyance, “but I also understand their place in the greater equation.”

“People aren’t rational creatures,” Sharidan replied. “They can’t be rationally predicted in their actions. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuition. You have to extend a little faith, a little trust. It’s not a criticism; your way of looking at the world is what makes you so good at your job. It’s not the only way, however, nor even necessarily the best.”

“Exactly what faith and trust are you displaying by needlessly antagonizing that smirking Eserite weasel after all the effort we just put into mollifying him?” Eleanora demanded.

Sharidan winked at her, and for a moment she looked like she was about to hit him.

“After spending a few days among Eserites, I’ve gained some insight,” he said cheerfully. “I just did more to earn that guy’s respect than we’ve managed in the entire time we’ve been trying to court him. Trust me, Nora. I know what I’m doing.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vex, “with all due respect, I question that assertion. I have never agreed with any part of this plan of yours, and with it now completed I consider it lucky that you escaped serious harm. And we’ve gained nothing.”

“Not at all,” the Emperor said more seriously, reaching over to take one of Milanda’s hands. “We know who was behind the attack on our magical systems, even if we can’t prove it. We forced Justinian to react rapidly to protect his schemes, and in the process learned something we’ve previously only suspected by watching his general pattern: he is strongest when he’s allowed to set up the board before the game, and not so smooth when he’s forced to improvise.”

“You believe he sent those…whoever they were, last night?” Milanda asked quietly.

“Oh, please, who else? I realize your people are still analyzing the bodies we recovered, Lord Vex, but I think we all know there won’t be any useful evidence. Who but the Church has the resources to build an entire disposable cult to fling at us anonymously? What’s important is that we made him do it. We forced him to expend resources, cover his rear and make a show of sending those adventurers we know work for him to aid us in an effort to demonstrate that he’s not the enemy. There’s been a lot we know he’s done that we can’t prove, but he has finally overplayed that hand.”

“He did play it, though,” Vex said, frowning. “We have no solid indication of Justinian’s duplicity. He succeeded in covering his tracks, and turned the situation to his advantage.”

“No,” the Emperor disagreed, “all he managed to do was mitigate his losses, and I’ll bet he doesn’t fully appreciate the gains we’ve made. I established contact with his high-ranking killers; I want you to work on getting in touch with them, Vex. If they can be turned against him, it’ll be a decisive blow, and one we’re even more likely to be able to land now that they’ve seen him try to get them killed. They know who sent those cultists, I assure you. Just because nobody can prove it doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know.”

Vex opened his mouth to speak, but Sharidan pressed on.

“Which is my main point: I accomplished exactly what I set out to. We’ve got the Guild on our side now, when previously they were nominally aligned with the Church. Their inclination is to be hostile to any entrenched power, and overall have been as adept as Darling at dealing with both sides while avoiding a commitment. I assure you, Darling knows as well as we that Justinian is the only one who could have been summoning a necromantic mass-murder cult in the middle of a residential district last night, and Tricks sure as hell does. Putting the Throne in debt to the Guild is a bond between us, as strong as if we’d put them in our debt, and a lot more possible to achieve. As long as we don’t screw this up, when Justinian finally makes his move, he’ll have the Guild against him, not on his side or even neutral.” Smiling smugly, he lounged in his pseudo-throne. “It was dicey for a while, but this is a success, people. You all know we haven’t been winning this game recently. This time, we did.”

“Your Majesty,” Vex said firmly, “be all that as it may, and allowing for differences of opinion on your final analysis, I will have to insist that you never again take such a risk as you did this week, and especially last night.”

The two Hands by the door had been silent for the whole conversation thus far, but now shifted to stare at Vex. People did not use words like insist when addressing their Emperor. Sharidan made a quick placating gesture at them, even as he replied.

“In that, I have to agree. That gambit only worked because it was unthinkable; if me going out in disguise becomes a pattern, it’ll be all too easy for someone to use it against me. And for purposes of this discussion, twice constitutes a pattern. I don’t think that trick will be usable again for…oh, about thirty years or so. Regardless, for now!” He stood up, still holding Milanda’s hand, and bowed to her courteously. “I have a lot of appearances to make; after this week, people need to be reassured that their Emperor and his Hands are in place and functioning as usual. But first, I think you had something to show me down below?”

“Indeed,” she replied with a smile, “it’s been a little tense, but to my own surprise, I actually got everything settled. It’s going to take some…explaining, however.”

“Splendid! Eleanora, I’ll meet you after breakfast and we shall proceed with our first meeting of the day. For now, after being out of the action all week, I’m anxious to see how this has finally turned out.”

 

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“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

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12 – 49

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“Morning, Chase!”

“It’s barely still morning,” he said automatically, looking up from his open textbook, the top edges of a comic peeking above its pages. “Oh, hey, creepy government guy and his eerily hot friend!”

“Hey yourself,” Ashley said with a smile as the pair came to a stop alongside him, perched on one of the campus’s low retaining walls.

“I can’t decide exactly what it is that makes you hot,” Chase said, studying her with an expression of deep contemplation. “I mean, sure, you’re pretty, but that suit hides the best parts. Maybe it’s the suit itself! Drag is so delightfully transgressive. But no, I never got that vibe from Teal…”

“It’s a dryad thing,” Fedora said, his lips twitching in a smirk. “They’re all pretty much irresistible, even the ones who aren’t your type.”

“I don’t have a type, that’s so limiting,” Chase said automatically. “But I’m prepared to believe your theory! Juniper’s just about the scorchingest thing I ever saw, not to mention a hellcat in the sack.”

“Also a dryad thing,” Ashley said, her smile widening.

“Weellll, then, I’ll just have to try out a few more to test that assertion, won’t I?” he rejoined, waggling his eyebrows. “Whaddaya say, sweetheart? Lose the spook and let’s find a nice comfy bush? Or hell, bring him along.”

She laughed. “I suggest you stick to Juniper. Any of the rest of her sisters would just kill you after. Or possibly during.”

“Present company excepted, of course…?”

Her smile widened enough to show teeth.

“Damn if that isn’t the hottest thing yet,” Chase said to Fedora.

“I don’t disagree.”

“What’s with you, by the way? You look a little…peaked.”

Ashley huffed softly in amusement and released the Inspector’s arm, taking a step away from him. Immediately the color flowed back into his pale complexion; even the shadows under his eyes and his perpetual five o’clock shadow deepened. He gave her a sardonic look.

“What is she, poisonous?” Chase asked, watching this curiously.

“So, Masterson,” Fedora said, jamming his hands in his pockets. “Had a chance to consider the deal I offered you?”

Chase blinked. “Uh… Excuse me? The whozamawhuh?”

Fedora smiled, the expression far from friendly. “Because I suspect we’re rapidly approaching a point where the option’s not going to be on the table. These Sleeper antics have managed to impact the Imperial government on multiple levels—the governance of Tiraan Province and its good relationship with Tar’naris. Not to mention the Narisians themselves, what remains of House Madouri… It is probably, barely, still possible for a settlement, but there are powerful people out for blood, now. One more straw is gonna break the donkey’s back.”

Chase slowly tilted his head to one side, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “Um… Yeah. The Sleeper is pissing people off. But seriously, man, I haven’t been drunk enough since all this shit started to have forgotten you making me some kind of offer, not to mention I don’t get what… Waaaait a second!” Suddenly a grin blossomed across his face. “Hang on, do you think I’m the Sleeper? Because that’s… Aw, man, that’s just too rich. Did nobody tell you I was the first one to get sleeped? I mean, come on, to have arranged all that and still be in control of everything, not to mention cursing Natchua while I was unconscious, that’d make me just about the craftiest son of a bitch on the—actually, wait up, that sounds pretty good. Is it too late to claim I am the Sleeper? Especially if it comes with a government deal? Aw, shit, I already said too much for that, didn’t I.”

He tried to pout sullenly, an effort that went mostly wasted due to the grin that kept breaking through.

Fedora just shrugged. “Welp, just thought I’d bring it up. You take care, kid.”

Chase leaned forward so far he seemed in danger of tipping off the wall, now leering avidly. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I just hear that you’ve been offering deals with a crazy magic terrorist asshole? Oh me oh my, I’m not at all sure that’s something a fine, upstanding servant of his Majesty’s government such as yourself ought to be doing! Why, just imagine if Professor Tellwyrn heard about this!”

“Heard about what?” Ashley asked innocently. “From whom?”

“There’s a certain strength in being as much of a career asshole as you’ve made a point of being, kid,” Fedora said with a smirk. “People can afford to let things slip to you. Probably shouldn’t, true, just because the gods only know what a little prick like yourself would do with sensitive information. But you can tell whatever you know to whoever you wish. It’s not like anybody’s gonna listen.”

“Pfft, I’ll have you know—”

“MISTER MASTERSON!”

Professor Tellwyrn was suddenly there—and not teleporting out of thin air as she normally did, but stepping out from behind a nearby sapling far too small to have concealed even her slender frame. “I distinctly recall not seeing you in class this morning. Care to explain yourself?”

“It’s…it’s all the stress, teach,” Chase said tearfully, his expression transitioning to wide eyes and trembling lips without an instant’s hesitation. “I’ve lost friends, lost sleep…why, we could all be struck down at any moment! It’s just too much to—”

She blinked forward, transitioning across the space between them without actually passing through it and ending up barely a foot from Chase, who again nearly tumbled off the wall in startlement, this time backwards.

“No one is impressed, Masterson,” she said flatly, “and no one is fooled. No one is ever impressed or fooled, so stop wasting my time with these antics. Tanq has your assignments; if you break your pattern and ask quite politely he will perhaps allow you to peruse his notes. And henceforth, unless you are the one cursed, you will be in class at the appointed time. That is all.”

“Well…yes, ma’am,” he said, blinking. For once, he seemed almost at a loss for words.

“Well?” she said impatiently. “Notes! Tanq! Move!”

Chase slapped his book shut, comic and all, and hopped down. He gave her a mocking salute, but didn’t pause to so much as leer at Ashley before turning and scurrying off down the path.

“And as for you,” the Professor continued, turning on Fedora, “I believe I was explicitly plain on the subject of you badgering my students.”

“Have you seen those coon skin hats the settlers sometimes wear?” he said mildly. “Y’know, kind of a gray furry cap with the fluffy tail hanging down the back. I just ask because you’re gonna end up as one if she didn’t give you permission to wear her face like this.”

“Inspector, do you find that anyone ever knows what the hell you’re babbling about?” she said impatiently. “This is an altogether disappointing performance—if you’re serious about catching this Sleeper, I sincerely hope you have more tricks up your sleeve than just making random accusations. That’s all I’ve seen from you today, at least.”

“Uh huh,” he said dryly.

“Progress,” she said, leveling an accusing finger at him. “Make some. Quickly. Without haranguing students when you’ve no evidence. Chop chop, Fedora, time’s a-wasting.”

Tellwyrn snapped her fingers once and vanished completely with a soft whoosh of air, leaving them standing alone in the sunshine.

“Um…” Ashley turned to look expressively at Fedora. “What the fuck?”

“That’s interesting,” he mused.

“You don’t think she’s actually lost control of that…critter? I’m not even sure what kind of fairy he is.”

“Something from Sifan, they’ve got some weird shit in kitsune-land. Anyhow, if so, it’s his ass, as I mentioned. But no…” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Doesn’t fit. I think she’s just trying to be clever, now. Finally. What remains to be seen is whether she’s any good at it. I really hope she’s got more to her plan than that, or it’s gonna result in the opposite of progress.”

“Hmph.” She stepped closer and threaded her arm through his again. At her touch, his magic immediately weakened, making his illusory countenance falter. Not too badly, but enough to strongly hint at his naturally bone-white complexion. Fedora bore this without complaint or comment, allowing the dryad to tug him off down the path at a slow stroll. “Well, that doesn’t seem to have yielded anything. And after all the trouble we went to to make sure there were no elves within earshot, too. You really think that Masterson kid’s the Sleeper?”

“Nope,” he said immediately, patting her hand. At the touch, his fingers shifted for a moment, becoming long and almost delicate, before resuming the rougher, tobacco-stained and bitten nails of the Inspector when he moved his hand back away. “No, I said that to Tellwyrn in the first place, and I stand by it. The Sleeper’s a mastermind type, loves to manipulate people and create intrigues. That habit of lashing out once confronted suits Masterson, but he’s not the sort to have created all these smokescreens in the first place.”

“Okay, you lost me, then,” she said, shooting him an annoyed sidelong look. “Why did you feel the need to come poke at him, then?”

“It occurs to me,” he mused, “that we’ve been operating on an assumption that may not be warranted. After all, we know where the Sleeper’s powers come from.”

“A gift of Elilial, intended to cause trouble, yes,” she said, nodding.

“And we know the kinds of students who would be doing something as fucknut stupid as trying to summon greater djinn—of which Chase Masterson is a perfect example. We also know there was more than one kid present for that. Some of the inconsistencies in the Sleeper’s behavior begin to make sense when we ask one question: why assume the Sleeper is only one person?”

“…hm.”

“Or has only one agenda. I could well see one of them doing this bullshit and another trying to stop it without revealing them both to Tellwyrn… So no, I don’t think Masterson’s our boy,” he said, staring ahead into the distance with a predatory glint in his eye. “But I’ve got a funny feeling that if I poke at him, it’ll eventually be felt in the right places.”


“She’s crazy,” Hawthorn hissed furiously. “I’m telling you, she’s stark raving nuts in the head! We gotta get her out of here!”

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa said disinterestedly, studying her with her head tilted so far her ear nearly rested on her shoulder. “But…what are you wearing?”

Hawthorn was wearing a kimono, and was not the least bit happy about it. Its application had involved a large mirror and a display of inscrutable sleight of hand by Akane, the sight of which had probably been even more confusing to Milanda, who’d had a full view of the whole thing, than the dryad who had found herself stuffed into it. Even replaying the event in her head, she wasn’t sure how it had happened.

What was a little more believable (not to mention memorable) was the tongue-lashing which had ensued when Hawthorn had tried to tug the garment off. Even now, when she unconsciously fidgeted with the sash holding it together, her hands froze in the next moment and she shot an apprehensive look at Akane, who was standing near the teleport gate, speaking in a low tone with the Avatar.

“This is only the beginning,” Hawthorn warned ominously. “You just watch, if she moves in here you’re both gonna end up stuffed into these…these damn…things!”

“I dunno, that actually looks sorta nice,” Apple mused, reaching out to finger Hawthorn’s sleeve. Indeed, the kimono was of black silk embroidered with white leaves and thorns, which offset her coloration beautifully. “It’s pretty. Maybe I could try yours on? Since you don’t like it.”

“I wouldn’t mind it if I’d been allowed to try,” Hawthorn said furiously, her voice rising. “She just put me in it! That’s what she does, swaggers around jamming things at people! She’s awful!”

“Girls!” Akane barked, turning to stare disapprovingly at them. “We are having a conversation. Remain quiet, please!”

Hawthorn whirled at her and opened her mouth furiously to reply. The kitsune’s green eyes seized and held hers. A moment later, the dryad shut her mouth and hunched her shoulders.

“And stand up straight,” Akane added firmly. “Are you a tree or a bramble bush?”

She turned back to the Avatar’s panel without waiting for a reply.

“I hate her so much,” Hawthorn whispered.

They stood a good few yards distant, far enough that the kitsune was hidden from the knees down, thanks to the curvature of the tiny planet; they were due north, so she remained in view even as she walked slowly to keep pace with it as the world orbited, though the occasional tree passed between them and her. Milanda, at least, couldn’t hear the details of her discussion with the Avatar, even with her newly enhanced senses. She didn’t know the acuity of the dryads’ hearing, but suspected Akane did… Then again, Akane’s request for privacy had probably had more to do with her than them. She had little to fear from her younger sisters, who clearly understood none of what was going on. Milanda, though…

“Remember how you felt about Walker, at first?” she asked. Hawthorn scowled at her.

“…that’s different. That’s just…how she is. It’s not her fault her whole existence is a great screaming wrongness, that’s all crap that was done to her. Walker is super nice, and I can learn to ignore the scary awful part to spend time with her because she’s worth it. This one is the complete opposite.”

“I really gotta meet this Walker,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Yeah, you should,” Hawthorn replied, turning to her. “Walker’s awesome. I really wasn’t expecting to learn we had other sisters, but so far it hasn’t been all bad.” Again, she glared accusingly at Akane in the distance.

“I think you have your priorities right, there,” Milanda said with what she hoped was an encouraging smile. The nap she’d managed was not enough for this kind of cat-herding… “Judge people by the way they act, not your instinctive reactions to them. I just mean there might be something more to Akane than you’ve seen so far.”

“Do you like her?” Hawthorn said pointedly.

“No,” Milanda replied, not caring in the least if Akane could hear her, “I really don’t. But she’s not my sister. And whether I like someone has no bearing on whether I can work with them and speak to them respectfully.” Most days, she wanted to slap Empress Eleanora on general principles, but there was almost as little point in discussing that as in doing it. “Akane, if she decides to, may be able to help fix the Hands.”

“Hm,” Apple grunted, folding her arms and studying Milanda thoughtfully. “So…I guess that tells us what you’re concerned with.”

“Hey, yeah,” Mimosa added. “If she sticks around, you get what you want! Is that why you’re trying to foist her off on us?”

“Foist, that’s a good word,” Hawthorn said emphatically, nodding.

Milanda cracked a rueful smile in spite of herself. “You girls are pretty smart, you know that?”

“Yes,” Hawthorn said, while Apple and Mimosa blushed and tittered, respectively.

“I’m serious, though,” Milanda continued. “In my honest opinion, if Akane stays around… Well, she’s going to irritate the hell out of you. Frankly think you’ll find her very difficult to get along with. But, as hard as it might be to believe, I think that in the end you’ll benefit from it.”

“You’re crazy,” Hawthorn said bluntly.

Milanda drew in a breath and let it out, resisting the urge to rub at her eyes. “You girls haven’t had any kind of upbringing, you know that?”

“We don’t need one,” Mimosa said petulantly. “We’re dryads.”

“And yet,” Milanda persisted, “Akane walked in here, immediately started pushing you around, and so far, you’ve let her.”

That brought all three of them up short. They glanced uncertainly at one another, then at the kitsune, who was still apparently ignoring them.

“Dryads get left alone because you’re powerful, and because Naiya looks out for you,” Milanda went on. “But that leaves you vulnerable to other things. You can be manipulated, pushed into things you don’t necessarily like. There’s an art to dealing with other people, you see. Your…eldest sisters have learned it. Mastered it, even. Frankly, I think that for you to learn it will end up benefiting you more than enough to be worth the frustration Akane would almost certainly cause you in the process.”

“I am not convinced,” Hawthorn stated.

“Well, let me tell you about my situation, then, since you brought it up,” said Milanda. “First of all, if I were being selfish here, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to learn how to be more crafty. This whole system works the way it does because an Imperial politician keeps control of it. My personal loyalty is to that politician. And why are the humans in control? It’s not as if they’re stronger than you.”

This sparked another round of dubious glances, but she pressed on.

“And as for Akane, as I’ve already said to her, involving her in this will only decrease the Empire’s control more. She’s at least as powerful as you three, and a lot more cunning.” Milanda glanced again at the kitsune, who continued not to acknowledge them. “What it comes down to is… By encouraging this, I’m sacrificing a lot of the Throne’s authority over this whole…thing. I’m willing to do it because I believe it’s right, because I believe that all of our self-interests coincide here. I think Empress Theasia was wrong to manipulate and bully everyone the way she did. I think that having us all on the same page and with nobody left in the dark will make all this better. I have that much confidence in Sharidan, and in the Empire. And…if, someday, the Empire turns into something that isn’t as just or fair, I’m not unhappy at the thought of there being neutral parties down here—like you, and Akane, and Walker—who can lean on it if necessary.”

“Hum,” Apple said. The other two just frowned.

Milanda had the thought, not for the first time, that it was difficult to tell decades or centuries of uneducated, undeveloped thought from simple stupidity. Her conversations with the dryads were generally somewhat frustrating, just because they talked and related like spoiled children. However, once in a while a beam of intelligence would shine through, as it did now. They were all thinking, which spoke well of their mental faculties; the churlish brats they sometimes acted like could probably not have followed her argument. If Akane forcibly adopted them all the way she seemed to be trying to do with Hawthorn, they might eventually become something truly formidable. Provided they didn’t kill her or something first.

Which made her hope all the more fervently that she was right. The more she contemplated this, the more it began to appear that by fixing the Hands in this manner, she was wresting ultimate control away from the Throne itself. That made the prospect of simply destroying them and their whole system one she had to consider… But she hadn’t lied to the dryads. Her feeling was that this was still the right thing to do—for the Empire, for the world, and for Sharidan.

If only she could be more confident that her own reasoning was working as it should. She was just so damned tired…

“Hey, are you okay?” Mimosa asked suddenly. “You’re, uh…kinda swaying there.”

“She hasn’t slept much,” said Hawthorn, and Milanda couldn’t help finding her guilty expression somewhat endearing. “Part of that’s my fault, I wrecked her nap. You wanna lie down for a bit, Milanda? We’ll letcha know if she comes back over here, kay?”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said, and immediately had to smother a yawn. “Well… I think I’ll sit down, if that’s okay. But I’d rather keep alert.”

“If you want,” Apple assured her while she folded herself carefully to the ground. “No sense in forcing yourself, though. Really, relax. This is our place; let us show a little hospitality.”

“Well, I guess…if you don’t…” Somehow, she’d ended up lying on her back. When had that happened? The grass was so much softer than she remembered grass being…


It was only happenstance that she saw her coming. Maureen had been pacing back and forth in front of the telescroll office, clutching her Pack, long enough that the townsfolk about in the square had stopped giving her curious looks, and even so she had yet to decide whether she was going to go in or go back up the mountain. Iris, though, was such a distinctive sight, a tall and slim figure in her characteristic white dress which made her dark skin stand out, that Maureen couldn’t help but notice her approach the square.

She cringed and scuttled around behind the telescroll office, cradling her Pack against her chest for comfort. Had Iris seen her? She didn’t seem to have been looking in her direction…

After a moment, she took the extra precaution of scurrying forward and dropping off the platform next to the Rail line. There she was hidden…sort of. The platform was taller than she. Still, she couldn’t help feeling exposed even here…

Maureen took off again, ducking under the Rail between the spokes holding it up—which would have been a very tight squeeze for a human, but she didn’t even have to drop to her knees—and darted across to the base of the little footbridge which arced over the Rail itself, terminating in the small structure which housed a few benches where the stagecoaches stopped to discharge and take on passengers unwilling or unable to use the Rail line. There was no coach now, of course; just the dusty old road stretching away to either side, and ahead nothing but endless golden prairie until it reached the Wyrnrange, far over the horizon to the west.

She stopped inside the little shelter, catching her breath and coping with the shame of it all. Honestly…bad enough to be down here. Bad enough to be dithering this way… Now running from her own friend? And just because she couldn’t—no, just didn’t want to—face what she was doing. Her mother would’ve taken the rolling pin to her for such craven behavior.

Maureen sighed, and clambered up onto one of the benches, setting her Pack beside her. Well, at least there was seating, here. It was a better place to think—to dither, honestly—than out in the square in front of the scrolltower.

Now if only there were something conveniently provided in this little shelter to help her reach a decision…

So quickly and completely had she sunk back into her funk that the sound of footsteps on the bridge didn’t even register with her.

“Are you okay?”

Maureen started violently, then flushed, finding herself facing exactly the person she’d been running from. Iris leaned around the edge of the shelter, frowning at her in concern.

“Um, if you wanna be alone, I won’t bother you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, it’s just that you look… Well, if you need any help, you know I’m here, right?”

Maureen opened her mouth to try to dissuade her with some platitude, and accidentally blurted out truth.

“I’m leaving the school.”

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12 – 48

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Milanda didn’t fly reflexively into action, either to attack or flee, which she took as a good sign. So far, her augmented reflexes had proved they could both kill whatever threat could be killed and run from one that couldn’t, all without her conscious input. The fact that the kitsune’s statement didn’t provoke a response from her suggested she wasn’t entirely serious.

“I’ve missed your penchant for the dramatic,” Walker said with a smile, further bearing out this assumption. “Would you release her, please? Dryads are not accustomed to being manhandled.”

Akane shifted to give Hawthorn a contemptuous look; the dryad was snarling and whining, while trying to yank the hand free from her ear, without success.

“Perhaps the experience would be beneficial to her in the long run,” Akane suggested, but after a deliberate moment, probably just to prove her point, she let go. Hawthorn immediately skittered backward, clutching her ear and glaring accusingly.

“You are a big jerk!”

Akane turned a cold shoulder to her, focusing her attention back on Walker. “I hope you can explain the condition of this place, Yrsa. It appears to have been upended by some kind of cyclonic toddler, whether before or after these Tiraan managed to disable the Avatar, I cannot begin to guess. Everything I have seen so far suggests to me that these people absolutely do not need to be left in custody of this facility!”

“Come on, Akane, you know better than that,” Walker replied. “No current humans would be able to shut down an active Avatar.”

“I should think you, of all people, would be familiar enough with the adventuring breed not to make assumptions regarding what humans can or cannot do,” Akane said haughtily, folding her arms. “I have learned the hard way that humans require careful shepherding—for their own good, not to mention everyone else’s.”

“Be that as it may,” Walker said, still in a deliberately calm tone, “the Avatar is fine. He’s been pulled from the main network here and installed in the gravitational isolation chamber. He did this, himself, willingly, and you can go talk to him if you wish. I’m sure he’d be glad to see you.”

“How about you stay away from there!” Hawthorn said shrilly. Everyone ignored her.

“Assuming you are correct,” Akane sniffed, “that doesn’t explain everything going on here. Why are the Tiraan keeping three dryads prisoner, to say nothing of you?”

“Nobody here’s a prisoner!” Hawthorn snapped. “Everybody but you is invited!”

Walker sighed softly. “I…sort of am a prisoner, Hawthorn. But!” She held up a hand to forestall Akane, the tip of whose tail had begun twitching in suppressed agitation. “As much as I don’t enjoy being kept underground, I’m also not inclined to fight it—not because the Imperials intimidate me, but because this is for the best.” She turned her full focus on the kitsune, her expression intent, almost pleading. “I don’t know if you’re aware of what I’ve been…like, since I was brought back to this plane.”

“I have heard…whispers,” Akane acknowledged quietly. “Troubling ones.”

Walker nodded. “As long as I’m down here, nobody dies from being near me. I consider it…a fair deal. I hate being a…walking hazard, Akane. Being a houseplant isn’t ideal, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

The kitsune shot Milanda a look. “I see. And…this? Standing here, clearly brimming with stolen power?”

“Given,” Hawthorn interjected before Milanda could speak, “not stolen. Milanda is very nice to us, unlike some uninvited visitors to this place!”

“I hardly even know where to begin with what the Empire is doing with all these children of Naiya,” Akane snapped. “Just the mere fact that they are in possession of this facility and have had the temerity to alter it is disturbing enough. I take some slender comfort in the evidence that they haven’t penetrated far.”

“Not even as far as we have,” Walker interjected. “The Imperials can only get into the access hall, out there, and the GIC.”

“Regardless,” Akane barreled on, “there are dangers in here which the Tiraan Empire unequivocally does not needs to get its hands upon! Yrsa, do you realize there’s an entire cache of anthropomorphs in suspended animation in this port?” She curled her lip disdainfully. “All females, in stasis chambers bearing Druroth’s personal seal, and you know very well what that means. Disgusting. It would be kinder to terminate their life support before the Tiraan find them. Those creatures have suffered enough without being unleashed in a barbaric cluster of mud huts like what’s—”

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

Total silence fell, even over Hawthorn. Akane turned a piercing stare directly on Milanda. Her eyes flicked over her once, and her right ear twitched.

“And,” she finally said, the full weight of her disdain filling her voice, “you are…?”

Despite the fatigue still pressing down on her, and the tension of the moment, Milanda had a sudden realization. Her outburst had been born of her own weariness and frustration, yes—some deferred horror from the death she herself had recently caused. But in its aftermath, the pressure of having to adapt and talk her way around this frighteningly powerful being, something snapped into place in her mind.

“Someone,” she said quietly, “who needs your help.”

Akane favored her with a scornful little smile. “Child, I give you credit for brazenness—whatever little credit that deserves. Why in the world do you imagine I would want to help you? I thought I made it plain I am a hair’s breadth from wiping your civilization clean like the stain I consider it to be.”

Walker had just mentioned that Akane had a fondness of drama, but it didn’t seem wise to make a point of that. “I really don’t think you mean that, Akane-sama.” The kitsune lifted her eyebrows fractionally at the formal address, but an instant later the corners of her mouth also tilted up almost imperceptibly. Encouraged, Milanda pressed on. “I understand all this must be shocking and an unpleasant reminder, but I can’t see you as unreasonable enough to take it out on so many uninvolved people. An entire culture.” It verged on fawning, but considering what this creature was capable of, that didn’t seem inappropriate. Hopefully, Milanda was reading Walker’s cues correctly, and her assessment of Akane’s temperament wasn’t too far off…

“An entire culture,” the kitsune said disdainfully. “You are down here, and acquainted with Yrsa; do I infer that you know something of the true history of this world? Something more than people at large have remembered?”

“We’ve had some very good conversations about history, yes,” Milanda said neutrally. “Obviously, I can’t say how much I may not yet understand…”

“Not much, I bet,” Hawthorn muttered. “We should think about calling her Talker instead of Walker.”

“One of my sisters and I are conducting a continuous go tournament,” Akane said, “which has run longer than your entire civilization. I am presently up ninety-three thousand four hundred thirty two games to ninety-three thousand four hundred twenty nine. Child, you are addressing the heir and custodian of the longest uninterrupted cultural lineage in existence. The kitsune have watched over and shaped the continuous prosperity of a society which stretches back long before the settling of this world—a society which was one of the noblest and most graceful cultures to exist on humanity’s birthplace. And you talk to me about culture? You’re a collection of primitives, jabbering in a borrowed language and pantomiming a hodgepodge of long-dead traditions, shaped by forces whose very existence you don’t even imagine. If Tiraas were wiped out this instant, the world would recover and be none the worse for the event in what history would come to record as an eyeblink.”

“Uninterrupted is really stretching it,” Walker said suddenly.

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

“Mother turned her back on her own society,” Walker said, “just as all her Order did. She later repented and revived its memories, but that’s definitely an interruption.”

“Pedantry does not suit you, Yrsa,” Akane said irritably. “My point stands.”

“More importantly,” Walker insisted, “there is no possible way an entire culture could survive completely intact after passing through the bottleneck of one woman’s recollections, goddess or no. I know you and the others did your own research in the Order’s files to piece together other fragments, but still—”

“Just who is this girl, Yrsa,” Akane interrupted with a faint smile, “that you’re so concerned for her welfare as to deliberately irritate me in order to draw my focus from her?”

Walker hesitated, glanced at Milanda, then turned her stare back on Akane.

“I have sisters,” she said quietly. “Many lost to me now…some few I can again speak to. And I owe that to Milanda’s intervention. But in all the universe, I have exactly one friend.” She shot Milanda another look, this one with a trace of asperity. “And it’s all I can do to keep her from getting herself killed, without you helping.”

The kitsune actually grinned at her, then turned her head to examine Milanda with more interest, now, and some amusement. “Very well, I’ll consider myself caught. You are correct, young lady—I am not shy about my occasional capriciousness, but genocide is something I would much rather threaten than carry out. Still, my original question remains.” She tilted her head back, her expression aloof now; her ears, though, were alert and swiveled forward, which Milanda interpreted as a positive sign. “Why should I help you? And to do what?”

This called for words to be chosen with great care. If only she were a little better rested for this confrontation…

“If you’ve been investigating the computers here,” she said, “I suspect you have some idea, at least, what this facility does now.”

“Yes, your little…project,” Akane sniffed, pursing her lips in disapproval. “I applaud the ingenuity, at least, but I take a very dim view of your Empire using the Order’s technology for its own benefit.”

“They didn’t just do that, however,” Milanda said firmly. “The Tiraan who first found this place couldn’t have forced the Avatar to move—he chose to cooperate, and to set up this system for them. And now it needs help to be repaired.”

“A curious fact, if true,” the kitsune said with a shade too much disinterest to be believable, “but I am still waiting to learn what this has to do with me.”

“The Avatar isn’t loyal to the Empire,” Milanda said, watching her reactions closely. “He’s following the last directive left to him by Tarthriss: to be of service to the survivors of the human race.” This was what she had just finally figured out, the thing that explained the Avatar’s recent machinations, as well as his entire presence here and willingness to work for the Silver Throne. It was amazing, in hindsight, that she hadn’t put it all together before. “He is doing this because he considers the Tiraan Empire to be good for humanity. At least,” she added pointedly, “in its present form. And that’s the really important thing, here. A government is not its governor; even a benign leader will be succeeded, and eventually a less competent and/or more malevolent one will rise. Having a system like the Hands of the Emperor does a great deal to secure the safety of the Silver Throne while the system works—and while its operator judges that the Throne deserves it. But if he decides it doesn’t, then he has…leverage.”

“What you are suggesting,” Akane mused, still studying her quizzically, “is that I, of all people, should be placed in a position to have that…leverage. I take it you, yourself, are skeptical of this Empire’s beneficence?”

“My loyalty is to the Emperor,” Milanda said quietly. “He tasked me with restoring the Hands to their proper state. But in the end… His loyalty is to the Empire, and to its people. He may not have realized that the Hands were placed in part as a measure to keep the Empire on the right track, but I know him, and I believe he would approve. One lever does not control the Throne, after all. This whole situation has proved the Emperor and the Empire can survive with minimal disruption without them. Even if you don’t trust or care for the Empire, having the ability to neutralize the Hands does not make you a crippling threat to it. But it does make you—and Walker, and the Avatar, and whoever else is involved—a party who can insist on being listened to.”

There was a beat of silence, in which they all regarded each other—most thoughtfully, Hawthorn with a blend of confusion and mounting alarm.

“This is a compromise,” Milanda finally added. “It’s not the ideal outcome I would have wanted. It is, of course, an imposition to ask it of you, Akane-sama. Keeping Walker here is certainly an imperfect balance of her own interests, and even the dryads infer both costs and benefits from their involvement. But I believe this is the best thing for everyone. For us, for the Empire, for the world.”

“I believe you are getting ahead of yourself,” Akane said loftily. “You are correct that I have little care for the Empire. I’m puzzled by your conclusion that I should care for the world itself. I have my sisters and our nation to consider. Nothing more.”

“However,” Milanda countered with a smile, “I am also talking to a being who can erase me with a flick of her tail—but I note that’s not the point you emphasized when challenged. You talked of culture, tradition. Yes, I am gambling, and perhaps I’m wrong… But something tells me you do care about the world. Maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to express.”

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

“The Infinite Order are gone,” Milanda said, meeting her gaze. “Whatever promises you made to Naiya to stay on your island… We both know she has not been herself for far longer than Tiraas has existed. She sent you there for your own protection, from threats that no longer exist. It’s not just that, though. The fact is, Akane-sama, you might not find it within your power to wipe out the Imperial capital now. Oh, you’re a threat which could cause unprecedented damage, but… In the century since the Enchanter Wars, the Empire has become something that can neither be ignored, nor unilaterally destroyed, by any other power remaining in the world. Even the dragons have found themselves compelled to come to terms with this. I’m not asking for a pure favor; this is a chance for you to take a hand in the shaping of the world.”

Akane continued to stare for a long moment. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled. “You sound very much like Kaisa.”

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “Is that…a compliment?”

“Yes and no,” the kitsune said offhandedly. “She is someone whom I dearly love, who frustrates me to no end with her wild notions. You may consider me, for now…tentatively interested. Let us go see what Avatar 01 has to say. This should be quite revelatory; it’s been a very long time since I spoke with him last.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Hawthorn shouted. “This crazy jackass with the tail is not coming to our home! I live there, dang it—my sisters are there! What the crap do you people think you’re—”

She fell very abruptly silent as Akane surged forward, drawing herself up to her full height. Their proximity emphasized that the kitsune actually wasn’t terribly tall, which seemed incongruous, given the way her personality filled the whole room. Physically, though, she needed the extra few inches added by her ears to stand over Hawthorn. Even so, the dryad backed away, staring at her in alarm.

“And just what do you mean,” Akane said in a dangerously quiet tone, “by expressing yourself like a common tavern wench, to say nothing of cavorting about in the nude? The sheer disgrace. You are a child of Naiya, heir to a legacy whose importance you can’t even begin to grasp. Very well, I see we have a great deal of work to do—here, to say nothing of these humans and their little pet project. Henceforth, I shall expect better of you.”

“I—what the—hey!” Hawthorn finally drew herself up to her own full eight, crossing her arms and trying for a haughty expression, which only managed to appear childishly sullen next to Akane’s far more expert poise. “I am a dryad. I do what I do, and I don’t need to explain myself to anybody! Just who do you think you are?”

This time, Akane moved so fast she didn’t appear to move at all. Suddenly, she was just there, her nose inches from Hawthorn’s, without seeming to have crossed the intervening space. The dryad froze, eyes widening; the kitsune smiled, and something in the expression was far more alarming than her previous anger.

“You,” she said in a tone of silken steel, “may call me onee-san.”

Hawthorn stared at her. Then, very slowly, she leaned to the side to peer around Akane at the others. “Walkeeerrrrrrr?”

“It’s out of my hands now, kid,” Walker said with clear amusement. “’Fraid you’re on your own.”

“Enough of this,” Akane said decisively. “We will go discuss these matters with the Avatar—and then, depending in part on what I find there, we shall proceed…” She swept a piercing stare across the room, Milanda, and finally Hawthorn. “…with whatever needs doing.”


In a perfectly nondescript apartment in a lower-class but not too rough neighborhood of Tiraas, an unremarkable-looking man in an uninteresting, inexpensive suit sat beside an open window, a newspaper held in front of his face. Its angle did not obscure his view out the window, or through the windows of the apartment across the street and one story down.

At the sound of footsteps in the hall, he coughed discreetly, lifting one hand to his mouth and making a fist to cover it. The steps, muffled slightly by the carpet, shuffled slightly as their occupant carefully stepped over the stack of newspapers in the hall which had toppled over and partially blocked the way—providing the pretext for her to step in the prearranged pattern. It was the right sequence of steps and pauses, but even so, the man by the window did not lower his hand until she had entered the room and he recognized her face. Only then did he let his arm come to rest on the end table next to his reading chair, removing his fingers from the handle of the wand concealed up his sleeve.

“Evening, Rex,” the woman said cheerfully to the man, whose name of course was not Rex. “How’s the birdwatching?”

“Blessedly dull,” he replied with a bland smile. “The eagle hasn’t left the nest—gods send this is all that’ll happen until this whole business is resolved.”

“Nothing definitive from back at the office on that,” she replied, settling herself into the other chair facing his and positioned next to the room’s other window, “but indications are things are settling down. Whoever’s working on the problem seems to be getting results. The Hands are stabilizing, causing fewer ruffled feathers. Still suddenly popping up where they can’t be, though.”

“Mm. If they can just work out how to keep that new teleporting without having it coupled with them being unstable, that’ll be the bee’s knees,” Rex grunted, tossing his paper down next to the chair and getting to his feet. “Thanks for being early, by the way.”

“No worries—I know you pulled a double. No sense in any of us getting too run-down,” she said, smiling, but not looking at him. Her attention was also not on the book she had picked up and opened, but at the apartment across the way, watched through her peripheral vision. “Grab a few winks, I’ll hold this down.”

“Cheers.”

He strode from the room, betraying none of the stiffness that should be expected of a man who had not moved in four hours. The woman hummed softly to herself, and turned a page. She hadn’t read a single line, of course.

Outside the open window and a few feet straight up, two figures dressed in black were perched on the eaves. Flora and Fauna exchanged a long, loaded look, then in unison turned and bounded away over the rooftops, silent as falling leaves.

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