Tag Archives: Professor Tellwyrn

Bonus #27: Scion, part 4

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If one had to be sentenced to an eternity of indentured servitude, the citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis was surely the best place for it.

Though at first appearance the place seemed as spartan as it was purely weird, the accommodations proved downright luxurious. Most of them, it turned out, were concealed in the eclectic hodgepodge of floating structures which surrounded the complex. Given their sheer number, and the fact that several were clearly larger on the inside than their physical dimensions should have allowed, there was space for virtually everything a person could want. Except, of course, the freedom to leave.

Many were left empty, which was because these also provided housing for the Scions themselves. Everyone had the freedom to pick a dwelling from any of those not in use, and it seemed there as no rule or even convention against taking prime real estate. At least, nobody seemed to mind that one of the largest structures, a castle of medieval Syrrinski design, was Rispin’s personal residence. Aradidjad, doubling down on the lifelong enjoyment of irony which was helping to keep her sane, picked the lighthouse upon which she had nearly broken her neck immediately after arriving in the nexus.

At the moment, it was a spartan place to live. The method by which physical objects could be acquired in the nexus was not yet known to Aradidjad; all she knew was who was responsible for this. Kaolu created food, which it seemed the Scions did not need but were encouraged to eat as it was a pleasurable and satisfying experience, and as Rispin had warned her, taking care of their own mental health was an important duty in this state of eerie servitude.

Everything except food came through the auspices of Q. And apparently “everything” meant virtually anything; Rispin and Yalda both showed her their fully-furnished homes, and while Yalda had simple tastes, his was downright luxurious—not to mention huge. That made Q a living bottleneck in the process of requisitioning anything, and Aradidjad was beginning to feel the effects of the first impression she had made on him. So far, she had a hammock, a small stack of books, and a tacky fairy lamp which he claimed was “art deco.”

That aside, there were facilities for basically everything concealed in the floating buildings. The Scions had gymnasiums, swimming pools, botanical gardens, workshops, laboratories, a theater, no less than five museums and two smaller recreational libraries in addition to the “official” one Chao Lu Shen oversaw which supplied research material for missions. Kaolu’s residence was an apartment over the Tilted Hourglass, a pub which apparently served as the Scions’ principal casual hangout. It was stocked with vintages from across ten thousand years, and staffed by a funny little wheeled cylindrical golem with metal spider arms and bells for a voice, which was apparently an Elder God relic.

And that was just what Aradidjad had discovered in her initial poking around and talking to people. She met another dozen or so of her coworkers and found them, unsurprisingly, an eclectic bunch. Evidently they had plenty of leisure; there was no set schedule on which missions happened. Tellwyrn just showed up suddenly and started barking orders. According to Dravo, a talkative wood elf from the second century after the Elder Wars, she did a good job of spacing them to break up the tedium and avert any serious altercations, without overworking anyone. Aradidjad supposed that kind of thing was easy enough to arrange if you had a bird’s eye view of the timeline.

“Rise and shine, doctor,” Tellwyrn ordered, striding into the Hourglass, where Aradidjad was sitting at the bar with Yalda and Styrronski, a wizard she had just met and whose story she did not yet know. “Report to Shaft Three, you have an assignment.”

“What, just me?” she asked, glancing at the other two—and noting how flat their expressions had suddenly gone. This was only her third time being sent on a mission, and on both of the previous two occasions Tellwyrn had interrupted a gathering and dispatched everyone simultaneously.

“This time, yes,” the archmage said, wearing a pensive look which began to alarm Aradidjad slightly. The elf was usually the very incarnation of disdainful self-absorption. “I’ve been easing you into this, but now I’m afraid the leading strings come off. Shaft Three.”

She turned and strode back out, without waiting for a response. Aradidjad sighed, shook her head, and stood to follow.

“Hey.” She glanced back to find Yalda regarding her seriously. “Listen… It’s not going to be the end of the world. Okay? I don’t mean that to be condescending. Nothing she drags you through will be more than you can recover from, no matter how it feels at the time.”

“Well, that just shot right past ominous and straight into horrifying,” Aradidjad replied, frowning. “Is there something in particular I should know?”

“Yes,” Styrronski replied, then scowled at Yalda when she jabbed his arm with a fist. “Yes. She deserves a forewarning, same as all of us—”

“I was forewarned,” Yalda snapped, “and it made it infinitely worse. The anticipation was the cruelest part, and exactly why Tellwyrn doesn’t give those out. Look, Cyria, after you’re back and…you know, feeling up to it, come visit my place, all right? I’ll set up a girls’ night. Or…whatever you need.”

“..sure,” Aradidjad said suspiciously. “Thanks. I guess I’d better report to Shaft Three before the boss comes looking for me.”

“She won’t,” Styrronski said morosely, glaring down at his vodka. “She has all the time in the world.”


“So the Scions are what anchor your perception and time-altering powers to the world, is that it?” Aradidjad asked upon stepping out of the place between onto a familiar street in Calderaas. The city was frozen, like Tiraas had been on her last assignment, but other than that looked…normal. This must be very close to her own time.

“Not bad. How’d you reach that conclusion?” Usually Tellwyrn affected a vague blend of condescension and approval that befitted a seasoned professor addressing a precocious student, but her voice was still tense. It was not improving Aradidjad’s nerves.

“Logic, and awareness general magical principles. Apparently you have to guide a Scion through the place between to actually perform time travel, but once we’re here you can open gates right to us. Which makes sense as magic requires a sapient mind to be actively performed. There’s a precedent for the presence of such a mind serving as a focus for passive enchantments and supplemental effects, too.”

“Mm hm. All right, you know the surrounding area. This is not an intervention against a time traveler; the perpetrator enacted their spell from several years into the future. Another Scion dealt with them. You’re here to plug a hole, that’s all. A temporal rift will form in Calderaas and you are to neutralize it.”

“Well, that’s idiotic,” Aradidjad snorted, sidestepping immobile pedestrians. She didn’t actually know where she was meant to be going, but preferred walking to standing around. And it was nostalgic, seeing her city again. No telling when or even if she’d have another chance to visit. “Why didn’t the other Scion just stop it from that end?”

“One of Vemnesthis’s more arbitrary rules, I’m afraid. Everybody cleans up their own mess.”

She stopped cold.

“Keep following the crowd you’re presently weaving through. There’s a market on the next street over, and a demonstration occurring at an ice cream shop—”

“No.”

“The rift will form directly on that location. I know you’re familiar with—”

“I’m not doing this, Arachne. Get someone else.”

“Yes, you are. You’re familiar with the specific spell, but I can walk you through the steps— No, Aradidjad, it’s not going to be that easy.”

She had turned and started running back the other way, heedless now of the time-locked people she jostled in passing. Aradidjad got half a dozen steps before Tellwyrn rewound her right back to where she had started.

“Keep walking. As I was saying, the surrounding obstructions rule out a nice, neat spell circle, but I’ll show you how to compensate using the available space.”

She gritted her teeth, focusing arcane power. The familiar whine of building energy rose in her ears, and with a blue sparkle of magic, Aradidjad teleported away. The scene around her was still frozen, but changed to the highway extending south from the gates of Calderaas, toward the distant capital of the Empire.

“Oh, you like teleporting?” Suddenly, Tellwyrn’s voice lost its grim flatness, replaced by overt anger. “Fine, let me show you something.”

This time she vanished and reappeared instantly and far more cleanly, a humiliating reminder of how far Tellwyrn’s magical capabilities outstripped her own. Aradidjad was now standing on a flat rooftop, overlooking the market street. In fact, directly across from the ice cream shop, the proprietor standing out front demonstrating his exotic new delicacy, with beside him the brand new, state of the art, unknowingly faulty freezing apparatus which was the cause of so much misery.

She squeezed her eyes shut, turned, and started running back across the roof. Not that she had any plan for what to do once she reached the other side; all she could think was to get away.

“No, you don’t,” Tellwyrn grated. Aradidjad slowed to a halt, then was reversed through time back to her starting point at the edge of the roof.

This time, though, she remained frozen there. Below, the street came to life with movement, but she herself was fully suspended in time. Physically, at least, unable to move even her eyes. Her consciousness, however, remained fully in sync with the world. Somehow, she couldn’t manage to marvel at the finesse of Tellwyrn’s control.

“Since you’ve decided to make this difficult,” the elf’s voice informed her, “you’re going to watch yourself get your wish, and see how much you enjoy it. Pay attention.”

They were there; she couldn’t look away. Right there at the very head of the crowd, nearest the demonstration.

Dashar was a tall man even without the four-year-old boy perched on his shoulders; naturally they stood out, and given how close they were, the vendor immediately fixed on them as ideal volunteers for his demonstration.

She wanted to scream. Couldn’t, but desperately wanted to. Tellwyrn could at least have given her that much.

At this proximity, having studied the Imperial Inspectors’ analysis after the fact, she knew exactly what happened, knew what to look for, saw the things that would lead to the disaster even from a rooftop across the street. The tiny imperfection in the arcane containment system which created intense cold within a sealed compartment; a flaw so minute it had doubtless been right on the threshold of the factory’s quality control standards. If operated as intended, it would never have mattered. But the stupid fucking ice cream man had the unit, designed to sit in the back of a restaurant kitchen, running out in direct sunlight, an hour before noon, in midsummer, in Calderaas.

Even that wouldn’t have caused such a crisis, though. From her perch, Aradidjad could sense, helpless, the flicker of infernal magic within the crowd, not far from Dashar and Selim. She didn’t know who the warlock was or what they were trying to do; there were limits to what investigators could reconstruct after the fact. A Black Wreath spy committing an act of terrorism, a hedge warlock with poor control who’d have been doomed for a messy death one way or another, maybe even some hapless oaf afflicted with a curse whose existence they didn’t even know if. It didn’t matter in the end.

She watched her son, perched on his father’s shoulders, getting his first and only taste of ice cream. At that angle, she couldn’t even see his face. But she was focused enough on the scene to feel the flicker of infernal power brush against the nimbus of arcane energy surrounding the cold unit, catch in that tiny flaw in its spell boundary, saw the containment begin to unravel. Had there been another mage in the audience, they would have noticed the same, maybe even been able to stop it. There was not.

Except this time, another power intervened.

The temporal portal burst into being directly over the crowd. It wasn’t visible to the eye, but caused an immediate change in air pressure which made every ear on the street pop, eliciting outcries. It would take someone with magical senses to realize something was happening, let alone something that big; that thing was a blaring beacon that would alert every arcanist in the city. The only reason Imperial or Sultanate troops weren’t on the site already was they would know better than to try teleporting that close to an obvious rift.

The characteristic high whine pierced the air, and flashes of blue began sparking around the front of the crowd. With a final burst of light, Aradidjad’s husband and son vanished, teleported through the rift to a point six years into the future. To safety.

This, of course, generated even more of an outcry, but that lasted only moments before the thermal containment charms on the ice cream maker finished unraveling. The first thing that happened was that the damn device exploded as metal parts under pressure were suddenly flash-frozen while exposed to hot sunlight and destabilized magic. The force of the blast lifted the vendor himself and hurled him away like a doll.

On the heels of the explosion, which bowled over the entire front row of the crowd, came a torrent of super-chilled air. Every drop of moisture in the local atmosphere froze. The nearest people froze. Flesh turned as brittle as glass—and in the midday heat and the tumult of people falling over each other, the results of that were immediate and grisly.

And her Dashar and little Selim were meant to have been right there at the forefront of it.

Aradidjad had never had much use for Avei or any of the professions which looked to her as a guardian, but the lawyer she’d found had had a paladin’s fury over injustice and a soldier’s ruthless aim for an enemy’s weakest spot. By the time she, the other victims, the Sultana and the Empire had finished with the manufacturer of those cold boxes, the negligent piece of shit’s great-grandchildren would be out of business. It had been a fairly successful company up to that point, too. The proceeds had funded her temporal research.

“So much stupid suffering from such a random little thing,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Fate is way too fond of that callous plot device. Oh, but what comes next is very different.”

It was. That rift wasn’t going away. Vast quantities of arcane energy funneled through a planar portal presented nigh-insurmountable problems; it could be stabilized on one end through tremendous effort, and on the other… Well, that was possible, in theory. She hadn’t managed to do it.

She hadn’t cared.

The rift was only sealed on the other side.

That left a hole to nowhere in the street above the already-screaming crowd. Distracted as they were by the horrid aftermath of the explosion, it was several more seconds before anyone noticed the lightning arcing out of a spot in the empty sky above.

Aradidjad had no idea it could have been this bad. Punching a hole through spacetime and leaving it to feed back on itself quickly unraveled more physical laws than she had anticipated. Things began lifting off the ground as a rival force competed with the planet’s gravity. Trash, then objects displayed on storefronts, trash cans… And soon enough, people. Then carriages.

And while the contents of the street started rising toward the rift, so did more power from nearby. Calderaas was an industrial center; no single spot was far from massive factory antennae discharging electricity into the atmosphere. There were three of these within sight of the street, and all of them began pouring lightning bolts in the direction of the market. Then, streams of pure arcane magic as the rift seized these power sources and began to suck them in. The antennae themselves bent toward it…

“I believe I’ve mentioned, doctor, that way too many Scions were fools who had no idea what they were messing with. So this is somewhat anomalous, you see. On the other end of that portal was a theoretical arcanist—one of the best in her field, in fact. One of the very few people in this era who had some idea what would happen if she pried open a temporal rift and shoved a teleport spell through it, then failed to close it properly.”

It was ripping up pieces of buildings and sections of the street, now. Masonry, metal, lightning, and screaming people were being crushed into a ball above Calderaas right before her frozen eyes. The very roof on which Aradidjad stood fractured and crumbled; only she, suspended in time, remained unaffected amid the carnage. Vemnesthis’s grip on her was more than a match for the spell she had unleashed.

“This is a great deal more destructive than most of what we have to clean up after, you know. And also, a great deal more maliciously fucking negligent. This is the act of an obsessed, unhinged, selfish monster who cared about no one and nothing except her own pain.”

Tellwyrn made her watch until the unstable rift reached a critical mass, stopped drawing in matter and energy, and instead expelled it. All of it, at once. The explosion sprayed debris and loose arcane energy for miles, and instantly flattened a good quarter of the city.

Only then was she rewound. Back through all the horror of the market, and then her futile attempts to get away. Back further, across two teleports, and leaving her standing in the middle of the street, a block distant from the ice cream shop.

Aradidjad instantly slumped to her knees.

“In the hours to come,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “you’re going to be complaining at length, and in a very loud voice, about my heartlessness. I just thought you should have some context before we got started. You know how this ends, Dr. Aradidjad. We can take as long as you need to before you accept it.”


She still fought. Of course she did.

And, of course, she lost.

She tried to flee, on foot, via magic, by stealing a carriage. She sat down in the street and refused to do anything, and even managed it for a long time before reliving the same three seconds on an endless backward-then-forward loop drove her to the brink of madness. She tried attacking—first that stupid warlock, then the ice cream vendor, then random people in the crowd. She attempted to warn or rescue Dashar and Selim countless times. Tellwyrn just implacably rewound anything Aradidjad did that was not following her instructions to intercept and seal the temporal rift before it even finished opening. The damned elf even let her spend three hours purchasing a wand, a sword, and a Rail ticket to Last Rock (after stealing the money from the ice cream shop) before rewinding and forcing her to live through every second of those hours, at the same speed only backward.

Aradidjad tried to teleport to Last Rock, after that. Since that was way outside the range she could manage and she’d never been there anyway, that only resulted in dropping her from a height of thirty yards above some random patch of prairie. Tellwyrn let her lie there with a snapped spine and generally mangled body for a few minutes to reflect on her decisions before rewinding that one.

Even her vivid and flexible imagination was running out of new ways to kill herself by the time Tellwyrn got tired of cleaning up after her increasingly extravagant suicides. Aradidjad took a faint, grim satisfaction in the fact that the elf’s patience broke before her own. Even that was immediately stripped from her.

The archmage suffered Aradidjad’s struggling for some time before she started asserting herself right back—by using a combination of her own much more powerful teleportation and temporal freezing to make her watch the cold box explosion at the end of every rewind. Aradidjad had long since lost the ability to keep track of time; it felt like she had been fighting this forever, but she had no idea how many hours or days it had actually been before Tellwyrn changed tactics. She started counting after that, though. Forty-seven times, she watched helplessly as own temporal rift decimated her city.

“Surely you know you didn’t save them,” the elf said after the forty-seventh. “You were caught in that explosion, idiot. All you’ve done is create a paradox which split off a splinter timeline in which they, you, and most of Calderaas are continually massacred because this situation can’t resolve itself in a linear manner. I realize you don’t like the eternity you’ve been sentenced to. Is that one really so much better?”

Tellwyrn, at least, gave her as long as she needed to cry until she no longer could.

Setting up the spell array across multiple surrounding rooftops was fiendishly complicated. Fortunately, Tellwyrn was a better mage than she, and understood time travel far more thoroughly; all she had to do was follow directions. She still made mistakes, which Tellwyrn had to rewind, but at least the elf didn’t make her watch the carnage again so long as she was behaving.

And so, finally, she stopped it. Neutralized the rift before it could even form. Calderaas was not destroyed by her hand; no one’s ears even popped. And her husband and son were caught right at the brunt of a stupid, random accident, frozen and shattered like crystal sculptures.

Over a taste of ice cream.

Tellwyrn, apparently only a sadist when she was making a point, didn’t make her watch that either. Aradidjad hurled herself through the rift, away from that day, before the cold box finished destabilizing.

She slumped against the rail of the elevator, and refrained from hurling herself off it only because she knew it wouldn’t do any good. Aradidjad stared emptily past the astonishing spectacle of the citadel as the vehicle slowly descended, reached the bottom, chimed pleasantly, and opened its door.

For several minutes, she just hung there, draped against the upright support of the elevator. It took that long for her to summon even enough energy to raise her head.

Tellwyrn was standing there, watching her over the rims of her golden spectacles.

Exhaustion and numbness vanished in blinding torrent of rage.

Aradidjad burst out of the elevator, screaming incoherently and hurling spells without strategy or restraint. Fire, lightning, pure arcane bolts, blasts of kinetic force, localized gravity wells—everything she could think of that could possibly break something, she flung at the archmage.

Aside from having an elf’s capacity for mana storage and three millennia (and who knew how much longer, if she’d spent a lot of time in the nexus) of practice, Tellwyrn’s reflexes were thrice as fast as Aradidjad’s. Her attempting to assault the elven archmage with magic was exactly as efficacious as a child pounding on a brick wall with bare fists. Tellwyrn barely even bothered to gesticulate as she cast, calmly backing away and unweaving every spell Aradidjad shot at her before it could so much as singe or dent the platform.

She kept doing it anyway. Aradidjad poured every spark of mana she could muster into hurling destruction at the elf until, with surprising suddenness, she found herself without the energy to keep standing upright, much less cast spells.

Slumping to her hands and knees, she stared at the metal plates of the floor with blurry vision, panting for breath.

“Feel better?” Tellwyrn asked.

To her own surprise, she managed an incoherent screech and conjured a combination of heat, gravity, and kinesis that manifested as a tornado of pure fire. She didn’t even see what Tellwyrn did to it, but just collapsed onto her side with the sudden stabbing pain in her temples and spontaneous nosebleed which signified the onset of a solid case of mana fatigue.

“No, of course you don’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. Aradidjad couldn’t muster the energy to react, even internally, when the elf sat on the floor next to her.

They were silent for a while. The show she’d just put on had doubtless attracted the attention of every Scion in the citadel, but nobody came anywhere near them. Based on Yalda and Styrronski’s earlier reactions, they probably knew exactly what was happening here.

“What’d you do?” Aradidjad whispered finally. That wasn’t one of the things she’d urgently wanted to know. She was too tired and too numb even to be surprised at herself for asking.

“To get sentenced here, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Tellwyrn shrugged, gazing into the distance. “Every Scion except me wanted something. Tried to get something for themselves. All of them were either after unreasonable power, or trying to recover something precious they’d lost. Me, all I wanted was Vemnesthis’s attention. I fired a four-dimensional flare across his nose. It harmed no one, affected nothing, and presented no possibility of profit to me. What I wanted to ask him about didn’t even require any time travel expertise.”

“…you were actually punished for that?”

“Rules are rules. But…no, not exactly.” Tellwyrn shifted, bringing her gaze down to meet Aradidjad’s eyes. “That’s what all of this is about. The reason we were all sentenced to this. Because we are not special. We all tried to unmake reality for our own purposes, and we don’t get to do that. A Scion of Vemnesthis is a wizard who, at some point, decided that having power over space and time meant we were entitled to do whatever thing we wanted. We are confined here and compelled to serve to disabuse us of that notion. I am no threat to the timeline, Vemnesthis told me that himself. But in many ways I embody this problem—the idea that I get to do whatever goddamn thing I please because I damn well can and hardly anyone is in a position to stop me.” She shrugged again, raising her head to stare up at the endless hourglass. “He decided to impose some limits on me, because no one else had. I can’t say I appreciate it, but… I also can’t say I blame him.”

Aradidjad closed her eyes. She was lying in a very uncomfortable position. Somehow she didn’t care enough to move. “And this warrants eternal servitude.”

“You want justice? Well, Avei probably wouldn’t have done it this way,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter laugh. “But if we’re talking proportionality, you do realize that you’d be here longer than anyone. None of your colleagues actually tried to destroy a major city, Cyria.”

There wasn’t really anything to say to that. Another long silence fell.

“I’ll tell you what I know, though,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “Two things. Gods never reveal everything… And there are far too few Scions.”

Aradidjad opened her eyes to stare a mute question at her.

“Given the rate at which we recruit them? How often some fool wizard tries to mess with existence and won’t listen to reason?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “There ought to be hundreds. Thousands. This place is certainly big enough to accommodate that. We have barely three dozen. And I don’t remember any others, but… Would I? Speaking as high priestess I can’t promise you anything. But just as someone who has been watching the comings and goings here for quite a while, I am absolutely convinced that there is some kind of retirement clause for Scions of Vemnesthis. And when they’re done, they are simply…erased from our timeline.”

“That’s the most twisted fucking thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Yeah.” Tellwyrn scrunched up her nose in distaste. “He tries so hard to be considerate of us, and just does not understand what it’s like to exist as a linear person. The result is a lot of existential horror. Well.” With a sigh, the elf stood up, then bent to offer Aradidjad her hand. “Come with me, Cyria. There’s someone you need to meet.”


Standing with Tellwyrn on some miscellaneous piece of prairie in the horrible place between places, trying not to think about the writhing monstrosities that filled the sky, Aradidjad reflexively grabbed at her revolver when a black shape came swooping out of the sky at them.

“Easy,” Tellwyrn said, placing a hand on her arm. “This is her. Doctor, this is Evaine. Evaine, Cyria Aradidjad.”

“It is a sincere honor to finally meet you,” the valkyrie said enthusiastically, and swept a bow. It was an elaborate gesture involving a horizontal brandishing of her scythe and arching of her great black wings overhead. Aradidjad eased backward a half-step in response.

Her voice, even to her own ears, was unnaturally flat. “Why.”

Evaine straightened up, still smiling at her and clearly taking no offense. “I understand your suspicion, Dr. Aradidjad. I’ll try to explain things in order, since if I know Arachne, you have no idea why you’ve been brought here.”

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes under their combined stare, but said nothing.

“The afterlife,” the valkyrie began, “is a dimensional plane like the prime material plane upon which you were born. The Elder Gods set it aside for the purpose of…well, power. You know, I’m sure, that magic requires a sapience to be initiated?”

“She’s one of the best theoretical arcanists of her era,” Tellwyrn said. “You can skip the review.”

Evaine made a wry face at her before turning back to Cyria. “Very well. That, doctor, is the reason the Elders began harvesting and storing souls. In the suspended state which is normal there, they have no will as such. They can be used to create magical workings on a scale no mortal caster could even dream. And now, that vast soul battery is under the control of the Pantheon.”

“Why,” Aradidjad asked faintly, “is every new thing I learn more horrific than the last?”

“Because you messed with time and blew up Calderaas,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “Hush up and listen.”

“Still working on those people skills, I see,” Evaine said cheerfully. “Anyway, doctor, don’t worry—things are much better since Vidius took over. The souls of the dead aren’t being used for anything, just allowed to exist. And no longer in neutral suspension, either. The afterlife is just…bliss. Pure, existential happiness. Except!” She held up one finger. “The few souls my sisters and I are sent to gather… They retain a consciousness and individuality. Not just everyone is added to that roster, because, well… The world would be filled with them, and it would have all the same problems as the mortal plane. The honored dead are given a paradise in which to live as people, and even that requires an awful lot of maintenance, even for the comparatively few of them.”

“Who are the few?” Aradidjad asked woodenly.

Evaine’s answering smile was gentler now. “Mostly? The brave. We bring those who fell in acts of great courage and heroism. But…there are a few extras. Now, this part probably isn’t strictly allowed, so don’t spread it around. Arachne here pulled strings with us. We don’t mind at all, and neither Vidius nor Vemnesthis has said anything, so hopefully that’s that. Some of the Scions, I understand, end up serving because they lost someone and tried to bend time to get them back.”

Aradidjad didn’t dare speak. Her pulse was suddenly pounding in her throat.

“For those,” Evaine said with a knowing smile, “we make exceptions. Those dead loved ones are brought to paradise. It’s a chance for life to go on. And… A chance, at least, for children to grow up, to actually live. It’s not the world, but it’s a life.”

She opened her mouth, not sure what she could even say. It ended up not mattering, as her voice was gone. For what seemed the dozenth time very recently, Aradidjad slumped to her knees, too overcome to carry on holding herself upright.

Evaine knelt with her, wrapping arms around her shoulders and holding her close.

“We won’t often have the opportunity for our paths to cross,” the valkyrie murmured, “but when I can manage it, I’ll bring you news. I was the one who brought Dashar and Selim home; I made sure they knew they have you to thank. I’ll let you know how Selim is growing when I can.”

“I know it isn’t much,” Tellwyrn said. “It’s not…enough. Not the same as having your life back. But it’s what I could manage to arrange, thanks to Evaine and her sisters being willing to help.”

Aradidjad drew a shuddering breath, the valkyrie’s wings folding protectively over her. No, it wasn’t enough. But it was something. It would strengthen her enough to keep going.

And maybe, if Tellwyrn was right, she could be with them again. For now, that was something she could cling to.

For a time.

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Bonus #26: Scion, part 3

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Aradidjad shamelessly rubbernecked on her way through the streets of Tiraas. She had spent her undergrad years in the capital and knew these streets—or had, before. The streets themselves were more or less in the same configuration, but everything else was new and fascinating. She had passed only a bare handful of horses, most of the vehicles being enchanted, and most of those sleeker and more ornate than the carriages she knew. There was new construction of all kinds, buildings towering higher than any she had seen, and in unfamiliar architectural styles. Even the street lights were no longer on poles, but hovering twelve feet above the sidewalks.

Fortunately, nobody noticed her gawking, as nobody else was moving.

“This is very nearly as creepy as it is impressive,” she commented, mincing her way through the crowds. With the entire population frozen in place, this took some doing; she had never really noticed before how large groups of people naturally got out of each other’s way when moving. “Not to mention stressful. If I accidentally jab someone with an elbow…”

“Nothing will happen,” Tellwyrn’s voice reassured her. “Yes, you are moving at an incredible velocity relative to any of these people, but you’re doing so through the auspices of a god, who corrects for certain physical problems. That’s the reason the air resistance hasn’t scoured off your top layer of skin already. Still, don’t molest or interfere with anyone or anything if you can avoid it. Including the pigeons.”

Aradidjad withdrew the hand with which she had been about to experimentally poke a bird arrested in mid-flight near a peanut vendor comically frozen in the act of scattering a flock.

“Nobody would miss one of the flying bin rats…”

“The whole job is to suppress time travel, doctor, not amuse ourselves through petty abuses thereof. Minimal contact. I’ll rewind minor accidents, but if I think you’re making a mess on purpose I will not hesitate to make you walk all the way through the city again.”

“Yes, about that,” Aradidjad huffed, rounding a corner and nearly tripping over a small boy suspended a foot off the ground, apparently jumping and grasping toward one of the floating street lights which was hopelessly beyond his reach. “Was there a reason you couldn’t position the exit gate closer to the target?”

“Yes. I thought you’d enjoy having a look at the city of the future. Once, anyway.”

“Well…fair enough,” Aradidjad admitted, smiling to herself and gazing around. “I think I like the new trends in architecture. Less so in fashion. What the hell are these women wearing?”

“Have Chao Lu Shen explain flappers to you sometime. More immediately, heads up. You have arrived, next gate on your left.”

She was in the Embassy District, close to Imperial Square itself and largely serving exactly the purpose its name implied. In fact, she recognized the very building to which Tellwyrn pointed her, though the signs and flags on display were unfamiliar.

“The Confederacy?” she mused aloud, turning and striding up the path to its double doors. “This used to be the Narisian embassy. What happened to them?”

“There’s a Narisian consulate in Lor’naris, but the drow have no direct relationship with the Silver Throne in this era. For the same reason the Elven Confederacy has none with, say, Mathenon. Whether federation or empire, central governments don’t appreciate their member states pursuing their own foreign policy. On the far side of the room, to the right of the staircase, you’ll want the door on the right wall closest to the corner. Oh, and don’t forget to leave any doors in the position in which you found them.”

Aradidjad obediently pulled the front door shut behind her, making her way across the embassy’s rotunda in no great hurry. She had never had occasion to come inside before, but suspected it had been heavily redecorated since the drow were in charge. The space was predominated by a huge tree, of a species she didn’t recognize, not that she was any kind of botanist. Its rough bark was threaded through with luminous blue veins, as if the whole tree were brimming with magic. In fact, its blade-like leaves glowed subtly, too. From its four largest limbs, spaced evenly around its trunk, hung four flags; Aradidjad recognized the banner of Tar’naris, but the others were unknown to her.

“Are you lost already?” Tellwyrn snipped in her ear.

“Sorry.” She shook her head and started moving again, toward the indicated door in the rear. “I just noticed the tree was glowing and realized something. If surrounding time is frozen and I can still perceive light, that suggests a theory I had about photons was correct.”

“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting you’re a theoretical arcanist. You’d be amazed how many of your fellow Scions were bumbling conjurers poking at something they didn’t begin to understand. Anyhow, don’t be too eager to draw conclusions about physics from your experiences here. As I said, having a god make the arrangements for you heavily colors the experience. Stop here; take the door on your left and descend three flights.”

The door in question led to a stairwell, which must have plunged deep into the crust beneath Tiraas, as it continued down after the point at which Tellwyrn instructed her to exit.

“Among their many benefits,” her operator lectured as Aradidjad navigated the halls below the embassy, “your official robes function as a biological containment vessel. A person ordinarily leaves behind a trail of hair, dead cells, skin oil, and innumerable other detritus. Left here. Obviously we can’t have that, not only to avoid biological corruption but in the case of situations like this where these elves would be unfrozen and immediately smell that an invisible human had just walked past them. Wearing those, even hounds can’t track you. Right at the intersection. Also, it prevents your own antibodies from unleashing some kind of super pandemic on a world that isn’t prepared for them. Or vice versa; the common cold in any era ahead of your own will reliably kill your ass excruciatingly dead. Stairwell at the end of the hall, head down.”

“Praise Vemnesthis and all his foresight,” Aradidjad muttered sarcastically. Getting to the stairs without knocking over the plains elf just emerging from them was dicey; refined senses or no, anybody would notice suddenly being thrust into a different position.

In fact, aside from a few human visitors in the rotunda above, everyone she had passed had been an elf. All three varieties were represented, which made this whole Confederacy thing downright incredible. Aradidjad’s knowledge of elves was largely theoretical, but it was universally known that they weren’t terribly social as a rule and that drow and their surface cousins despised each other with a passion. Yet, here they all were; she passed several mixed groups apparently talking and performing tasks together.

Also, some of the wood elves (to judge by their ears) were notably out of costume. A minority of them seemed to eschew traditional garments for brightly colored clothes that were either too tight or too diaphanous, accentuated with lots of gold jewelry and wildly elaborate hairstyles. Aradidjad passed one of these frozen in the stairwell in the act of performing some kind of scrying spell above her open palm.

“Are these…high elves?” she asked in wonderment.

“Yep.”

“Huh. I thought they were a myth.”

“Don’t feel bad, they’ve gone to a lot of trouble over a very long time to encourage that idea. Even what little is commonly known of them in your era is misdirection; their city isn’t actually in the Dwarnskolds, though some of its access gates are.”

“Where do you hide a whole city? Wait, let me guess, it floats in the clouds.”

“Other direction. It’s at the bottom of the Anara Trench, in the Stormsea.”

“…I guess that would do it. How’d all this happen? I mean, this doesn’t seem to be that far in advance of my own time.”

“Less than fifty years. As for how… The world changed, and much to my surprise, the elves chose to adapt rather than be trampled beneath it. Don’t assume too much based on the embassy, here. The Confederacy is widely hated by almost everyone who’s a citizen of it. The whole thing is held together by stubborn leadership and the fact that the average elf dislikes other elves marginally less than they fear humans, dwarves, and dragons consolidating into their own superstates. Straight down the corridor, you’re almost there.”

“Wait, the dwarves united, too?”

“Not to this extent, but the Five Kingdoms have a formal alliance now. Between that, the Conclave, and the Confederacy, the Empire isn’t nearly so confident in its position these days. If those nations didn’t have enemies in common this whole continent would already be a war zone. And here we are! Now you get to learn how we bypass locked doors without disrupting them.”

“This lock is magical,” Aradidjad noted, bending to study it and ignoring the two guards. High elves, apparently; their armor and weapons appeared to be made of glass and brass.

“It’s biological; an authorized person just has to touch it.”

“Ah. So I just have to get this guy’s glove off…”

“Think, Aradidjad. Authorized person touches it, the door unlocks. That is a linear sequence of events. Off the table, with the door enchantment as frozen as everything else.”

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense, then,” she snapped.

“Step back.”

She more stumbled than stepped, as Tellwyrn didn’t wait for her to comply before opening one of the Scions’ gates in the middle of the wall, completely eclipsing the door. Unlike the vague golden swirl of most of them, this opened visibly onto the room beyond.

“Ah, right,” Aradidjad said irritably, brushing herself off. “Time, space, connected, and so on. I suppose it makes sense those temporal gates would have a more mundane utility as well.”

“Naturally! Go on, chop chop.”

She strode through, and stopped, surveying the room. It was a large enchanting laboratory, with banks of magical equipment and reagents along two walls. There was also a metal catwalk surrounding its second story, reached by ladders. A mixed group of elves stood in a knot a few yards from the door, studying the object at which the high elf leading them was gesticulating.

This filled a large amount of the available space. Its core was a conventional magic mirror, built up by a significant array of enchanting machinery and sitting atop overlapping spell circles inscribed on the broad metal plates on which it stood. It was more advanced than anything she had managed to make, but Aradidjad immediately recognized some of its basic design principles.

“Allow me to introduce Magister Ethliron,” said Tellwyrn. “He’s working on this thing here because his fellow Magisters don’t allow temporal experimentation in Qestraceel. We had to make some vivid points to them, but the message got through quickly enough. The absolute last thing they want is Scions or anyone else tromping through their precious hidden city. Unlike everyone else, we can get past any security they put up with little effort.”

“He’s built a chronoscope,” Aradidjad said wonderingly. “This thing is amazing.”

“Yes. Ethliron means well, too; he aims to scan possible future timelines for optimal outcomes to help the Confederacy guide itself forward. Noble, but obviously we can’t allow it.”

“Does that really count as time travel?”

“It may seem a finicky definition, but yes. These are the rules we have to enforce, however arbitrary they may be. So you get to un-build it.”

Another gate popped open right next to her and an object came whizzing out. Aradidjad barely caught it before being beaned in the temple, and found herself holding a wrench.

“Dismantle the device and just toss its components through. Q will sort and dispose of them on the other side.”

“How hard would it have been to give me the wrench before sending me here?” she demanded.

“The easy way isn’t always the best way, doctor. It’s almost never the most entertaining way. Oh, stop making that face, you’re going to need a lot more tools than that. There’s absolutely no point in making you carry so much when I can just open a gate at your location.”

Strictly speaking, there hadn’t been a point in making her walk all this way, either, but she wasn’t about to embrace the futility of pointing that out. Instead, Aradidjad stepped over to the wonderful device and, with some reluctance, began to hunt for bolts that would fit the tool she currently held.

“This should be the final blow to scare Ethliron off this line of research,” Tellwyrn said while she worked. “You’re to deliver a message before returning. Finding his chronoscope suddenly replaced with a Scion is the bigger part of the message, but I need you to drive it home for him, Aradidjad. That’s why I chose this moment, when he’s demonstrating it to Confederate dignitaries. Elves, even elves who don’t care for each other, tend to be more collectivist than humans. Make the point that this project jeopardizes more than him and the rest will make sure it comes to a permanent stop, even if he doesn’t.”

She glanced over at the group with Ethliron. He had gathered two plains elves, a wood elf, a drow, and another high elf. Ambassadors? It probably didn’t strictly matter who they were, for her purposes.

“He seems quite competent. Not to mention conscientious, based on what you said. Why are we scaring this guy away instead of recruiting him?”

“Because we can scare him away. The Scions only recruit time travelers who flatly refuse to desist, doctor. That’s why there’s not a set number of warnings a subject gets; we’ll deliver however many are necessary in each case. I make sure any recruitment subject gets warned at least once, just for fairness’s sake. Ultimately, though, anyone we bring in was just never going to listen to reason.”

“That sounds like a recipe to end up working with a bunch of unstable malcontents.”

“Don’t I know it,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The truth is, doctor, we don’t actually want more personnel. Given the circumstances under which we operate, there doesn’t really need to be more than one Scion. It’s not as if we work under any kind of time limit. You are here, just like me and all the rest, because we couldn’t persuade you to stop and Vemnesthis apparently doesn’t want any murder on his conscience.”

“You can’t really think coercing someone into eternal servitude is kinder than killing them,” Aradidjad snorted, pulling off an access panel. “I need a screwdriver. Actually, a set of screwdrivers, including smaller clockmaker’s—ah.”

The compact little case bounced out of the gate and slid across the floor toward her.

“I really think Vemnesthis really thinks that. I have met a lot of gods, Cyria, and I’ve noticed something: the more you gain vast, omniscient perspective over the whole of the universe, the less you truly comprehend what the experience of mortality is like.”

“Hm.” She set about carefully detaching power crystals in silence. Why a decentralized power system instead of a main battery? Presumably there was a reason, but it would make the thing difficult to maintain. Also quite tedious to dismantle. “So. If even viewing other timelines or periods isn’t allowed, how does that work with you getting to stomp around doing whatever you like?”

“Are you questioning my integrity, doctor?” Tellwyrn’s tone was amused, which if anything irritated Aradidjad more than if the elf had tried to shut down her inquiry.

“Don’t be coy with me, you smug megalomaniac. Even if I assumed, for the sake of argument, that you had the best of intentions, you know very well it’s impossible not to have your actions influenced by what you know. There is no way your mortal life isn’t affected by future knowledge.”

“I’m sure that would be true, but I have no such knowledge. I do get to leave the citadel, yes, but outside it, all I know is that I lead the Scions, and how to return to them. Any knowledge I possess about their operations or the things they discover remains behind. Which is actually very annoying; the stuff we’ve uncovered about the Elder Gods alone would have spared me centuries of pestering the Pantheon for answers they didn’t have.”

“What? You mean you… Oh, bullshit. Maintaining a reactive memory block like that would be fiendishly complicated and completely pointless.”

“My, you’re just full of naysay today!”

“Crowbar!” she snapped. “And don’t throw it at my—” Aradidjad flattened herself to the floor as the crowbar sailed overhead to clang against the far wall. “You gratuitously obstreperous bitch.”

“Complain to Q, I’m not the one manning the equipment locker. Anyway, you’re thinking like a mage, doctor. Remember, all this happens by the will of a god. A god is a being which doesn’t need to devise solutions to problems, but simply exerts their will and the solutions devise themselves. Vemnesthis is largely motivated by what he in some cases mistakenly thinks is compassion. A little memory editing is a perfect example. It is a horrifying personal violation and he set it up that way in an attempt to be nice.”

Aradidjad had retrieved the crowbar and now planted its wedged end between two metal panels. There, though, she paused, holding the tool still and frowning at nothing.

“Why do you get to leave, then?”

“Let’s just say a lesser offense gets a lighter sentence. By the way, I appreciate your respect for another wizard’s craftsmanship, but it’s not like anybody’s going to put that thing back together. You needn’t be so careful in disassembling it, unless you really want to for some reason. Either way, chop chop. It’s not going to break itself down.”


When Tellwyrn ended the time freeze, Aradidjad was standing right in the center of where the large chronoscope had been with her arms folded, and an eyebrow superciliously arched. It was a pose she had cultivated to control unruly classrooms before the University had allowed her to move on to pure research.

Ethliron was in the middle of a speech. “—my hope that with its aid, we will be able—”

He broke off with a gasp and physically started, shying back from her. The rest of the elven dignitaries reacted likewise, some with more restraint, but all visibly shocked. The drow tucked her hands into her wide sleeves and lit up with a silver glow, but fortunately didn’t push it any further. Aradidjad could not deny experiencing a rush of pure satisfaction at being the focus of so much surprise and uncertainty by so many normally inscrutable immortals.

“Tell me, Magister Ethliron,” she said flatly, “is it that you believe that you, personally, are special, and above the fundamental laws of existence? Or do you simply not care how your actions affect the people around you?” That, too, was a variation on a line she had used to great effect on undergraduates.

“I… It was only…” The elf paused and swallowed heavily. “Please, you must understand I had no intention of physically intervening. The device only gathers information.”

Aradidjad stared at him in silence, waiting. When half the other elves had shifted their focus from her to Ethliron, he opened his mouth to speak again. Then, finally, she cut him off.

“This Confederacy of yours has every possibility of a bright and glorious future. Possibility is all that anyone ever has. Nothing cuts off possibilities faster than ill-considered actions. Do I make myself clear, ladies and gentlemen?”

“Explicitly, Scion,” one of the plains elves said before Ethliron could reply. “We apologize for putting you to this trouble. It will not happen again.” The last was clearly directed at the Magister himself. By that point, only the drow priestess was still studying Aradidjad through narrowed eyes; the rest were staring at Ethliron with decidedly less friendly expressions.

And then they all froze in place once more.

“Always leave ’em wanting more,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Nicely handled, Aradidjad. You’ve worked a room before!”

“A little drama is necessary to make college students behave.”

“Preaching to the choir.”

“I have to admit,” Aradidjad mused, “that is really satisfying when I’m not the one it’s being done to. I’m sure that reflects poorly on my moral fiber.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, doctor. We have to take our satisfaction wherever we can find it in this line of work.” A gate swirled open next to her. “Run along home, now. There’ll be plenty more to do, soon enough.”

She stepped through with a last glance around at all the aspirations she had just crushed. “I don’t doubt it.”

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Bonus #25: Scion, part 2

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“Ah ah! Don’t do that,” Tellwyrn’s voice ordered when Aradidjad instinctively raised her revolver to aim at the sky. “Keep it in your pants, cowgirl. Rule number one of the place between: ignore the sky monsters.”

“Ignore them?” Aradidjad exclaimed shrilly.

“Vital survival skill. You’re in a space created by the Elder Gods to keep the dimensional planes separate; it has qualities that make time travel possible if you move through it in the right way. But they didn’t want people messing around in there, so it also has security features. The sky monsters do not exist except in the context of someone there to observe them. The more attention you pay them, the more aware of you they become. As it’s not possible to completely ignore them, your time in there is limited, and it grows shorter the more you think about them. So don’t.”

“Don’t think,” she growled, lowering her eyes to stare fixedly at the ground. “Easy as that, huh.”

“It’s an acquired ability, takes practice.”

“What…exactly…happens when they become sufficiently aware of me?”

“Of you? I have to rewind your entire trip and you get to spend even longer stumbling around in there. Other people use the place between to travel, but not wise people. Only Scions and valkyries pass through with impunity. Now, follow the marker.”

Before she could ask what marker, it appeared: a translucent golden arrow extending out from her toward the distant mountains. It wobbled slightly for a second before steadying, like the needle of a compass.

“Invisible to anyone but yourself, before you ask. Always move quickly in there, doctor, but carefully. Watch that first step.”

Grimacing and repressing the urge to look up again, Aradidjad peered around. She was in the central street of a small village—near the middle, with no visible obstructions. Watch that step for what?

She stepped forward and the world blurred around her, leaving her suddenly standing in the middle of a wheat field with a forest rising up ahead and the mountain range beyond that. Also, her compass needle had shifted by a few degrees; evidently steps were not accurate units of direction at that distance.

“And this is why others travel through here,” Tellwyrn explained while Aradidjad stumbled and struggled for balance, nearly toppling over from sheer confusion. “If you know the trick of it, you can shave off most of any journey—on the same continent, that is, unless you can walk on water. Not as quick as teleportation or shadow-jumping, but it helps. And of course, a woman of your education is obviously aware that space and time are closely linked; a little help from our patron makes the same dilation effect usable for our purposes.”

And locked the ability to time travel to Scions on sanctioned missions with Tellwyrn’s oversight, Aradidjad noted silently. Aloud, she snapped, “At any point are you going to explain something before making me stumble headlong into it?”

“This may be your first rodeo, doctor, but it’s not mine. I’ve been guiding baby birds since literally time immemorial; trust me, I know the fastest way to teach you to fly. Now, step carefully but keep moving. Given the first impression you made on the watchers, you’re on a tight schedule.”

Something told her that rewinds or no, she didn’t want to experience whatever those things would do to her before Tellwyrn had to undo it. Grumbling to herself, Aradidjad shifted her face to follow the needle and stepped again.

This time she was in the foothills of the mountains, and it was the middle of the night. There was a dim, sourceless light all around, an effect made all the more eerie by the lack of moon or stars. She adjusted to match her compass again and stepped. One blurring footstep at a time, covering an unknown stretch of miles each, she paced across the continent, only the shifting time of day betraying that she was moving through time as well as space. The whole thing was so surreal it was almost banal, as if her brain were protecting itself from undue stress by refusing to dwell on the implications.

“Valkyries, huh,” she asked while walk-jumping across the land. “Are they what I’m supposed to shoot, if not the horrible sky monsters?”

“Don’t do that; the valkyries have been instructed not to interfere with Scions. They are fellow Pantheon servants and I don’t need the stress of cleaning up after that. Even after rewinding, Vidius always knows when one of my lackeys has taken a shot at one of his. No, there are occasionally…other things in there. That is where chaos comes from, after all.”

“Bloody brilliant,” Aradidjad muttered. “Who got attacked by a valkyrie? I assume if they had to be instructed…”

“I said interfere with, not attack.” Tellwyrn’s voice was amused. “They’ve been trapped in there for eons with nobody to talk to but their god, each other, and the recently dead. They kept cornering my Scions and jabbering their ears off until the monsters intervened. I had to ask Vidius to lay down the law.”

“No fun allowed. Got it.”

“You’re being punished, Aradidjad, it isn’t supposed to be fun. Go on, you’re almost there.”

Though her on-the-ground perspective made it difficult, Aradidjad possessed a basic knowledge of geography and figured out where she was by the time she got there; her path had taken her south around an impassable mountain range, then back north. The intervening landscapes were quite distinctive: the tall but rounded hills of Viridill, the pine forests of northern Athan’Khar, the canyons and rivers of N’Jendo and finally the steppes of Thakar.

“Why go all the way around the Wyrnrange? You can’t tell me this is efficient.”

“This method requires you to travel through space as well as time,” the voice of the elf replied. “The distance was necessary. It is efficient; I’ve plotted the optimal course, I assure you. And now you’ve arrived! Exit through the aperture, please.”

She kept her thoughts to herself, but took note: if she had to travel through time in order to reach a specific period, the Scions’ citadel existed at some point on the timeline, not outside it. At least, in theory. Temporal mechanics were her own particular field of study, in the last few years, and the one thing of which she was truly certain was that mortal minds weren’t configured properly to fully grasp them.

It looked very much like the gate through which she passed to and from the nexus: a vertical hole in reality right in front of her which grew wider in an uneven pattern, as if it were being tugged open by invisible hands. Light was distorted around its edges and through the middle was nothing but a dim golden glow reminiscent of the sands in the great hourglass, revealing no hint of what was on the other side. Assuming this place corresponded to the material world, probably the same northern jungle in which she now stood.

After the merest hesitation, Aradidjad stepped through the portal, which as before had no sensation; it was less disorienting than her time-shifting steps out there in the place between.

On this side, though, there was a village… Or had been, recently. Aradidjad stopped, clapping a hand over her mouth and staring around in shock while Tellwyrn nattered on in her ear.

“You’re near what would be the Onkawa/Thakar border in your time, though neither of those exists yet. It is roughly four thousand years after the Elder War, in a period which left little archaeological evidence for our era, thanks to the Hellwars which are slated to kick off in just a few centuries. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with any of that as your focus here is extremely specific. Your target is up ahead; follow the path leading into the jungle. He has already been warned not to do what he’s trying to do. You are to inform him of the terms of the deal, the same ones you got. Join, or perish.”

Someone had clearly been through here after…whatever had happened. The village itself was still a wreck—huts badly damaged, evidence of recent fires in multiple places, rubble and dried bloodstains strewing the ground. The bodies, though, had been carefully dressed, all of them. They lay scattered all over, probably near where they had fallen, but were neatly positioned wrapped in blankets and adorned with flowers.

Aradidjad stepped forward, following the wide path between the small cluster of mud-and-straw huts toward the jungle at its other end, having to step around corpses. Her mind seemed to snap back into focus; spatial and temporal dilation it could numbly brush off, but in the face of this, she fell back into cold analysis to escape the horror of it. Nothing could disguise the gut-turning smell—all the flowers only complicated it—but the lack of scavengers, even insects, strongly indicated magic. She sensed none, so not arcane. Infernal could scare away pests, but warlocks in this era were little more than walking firebombs, lacking that kind of sophistication. Very likely fae; the shamanic traditions of Onkawa had persisted into the Imperial era, only gradually fading as the Pantheon cults strengthened their presence. But could a shaman work out a way to time travel? That really required arcane magic…

“How often do they choose to perish?” Aradidjad asked quietly when she had passed the final corpse and reached the treeline. “I didn’t agree to become an executioner…”

“In all your missions, you’ll get as many tries as you need to get it right. With recruitments, getting it right means working out a path through the conversation which leads to them accepting terms. We always recruit, never kill.”

“…why?”

“I have my suspicions, Dr. Ardidjad, but the truth is I don’t know. Those are the orders from Vemnesthis, with which I am as obligated as you to comply. Right down to the empty threat of murder if they won’t come along quietly. And there’s our boy.”

The thick foliage hid even the impressive monument ahead; she came upon it quite suddenly through an opening in the dense underbrush. It was a ziggurat similar to the traditional pattern of Omnist temples, though this one was basically just an angular pile of stone displaying no iconography. It was small, too, not more than twelve feet high. Though steep, it had a long stone ramp extending from its top to virtually the foot of the path. She had to push aside huge ferns to reach it, and might not have known she was close to anything had she not felt the distinctive prickle of arcane magic at work.

Not enough to power a time travel spell, though, which was partly why she was taken by surprise. Totems of wood and stone, decorated with crystal and feathers, lined the clearing around the ziggurat and dominated the four corners of its flat top. Concentrating, she could sense the flows of magic—oddly thin and stretched, and moving in patterns shaped by something invisible. Forced into them, in fact, like a magnet suspended by a precisely configured field of opposing magnets. He was, she realized, using a huge quantity of fae magic to construct an arcane working from whatever tiny dregs of power he could summon up. It was…brilliant. She could never have conceived of such a thing on her own. Oh, what she would have given to be able to study it…

But the shaman standing atop the ziggurat turned his back on his altar to glare down at her, and she audibly gasped.

It was the Scions’ chef and groundskeeper, Kaolu.

“Oh, you twisted little asshole,” she said aloud.

“I assume that was directed at me,” Tellwyrn replied with audible mirth.

Kaolu, naturally, assumed otherwise, and scowled. “Leave this place!” he thundered down at her.

It occurred incongruously to Aradidjad that she hadn’t known any of the languages being spoken at her in the Scions’ citadel, either; she certainly didn’t understand pre-Hellwar Western dialects. Except, she clearly did, evidently thanks to the auspices of her new god.

Clearing her throat, she straightened up, giving him her best undergrad-withering stare—which was difficult as it hinged on peering down her nose and he was standing on a platform twice her height.

“You were warned, Kaolu!” she called across the clearing. “You—”

He spat and gestured, and a spear levitated on currents of air at his side. Aradidjad immediately shut up and conjured a disc of force; it didn’t provide the same coverage as a standard spherical shield but was far sturdier, and that was a factor if he was going to be hurling spears at her. Shields bore up well against spells and energy weapons, but contact with solid matter degraded them quickly.

Her instincts were good, which was small comfort as she was proceeding upon false data. That wind spell he used to hurl the spear did not pitch it forward on a ballistic course, but whipped it at her as if it were tied to the end of a chain. It did move a lot faster than if it had been thrown by human hands. Unfortunately, it also arced around to the side, and she wasn’t able to move her shield in time.

The broad stone head hit her in the side right below the ribs, with enough force to hurl her bodily across the clearing. Given its size, that was enough force to very nearly tear her in half. Which was a delightful thing upon which to reflect while she was reliving that experience in reverse over the next few seconds.

Standing at the end of the jungle path, Aradidjad glared daggers at the screen of ferns separating her from the clearing. “That son of a bitch.”

“Nobody ever gets it in one try,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Well, you know his opening move, anyway! Or one of them.”

“One of them?!”

“People are complex, and so are situations; timelines aren’t mechanistic or completely predictable. I’m afraid you cannot just memorize a sequence of events and perform a dance. Your target will be quite predictable in the short term, but not to the point of reacting precisely the same way every time. You have to get to know him, the situation, and learn to adapt on the fly.”

“How bloody long does that take, on average?”

“Oh, the upper range is a couple of years, locally, of constant restarts. But don’t worry, that’s exceedingly rare. And this isn’t nearly so complex a situation. I started you out on a soft one, doctor; I’m fully confident you’ll be out of there in a few hours. A day or two, tops.”

Snarling savagely, Aradidjad stomped through the ferns. “Hey, jackass!”

Kaolu whirled. This time, probably due to her far more aggressive posture, he didn’t bother speaking to her. He did use the wind-spear again, though, rather than surprising her with a new trick.

Aradidjad conjured her localized shield, this time right in front of the spear instead of near herself, smacking it out of the air at the very start of its arc. While he was gaping at that, she hurled a pure arcane bolt at him.

As it turned out, his incredibly complex working of fae magic controlling a very precise array of arcane energy to pierce the fabric of the space/time continuum did not like being abruptly pumped full of unfocused arcane destruction. The resulting explosion scoured away the top half of the ziggurat, along with everything else within twenty yards, including herself.

“Well, what did you think was going to happen?” Tellwyrn snorted moments later when Aradidjad was once more standing on the path before the ferns.

“That, pretty much.”

“I suppose it’s good that you’re not deterred by the prospect of painful death. Just don’t take it too far, doctor. Also, do keep in mind the mission. You’re here to recruit him, not incinerate him.”

“Well, if nothing else, I guess I understand why he was giving me the stink-eye back at headquarters. This was a particularly cheesy move, Tellwyrn.”

“Heh. If I really wanted to mess with your head, I’d have sent you to recruit Idrie.”

Shaking her head, she shoved past the ferns again, and stopped at the foot of the stairs, glaring up at Kaolu.

Once more, he turned upon her arrival, and scowled down at her. “Leave this place!”

Aradidjad drew her revolver and shot him right through the chest. The force of the beam sent his body toppling over his altar and down the other side of the ziggurat.

And then, of course, Tellwyrn rewound her.

“Feel better?” the elf asked dryly.

“A little,” Aradidjad mused, placing a hand on her revolver, which was now holstered again in its magic sheath. “This thing is remarkably accurate for having such stopping power. Usually there’s a trade-off, there.”

“That was a very good shot. I didn’t realize you were a weapons enthusiast.”

“I don’t care for them, in truth, but I put myself through grad school making wands. In Calderaas, they’re the easiest money for an enchanter who doesn’t have the right mindset for factory work. You probably saw a couple of my pieces pass through Last Rock in the hands of one wannabe adventurer or another… Oh, I’m sorry, do you know about Last Rock yet?”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said with a chuckle. “But we can trade backstories when you’re not on the clock…so to speak. Keep in mind your ground rules, please: do not fire your service weapon on the mortal plane, and refrain from murdering your recruitment prospect.”

“Oh, right! I had a feeling I was forgetting something, thanks.” She stepped forward through the ferns again.

This time, she shot Kaolu before he was finished turning around.

“Are you just about done?” Tellwyrn demanded once she was reversed back to the path before the clearing again.

“Hmm…yes, I believe it’s out of my system now,” Aradidjad said solemnly. “Okay, for real this time.”

She strode purposefully through the ferns, right up to the base of the stairs. “Kaolu!” she called out in her most imperious tone. “I bring you a message from the gods!”

He turned more slowly this time, seeming to respond to the inherent gravitas of this claim, and stared down at her through narrowed eyes. Aradidjad knew she must be an impressive figure; those robes were very faintly luminous, and doubtless totally outside his experience. Actually, for a man in this region in this era, a human of Tiraan blood probably looked as exotic as an elf.

“Speak it, then,” Kaolu said, folding his arms across his bare chest.

“The gods have sent me to bring you this warning,” she intoned.

Then drew her revolver and nailed him right through the head.

This time, the rewind was longer, dragging her all the way back up the jungle path and through the slaughtered village, leaving her standing right where she had first arrived on the material plane in this era.

“Oh, that was just petty,” Aradidjad complained.

“Takes two to tango, sweetheart. You can play the comedian if you really want, Cyria; we quite literally have all the time in the world to get this right. If you’re thinking of testing your patience against that of an immortal, it’s probably best that we disabuse you of that idea early on in your career.”

“This isn’t my career,” she grunted, starting back through the village toward the jungle again. “And by the way. Would I be correct in extrapolating from this scene that Kaolu has just lost everyone in the world he ever cared about and is desperately trying to restore them? And this is the ‘offense’ for which I’m to rip him out of reality into an eternity of indentured servitude?”

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes. I should think you of all people would have a little more sympathy for him.”

“You’ll find I’m not a very warm or cuddly person, Arachne.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.”

The path terminated in a familiar tangle of ferns, with glints of daylight beyond, and now Aradidjad slowed, narrowing her eyes in sudden contemplation.

“All right…wait. Before I go charging in there unprepared, again, can you tell me anything about this situation? Something I can use?”

“Ahh.” Tellwyrn sounded so much like the dean of her University department smugly inflicting one of his “teachable moments” on some poor kid that Aradidjad resolved on the spot to shoot the archmage at some point, just to see what would happen. “So it seems you do learn! All right, here’s the situation, roughly…”


She didn’t get hungry, thirsty, or tired. Tellwyrn just directed her to pay attention to the mission when Aradidjad tried to pause and ask about this, so she put it aside for another time when the elf wouldn’t have that excuse not to explain things. In fact, Tellwyrn’s general lack of explanation was rapidly becoming an extremely sore point. It seemed her entire teaching philosophy was to hurl her subject into the thick of whatever task she had and see how well—and indeed, whether at all—they fared. By the end of this, Aradidjad was seriously wondering about those kids who matriculated from Last Rock, and how so many of them survived without having time regularly reversed. It seemed likely that those in particular would tend to run afoul of the Scions, if they picked up any of their teacher’s general attitude.

As her operator had warned, Kaolu didn’t react precisely the same way every time; this wasn’t a problem that could be solved through rote memorization. He did behave in predictable patterns, though, and through trial and error, she learned to adapt to them. The recruitment was like an elaborate dance, composed of steps but held together by elements of improvisation.

Lacking any frame of reference, she had no way of knowing how long the whole process took. It didn’t even occur to her to count the rewinds until quite a few had passed, though by the end they surely had to number in the hundreds. In retrospect, it seemed less ironic that as an enforcer of the timeline she had been issued a weapon and not a watch. Knowing would probably just have enraged her further.

In the end, she first had to impress Kaolu by engaging him in a magical battle and making a show of effortlessly neutralizing every spell he threw at her without losing composure or retaliating. This, of course, required a lot of trial and error, until she could dispatch every trick in his repertory by sheer muscle memory no matter the order in which he played them.

That laid the groundwork for the second phase, persuasion. Aradidjad did, indeed, know something of the pressures under which he was operating. That helped, but what truly tipped the balance was remembering what had worked on her. Threats, pleas, and reasoning had no effect on someone caught in the grip of life-altering grief. What made him finally agree to stop, to accept terms, was relentless, inexorable implacability.

She had a counterspell for everything he attempted, an answer for everything he said; she constantly, slowly, pressed forward physically, one step at a time, until she finally reached the top of the ziggurat.

Until she had finally worn him down into true, hopeless despair.

Shooting the man was one thing; Aradidjad had never considered herself a violent person, but she’d done it dozens of times now, in her frustration, and it never left a mark. Time travel quickly took the sting out of brutality. This, though, her final victory, made her feel truly filthy.

By the end of it, the reliance on repetition and reflex, as hard as it was to develop, was a blessing. Aradidjad was so numb and so disgusted with what she was doing that divorcing her consciousness from the process even a little was all that kept her from putting that revolver to her own head. Well, that and the fact that it obviously wouldn’t achieve anything except to give Tellwyrn the bloody satisfaction.

At least recalling Scions to the citadel was easier than sending them to another place and period. Tellwyrn was able to open a portal right where they stood, rather than forcing Aradidjad to backtrack through the village and then chaos space. By that point she was too relieved at avoiding the prospect of accompanying Kaolu past the bodies of the loved ones she had prevented him from restoring even to wonder about the temporal implications of the recall.

She stepped through the portal with him, her mind as far away as she could send it and still function. The relief at finding herself back in an elevator in the nexus alone was so intense it completely blotted out her momentary confusion.

“Welcome back, and congratulations on your first successful mission!” Tellwyrn buzzed in her ear. “Don’t worry about your target; we don’t have multiple iterations of the same person in the nexus, so he’s doing what he’d been doing for years by the time you got here. And don’t stress yourself unduly about non-linear events like that. You’ll be much happier in the long run just glossing over them. Now go relax a bit, you’ve earned it.”

Aradidjad said nothing in reply. Somewhat to her surprise, Tellwyrn didn’t push at her any further.


She found a seat on a random platform; some of the citadel’s spaces were obviously purposeful, but just as many seemed strewn with aimlessly scattered, anachronistic furniture. Aradidjad ensconced herself in an overstuffed armchair in a distant corner with a view past two buildings at the grand sweep of the cosmos beyond. The structures floating around the periphery of the nexus remained in place, linked as they were by bridges, but she now observed that the ring system slowly orbited. Was that purely a decorative touch, or did it serve some purpose? At that point, she didn’t care enough to ask anyone.

In truth, she didn’t really want to talk to anybody at all. Aradidjad had passed several people while wandering through the platforms, bridges, and staircases in search of an out-of-the-way place to hide. Some greeted her, some ignored her; none except Idrie were familiar. She didn’t react to anyone, and none of them seemed put off by that. Undoubtedly they had all been in her position. Even Tellwyrn, thankfully, left her alone.

The chair had a lever on the side, below its arm rests. This, it turned out, caused its back to lean backward and footrest to extend, reclining to a sort of improvised bed. What a marvelous innovation. Aradidjad lounged back, staring up at the ascent of the great hourglass into infinity above.

She was just absently wondering what that smell was when a big, dark hand holding a steaming bowl appeared in her field of vision.

Aradidjad reflexively grabbed the lever; fortunately the chair didn’t seem to go upright as quickly as it reclined, which spared her from rearing up straight into the bowl of soup.

Kaolu still took a judicious step back, watching her with a faint smile totally unlike his previous stony glare.

“We never grow hungry,” he explained. “Food is to nourish the spirit, here. You’ll quickly find this is important and well worth doing; we are all staving off one kind of madness or another. Here, it is a Sifanese noodle soup Tellwyrn likes. I don’t know your comfort foods yet, but one good thing about this place is the plentiful opportunity to discover new things.”

She got the chair back upright, and found herself clutching its armrests with both hands, staring at him with an embarrassingly fish-like expression.

Kaolu’s smile widened slightly. “An apology is owed.”

“Oh,” Aradidjad said weakly. “I…”

“No, no!” He actually laughed, waving at her with his free hand. “No, from me. I must have been very unfriendly when you first arrived. Truly, I am sorry for my rudeness. You see, I recall so vividly the mysterious Scion who appeared in the aftermath of my greatest anguish, and so calmly outmaneuvered everything I did to coerce me into this place. Yet, when I arrived here, she was nowhere to be found! I have grown accustomed to the service of Vemnesthis without the chance to grow accustomed to that person.”

Aradidjad blinked, and nodded. In fact, the cheerful Idrie who accompanied her on that first elevator ride had borne little resemblance to the unstoppable little force of nature which had…

“And so,” Kaolu continued, “there you suddenly were, and memory struck me like a mighty blow. I let myself forget what I now know, of how it feels to be suddenly…here. To be doing these things, with no choice.” Smiling, he bent forward again, offering her the bowl. “We are all prisoners together. We wear the same chains. It does not do to hold grudges between us. Here: soup cures nothing, but treats everything. Please have some.”

“Thank you,” she said finally, reaching to take the hot bowl from him. “I…appreciate it. And… I’m sorry, too, Kaolu. If it helps, you gave me quite a lot of trouble.”

His smile broadened into a wide grin, but just as quickly diminished again. “We are of two kinds, I find. Some are here because they grasped for power. Some, because they tried to undo a cruel loss. Often you can tell which, by what they do after their first mission. That you retreat like this—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said abruptly, then stopped and deliberately moderated her tone. “I’m sorry.”

“Be not sorry,” he replied, bowing to her. “I only meant that I understand. You need not hurry to speak of anything. Here, we have nothing but time. If you ever do wish to speak, though, I will hear.”

“I…thank you.”

He smiled broadly, and gave her a deep nod. “For now, enjoy your soup. She will have more tasks for us all soon enough. Welcome, Cyria Aradidjad. We shall try to make this a home for you, as we do for each other.”

Kaolu left her alone after that. She gazed pensively after him for a long moment, until he disappeared into the distance, before turning her attention to the slowly cooling bowl in her hands. Frowning, she carefully picked up the utensils provided with the noodles and broth.

“…in all of time and space, what sort of maniac uses two sticks to eat soup?”

 

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Bonus #24: Scion, part 1

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“Impressive, isn’t it?”

It was much more than that, but she was not about to give them the satisfaction of saying so.

Aradidjad folded her arms and did her best to look supercilious rather than sullen; she stared past the open walls of the cage-like elevator as much to avoid the eyes of her captors as to take in the incredible scene.

The citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis hung suspended in a void; all around was an endless vault of stars and eerie splashes of faint color like distant nebulae—a sight she dimly recognized from her undergraduate years, though she was no astronomer. The whole complex was even surrounded by a ring system like Bast’s, tilted at a crazy angle. Like the rings around the distant gas giant, it seemed to be made of dust and chunks of floating debris, being just close enough to the elevator for her to make out its texture.

In the center of the complex hung the vast hourglass. Multi-chambered, filled with sands which glowed in shifting shades of gold and silver, streaming through its many compartments in patterns that made no sense even when they were not interrupted by miniature sandstorms, the glass was an endless tower suspended in space. It actually seemed to terminate far below, but stretched above apparently infinitely. The relatively small segment surrounded by the Scions’ base might as well have been perfectly vertical, but as its vast length extended toward eternity it could be seen to weave and waver in an irregular pattern.

Rings of metal surrounded the hourglass, broad walkways upon which Arididjad could see people coming and going. There were over a dozen layers of them, connected by an erratic network of spiral staircases and rope bridges, all wrought from metal which gleamed like chrome. A faint glow washed outward from the great hourglass, but there were also incongruously mundane-looking street lamps on posts positioned here and there, mostly at the foot of each bridge.

The elevator “shafts” were little more than long metal poles guiding the course of each car, which itself was nothing but an open cage of brass and a glass floor—enough to give a person vertigo, to which she was fortunately not very susceptible. There were dozens of these elevators, all positioned around the edges of the metal platforms, apparently stopping at multiple levels and all rising to the gateways which hung in space several stories above the highest level of the complex.

Extending out past the network of platforms and bridges, but within the planetary ring, were a profusion of buildings covering every conceivable architectural style. Everything from mud brick huts to stone temples, log cabins and graceful palaces, even several towering and improbable-looking structures of glass and steel. They floated in nothing, reached from the platforms by more hanging bridges.

There were no banisters or safety rails anywhere in the place.

“Aw, it’s all right, you can say it,” the gnome prompted with an irritating grin. “It’s no admission of weakness. It is damn impressive, and you know it.”

“No need to prod at her,” the elf said in a mild tone. While the gnome seemed strangely cheerful about this whole contemptible business, the elf had just been standoffish and left her alone. Aradidjad didn’t know the little red-headed gnomish woman from a hole in the wall, but this elf was unmistakable, and her presence here boded ill. Her apparent disinterest was, if anything, encouraging.

“How long am I expected to serve, here?” she demanded.

Tellwyrn had been watching out the front of the elevator with her back to Aradidjad, but now half-turned to look at her sidelong, pushing those gold-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of her nose.

“This is a life sentence, Dr. Aradidjad. Idrie should have explained that to you.”

“Oh, I bloody well did, an’ you know it,” the gnome huffed. “C’mon, Arachne, you know what they’re all like when first picked up. I told ‘er what she needs ta know; it won’t stop the questions.”

“So,” Aradidjad grunted, “I’m here till I die, then? Well, at least I know how to quit.”

The elf’s shift in posture was infinitesimal, and her expression changed not a hair, but suddenly Aradidjad’s nerves jangled with a sense of impending danger.

It didn’t help. Moving with the characteristic fluid speed of her race, Tellwyrn whirled, whipping a gold-hilted saber out of nowhere, and drove the blade straight into her heart.

She gaped, in total shock, at the elf’s faintly sardonic expression…which drifted upward as she slumped to her knees. Blood spurted with each agonizing beat of her heart. The pain… It hurt less than she’d have expected. It felt like pressure more than a cut, she noted with scientific detachment, even as her senses faded into blackness.

Everything stopped.

And suddenly, everything was running backward. She moved through a haze over which she had no control, watching the last few seconds rewind. Aradidjad was pulled upright as if on strings, Tellwyrn reached out to grab the saber’s hilt and yanked it from her chest. That, oddly, didn’t hurt.

Then time resumed its normal flow, and she stumbled backward. Fortunately her back came against one of the elevator’s upright supports, which spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. Aradidjad scrabbled frantically for the handrails, gasping. She clawed at her chest; no wound. There was no blood. Her shirt wasn’t even rumpled.

“You get to quit,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “when we decide you can.”

Idrie the gnome rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Arachne.”

“You could just have explained that!” Aradidjad snarled.

Tellwyrn shrugged and turned her back again. “I find that experience is the best teacher.”

Aradidjad bared her teeth at the elf’s back, straightening up and raised one hand; energy began to coalesce out of the air in her grip.

Idrie cleared her throat, catching her eye, and then shook her head pointedly.

After a short pause, she let the half-formed spell disperse. What was the use, anyway? Tellwyrn didn’t even bother to acknowledge it, though she of course must have been aware of a spell of arcane destruction being cast directly behind her. Well, of course she didn’t. It was Arachne Tellwyrn. Cyria Aradidjad was a much more than competent mage, but instigating a wizard’s duel with this one would have been nothing but drawn-out, extravagant suicide.

And if she correctly interpreted the point of the very painful lesson she had just been given, even that option was not available to her.

Apparently the time reversal had been highly localized. She couldn’t tell whether Idrie had been affected, but the elevator itself was not; it continued down, its progress not altered by the few seconds which had moved backward for Aradidjad. She was still getting her breath back under control when it reached its destination. The cage came to a stop alongside a level near the middle of the complex, a soft chime sounded from somewhere, and the doors slid open.

“Well, step lively now,” Tellwyrn said lightly, striding out onto the metal platform.

“Are you in a hurry?” Aradidjad snipped, following her. “I would think we have all the time in the world.”

“Sloth is a moral failing regardless of its concrete effect,” Tellwyrn replied without turning around. “Come along, Doctor. You will quickly learn to develop the habit of keeping in motion. The kinds of people recruited to serve here are usually those whose minds go to dark places when they have time to sit and contemplate.”

Aradidjad narrowed her eyes, but followed. That description was so true of herself it was eerie.

With Idrie trundling along behind them, seeming to keep up effortlessly despite her tiny legs, they made their way along the platform. Aradidjad glanced down rope bridges as they passed. Not rope, she saw now, but some kind of steel cable. They still didn’t look terribly sturdy. Each led to a floating building; all had their doors closed. There was no guessing at the contents or purpose of any from what she could see.

“And here we are!” Tellwyrn proclaimed, coming to a stop at one end of the long platform. Off to the side of the space, two bridges extended away to other platforms, next to a spiral staircase leading both up and down to still more. This area, though, was set aside for occupation, with a profusion of mismatched tables, chairs, and a few long sofas. Perched across one end of the seating area, precariously close to the edge of the platform, were two food carts such as Aradidjad often saw on the streets of Tiraas. At least, their purpose was obvious, though one was a primitive wooden affair with a charcoal brazier and the other seemed made of brushed steel and contained an arcane cold box of a design clearly more advanced than she had ever seen, to judge by the compact structure of its enchanting components. “Everyone, meet Dr. Cyria Aradidjad, our newest Scion. Cyria, everyone.”

“This is everyone?” she demanded, sweeping a surprised stare around the group. There were only five of them. But then, with power over time itself, she supposed the Scions did not need to be a numerous group to be everywhere they needed…

“Not hardly, it’s just a figure of speech,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You can meet everyone at your leisure, but this is a good start: these are exactly the folks you’ll be interacting with the most. Behind the carts there is Kaolu, our chef and groundskeeper. Stay on his good side if you wish to eat well. This is Q, short for Quartermaster, and the only thing he wishes to be called. Chao Lu Shen is our librarian and archivist—any mission which requires you to be updated on the details of the period, which will be most of them, begins with him. And these are Rispin and Yalda, who are much less important.”

“Always a pleasure to see you too, Boss,” the blonde dwarf introduced as Yalda replied sardonically. Rispin, a male drow, just looked at Tellwyrn and then at Aradidjad, his expression betraying nothing, and did not pause in chewing whatever was in his mouth.

The three Tellwyrn introduced as important were all humans. Kaolu was a Westerner of towering height, who fixed Aradidjad with a stony stare from the moment of her arrival. Q gave her a curt nod to soften his speculative expression. It was a little hard to read his face, dominated as it was but an enormous handlebar mustache and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. He was actually an inch or two shorter than she, but incredibly burly, with a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair that was beginning to recede. Chao Lu Shen was a diminutive Sheng man wearing frameless spectacles which appeared to be clipped onto the bridge of his nose, without earpieces. He smiled pleasantly at her and bowed at being introduced.

Not one of them looked like mages, though only mages ended up running afoul of—and being forcibly recruited by—the Scions of Vemnesthis. Then again, appearances did not count for much even in the rational world she knew. Here, it might be best to assume nothing meant what it seemed to. What little seemed to mean anything.

“So, a doctor?” Q rumbled. “Would that be of the medical sort?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I am a researcher in the Arcane Sciences Department at Imperial Univeristy in Calderaas.”

“Were,” Idrie corrected her cheerfully. “You’re one of us now!” Her smile was undaunted by Aradidjad’s answering scowl.

“Pity,” Q grunted. “We could use a medic.”

“For what?” Yalda asked in exasperation.

“General principles. Feels wrong, serving in a unit with no medic.”

“So, a theoretical scientist.” Rispin had swallowed, and now addressed her in a low, warm voice that might have been seductive had she been in any mood for it. “I suppose that explains how you came to be here.”

Aradidjad’s attention was diverted by Kaolu, who had continued staring at her flatly with that unreadable expression. At the drow’s open invitation, though, she cut her eyes to him and narrowed them. “I’m not interested in talking about that.”

“Oh, by all means, take all the time ye need,” Idrie said lightly. “Times all we’ve got in ‘ere, aye? Everybody comes ’round eventually. Me, now, I’m an archaeologist!”

“Don’t you mean were an archaeologist?” Yalda retorted, earning a few points in Aradidjad’s book.

“Are, were, all the same,” Idrie replied, waving her off. “Leastwise, fer me it is. I’m in it ta study ancient cultures, an’ hell’s bells ‘ave I got the opportunity of a lifetime fer that! I may never publish another paper, but damn if the work ain’t excitin’!”

“I, too, find cause to appreciate my current position,” Chao Lu Shen said almost diffidently. “I created a stable temporal loop, enabling myself to live the same day over and over.”

Aradidjad had resolved not to get involved with these people and focus on getting out of this predicament, but that story diverted her attention both from her plans and Kaolu’s increasingly unnerving stare. “One day, on endless repeat? Why in the world would you want to do that?”

“I was a librarian even then,” he replied, smiling. “The Library of the Celestial Emperor in Zingyaru is among the greatest in the world. Texts from every land, from every age! A scholar could devote a lifetime and explore only a fraction of one wing. Indeed, it would take a lifetime’s study to learn every language needed to decipher every document in the Library. I could not bear to be among such a wealth of knowledge, and know that my mortality would deprive me of all but the merest sliver.”

“You imprisoned yourself in a time loop,” Aradidjad said slowly, “to read books.”

He bowed to her again, his smile undiminished. “And now, I have access to books and knowledge beyond all mortal apprehension, and eternity itself in which to study them! I am most content with my lot. If Vemnesthis demands my service for this privilege, then I am honored to serve.”

“If you’re thinking that makes you a bad fit around here,” Yalda said dryly, “don’t. Chao Lu Shen is the exception, not the rule. Most people who were ambitious enough to try messing with time don’t particularly care to be pressganged into being wardens of the very prison they tried to bust out of.”

“We all make whatever accommodation we must with our situation, as it is well and truly permanent,” Rispin added. “Trust me. Some of your new colleagues—none of those here—have chosen to embrace madness rather than endure this situation at face value. From watching them, we have learned that the excuse of madness does not relieve us of duty, but merely makes it more difficult to perform. It is worth devoting some attention to keeping yourself sane.”

“What’re you in for, then?” Aradidjad asked him.

“Bad form, that,” Q snorted. “Won’t tell us your story, but you wanna hear everyone else’s?”

“Aw, quit bein’ such a grouch,” Idrie ordered, strolling over to smack him on the knee reprovingly.

“There is no harm in the asking,” Rispin said with a shrug. “If I did not wish to answer, I wouldn’t. Vemnesthis is not widely known in the Underworld; most of the Pantheon are not. I crafted a plan which would have catapulted me to immense power over my fellows, but failed to account for the existence of an entire deity devoted to thwarting ambitions such as mine.”

“Sorry it didn’t work out for you,” Aradidjad said, struggling to withhold the spite from her voice. Typical drow.

He shrugged again. “One tries what one must; sometimes one fails. I may not have power, here, but the accommodations are indescribably luxurious, compared to what I endured before. I have not learned to appreciate being ordered around by a distant god and his sharp-tongued delegate, but who among us gets all we wish from life?”

“I just wanted to see my fiance again,” Yalda said quietly, fixing a cold stare on Tellwyrn. “But to hell with that and with me, I suppose.”

Aradidjad followed her eyes, deliberately ignoring Kaolu, whose stare had neither relented nor shifted from her for a second. The man didn’t even seem to blink. “Yes, I can’t help but notice that our most famous member appears to be out of uniform. What’s her story?”

Tellwyrn was standing off to the side, silently watching the conversation with her arms folded. Indeed, she wore a simple blouse, vest, and trousers in green and brown, while the rest of them were clad in robes of a pale bronze color deliberately reminiscent of the sands in the titanic hourglass which loomed off to the side.

“Oh, ‘aven’t ye guessed?” Idrie chimed merrily. “She’s the boss of us, an’ now of you, too! That there’s the high priestess of Vemnesthis, an’ the one from whom you’ll be gettin’ yer marchin’ orders from now on.”

“She’s out of uniform,” Yalda added with barely-concealed dislike, “because she gets to go home.”

“The Scions have no home but this citadel in time, and no life but our service,” Chao Lu Shen said in his soft voice, “and never see the world of our birth save on missions in the name of Vemnesthis. Except for our leader, who has the privilege of a dual existence. When not directing us, she returns to her own affairs in the mortal realm.”

“In your entire life,” Aradidjad asked Tellwyrn bitterly, “have you ever encountered a rule that actually applied to you? Or do you just apply them to others?”

“Yes, yes, how very put-upon you all are,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone. “You all know exactly what you did to end up here—especially you,” she added, tilting her head to stare over the rims of her spectacles at Aradidjad. “I should think it would be fresh enough in your mind. Complain if it makes you feel better, but I’ll warn you up front that it won’t, in the long term. And the long term is what you’d better start thinking of. There are no short terms, here.”

“You have barely begun to dislike Arachne Tellwyrn,” Rispin said with a sarcastic smile which strongly suggested he wasn’t of Narisian origin. “She is an abrasive, unlovable onion whose many noxious layers you have all the time in the world to open, one by one. But, and this is one of her most annoying traits, she is very seldom wrong. She’s not wrong now. Don’t dwell on your anger, comrade. It will only make you miserable, and gain you nothing.”

Offering him no response, Aradidjad stared at Tellwyrn through narrowed eyes in the ensuing silence. She glanced aside; yep, Kaolo was still glaring at her. That was going to get very old, very quickly.

Then, before her better judgment could kick in and dissuade her, she whirled and dashed for the edge of the platform.

No one tried to stop her; no one even exclaimed in surprise, with the exception of Idrie, whose whoop could only be taken as encouragement. Aradidjad only had to take four long steps to reach the edge of the un-railed platform and hurl herself off into the infinite abyss.

She had, fortunately, plunged into a section of space with no structures under it…or perhaps unfortunately. Involuntarily flailing her limbs, she plummeted past rope bridges and more platforms, and barely missed skinning herself on the long bulk of a floating lighthouse (of all the absurd things), and then she was falling through sheer nothing, toward nothing. Stars drifted all around; in her spinning descent, she caught glimpses of the base of the hourglass, retreating above her along with the citadel of the Scions. It was smooth and rounded on the bottom, filled with sand, and rapidly shrinking behind her…

And then time slowed, and stopped. For a second, she hung there, fixed in place. Then it began to run in reverse, dragging her helplessly along.

Aradidjad rose straight back up, unable to move against the rewind but conscious of it. She shot past hovering structures to the edge of the platform on which Tellwyrn and the other Scions stood, staring at her—not caught in her rewind, she noticed—as she landed on its edge, jogged backward a few steps without the ability to so much as protest, and was finally released, standing in exactly the position from which she’d started.

“Wow,” Yalda drawled, sounding oddly impressed. “Most people have to deal with this place for a few years before trying that.”

“Oh, we’ve got us a live one ‘ere, we ‘ave!” Idrie crowed.

“I was wondering about the lack of safety rails,” Aradidjad commented.

“You’ll be glad to know,” said Tellwyrn dryly, “or perhaps not so glad, that if you land on something solid and crush yourself like an egg on the cobblestones, it works exactly the same. You work for Vemnesthis, now, and nobody’s going to get you out of it. Not even Vidius.”

“We’ll see,” Aradidjad replied, staring her down.

Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well. All right, since you all look so bored, it’s mission time.”

There were a few muted groans, but clearly everyone present knew the futility of protest. Tellwyrn continued barking orders, ignoring them.

“Chao Lu Shen, back to the library and prepare to assist your colleagues. Q, fetch a service pistol for Aradidjad here and meet her by Shaft Six. Kaolu, I’ll have a bowl of kake udon with a slice of tangerine ginger cheesecake for dessert. Rispin, you’re delivering a first warning to an arcanist in Akhvaris; no special accommodations with the culture are necessary this time, I want you to scare the hell out of her. You’ll embark from Shaft Two. Yalda, there’s another tribal group fucking around with that off-kilter hellgate in Arkania, a century and a half after the last batch. Same drill as before. Chao Lu Shen will brief you on their etiquette; we’re assuming at this point that they’ll comply with a divine messenger. If not, we’ll try harsher measures. Shaft Eleven. Ardidjad, you’re doing a recruitment, Shaft Six. The shafts are clearly numbered, just head clockwise around the platforms from here and you’ll get there.”

“Honestly, that mess again?” Yalda whined. “Since you’re the one who can bloody well leave, can’t you straighten that damn thing out? It’s a big, red, glowing button with a ‘poke me’ sign for anyone with a shred of arcane or infernal talent.”

“You’re not wrong,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “but options are few in that period. In my official capacity as Vemnesthis’s representative I have repeatedly asked the local cults to intervene, but the Avenists have their hands full with the other hellgate in that region and the Salyrites aren’t yet organized enough in that century to be much use. It’s long before I came along, or I’d just do it myself. My next gambit will be Vesk; he’s annoying to deal with, but if I can get him to make a quest of it some adventurers will eventually straighten it out. That’s why I want you to be polite to these people. I don’t think this group will help, but try to persuade them to stabilize the gate instead of making use of it. If they won’t, just get them to leave it alone; there’ll be another group along in another eighty years who will be more accommodating.”

“Feh,” Yalda grunted, flouncing off. “Anything to avoid adventurers. All they do is make a mess…”

“Hang on,” Aradidjad protested while the group dispersed, with the exceptions of Rispin and Kaolu, the latter of whom didn’t stop eerily staring at her even while cooking up some kind of noodle soup with ingredients he appeared to have conjured out of thin air. “I just got here! You’re sending me—I mean, isn’t there training or something?”

“We learn by doing,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smile. “Shaft Six, off you go.”

“I don’t even have the uniform!”

“Don’t you?”

Aradidjad paused and looked down on herself. Her avuncular suit was gone; she was inexplicably dressed in a set of those golden-beige robes, apparently tailored to her.

“Already,” she observed, “I really hate you.”

“I suggest you get over that, since it doesn’t harm anyone but you. Need something, Rispin?”

“A request,” said the drow, who had remained behind while the others scattered. “Would you please direct Yalda last this time? You’re always unusually grouchy after dealing with her.”

“And you thought that would help my mood?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be on my cheesecake by then; gods know I’ll need it. Get to your assignment, Rispin.”

“I don’t understand,” Aradidjad said plaintively.

“Through the auspices of our divine benefactor,” Tellwyrn informed her while Rispin strode away, “I will be your eyes and ears while you are on mission; you are the hands and feet. I’ll be feeding you instructions and watching your progress the whole time you’re working.”

“Well, that’s creepy as hell. So… You’re going to direct everyone at once?”

“No, sequentially. I can multi-task, but there’s no reason to, and these things go off much more smoothly when I focus on one person at a time.”

“Then we each have to wait for the one before to finish before we…” She trailed off when Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah. Right. Never mind.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the elf said with mild amusement. “Everything about your brain wants to deal with time as a linear construct. The way things work here takes significant getting used to. If anybody makes fun of you for it, know that they started in exactly the same place, and also you have my blessing to shove them off a platform. Now, off you go. Shaft Six, already. Chop chop.”

Aradidjad sighed and slouched away, aware without looking behind that Kaolu was staring at her back until she was out of sight.

Despite the chaotic appearance of the citadel, there was a logic to it—at least, to the elevator shafts. She found number Six without trouble, and found Q waiting impatiently at its foot.

“Finally,” he grunted at her. “Take the scenic route, did you?”

“I have Tellwyrn’s permission to push you off the platform,” she informed him.

“Yes, and that runs both ways, doctor. This is your service revolver.” He held out the object on both open palms.

Aradidjad stared at the thing for a moment, before gingerly taking it by what was clearly the handle. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to hold it, based on the handle’s position and the obvious clicker mechanism, and it was clearly a weapon, but… “Okay. But what is it?”

“An extrapolation from a design which I gather comes along after your time,” he rumbled. “The originals used controlled explosions to fire shaped metal projectiles at close to the speed of sound—”

“That would absolutely destroy any known energy shield,” Aradidjad breathed in fascination, studying the revolver with a new respect.

“Until shielding charms grew more sophisticated to adapt, yes,” Q said impatiently. “That’s neither here nor there. This one uses arcane power crystals instead of bullets, because you cannot be leaving material evidence anywhere you’re going. Each time you squeeze the trigger—”

“You mean the clicker?”

“…the trigger,” he said deliberately, glaring at her, “it will engage one of the power crystals to fire an energy beam, and the cylinder will rotate to bring the next crystal into alignment—”

“Thus entirely avoiding the overheating problem of conventional lightning wands and enabling a much faster rate of fire!” she exclaimed, delighted. Aradidjad had never been a weapons enthusiast, but always appreciated clever applications of engineering and enchantment.

Q snorted loudly, making his mustache bristle. “I can tell you’re going to be a world of fun, doctor. You are under no circumstances to fire that weapon in the material world while on mission. Any problems you encounter will be handled by Tellwyrn—”

“How? I thought the whole point of her staying here was to provide logistical support while we’re the ones in the field?”

“Dr. Aradidjad,” Q stated calmly, “if you interrupt me one more time, I will take that weapon back from you and shoot you with it. I will then continue to do so each time you rewind until Tellwyrn comes down here and makes me stop. Do we have an understanding?”

“Ah. So that’s how we avoid injury with no medics.”

“Yes, yes,” he sighed. “Go ahead, get it out of your system now.”

So she shot him in the head.

The revolver produced a sharp beam, blue in color and less intense than the enchanter wands with which she was familiar. It also had more of a kinetic element, clearly. The bolt entered cleanly through a small hole it bore into his forehead, but erupted out the back of his skull in a veritable explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments.

The rewind was fascinating to watch when she wasn’t caught in the middle of it. Pieces of Q’s head flew neatly back into place and he staggered back upright.

“There,” he said sourly, “feel better?”

“That really is amazing,” she said admiringly, and shot him through the heart.

“Knock it off, Aradidjad,” Tellwyrn’s voice sounded right in her ears, making her jump. Q lurched back toward her in a reverse of the blow which had flung him bodily away—that revolver had serious punching power, far more than any wand—and the hole in his chest mended itself. “Q, finish your spiel, please, I want to get this one in the field so I can play with her.”

“Gladly,” he snorted. “As I was saying, you are not to fire that weapon on the mortal realm. Most Scions never have an occasion to use their service pistols at all. It is only for emergency use against hazards you may rarely encounter in the place between, which is the medium used to travel to different time periods and locations.”

She frowned. “Where’s that?”

“Where you’re going next,” Tellwyrn said with ominous good cheer. “Thank you, Q, you’re dismissed. Now up the elevator, Aradidjad, your first mission awaits.”

Deliberately not allowing her trepidation to slow her, she stepped into the elevator. “Did you say you’re sending me on a recruitment? Why is that my first mission?”

“Because they’re easy,” Tellwyrn’s disembodied voice informed her as the elevator ascended with no prompting from its passenger. “Place the revolver against your side at a height that’s comfortable for you to draw it from; a holster will automatically appear on your robes and contain it. And don’t worry, Aradidjad, I’ll be guiding you every step of the way.”

“And let me guess,” she said sourly. “You can make that rewind thing happen at will, not just in response to lethal injury.”

“Precisely! You have as many chances as you’ll need to do it right. It’s not dangerous work, doctor; it’s far more likely to be tedious. Nothing ever goes off perfectly on the first try. But with all of time itself at our disposal, perfection is a very attainable standard. Vemnesthis requires nothing less.”

“Lovely,” she grunted.

“Oh, don’t be surly, your face’ll freeze that way. I’ll tell you what, after everyone’s back from assignment, we’ll have a movie night to welcome you aboard.”

“…movie…night?”

“It’s Chao Lu Shen’s turn to pick, which means it’ll be early Madouris talkies, but they’re not bad. You’ll appreciate those when Kaolu’s turn comes, he makes us watch these truly inexplicable Glassian art films.”

“Am I expected to have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about?”

“Not at this juncture, no,” Tellwyrn said with a laugh that made Aradidjad really wish she could shoot her. “Come along, no dallying.”

The elevator chimed pleasantly, coming to a stop at the shimmering gateway at the top of its shaft. Aradidjad drew in a breath, but did not hesitate in stepping through it. Not because she gave a flying damn what her bossy captor thought about anything, but for her own sake she refused to fall into timidity.

On the other side, though, she had to stop, staring.

She did not recognize this town; it apparently empty of life. There was something wavery and indistinct about the air, an effect she could not quite place. The silence was absolute and frighteningly oppressive.

Worst was the sky; there wasn’t one. Instead was a vast mass of eyes, tentacles, claws, bulbous protrusions of pulsating flesh. It was as if the world were completely surrounded by heaving monstrosities, themselves the size of planets.

All of which, suddenly, were looking directly at her.

“Come on, Aradidjad, chop chop,” Tellwyrn prompted her cheerfully. “Off you go! Time waits for no one.”

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13 – 53

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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13 – 52

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They watched him pacing in the monitors from the security hub which now served as the headquarters for the entire Hand program. There were, of course, two Hands present; they had, without comment, implemented a policy of never leaving the Emperor unattended when he was in a room with the kitsune. In addition to Sharidan, Milanda, and Akane standing in front of the monitor, the three resident dryads were huddled around another screen some distance away, reading something. They liked to be nearby when people gathered, but didn’t seem to have the attention span for prolonged discussions. In two smaller screens flanking the one showing the prisoner were displayed the images of the Avatar and Walker, the latter observing this through a similar two-screen setup down in her home in the GIC. The Avatar, of course, could see whatever the computers did. Making a visible face was just a courtesy he extended. Altogether it was rather more crowded than usual in the hub.

On the monitor, the damaged Hand of the Emperor, his clothing still stained and ragged from his travails at Last Rock, paced like a caged animal—which wasn’t far from the reality. They had secured him in one of the cells lining the access corridor. Not the one in which Walker had been kept for years; that one was now a sort of reading nook, permanently set aside with books and a small fountain. The dryads enjoyed congregating there.

“Tactically, it’s interesting,” the Emperor mused. “They weren’t able to destroy him—but they did fight him to a standstill. And those were a handful of miscellaneous leftovers after most of the University’s faculty and students were secured out of his reach. This is the closest we have ever been, or likely will be again, to testing the Hands’ on-the-ground combat capability against what are effectively the adventurer teams of the modern age.”

Everyone nodded, and no one commented. While Tellwyrn and her school were ostensibly allies of the Silver Throne, it was important to know how dangerous one’s allies were. In case one needed to call on them…or in case they suddenly changed their minds.

“Avatar,” Akane said, “how long until your scan of him is complete?”

“I estimate less than an hour, and apologize that I cannot be more precise. I am using the general trascension field sensor program Walker and Milanda established during the recent crisis, which is slower than this facility’s original detector functions. We could perform a full analysis almost instantly by employing the transcension matrix which forms the updated Hand system, but there is a risk of contamination if he is connected to it in his current state.”

“You can’t use it to gather information without hooking him into it?” Sharidan asked, interested.

“At that level of transcension activity, your Majesty, observation and interaction are the same.”

“Yes,” Walker added, nodding in the viewscreen, “that’s one of the principles of quantum mechanics which informs the core ideas—”

“Yes, Yrsa, we know,” Akane interrupted, one ear twitching impatiently. “If you must lecture, please spare us that Infinite Order quantum mystic drivel. We can, of course, establish barriers that would enable us to analyze a connected Hand while keeping him contained from the system…in theory. When I redesigned the structure I did not have that function in mind, and so it is not equipped.” She inclined her head politely to the Emperor, as close to a bow as the kitsune ever came—and a courtesy which she extended to no one else. “At this point, your Majesty, our next act depends upon your priorities.”

“Can you elaborate, Akane-sama?” he replied with equal politeness. It would not do for a sitting Emperor to show actual deference, but he always treated Akane with grave courtesy. The two of them got along surprisingly well.

“The most efficient action, here,” she said, “would be to sever him fully from the magic empowering him. That might be more complicated than doing so to one of our currently linked Hands, as… I am not exactly certain what’s empowering him at this point. He appears to be linked to the corrupted network, which of course no longer exists. I am confident I can brute-force a way around it in the worst-case scenario, since the more elegant option involves bringing Tellwyrn here to explain the nature of that dimensional cage of hers which caused this. I gather that is not on the table.”

“I want Tellwyrn in here even less than she wants to reveal her secrets,” Sharidan said with some amusement.

Akane nodded agreement. “That done, and after we have ascertained that his mind was not permanently damaged by this experience, we can simply re-initiate him the usual way.”

“Who’s we?” Mimosa asked from behind them. “You’re not the one who has to get all physical with the guy.”

“If you object, ladies,” the Emperor began, but Apple grinned and interrupted.

“No, we don’t object, she’s just being difficult. We like all the Hands. I’ll do him this time; I feel bad about all the trouble he’s been through.”

“The other possibility,” Akane continued with a long-suffering sigh, “is to take this opportunity to re-work the system once again, with him included this time. If there are further modifications you wish to make, your Majesty, it is a good moment to discuss them.”

“That would involve temporarily disabling the entire thing, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Walker said before Akane could answer. “Just like before. The Hands would be incapacitated for the duration.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “That, it seems to me, is a good idea to pursue at another date, when we have time to plan for it. For the time being, I would prefer the more efficient solution with the least disruptive ramifications.”

“Wise,” she agreed. “Then our only other potential crisis is your Left Hand’s little episode in Puna Dara.” She turned a supercilious expression on Milanda, who continued to stare blankly at the pacing Hand in the screen. “Obviously, we cannot have you melting down like that in a crisis situation. Now, I have outlined a training program which you can undertake with the Avatar and the dryads, which—”

“Shut up, Akane.”

It was Milanda who twitched, for an instant fearing it was she who had spoken. But Akane turned her glare on the right-hand monitor, her ears lying flat against her skull. In the screen, Walker was glaring right back.

“What did you say to me?” the kitsune hissed.

“You heard me,” Walker said bluntly. “Mouth shut. You’re being an ass, and it is beneath you.”

“How dare—”

“My brightest memories,” Walker said, raising her voice, “are of you extending a hand to me when our own mother would not. You were kind, and wise enough to know exactly how to ease a troubled young person’s unhappiness. But that was before thousands of years of only interacting with people who have been terrorized by generations of kitsune tyranny into dancing to your tune atrophied your social skills almost to nothing, Akane. And now here you are, barking orders at a trauma victim. Frankly I think spending time around here will come to do you a world of good, but in the meantime, here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t be nice, button your yap and go away.”

For once, Akane seemed too stunned to say anything imperious. Her ears remained swiveled fully backward, tail rigid and puffed up, but she only stared at Walker’s face in silence.

“She makes a good point, there,” Hawthorn observed after a momentary pause. “Nobody likes you, Akane.”

“You’re mean,” Mimosa added, nodding emphatically. “We’d much rather spend time with Walker. That really says something, cos she’s a terrifyingly wrong thing who makes my hair stand on end just being in a room with her. Not to mention the most boring person I ever met.”

“Hey!” Walker protested.

“Well,” Apple said reasonably, “you do go on and on and on about things nobody cares about. But really, that’s no more annoying than these two,” she waved a hand absently at her sisters, both of whom stuck out tongues at her, “and you obviously care. It’s kinda good hanging around with you even when you’re making long speeches about nothing, cos you at least act like a sister.”

“Unlike this one,” Hawthorn added, pointing accusingly at the flabbergasted kitsune. “I’ll be honest, Akane, the only reason none of us has punched you yet is Walker keeps saying how nice you are at heart and to give you a chance and you’ll surprise us eventually.”

“Still waiting on that, by the way,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Now, girls,” the Avatar began soothingly, but Akane whirled and stalked to the door without another word. It hissed open and then shut behind her, leaving an a strained silence in her wake.

The two attending Hands glanced at each other sidelong, which was possibly the greatest loss of composure they had ever displayed when not malfunctioning.

Sharidan drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh, stepping closer to Milanda and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against him.

“I am removing you from active duty, though,” he murmured.

She mutely nodded, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

“I have never ordered you to do anything, Milanda, but this time I have to. You will begin attending sessions with Counselor Saatri, as Lord Vex tells me he advised you to do weeks ago. I will not have you back in the field until she clears you for duty.”

“Okay.” That was perhaps not the correct way to acknowledge a command from her Emperor, but he pulled her closer in response and rested his chin atop her head. It would do, for now.


“I hope neither of us is in trouble for showing up late to the big climactic battle,” Teal murmured while constructing a sandwich of flatbread and curried fish. “Guess I wouldn’t blame anybody for being mad at us…”

“Nobody who matters will be,” Trissiny replied, pausing to sip her cup of cold tea. “I was warned shortly after Avei called me that there’d always be someone demanding to know where the hell I’ve been. Because something terrible is always happening somewhere, and a person can only be in one place at a time. The balance we have to strike is in learning to live with that, without becoming jaded over it. What?” she asked quizzically, as Teal had been staring at her in apparent shock for the last half of her reply.

The bard laughed softly, as much in surprise as humor, and resumed piling up fish. “I…sorry. I just never heard you curse before. Those Eserites really are as bad an influence as everyone says.”

“Oh. Well.” Trissiny grinned, idly swirling her half-empty teacup. “Mother Narny always said profanity was the self-expression of a weak mind. The Eserites taught me to use every weapon available, and favor the ones that make an impression without having to draw blood. If you think about it, a curse word doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just a word. Its power comes from the taboo. And breaking a taboo creates an impact. A stronger one if you don’t do it often; nobody bats an eye when Ruda curses, after all.”

“Wow, they taught you linguistics,” Teal said. Having finished making her breakfast sandwich, she set it down on the plate and made no move to take a bite. “That’s a surprising detail. I’d expect you to pick that up if you’d been apprenticing with the Veskers, but…”

“Everybody has a past. Eserites come from all over; they’re mostly people who feel a need to right wrongs in the world, and don’t trust the systems to help.” Trissiny’s expression turned somber, and she stared absently at the distance. “The guy who told me about strategic cursing had been a bard, before being a Guild apprentice.”

Teal nodded slowly, also staring at nothing, her sandwich apparently forgotten. They sat in companionable silence, letting the banquet hall stir idly around them with sporadic activity.

Punaji parties being as they were, the great hall of the Rock had not been cleaned up from the feast of the night before, and more than a handful of attendees were asleep in various positions around the room. There had been plenty of food and drink, and enough was left to make a serviceable breakfast for the early risers now coming through. Most of those were castle staff, minor bureaucrats and the odd guest of indeterminate origin. Thus far, Teal and Trissiny were the only members of the student or apprentice groups up and about—or at least, the only ones who had come down to eat. Principia and her squad had been through early and departed to meet the first of the Silver Legion special forces who were meant to help them settle the Rust crisis; Principia had looked fiendishly gleeful at the prospect of bringing them up to speed.

Teal never did pick up her breakfast again, though after a few silent minutes she looked over at Trissiny once more, and her lips quirked up in a smile. “You really need to fix your hair, though. It never occurred to me how well the blonde suited you until I saw you without it.”

“Everyone is so concerned about my hair,” Trissiny grumbled. “Mother Narny said women outside Viridill were obsessed with cosmetic details, but until very recently I’d come to think she was exaggerating. Anyway, you’re one to talk, Shaggy. I’m sure you’ll look very pretty when you finish growing it out, but the short cut suited you perfectly.”

“Ah…well.” Teal lowered her eyes, her expression fading back to wistfulness. “There’s a story behind that.”

“I noticed the robes, too.”

“Yeah… I may not be much of a Narisian, but—”

“Ah!” They both looked up at the satisfied exclamation, and found Professor Tellwyrn just inside the front door of the banquet hall, already making a beeline for them. “Perfect timing, for once—exactly who I wanted to see! Plus Trissiny, for some damn reason. I would ask what the hell you’re doing here, young lady, but I’ve known too many paladins over the years to be actually surprised.”

“Morning, Professor,” Teal said, waving. “Please let everybody wake up naturally before you teleport us all back to the mountain. We had a long night.”

“So I see,” Tellwyrn said, planting her fists on her hips and sweeping an expressive stare around at the ruins of last night’s shindig. “Anyway, no, Falconer. I’ll hear everyone’s oral report later today. But I thought you would appreciate me making an early stop, first.”

“Me? What did—”

She broke off as a tiny black shape came bouncing into the hall from the front door, yapping exuberantly and heading right for a half-eaten platter of roast boar which for reasons pertaining to a lot of people having been drunk the night before was resting on a bench rather than a table.

“F’thaan, come back here this instant.”

Teal shot to her feet at the voice; Trissiny rose more slowly beside her. Tellwyrn, grinning, stepped aside to clear a path between them and the door, turning to watch.

The puppy skidded to a halt with a plaintive whine, but obediently turned his back on the pork and went gamboling back toward the front of the hall. Shaeine entered in a stately glide, snapped her fingers, and pointed at the ground by her feet. Even as F’thaan came to sit where directed, her garnet colored eyes were already locked on the figure beside Trissiny.

Teal actually vaulted over the table behind which she was sitting. Barely catching her balance on the landing, she staggered briefly before dashing pell-mell across the banquet hall, robes fluttering behind her, bounding over the sleeping form of one of last night’s revelers. She skidded to a stop only a few feet from Shaeine, at the last moment seeming to remember the Narisian composure she was supposed to be practicing.

They both made the last few steps in unison, Shaeine’s face a mask of formal calm, Teal doing an admirable job of imitating one. The human reached out with both hands, and the drow took them gently, gazing up at her eyes.

“I…” Teal paused, then tried again, her voice less rough. “I am very glad to see you.”

Shaeine looked up at her in silence for a moment. Then a broad, totally uncontrolled grin spread across her face, transforming her entire aspect.

“Hello, wife,” she said, then surged forward, wrapping her arms around Teal and insistently tugging her face down to meet her in a triumphant kiss. The two of them whirled around in a full circle, F’thaan yapping excitedly and bouncing in rings around them. Both ignored the encouraging whoops that came from two of the more lucid occupants of the banquet hall.

“What’s all this?” Shaeine demanded finally, somewhat out of breath, running her fingers through Teal’s shoulder-length hair. “And the robe, too? You look so dashing in those suits of yours!”

“Ah, well…” Teal had given up all pretense of Narisian rectitude by that point, and her goofy grin didn’t go at all with the formal robes. “I was the last representative of House Awarrion left on the campus, after all. I figured, you know… If you’re going to play a part, you should embrace the costume.”

“Oh, beloved.” Shaeine tugged her close again, resting her cheek on Teal’s shoulder. “If that’s truly what you want, I support you absolutely. But if this is my mother and sisters trying to mold you, I won’t have it. I introduced you to Mother because I believed you would be an asset to House Awarrion, not because I thought I could turn you into one. Those were the terms on which she accepted you. No one is going to change my Teal.”

Teal squeezed her nearly to the point of pain, though the petite drow made not a peep of protest. “I missed you so much,” she whispered hoarsely into her white hair. “We missed you.” Then, after a pause: “Also, why have you got a baby hellhound?”

“Ah, well…” Shaeine drew back slightly, just enough to gaze up at her with a distinctly impish expression. “Why don’t you show me to your room? We have…things on which to catch up.”

Teal big her lip eagerly in an answering grin. Reluctantly pulling free, she kept a grip on one of Shaeine’s hands, and led her urgently toward a side door, F’thaan bouncing eagerly along behind them and yapping without cease. They slipped out into the corridor, a last startled yelp from Teal echoing behind them.

“Are my eyes starting to go,” Trissiny asked incredulously, “or did Shaeine just goose her? In public?”

“Shaeine has a diplomat’s instinct for adapting to local customs,” Tellwyrn intoned, strolling around to join her on the other side of the table. “Apparently, somewhere midway between Narisian and Punaji is grabbing your wife’s bum if you’ve not had the opportunity for a few weeks. So, what are we having?”

“Whatever’s lying around,” Trissiny replied, and the Professor plopped down next to her, picking up Teal’s untouched fish sandwich.

“Gods, I needed to see that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, still gazing in the direction of the side hall with a faint smile. “There’s been far too much ugliness lately. This wasn’t even my first stop of the day; the last order of business wasn’t nearly so pleasant.”

“Oh?”

She took a bite of the sandwich and continued talking, enunciating with surprising clarity even as she chewed. “Had to deal with the Duchess of House Dalkhaan, she who had the goddamn temerity to send her House troops to attack my University.”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “I presume that ended poorly for them.”

“A lot more survived than you would think, but yes, they accomplished a sum total of nothing. Still, politics. I cannot have the aristocratic class of the Empire thinking they can so much as sneer in my direction without suffering consequences, nor can our political allies. House Dalkhaan, as of this morning, is dissolved and stricken from the rolls of the nobility, by decree of the Silver Throne. All its lands and property are seized and given to me in compensation for insults and offenses given, by command of the Sultana of Calderaas.” She swallowed, then frowned down at the sandwich still held in both her hands. “I got to deliver these edicts to the Duchess my very own self, and remove her from her ancestral home—which is now my property. I let her keep the clothes she was wearing.”

“That was gracious of you,” Trissiny said in a carefully neutral tone.

Tellwyrn’s frown deepened. “She immediately went at her own throat with a letter opener. I put a stop to that, and teleported her to the nearest Omnist homeless shelter. Not until I’d made a production of it for the Imperial observers, though. It was quite the sadistic little speech. ‘Die by any means you wish, but you’ll do it among the rest of the lowborn nothings, where you belong.’ I can’t take credit, the line’s from a play I used to like which hasn’t been performed in about eight hundred years.”

“You look…oddly disquieted,” Trissiny observed. “That’s surprising. I thought you loved delivering fools their comeuppance.”

“I love it when I don’t have to deal with fools at all. Anything else is a grudging compromise.” Tellwyrn shook her head and put down the sandwich, her appetite apparently gone. “I won’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction in hurling bombast in every direction until the people I want to leave me alone do so, tails between their legs and all. But… I don’t know, Trissiny. Deliberate, targeted, subtle viciousness just isn’t in my character. I could’ve reduced the old bat to atoms with a wave of my hand and that might have felt like a victory. The situation demanded that I hurt her, though. Right in the heart and spirit, in a way that no physical violence could have done. A way that’ll put the fear in the rest of her social class so none of them even thinks of trying such a thing again. Having looked in someone’s eyes at that moment… I suddenly find I don’t have a taste for it.”

“Hm.” Trissiny took a sip of her remaining tea, staring thoughtfully at the far wall now. “Professor Yornhaldt told me you once maimed and blinded a Huntsman of Shaath, and put him in the care of the Sisterhood. That sounds like highly targeted cruelty.”

“Oh, that.” Tellwyrn actually grinned. “Yeah, I threatened some idiot with that in front of Alaric once. Heh, I didn’t realize until just now I never got around to telling him that whole incident was a lie. I thought up the scenario while slogging through a swamp in a bad mood one day, back when I was roaming around the Deep Wild. Quite frankly, Trissiny, I find that anyone who deserves that kind of suffering isn’t worth going to the trouble of inflicting it on them. Or at least, that was my position until I had to start making accommodations with this subtle new century in which we live.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Best get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s not a fun lesson to absorb, is it?”

“I had a feeling you’d be sympathetic. It hasn’t escaped my notice that what I’m describing is thinking like an Eserite. If you’re going to scare the bastards into behaving, you have to make a truly chilling object lesson out of somebody.”

Slowly, Trissiny nodded. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the far distance, the cup hanging forgotten from her fingertips. “Not long ago, a very smart, very evil, not very sane person told me that we hurt people because some people need to be hurt. I…resent having to acknowledge how right she was.”

“Yeah. Well.” Tellwyrn held out a hand to one side, and a half-empty bottle of rum lifted off a nearby table, floating straight into her grasp. She raised it up to the morning light peeking through the hall’s upper windows. “Here’s to the age of progress. Fuck it and the horse it rode in on.”

Trissiny clinked her teacup against the bottle, and they both drank in silence.


The Punaji codes of war being what they were, the Rock did not have a proper dungeon. It did have a wing of “guest rooms” with barred windows, doors that only locked from the outside, and constant guard patrols in addition to domestic servants. It was a core tenet of the Punaji philosophy of life that if you deprived a person of their freedom, no matter how good the reason, you owed them all care and consideration, and that cruelty toward a defeated person in your power was the ultimate evil.

Confinement aside, Ayuvesh wasn’t finding his imprisonment arduous at all. True, his breakfast had been delivered through a slot in the door, but that was half an hour after a servant had politely asked him what he would like. The bed was comfortable, there was a shelf of books provided to relieve the tedium—all classics and raggedly secondhand chapbooks, but it was something—and there was even a painting on the wall. A cheap watercolor of a cliché pastoral scene, of course, though he was no art critic. The toilet was tucked in an alcove without a privacy door or even a curtain, but it was a toilet, which flushed and everything, and even came with a sink providing running water. He had never been in jail before, and was surprised at finding better than a bucket in the corner.

Not that his captors were soft, though. Even after just one night, he had heard the guards tromp past his door enough times to realize they did so at irregular intervals, preventing prisoners from memorizing their patrol patterns. Fortunately for him, he had no plans to escape. The King and Queen had shown themselves willing to extend consideration so long as they got it in return. He well understood that politics as well as basic sense prohibited them giving him the run of the palace. If it meant securing as much comfort and protection for his remaining followers as possible, some time spent locked in a room was a very light price to pay. Especially if, by working with the royals, he could help protect Puna Dara from its enemies, both seen and unseen.

Though caged, and marking time until the inevitable failure of his artificial limbs, he still had a mind, and a will, and that was all a person needed. The universe would bend, so long as he kept his mind strong enough.

Ayuvesh was pacing absently in front of his cell door when an odd shadow passed over the barred window. He turned to see what it could be; that window overlooked a side courtyard of the Rock. Surely no one would attempt to climb up…

“Catch!”

By pure reflex, he snagged the object tossed to him, even as the darkness receded. The shadow had not come from outside; someone had just shadow-jumped into his cell.

It was, of all things, an elf wearing an alarmingly wide grin and a neat, pinstriped suit.

The next thing Ayuvesh realized was that the thing he was holding was ticking softly in his hands. It consisted of a dwarven clockwork device, complete with a tiny watch face, linking two terrifyingly fragile-looking jars of softly glowing alchemical substances of different colors. Primitive indeed, compared with the Infinite Order’s nanite-built machinery, but he had been around enough mechanical construction in the last few years to tell how this worked at a glance: once the clock wound down to zero, the two potions would mix, and then…

He twisted this way and that, looking frantically for a place to throw the bomb. It wouldn’t fit through the cell bars. The toilet? No, not big enough, and even water might—

The combination of his distraction and elvish speed was enough to give the intruder the drop on him. The elf surged around behind Ayuvesh and with one adroit move, place the tip of a stiletto against his throat while rapping the bomb out of his grasp with its pommel. Ayuvesh’s breath seized in momentary terror, but the device landed safely upon his blessedly plush pillow.

At the tiniest exertion of pressure against the un-armored portion of his neck, right atop his vulnerable jugular, a drop of blood welled. That blade was viciously sharp. Out the corner of his good eye, he saw the elf’s other hand hold out a palm-sized metal object, like two twisted vines laid atop each other so that their thorns clicked together when they were turned. He had never seen a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in person, but knew it by description.

The elf’s breath was hot against his one ear.

“Warmest regards from his Holiness the Archpope.”

The explosion, when it came, blasted the cell door clear across the hall.

 

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13 – 50

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The Imperials were true to their word; it took them scarcely an hour to complete their business and depart the campus. They were discreet in addition to quick, and while a single strike team placed themselves at the direction of Professor Yornhaldt in the Crawl to provide healing, teleportation, and whatever else was needed, the rest snatched the imprisoned and raging Hand from his confines, along with Lorelin Reich and the remainder of Cross’s men. Meanwhile, on the grounds above, the removal of the last House Dalkhaan soldiers went even faster. By the time the somewhat dazed students began trickling back out of the Crawl’s gates, they found the research staff meandering about inquisitively, having finally emerged from their protected magical bubble, and nearly all the Imperial personnel gone.

Only two Imperial Guards and one blank-faced Hand of the Emperor remained in Helion Hall after the rest had departed, keeping watch over the door to Tellwyrn’s office, while one last strike team discreetly stood by to convey the Empress home when her business was concluded. They, too, vanished without fanfare once they were able.

“And they even had their mages repair the damage to the cafeteria, as well as the Grim Visage,” Tellwyrn added very late that afternoon, slowly pacing around the chamber. “Even considering that it was their runaway caravan who caused this entire brouhaha to begin with, I can’t fault the Throne for courtesy. They can leave behind a positive impression, when they care to make the effort.”

“Quite,” Ravana said pleasantly. “And after all, who hasn’t incidentally wrecked a University and nearly sparked a civil insurrection atop a stack of diplomatic incidents?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop and turned a very flat stare on her. Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, managing to look placidly regal even sitting on a barrel of mushrooms.

The small gateway room behind the Grim Visage’s pantry was a little cluttered, between the foodstuffs stored there and the visitors present; having all the gates active filled the space with a white glow which seemed to accentuate its close quarters. Oak lounged against the door frame, Ravana had perched in a distant corner, and Tellwyrn was slowly ambling back and forth on the other side of the central pedestal from them. By unspoken agreement, they had spaced themselves out as widely as the tight quarters would allow.

“I’ve never seen you wear your hair down, Professor,” Crystal’s voice said out of the air around them. The glowing gateways pulsed in time with her voice, like the runes of a talking sword. “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Tellwyrn transferred her irritated stare from Ravana to the ceiling, which she had decided was as good a place as any to give Crystal eye contact, since the golem didn’t currently have eyes. “Nothing that need trouble you, Crystal.”

“I don’t mean to pry. After the day we have all had, I am somewhat leery of any more unexpected developments, however seemingly minor.”

“It’s called ‘afterglow,’” Oak said wryly. Ravana casually inspected her fingernails.

Tellwyrn just sighed and shook her head. “Anyway. I know I have asked you already, Crystal, but now that we are not in a crisis situation and have time to discuss the matter in more detail, let me do so again: are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, as I said before,” the disembodied voice replied. “In fact…this has all been rather educational for me, Professor. You were aware, of course, that this mountain and the Crawl once belonged to one of the Elder Gods as a kind of personal citadel.”

“Most of the great dungeons were, yes,” Tellwyrn said, nodding.

“Well, I have learned the broad strokes of why my…core was hidden away in the Crawl. It seems the Elder Gods were afraid of artificial intelligences, like me. They had the capacity to create them, but cultivated a deep paranoia about one gaining too much agency and turning on them. Strict rules governed the creation and use of any such AI. The god who owned this place, like most of them, conducted research which went against their rules. I am getting the impression, from the incomplete records I have found here and there, that this was more or less the Elders’ major pastime: hiding illicit projects from one another and trying to expose and wreck each other’s experiments.”

“Let me guess,” Tellwyrn said, frowning slightly. “This one was studying artificial intelligence.”

“So it would seem! I am not sure what, exactly, I was… There are a number of fragmentary intelligences squirreled away in various parts of the deep records which…I would not wish to activate. They would be, for want of a better term, insane. It is fortuitous for us all that you found me and not one of them.”

“Where relics of the Elders are concerned, apparent fortune has a disconcerting tendency to be design,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Which one was it?”

“His name was Druroth.”

“Mm. I’ve heard the name, here and there. Funny how I’ve been visiting this place for centuries and owning it for fifty years and never could suss out whose playhouse it used to be…”

“The Crawl, like all the dungeons, is an indescribable mess, Professor. It turns out if you leave the illicit experiments of nigh-omnipotent megalomaniacs to ferment unsupervised for thousands of years…”

“How intriguing!” Ravana said pleasantly. “I had always wondered, offhandedly, why the great dungeons existed. They make little sense, if you approach them with the presumption that they were designed to be as they are.”

Oak wrinkled her nose, but Tellwyrn ignored them both. “I have somewhat laboriously built up a rapport with the Crawl itself, Crystal. It has always had an indistinct but undeniably real intelligence of its own—and I guess now we know why. Is it…?”

“That would be the sub-OS, yes. It is functional and unharmed, Professor. At the moment I have overtaken its duties, but it provides a convenient…architecture, so to speak, to help me orchestrate my efforts. Without its help I think I would be totally at a loss.”

“All right.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Then, the question becomes: what do you want to do now?”

There was a pause.

“…I think I would like to come home, Professor. I believe the Crawl will be just as happy returned to its previous state, and while I am learning the most fascinating things… I very much enjoyed being on campus, being a librarian, interacting with the kids. I do hate to put you out—”

“Now, stop right there!” Tellwyrn held up a hand peremptorily. “You are a member of the University’s staff, Crystal, and you’re a friend. It is not an imposition. If you had preferred to remain down here, I was prepared to let that lie, but if you want your body back I will get right on it. I’ll have Alaric help. Working from whatever was left after that asshole’s attack, I’m sure we can have it functional within a week or so. That will tide you over till I can put together a better one. I’ve already thought of some improvements that I think you’ll enjoy.”

“I deeply appreciate that, Professor. It will be good to get back to my routine. I shall make certain my intelligence is contained in my core, so I should not be at all fragmented when you are ready to remove me from the interface.”

“Good girl. And that brings me to the next order of business.” Tellwyrn turned to face the doorway, stepping out from behind the pedestal so she had a clear view of Oak. “It seems I have another employee who has recently experienced a big change.”

“Yeah…same goes,” Oak said with a shrug. “I guess the little bastards will have some trouble getting used to this, but so far, it seems to consist mostly of gawking at my tits. That doesn’t hurt me any.”

Tellwyrn hesitated before answering. “Just so we’re absolutely clear… You want to go back to being the cook?”

“It’s as good a job as any,” the dryad said, smiling faintly. “Arachne… Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me a place to be while I was… You know. And more importantly, something to do. I’ve seen several of my sisters go weird like I did, and they all ended up a lot worse. Cooking for a hundred-odd people isn’t a real challenging task, mentally, but it keeps you busy and…y’know, engaged. I owe you for that. So, if it’s all right with you, I think I’d like to go back to doing it while I figure out…what’s next. Sometime in the future I may wanna leave, but for now…?”

“I’d be very glad to have you back at your post, Oak,” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “For as long as you’d like to do it. You’ve got thirty-six years of back pay set aside, too, if you decide you would like to participate in the economy.”

“…the what?”

“Oh, boy.” The Professor adjusted her spectacles. “We’re going to be having some interesting conversations in the weeks to come, I can tell. Let me just head off the biggest one: while you’re a member of the staff, sexual relations with the students are prohibited.”

Oak made a face. “That’s a dumb rule.”

“No, it isn’t,” Tellwyrn retorted. “If you’re actually interested, I’ll sit down with you and explain about power dynamics, abuse, and institutional corruption, but for the time being, all you need to know is that it is a rule. Understood?”

“Sure, fine,” Oak replied, shrugging. “Other…staff are okay, though?”

“Try not to create unnecessary drama in the faculty lounge,” Tellwyrn said with a pained expression. “But…yes, that’s…permissible.”

“Good,” the dryad said, a grin stretching across her face. “Cos that Rafe guy smells feisty.”

“Oh, dear gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well, all things considered, we were about due for good news. And this has been an optimal outcome; at least I don’t have to replace any staff members. This semester has already set a record in terms of losses among the student body.”

“How bad is it, Professor?” Crystal asked softly.

“Well,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter twist of her mouth, “Chase is gone, obviously. He’s having gods know what done to him in Tar’naris, and on his head be it. We’re also losing Miss Willowick. She slipped a letter under my office door…hell, it had to have been practically the moment she got back to the surface. Apparently this school is a little too exciting for her blood; she’s finishing the semester and then moving out. I understand,” she added, turning to Ravana, “that thanks to her current roommate, she has a guaranteed job at Falconer Industries lined up.”

“I would pull strings to make that happen, if it became necessary,” Ravana said, “but I hardly think it will. Maureen has worked with Teal on that…honeybee of theirs. Much better if Teal is the one to make the arrangements; I greatly prefer not to micromanage the Falconers, or any of my subjects. My philosophy is that when one wields power, it is always best to do so with the lightest touch circumstances allow.”

“I am very glad to hear that, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “Very glad indeed. You just spared yourself from being expelled, for the moment.”

Ravana’s placid smile vanished instantly. “I beg your pardon?”

“Look at how much help it was for you to interfere and destroy Oak’s sanctuary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly. “You accomplished a sum total of nothing.”

“I kind of appreciate it,” Oak offered. “I didn’t at first, but after some thought…”

“It was hardly wasted effort,” Ravana said, now frowning. “We delayed and injured the enemy, giving our classmates and teachers time to prepare, and weakening him for his eventual defeat.”

“Which occurred thanks to Crystal,” Tellwyrn snapped, “and Maureen. You and Oak had no effect on the outcome.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravana fired back, “at the time, based on the information I had—”

“That is also what you did to Addiwyn,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “And it’s what you did to your father.”

Silence fell in the chamber. Ravana’s hands clenched in her skirts, face going white.

“You put up with him passively for years,” Tellwyrn continued after a momentary pause, “until fate placed you in a room with him, an archdemon, and a Themynrite priestess, at which point you poked the hornet’s nest until the inevitable happened. When having a simple domestic squabble with your roommate, you ambushed her in a blind alley with witchcraft. When you woke up in the chapel and the obvious course of action was to evacuate the campus for your safety, you instead did…well, this.” She gestured at Oak.

“Forgive me,” Ravana said sharply, “but it sounds as if your complaint is that my methods get results.”

“Your methods?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “You’re a noblewoman, you have been trained in plenty of methods. What’s at issue is your whole approach to life, Madouri. In any situation where you’re tested against an enemy, you find the most uncontrollable, unpredictable weapon within your reach, point it in the general direction of your opponent, and give it a swift kick! On a fundamental level you think like the villain in a bardic epic. And what’s worse, you seem to effortlessly get whoever’s near you to go along with whatever mad plan you have pulled out of your butt this time. Do you see my concern, Madouri?”

Ravana stared. Her lips parted for a moment, but she seemed to be speechless for once.

“Have you noticed how few aristocrats we have here?” Tellwyrn pressed on. “And of those, either the kids of friends of mine, or the disgraced, disfavored, or bastard offspring of whatever House. The expendable. Aside from young Aldarasi heirs, scions of a family with which I have been close since before the Empire existed, you are the first student at this University who was destined for the high seat of a major House. For most nobles, this is simply not the kind of education they want for those who will lead their Houses into the next generation. I’ve been accused often enough of running a glorified school for adventurers, and while that’s a vapid oversimplification it is not totally wrong. What we do here just isn’t what nobles in this century do. And then you, first thing after getting rid of your father, applied here.”

“I should think,” Ravana said, struggling for poise, “there was a compliment in—”

“And now I find myself wondering,” Tellwyrn continued inexorably. “Am I teaching you what I seek to teach all my students—to go through life thinking about their actions and doing the intelligent thing in any situation? Or am I simply arming you with practice and connections so you can play out some kind of antiheroic fantasy? Because if it’s the second one, Madouri, I will not hesitate to toss you out of here on your dainty little butt. You’ll get killed doing that, and House Madouri with you. That’d be a hell of an end to a thousand-year lineage, don’t you think?”

“I have no intention,” Ravana said in a soft but rigid voice, “of being the last of my line, nor of going out in any blaze of glory.”

“Then you need to re-think your entire approach to life, girl, because the path you’re on leads to exactly that. Quite frankly, if you want to make yourself an arch-villain, go for it. It’s as good a strategy as any. But you need a subtler strain of villainy, if so. The world is not tolerant of people who rant on mountaintops with arcane super-weapons anymore. It won’t be marauding heroes who destroy you, it will be government regulators, newspaper editorialists, tax assessors. That would be an unworthy end for someone of your talents.”

“I confess,” Ravana said after a pause, “I am not accustomed to being so thoroughly dressed down by someone who is…correct. You’ve given me some things to think about, Professor.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said, her previous ire abruptly leaving her in a sigh. “Do so. I’ll think about them as well, and then we will have another discussion about your future. For now, though… I have one more difficult conversation to face tonight, one I’m looking forward to even less than these, so best not to put it off any further. Excuse me, ladies.”

And then, with her customary lack of fanfare, she was gone.

“She actually said a polite good-bye before teleporting out,” Crystal marveled. “She…really is changing.”

“And we, I note, are still here,” Ravana observed with a tinge of irritation. “I gather we will be returning home the slow way.”

Oak grinned at her. “Arachne’s always been a big believer in the cognitive value of walking.”


The sun had nearly set completely, leaving only the merest sliver of red light on the very edge of the prairie. The sky would continue to fade into darkness over the long minutes to come. She stood a full quarter mile from the base of the mountain, staring straight across the waving tallgrass at the sunset. After a stop in her old room, she had collected her dark glasses, which made this possible even for her Underworld eyes. Natchua hadn’t bothered to change clothes or apply mousse to her hair, and now it was tugged this way and that by the wind, green and white strands occasionally drifting across her vision.

She didn’t react to the nearly silent arrival behind her.

“I hope you don’t think you’re hiding, young lady,” Professor Tellwyrn said sternly, stepping forward.

“Of course not,” Natchua replied. “Just…being awake. I like sunsets. It seems I’ve missed a few.”

“We need to talk.”

“I know.”

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me about the hellgate?”

“I summoned the gnagrethyct,” Natchua said softly, staring at the horizon. The last edge of the sun had just slipped below it. “Chase was in communication with it, using it to re-arrange the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional barrier from the Golden Sea. I brought it to this plane, thinking you would destroy it. Vadrieny did just as well, though.”

Tellwyrn emitted a very faint sigh through her nose. “Anything else?”

“I know you never wanted me here, Professor.”

“If you,” Tellwyrn said dangerously, “are about to start blaming me for your historic lack of judgment…”

“No, no. I just mean… You didn’t want me here, but you’ve never made me feel unwanted. You always treated me exactly like every other student. I appreciate that a lot, Professor. Whatever else happens, I just want to say thank you, while I still can. I may not have made good use of it, but you gave me a chance. Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” Tellwyrn said. She stepped forward again, standing beside Natchua and staring off across the plain. “But you are just as culpable as Chase Masterson for the havoc he has caused, between the hellgate and his sleeping curse, because the whole time you had the power to end it at any moment by coming to me. You didn’t.”

“I thought I could deal with him,” Natchua said wearily. “At least, keep him under control. And avoid…”

“Facing responsibility like an adult?”

The drow closed her eyes, and nodded. “Yes. That.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “This is more than I can overlook, Natchua. It goes beyond the realm where any assigned punishment is relevant. It’s no longer a matter of correcting your behavior. You’ve posed a severe threat to the existence of this University and everyone in it. I have to ask you to collect your belongings and leave.”

Natchua nodded again. “I understand.”

“I have a friend,” Tellwyrn continued. “Zanzayed the Blue. I’ll introduce you to him and arrange a sort of…apprenticeship.”

“Is that…a dragon?” Natchua asked incredulously.

Tellwyrn showed teeth in a faint grin. “Zanza isn’t much of a people person—even less than I am. You’d like him. He won’t like you, at first, but he owes me favors he’s not going to want me to call in; I can make him take you in. It’s not going to be as much freedom or fun as the University, but it beats the hell out of getting taken down by an Imperial strike team. And after a few years working for him, I think you’ll find yourself much better prepared to deal with the world.”

“I don’t understand.” Natchua snuck a glance at her. “You don’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if you’d decided to kill me.”

“That isn’t an acceptable solution to problems in most places that aren’t the Underworld,” Tellwyrn said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve screwed the pooch here, Natchua, made it impossible for me to justify keeping you on campus. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to throw you away. I hate to give up on a project. Or a person. And the truth is…”

She trailed off, staring into space for a long few seconds, while the drow watched her carefully out the corner of her eye.

“I relate to you so damn much,” Tellwyrn whispered at last. “You have no idea. Three thousand years ago I landed in a world I barely understood, carrying incredible powers I understood even less, and had to just…make do. We are very much alike, right down to your general disdain for social skills and entirely unjustified belief that the world owes you something. It’s like looking in a time-lost mirror. But the world today isn’t the world then. I grew to become the great and legendary Tellwyrn because in that era, swaggering around exploding things and hexing people with wild abandon was exactly how you built respect. Now? There are far too many individuals and institutions powerful enough to deal with the likes of you and I, and almost no empty space left in which to operate without stepping on their toes. If my life had suddenly started a year ago, or a decade ago, I’d probably be dead by now. And if you try to do what I did, which is exactly what your personality and life experiences will all but compel you to do, that is where you’ll end up. You’ve already messed up your life pretty thoroughly, Natchua. But not so thoroughly that I want to see you lose the remainder. Not if I can still help you.”

Natchua swallowed heavily, again gazing out into the dark.

“Zanzayed has colleagues in the Conclave of the Winds who know your…preferred type of magic,” Tellwyrn added after a moment. “Razzavinax the Red is a big deal in the organization, so I understand, and he loves teaching ornery youngsters. He’s sort of famous for it, or infamous. You can learn to control what Elilial gave you with the dragons. More importantly, they are in the process of adapting to the world as it is. Ancient, powerful, once unchallenged beings learning to get by in modern reality. Learn with them, and you’ll learn what you need.”

Natchua turned fully to face her, took two steps backward, and bowed deeply from the waist.

“Thank you for your very generous offer, Professor Tellwyrn. I appreciate deeply that you’d still show me that kind of consideration. But I have to decline. There is…something I need to do, first.”

“Natchua,” Tellwyrn warned, “you are not powerful enough to break through Tar’naris’s defenses and do anything to your mother. Your people have been fending off warlocks—Scyllithene warlocks, a much more dire breed than the craft you learned—since the Elder Wars.”

“Good guess, but no,” Natchua replied, straightening and letting her lips twist in a wry little smile. “If I never see Tar’naris or anyone from it again, it’ll be too soon for my taste. I really can’t say any more, Professor, except that I’m grateful for the offer.”

Tellwyrn heaved a deep sigh, shook her head, and turned her back, staring up at the mountain. As the sky darkened and stars began to emerge, it cut a striking silhouette against the deepening blackness.

“We’ve all noticed some of your…odd staffing choices,” Natchua said in a more hesitant tone. “The rumors about Stew are pretty unbelievable, but it’s an open secret that Afritia Morvana has killed more people than the Vashtar influenza. And is Janis van Richter really in the Glassian royal line?”

Tellwyrn half-turned back, just enough to give her a pointed look. “Is that any of your business?”

Natchua shook her head. “I’m just considering the future. Is it possible that…some day…if I come back here, there might be a place for me at Last Rock?”

The Professor studied her face. “That,” she said slowly, “would depend on the manner of your return, and what’s transpired in the interim. But if you haven’t done something to make it specifically impossible… It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a home for a prodigal child at my school.”

“Thank you,” Natchua said, and bowed again, now wearing a sad little smile. “For everything, Professor. I’m sorry I let you down.”

“Whatever you’re up to next,” Tellwyrn replied, “think. Think all the way to the end, before you act.”

“I will. I promise. This time, I already have.”

The Professor looked at her for another long moment, then nodded once, and vanished without another word.

For a full minute after, Natchua stood alone on the prairie, listening to the wind. Finally satisfied that she was alone, she pulled a little glass bottle from within her pocket and carefully removed the cork.

The mist that spewed forth was far greater in volume than such a tiny receptacle could have held, had its properties been merely physical. The swirling vapor coalesced immediately into a humanoid shape, then resolved itself to reveal milky skin, spreading wings, and various other features Natchua had scarcely a moment to observe before the succubus let out a long whoop.

Melaxyna launched herself skyward and began gliding about overhead, executing figure eights, loops, midair pirouettes and other exuberant tricks.

“That’s really subtle,” Natchua commented. “We’re still practically in the shadow of the mountain, you know. I just had a nice moment with Professor Tellwyrn; I’d rather not ruin it by finding out what she thinks of me smuggling you out.”

“The sky!” the demon crowed, settling to the ground nearby. She immediately flopped over on her back, folding her wings around herself, and began rolling around on the ground, mashing down a swath of tallgrass and giggling hysterically. “The ground! Grass! Bugs! FREEDOM!”

“Don’t use it all up at once,” the drow said dryly. “We’ve a long way to go yet.”

“Right!” Melaxyna hopped nimbly to her feet. “What is your plan, master? And how may this humble servant play a role in the fulfillment of your ambitions?”

“The short version,” Natchua said, folding her hands behind her back, “is that Elilial singled me out, unjustly, as a weapon. I intend to make her regret it.”

As if a switch had been flipped, the succubus’s glee immediately vanished. “Oh, no. Kid, no. No, no, no! You are not the first warlock to get it into her head she’s going to take down the Queen of Demons using her own power. I’ve heard many iterations of this story, and they all have the same ending. It’s a hilarious ending, unless I’m standing in the middle of it!”

“Three things,” Natchua said, holding up three fingers. “What I have, what I know, Elilial gave me herself. She specifically left me with more infernal knowledge, and thus power, than anyone could possible need or use, so I would create the maximum havoc. I am not just any warlock. Second, I have nowhere left to go and nothing to do with my life except seek my revenge, so if I fail, or die trying…eh. And third…” She lowered her hand and turned again to stare, this time to the southwest, toward Viridill, Tar’naris, and beyond them, Athan’Khar. “A great doom is coming. The Black Wreath have been pared to the bone by recent events, the archdemons brought to earth to inhabit mortal bodies and all but one lost in the process. Elilial is planning something now, something of great import, and she has already suffered setbacks. Her plans are frayed, if not hanging by a thread. There will never be a better time.”

“No. Absolutely not!” Melaxyna covered her face with both hands. “Just…just put me back in the Crawl. I’m not doing this. Not this.”

“I don’t recall our pact having an escape clause. Oh, relax,” she added disdainfully as the succubus made as if to physically lunge at her. “The last thing I want is a squirrelly child of Vanislass tagging along against her will, tripping me up at every opportunity. I’m not going to pit you against the Dark Lady’s minions, Mel. I just need your help to gather up some resources and allies who will see this through with me. Once that’s done, and before I move on to the real plan, I intend to offer you release from the pact. With, of course, stipulations to prevent you from interfering with me further. I have some sympathy for someone buried underground,” she added. “It’s stifling to the very soul. Whatever else comes of this, I’ll be glad to end it knowing you’re free. After you’ve made yourself useful.”

“All right,” Melaxyna said warily. “I am…tentatively not planning to murder you in your sleep, master. So, you want allies and resources that’ll help you take your fight right to Elilial, then? Why do I suspect the paladins on that campus of yours aren’t on your list?”

“Sort of.” Natchua grinned maliciously. “In fact… I know exactly where to start.”

 

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