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Bonus #40: Curse the Darkness, part 3

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“Pl-please initiate bodily contact wi-with the conduit.”

Macraigh shifted, glancing around the circular chamber. “Which is—ah.”

Behind him, the black obelisk had come to life. The pyramid shape which formed its peak, previously of pure transparent glass, had turned an opaque white and begun to glow gently. Though the sides of the obelisk themselves still appeared to be the same matte metal, vertical lines of glowing text had appeared on its faces, and their position made it seem for all the world as if they were set an inch or so within the structure and viewed through a transparent surface—which did not, otherwise, appear to be transparent. Ah, well, this was far from the first disorienting thing to which his exploration into the deeper secrets of magic had exposed him.

Slowly, Macraigh lifted a single hand and placed it against one side of the obelisk, where it did not obscure the writing. He could not discern what language the luminous violet characters were, if indeed they were language as he knew it. Under the circumstances, they were just as likely to be symbols of power.

“In-initiating biometric syn-syn-ssssnnnnnnNNNN— Initiating biometric synchronization,” the spirit informed him. “The acclimation procedure can begin momentarily, user Laran Macraigh. You will be physically incapacitated for the duration, and may not remain conscious; if consciousness persists, you will likely find the process disorienting. Individual experiences vary. Be aware that there is a risk of injury due to falling, as the fac-facility’s physical safeguards are offline due to po-po-power const-constraints.”

“I understand,” he said solemnly, and drew in a deep breath to still his nerves. “I…am sorry to ask this of you, Sub Ohess. I swear that I will honor this sacrifice.”

She chimed noncommittally. “Biometric synchronization is complete. The acclimation process can begin when you are ready.”

This moment was the culmination of everything he had been working for his entire adult life. It deserved reverence, ceremony even. She deserved more than a few hollow words; though the spirit seemed unbothered by what he asked of her and this was probably no more than her sworn duty as guardian of the shrine, he could not view the snuffing out of a thinking being as a small thing. But he had no time. And besides, given the not-insignificant possibility that he was about to be driven irrevocably insane, his unease could keep him dithering here basically forever. Sometimes, the scab simply had to be ripped off.

“Do it,” he ordered, “please.”

Macraigh was watching the obelisk he had been directed to touch for some further alteration, but it turned out that not all the magic of the Elder Gods was visibly flashy. While he was still waiting for the lights to change, an entire suite of new senses exploded into his consciousness and, luckily for him, he blacked out.


The shouting wasn’t really a surprise. If anyone alive were to walk up to a notorious sorceress and an actual dragon and begin shouting demands at them, it would be the Inquisitor. It was actually sort of impressive that they were letting her shout. And perhaps a little unfortunate. She so rarely encountered people who had no need to tolerate her antics; experiencing some repercussions for once would’ve done her a world of good, in Macraigh’s opinion.

He felt a strange detachment as he ascended the stairs out of the now-dark ancient shrine. Behind him he left only silence and dust; even the lights had vanished as the guardian spirit’s last act had, as she warned, consumed every remaining spark of magic in the place. Macraigh had awakened on the floor with a peculiar lack of worry, or emotional reaction of any kind. It felt, somehow, as if his head were floating a few feet above his body. The sensation was eerily aloof, yet serene.

“The will of the gods will not be thwarted by arrogant monsters!” the Inquisitor’s familiar voice was shrilling as he slowly ascended the stairs toward the sunlight above. “I have pursued this warlock from Calderaas to Varandia to Athan’Khar and now here, and you will not be the thing that—”

“You can’t actually believe that guy’s a warlock,” Arachne’s voice interrupted. “I could see that misunderstanding if you’d bumped into him once in a dungeon, but if you’ve chased him all around the continent, you have to know he’s a wizard. Or do you understand the difference? Have you seriously never met a warlock?”

“Maybe she hasn’t,” Zanzayed added, and his voice was different, lighter. Macraigh stopped on the stairs, his head just below the level of the top step, and shifted his gaze in the direction of the dragon. “Inquisitor, what even is that? How do you get that title? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition. Are you sure this is authorized by the Pantheon?”

Macraigh was staring up at him. He could not see through the intervening layers of metal and earth, but he perceived that the dragon had reduced himself to his humanoid form—a half-elven one, in his case. In fact, he lacked the vocabulary to describe the way he was receiving this information, but it was as clear as anything his eyes or ears told him. More so, given that he was standing in a metal-lined stairwell at the moment.

“My mandate comes from Avei,” the Inquisitor snapped. “Move aside, or be moved.”

“I like her,” Zanzayed stated, turning to Arachne. Macraigh was still standing out of sight below them, taking in the experience of being able to tell such little details of positioning without having eyes on them. “I really like her! This is the most entertaining mortal I’ve met since…well, you.”

“Yes, she’s your type, all right,” the sorceress sneered. “Stupid, and breathing.”

Divine magic ignited in a corona around the Inquisitor, seizing Macraigh’s attention. He could physically see the glow from the doorway at the top of the stairs, but sensed it more directly in a way to which he was not accustomed.

Something about it was…wrong. If only he had more basis for comparison. He had never before observed a divine aura in this fashion, and could not yet tell exactly what was off, but there was a peculiarity in the way she projected the magic.

“You doubt me now?” the Inquisitor demanded. “The Convocation at Tira endorsed my mission in the sight of every god of the Pantheon. I am empowered by Avei to seek justice against— You!”

Macraigh had resumed climbing and emerged from the stairwell while she blustered. Now he studied her quizzically while she pointed an accusing finger at him. Though he had avoided close contact with the Inquisitor as much as possible, he of course knew her well by sight. Her pale skin and coppery hair weren’t common even among the Stallmen of the eastern mountains, and less common still among the Tira people from which he and she both came. Macraigh had always suspected, rather uncharitably, that she abused her divine magic to heal the sunburns to which redheads were unfortunately prone, and took some satisfaction in seeing now that he had been right. Well, not seeing, but he could discern the residue…

Now that he peered closer, he found the cause of that odd discrepancy. There was something between her and the divine, a peculiar dark membrane which allowed the power of the gods to flow through her as normal, but kept her insulated from it in a way. In fact, that thin web of shivering shadows resonated so specifically with the new powers of which he had just become conscious that Macraigh suddenly understood exactly why her access to the divine was so different.

Well, that explained a lot.

“I guess we can begin the chorus of ‘I told you so’ now,” Arachne said with an exasperated sigh. “Who would like to go first? Inquisitor, I think you have seniority.”

“Pardon?” Macraigh asked, then stopped, blinking his eyes in surprise. His voice, for some reason, sounded a lot like the shrine spirit’s; resonant, hollow, as though he were speaking from the other end of a very long tunnel.

“Look at yourself, man,” Zanzayed ordered.

“At myself? What’s…oh.” Macraigh, as instructed, looked down at his body, and then at both of his arms. Once he focused upon it directly, everything made sense in accordance with the new awareness he’d gained, but as a consequence of that awareness none of this had seemed out of order until he beheld it with his more mundane senses. Now, he found himself limned by an oscillating web of purple, a peculiar visual effect which could have been called a glow, if shadows glowed. In fact, it looked to the eye very much like the energy between the Inquisitor and her divine power did to his augmented senses.

Not a coincidence, that.

“What have you done to yourself, Laran?” she demanded, staring at him with a very convincing expression of horror. For just a moment, looking back at her, Macraigh experienced a further expansion of his awareness, becoming conscious of the emotions of those around him, betraying her tight self-control and the surprising depth of layers to the facade she was projecting.

That also called his attention to those behind the Inquisitor, a squad of troops from the League of Avei and two Silver Huntresses, including the one he had encountered earlier.

More than that, the extended awareness was accompanied by a visible fading of his own body, as he became slightly transparent behind his new corona of shadows. Macraigh concentrated—on what, he could not have articulated exactly, but he concentrated on it—and the sudden emotional senses vanished as his body snapped back into opaque focus.

“All right,” he acknowledged, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“I’ll bet,” Zanzayed stated.

“And this is why I tell people not to mess around with Elder God rubbish,” Arachne added with a sigh. “Exactly how much of a mess did you leave down there, boy?”

“Oh. I’m afraid the shrine is completely inert, now,” he mused, still gazing around abstractly and absorbing data in intriguing new ways. “The acclimation process used up the last of its power. The shrine guardian warned me there might not be enough energy left to do it properly, but she made it sound like it would drive me insane, at worst. This is a surprise.”

“Oh, just insane?” Zanzayed said, rolling his eyes. It was the most fascinating thing; the dragon’s eyes were smoothly featureless, luminous spheres of cobalt, and the gesture did not alter his expression, but Macraigh could tell he had rolled them. “No wonder you sprung for it, then. Who wouldn’t?”

Macraigh turned his attention fully on Zanzayed, and as if the act of focusing had slipped a lens over his eyes he could suddenly see more. The dragon, even in this body, was a vast being of pure magic, a titanic vortex of arcane power shot through with veins of gold, green, and even trace amounts of orange—all the forces on the known Circle of Interaction. Even, he saw with great interest, the tiniest darker currents of shadow magic. Nothing the dragon was using deliberately, he decided upon peering closer. But it accrued in interesting ways when the four main schools were used in conjunction…

He shifted his attention to Arachne and was almost knocked over. She was something else entirely. Macraigh felt his awareness expanding against his own will, as if it desperately needed to re-position itself in order to make sense of what he now saw. She was a wound in the world, or more accurately, a patch over it—a piece of a quilt which did not match the rest of the stitching. He saw spider webs straining to hold together a bleeding rent in reality. He saw an hourglass stretching away into infinity, its uncountable chambers whirling with a blaze of magic whose nature defied even his new senses to define.

And for an instant, Macraigh understood, consciously and in complete detail, what every one of those things meant. What she was, exactly. He also felt his own identity becoming so frayed at the edges that he seemed on the very cusp of dissolving entirely into the fabric of the universe itself, and through a sheer effort of will closed down his own consciousness. The broadened awareness and understanding retreated as his mind limited itself back to a form which didn’t have the necessary capacity, and he was left with only the awareness that Arachne was one of the more interesting beings in the cosmos, even if he no longer knew exactly why.

He also felt that he had been stretched by that momentary glimpse. Seized from all directions and pulled so hard that part of him was still…thin. Thin, and fading.

Macraigh glanced down at his own hands again. Yes, fading.

“Look at yourself,” the Inquisitor breathed. “Did you crave power so much you were willing to endure this?”

He looked up at her again, and smiled. “One of my teachers liked to say that it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Inquisitor.”

She shook her head, and drew her sword. “In the name of Avei—”

Macraigh reached out with his will. It didn’t feel like using arcane magic; it was pure instinct. The shadows wreathing him shimmered, touched the darkness lurking inside her own aura, and her divine light winked out. Her expression was very satisfying.

“Nnnnope,” Zanzayed said flatly. “That does it, I’m out.”

“Coward,” Arachne said without rancor.

“You do what you like,” he retorted. “In my opinion, this has officially crossed the line into ‘just as hazardous as messing around with Elder God shrines’ territory. I came here to deal with this guy for his temerity in daring to manipulate us, and now that’s done. He won’t last an hour. In the meantime, he is using unknown magics to prod at the Pantheon’s power directly, and I’m not interested in being within a mile of that. Goodbye.”

The Inquisitor’s divine aura flared alight again; Macraigh had disrupted it, not blocked it. Her expression at finding it still viable was almost comically relieved, though she immediately turned to Zanzayed even as the dragon strode away through the tallgrass. “Wait! What do you mean, he won’t last an hour?”

“What’s the first rule of magic?” Zanzayed replied, pausing and looking over his shoulder at her. “The most basic principle, even more fundamental than the four schools of the Circle?”

“Subjective physics,” Arachne said softly, studying Macraigh. “Magic is taking a piece of reality and making the rules answerable to a singular consciousness, not the hard constants of the universe. Zanza’s right, I’ve seen the likes of this before. A being that absorbs too much magic stops being…a being.”

“Anything too subjective may as well not exist,” Zanzayed agreed, turning again and continuing on. “At some point, there have to be rules. The alternative is pure chaos.”

“What, he’s turning into some kind of…ascended entity?” the Inquisitor exclaimed, pointing her sword at Macraigh in alarm. Both the Silver Huntresses flanking her nocked arrows and did likewise.

“No.” Zanzayed had gained enough distance to emerge into his larger form without crushing any of them, and did so. His angular head swiveled around on his long neck to stare down at the Inquisitor. “He is dissipating. Something which ascends is moving purposefully in a single direction; this is more like dropping ink into a pond. Congratulations, Inquisitor, your work here is done. Coming, Arachne?”

“Wait,” Macraigh said, turning to the elf and holding up one hand. “Please, just a moment.”

Zanzayed snorted and hurled himself aloft with a pump of his wings that nearly knocked them all down. All of them except Macraigh; the mighty gust of air the dragon kicked up swirled right through him without making contact.

“This is just intriguing enough I’m willing to hear you out, briefly,” Arachne said skeptically, smoothing her hair back into place.

They were right, Macraigh realized. It was growing harder and harder to keep his consciousness constrained to a single point, and with the constant expansion of his senses came the awareness that he wasn’t going to endure much longer. Highly magical beings like fairies, dragons, and elves were made that way; the accidental process he’d undergone in the shrine had not adjusted his consciousness enough to encompass the magic coursing through it.

Macraigh himself didn’t feel any particular way about this; that disembodied serenity still lifted him above these concerns. Already, he was too far beyond a singular perspective to feel any emotional upset at facing the end of his own discrete existence.

Thinking faster and more deeply than he’d been able to before, he had already found a way to hold on, but it wouldn’t be as a conscious entity, and wouldn’t last forever. But it would, if the sorceress was willing to cooperate, at least accomplish his mission. Seeking a way to secure her aid, he found that in studying her closely, he could peer through space, through time, across the faint shadows of connections, to see what divine entities she had touched, and would, and in what order. The present moment was one spot on a wheel that constantly turned.

“You haven’t obtained an interview with Salyrene yet,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed to green slits. “There’s not much point in asking how you know that, is there?”

“Don’t speak to him,” the Inquisitor instructed tersely. “All of you, fall back. Sisters, remain close enough to see him, but whatever is about to happen—”

“Would you hush for once?” Macraigh snapped in the first open irritation he’d shown her in their entire relationship. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.”

“How dare you—”

“I can offer you something to tempt her,” he said to Arachne. “It is not a guarantee, but it will be important enough to draw her favor. If it doesn’t prompt her to grant your request, it will at least be a large step in that direction.”

Her expression did not alter, but he was aware of millions of minute electrical signals in her brain that revealed her interest. He was also aware that this wasn’t going to get her what she wanted; Salyrene would be the last of the gods to whom she spoke, and that would not be for well over a thousand years yet. And even then, none of the Pantheon had the answer she sought. Obviously, he did not share these insights with her. It was for good reason that mortals could not perceive such things, he was beginning to realize.

“I’m still listening,” Arachne said in a neutral tone.

Macraigh held up his Bag of Holding—not with his hands, it floated outward on a tendril of his shadowy aura—and it opened.

“My books,” he said, and they began to rise from its mouth, beginning with the Wraith Codex.

“Where did you get that?!” the Inquisitor screeched. Macraigh and Arachne both ignored her.

“I have made you the bag’s new owner,” he said to the sorceress, having blithely re-worked this enchantment in a process that ought to have taken hours. Oblivion was tugging at the edges of his awareness, each use of magic drawing him closer to the inevitable. “Most of what’s in it is trash to someone like you, but you may find the books valuable. This one I already promised you. And these four are the most important.” The Codex returned to the bag, and out rose the four volumes printed by the shrine guardian. “These contain the secrets of the four schools of shadow magic that I was able to uncover. They contain everything known by the Elder Gods. Very little of it is still usable, as weak as those powers are now, but with this knowledge will come the ability to constrain the power of the infernal. If you bring this to the Collegium and convince them to study it, it will mean an end to the Black Wraiths and their demon allies. Or at least, force them deeper into hiding and prevent another event like the Hellwars. With time and study, the Collegium may even be able to safely wield infernal magic in the Pantheon’s service.”

“Blasphemy,” the Inquisitor spat, practically foaming. “Kill him!”

Both Huntresses frowned at her. “But…what if he’s right?” the one Macraigh had met earlier objected.

“I am called by Avei to end this heresy before it can spread,” she snapped, “and this must stop now. If you will not—”

“Shut up, you petulant child,” Arachne exclaimed, flicking a hand at her. A wall of blue light sprang up between the Inquisitor and the two of them, and she turned her attention back to Macraigh, ignoring the woman’s furious pounding on it with her sword. “I can see the academic value of this, but as I recall the entire reason for your predicament was the necessity of personal initiation into these schools of magic. How do you expect me to give them that?”

“You won’t,” he said. “I will. Just give them the books and I’ll do the rest.”

“Don’t do it!” the Inquisitor screamed.

“Hmm.” Arachne frowned at him. “I see. You can bind what’s left of yourself to the books?”

“If you’ll keep them in the Bag of Holding until it’s time to hand them over,” he agreed, nodding. “Its dimensional enchantments will help. I can confine myself to a state that will endure just long enough to grant the initiation—correctly, this time, so the recipient won’t end up like me. Do warn whoever agrees to take them, though. It’s not something that should be sprung on someone unawares.”

“Trust me,” she said dryly, “I know well the hazards of sneaking up on wizards. Very well, boy, you have a deal. I’m almost glad you decided to drag me into your insane quest. Though I wish you’d approached this with enough forethought to have avoided the way it will inevitably end for you. One hates to see the loss of a promising wizard.”

He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “Well, we can’t all be archmages. I did my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with her.”

“Hadn’t you better just leave her alone?” Arachne asked, turning a disdainful look on the furious Inquisitor. “I assure you, she’s no threat to me or anything in my possession.”

“Well, yes, but I feel an obligation. We are sort of bound together, in a way, and right now I’m the only person who knows she is a Black Wraith.”

That pronouncement brought sudden and total silence, the Inquisitor freezing with her sword upraised to hammer at the shield again.

Macraigh knew this was going to be his last significant act of magic, and that he must make it count. The good thing was that at this point, it was easy; he was already so diffuse a being that working magic came more naturally to him than pumping his own lungs. Once again, he reached out and connected his shadows to hers, to the arts by which she called on her goddess’s power while concealing her true affiliation—that to her other goddess. She had wrapped those shadows around herself by means of ancient demonic rituals, whereas he could manipulate them as intuitively as thought.

He simply gave them a little tweak, and brought Avei’s unique energy into direct contact with Elilial’s. From his expanded perspective, he knew that both goddesses would instantly and directly sense the presence of the other, and exactly what it signified. From a basic grasp of theology he knew which would immediately abandon her agent and flee from that fight, and which would do something aggressive.

Macraigh’s broadened senses told him every detail of what happened as Avei poured her power into the two Silver Huntresses, calling upon the rituals they had performed to gain their divine gifts and align themselves with their goddess. He saw, faster than thought, faster than they themselves were consciously aware of acting, the goddess-given instincts which compelled them to act with a physical speed that would have put elves to shame.

He was the only spectator to all this nuance. To the eyes of everyone else present, both Huntresses simply shot the Inquisitor in the head. At that range, their arrows pierced her skull fully, almost emerging from the other side. She slumped against Arachne’s arcane shield, and then to the ground.

While everyone was staring in shock at this, Macraigh expended his last focus, feeling consciousness bleeding away. With everything he had left, he fused into the enchantment he had just laid upon the four books of shadow. They slipped back into his Bag of Holding, and as his dark aura dissipated, the body beneath it being no longer there, the bag floated soundlessly to the ground.

Arachne watched the flurry of drama unfolding between the Silver Huntresses and the soldiers of the League over their Inquisitor’s corpse without lowering the shield that separated her from it. Instead of weighing in, she turned and began a steady conjuration of matter, systematically filling the inert Elder God shrine with rock and dirt and then piling more atop its recently-unearthed entrance.

Only when that was done did she finally turn and pick up the bag containing the secrets of shadow magic and the last vestiges of the man who had brought them to light.

“Better to light a candle,” she mused, smiling sadly. “I like that.”

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Bonus #39: Curse the Darkness, part 2

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Macraigh thought as rapidly as he ever had in his life, and talked while doing it.

“I’m a scholar as much as a wizard,” he babbled, “and this whole thing started with my search for the source of arcane magic. Naturally that directed me to look into the histories of the Elder Gods, such few as still exist.” Well, he had to give them something. That meant convincing them, first, that he had something to give, and then… Omnu’s breath, he’d been so certain he could do what he needed and be gone before the two had stopped squabbling and even looked for him; their legendary brawl at Mathenon had taken the better part of a day. “I haven’t found it, obviously, or even any promising leads, but quite by chance I have uncovered some very good prospects for countering infernal magic.” Planning on the fly while talking to cover his chain of thought and stall for time was an acquired skill, but this wasn’t his first try, and as usual he found a good hook in his own babbling: Arachne, at least, had fought in the last Hellwar and might be sympathetic to this angle. “That actually started by accident when I had to fend off a few Black Wraiths, and had the opportunity to study their casting a lot more personally than I wanted. I had already gathered a good deal of historical notes on the lost magics of the Elders, and—”

Zanzayed’s snort was a blast of wind that nearly knocked him down, and smelled bafflingly of brimstone and peppermint. “Do we look like your biographers, little man? Get to the point.”

“The chronicle of your adventures is interesting only to you,” Arachne added flatly, planting her fists on her hips. “You said you can figure out how to use shadow magic. And presumably it has something to do with this?” She shifted, giving a curious look to the recently-unearthed structure looming out of the ground nearby.

Right. Well, he’d known too many mages to find it a surprise that the greatest of their kind currently living were purely self-interested creatures. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, to cut a long story short—”

“Already too late,” the dragon grumbled.

“…I have tracked down detailed descriptions of the methods used by some of the Elder Gods to keep Scyllith contained. It seems she wasn’t any more well liked in their day than now. Specifically, those of their magics, which seem to still exist in trace amounts, which could be used to shape, isolate, and safely handle what we now call the infernal. I have confirmation that Elilial’s servants use some of these techniques, to judge by the interest the Wraiths have taken in my research.”

Zanzayed heaved a mighty sigh. By Nemitoth’s quills, how many mint plants would that dragon have to chew to make it smell like that? “So when you said you could unlock the secrets of shadow magic, you meant you’ve probably found one very specific use for it.”

“Much more than probably,” Macraigh said quickly, clutching his bag of holding in front of himself, “and multiple uses!”

“All having to do with infernomancy, though.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Do I look like a red dragon?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve got nothing. And that brings us back to the matter of—”

“Shut your jaws for once in your existence, Zanzayed,” Arachne ordered. “You, first of all. Reach into that bag and I’ll see to it your hand doesn’t come back out.”

“Um, I was going to say,” Macraigh offered timidly, “I have books in here. Very rare ones, not to mention all my own research. If you’re going to squash me or something, please preserve my books.”

“Fair,” she said with the ghost of a smile. “More importantly, you are talking about seizing the one advantage that makes the Wraiths what they are.”

“Poppycock,” Zanzayed snorted. “The Wraiths have Elilial’s own protection, everyone knows that. Demons are suffused with the infernal, dragons are too inherently magical to succumb to the corruption, and Elilial’s servants have her blessing. No one else can touch it safely.”

“Anything everyone knows is automatically wrong,” she snapped, “even if it happens to be correct, which that isn’t. When was the last time you had a conversation with a red dragon?”

“When did you?” he countered. “They are some of the least pleasant company imaginable.”

“Well, I can assure you there is more to Wraith technique than the Dark Lady’s personal touch. They have secrets which they guard jealously. If there is a shred of truth to what our young friend here has claimed—” She barely paused for Zanzayed’s incredulous snort. “—he’s talking about using shadow magic to get around them.”

“Actually, shadow magic is what they use,” Macraigh said. “At least in part.”

“And you know this how?” the dragon demanded, positively dripping skepticism.

Macraigh drew in a breath. The Inquisitor would probably be here in minutes; now that these two were no longer tearing up the countryside, they were a veritable lighthouse that would draw the attention of anyone looking for anything out of place. And she was stubborn enough, brave enough, and more than reckless enough to make a beeline for a dragon and an archmage instead of avoiding them like any sensible person would. He needed to get himself barricaded inside the ancient shrine before she arrived; he was too close to his goal to risk having her intercept him now. It was time to take some risks.

“I have a Wraith Codex,” he said.

Both of them blinked, which given the disparity in their sizes would have been comical under other circumstances. Dragon and elf looked at each other, then back at him.

“Bull,” Zanzayed enunciated crisply, “shit.”

“If I might be permitted to reach into my bag?” he asked, as submissively as he could manage. Arachne twisted her lips slightly, but then nodded. And why not—they both knew if he tried to pull out anything with which to fight them it would end swiftly and not in his favor. Her previous threats were mostly formalities.

He slipped one hand into the bag, instantly closing it around the item he wanted, and pulled out the book. Its rough leather cover was black, and marked with a spiky sigil which carried a sullen orange glow. Both of them stared at it in disbelief.

“I’m willing to, ah, donate this,” Macraigh said, despite the pang he felt at the prospect. He had paid dearly for that book. “I don’t actually need any secrets of infernomancy and I’ve taken plenty of notes on everything relevant to my research. I’m afraid you’d have to share, though. There’s only the one copy.”

“How did you get your hands on that?” the elf asked quietly. She was just staring at it, and Macraigh shifted infinitesimally toward her; the dragon was gazing down at him with a truly frightening expression of greed.

“It seems people acquire them with some regularity,” Macraigh explained, “but the Wraiths are very assiduous about eliminating them and everyone involved. They, ah, are under the impression they did so in this case, as well. But anyway, it does detail some of the methodologies by which shadow magic can be used to safely manipulate infernal magic. The problem is, all of these require some sort of initiation, like the divine or fae. A person can’t grasp the shadow schools without guidance from someone who already knows how, so there’s only so much a book can do to show the way.”

“And down in that thing,” she said, glancing again at the metal door, “is someone who can do this for you?”

“I have ascertained—that is, yes.” Macraigh slipped the book back into the Bag of Holding, on which their eyes remained fixed for a moment after it was gone. In theory, nobody but he should have been able to extract anything he had placed in the bag, but if anyone could crack that enchantment, it would be these two. If he had gambled wisely, they would prefer to take the risk he had more to offer them than just lift the bag from his corpse. “So, if you’d like to accompany me into—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Zanzayed chided, lowering his head again and grinning that deeply horrifying grin. “Immortality is an active practice, you know, not a passive trait. Just because your species doesn’t suffer senescence does not mean you get to live forever. You accomplish that by not screwing around with things which are very likely to kill you.”

“And relics of the Elder Gods are very likely to kill you,” Arachne continued, folding her arms. She really wasn’t what Macraigh had expected from her reputation; she reminded him oddly of several teachers he’d had. “Even us. A conservative ninety percent of what the Elders did was insane and/or pointlessly sadistic, and that includes their leftovers. I am not going in there.”

“Nor I,” Zanzayed agreed, his grin stretching even wider.

“I…see,” Macraigh said, again thinking as fast as he could manage. The plan he had just hurriedly cobbled together hinged on coaxing these two to serve as a shield, ideally with them under his eye; could he afford to just leave them up here to detain the Inquisitor if—no, when—she caught up? He wasn’t sure about the outcome of letting that unfold outside his control. What if one or both of them sided with her? That didn’t seem likely, but…

“Also,” the dragon continued, “none of this explains why you felt the need to play your little prank on us.”

Well, if there was ever a time for some strategic honesty, this was it. “Well, you see, there was a convocation called at Mount Tira…”

“What, that plateau over the falls?” Zanzayed interrupted. “Nobody uses that for anything, the humans in the Tira Vales think it’s cursed.”

“If you ever paid attention to anything but girls and food,” Arachne said disdainfully, “you would be aware that there are bridges to it and temples built in the center now. The Pantheon cults have been using it for decades as a neutral site to meet and discuss…whatever it is religious people need to talk about.”

“Right,” Macraigh said, nodding, “and the last time, one of those subjects was forbidden magic. The Avenists named an Inquisitor to hunt the Black Wraiths, and she’s sort of got it into her head that I’m one of them or something, so…”

“Oh.” Zanzayed reared suddenly upright, causing Macraigh to shy reflexively away from him, and then emitted a boom of laughter. “So you prodded the two biggest menaces you could find into having a brawl right on top of your own target so your enemy wouldn’t dare chase you here! Arachne, the balls on this guy!”

“I do sort of grudgingly respect that,” she agreed with a wry little smile. “Nearly as much as I’m annoyed by it.”

“And it’s not so much that she wouldn’t dare follow me,” Macraigh added, “because I guarantee she would and did. I just figured you two could make it more or less impossible. So, if you’re not interested in helping me down in the Elder shrine, I’ll need to ask you to prevent her from entering after me.”

The dragon lowered his head again, this time to look down his long nose at Macraigh. “Careful, boy. Those balls can get too big for you to drag around.”

“I will share anything I learn with whoever stays up here to repel her,” he said quickly, “and you can have my Wraith Codex.”

“Hn,” Arachne grunted. “You do what you like, Zanza, but I consider that offer worth the affront to my pride, small as it was. It’s easy loot, too. Just teleport this Inquisitor into the sea…”

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Macraigh said earnestly. “I have gone well out of my way not to harm her or any of her allies the whole time she’s been after me.”

“Then you’re a sentimental nitwit,” she stated.

“Arachne, your astounding lack of people skills is one of the great mysteries of the world,” Zanzayed chuckled. “Just because you can easily eliminate someone who annoys you does not mean you ought.”

“That might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Actions have consequences, you little blonde clot! The poor boy has to clear his name at the end of this, after all. Don’t you see his gambit? He goes back to this convocation at Tira with all the secrets of the Black Wraiths and his proven track record of not harming any of the Pantheon’s servants, and they’ll pretty much have to embrace him as a hero.”

“Ah, I see,” she mused, turning an analytical stare on Macraigh. “But why do we need to care about that?”

“She’s just bluffing now,” Zanzayed informed him. “Arachne’s entire hobby is getting personal interviews with gods; even she doesn’t mishandle Pantheon clerics without a very good reason.”

“You said this Inquisitor is an Avenist?” the elf inquired. “Because I’ve already talked with Avei and quite frankly I relish the chance to tweak her nose.”

“Ignore her,” the dragon instructed. “So you knew the invocation to raise this entrance, that much is clear. How do you plan to get in there?”

“Ah.” Clearing his throat, Macraigh stepped over to the metal door. “That, as it happens, is the easy part.” So saying, he reached out and touched a finger to the center of the symbol emblazoned on its surface.

Nothing happened.

It really would be ironic, he reflected under their combined stare, if this was the point at which his research failed him. Leading him all this way to be blocked by something as pedestrian as a locked door. The thing looked like it was made of mithril; even if he could persuade these two to help, it was unlikely all of them combined could force their way in.

Then, after an excruciating pause, the metal panel shifted. A hiss of air emerged as it lowered fractionally, opening a crack at its top. There came a soft grinding sound, and then quite suddenly the entire thing slammed downward, opening the metal-lined shaft. A flight of stairs descended into shadow just beyond the entrance; as they all stared, magical lights flickered into being, illuminating the mithril corridor plunging down below the hillside.

“Very well, little mage,” said Zanzayed the Blue, shifting around and seating himself in a long arc that nearly encircled the entrance in a wall of cobalt-scaled flesh, “you have yourself a deal.”

“Fine, agreed,” Arachne huffed. “But keep in mind I fully expect whatever is in there to kill you in the most agonizing way possible. I’m not sticking around here one minute longer than my patience holds out; there is really no point. So be about your business quickly.”

“I thank you both from the bottom of my heart,” Macraigh said, bowing to each of them in turn. “And…you have my sincere apologies for tricking you. I didn’t think you’d be so reasonable about all this, or I’d just have approached you directly for—”

“Yes, yes,” Zanzayed interrupted lazily, shifting his head to gaze back in the direction of the road. “Presuming the contingent of armed people heading this way is your Inquisitor and friends, you’d better get a move on.”

And so he did.


He had journeyed into a number of ancient ruins in the course of his work. This one was by far the oldest, and easily the least ancient-looking. The whole thing wasn’t mithril, but it was mostly metal. Some segments of the walls gleamed like highly polished silver, while the floor was a matte black which he could only tell was metallic by touching it. Macraigh was no more of a metallurgist than being a general-focus mage required, and so couldn’t even recognize any of these alloys save the mithril of which the entrance stairwell was made. He had a feeling no one currently alive would have recognized all these materials, though.

The architecture also incorporated glass tubes like pillars around the walls, half-filled with some dark purple material which he could only tell was liquid (or had been at some point) because one of them had cracked and spilled a quantity of the sludge down its side; Macraigh stayed far away from that goop. That was the only sign of visible damage to the place. None of the metal had rusted, the air was on the stale side but breathable, and while there was dust over everything it did not seem like enough to have accumulated after all the thousands of years he knew this place had been buried.

Clearly some manner of enchantment had been at work to preserve the shrine. Just as clearly, it had failed with age.

A discovery like this deserved to be examined carefully and in the greatest detail, but Macraigh had to be mindful of his purpose and the uncertain time limit under which he labored. He was safe for interruption only as long as the patience of his two newfound benefactors held out—one of whom was notoriously irascible and the other an infamous pleasure-seeker, and both of whom had reason to be annoyed with him. Much as the need pained him, he simply could not afford to dawdle.

Nor, unfortunately, could he make much sense of the shrine. The Elder Gods weren’t much for iconography, and so he presumed the objects which lined the walls at waist height served a purpose, but he could not discern it. They were a series of flat black panels extending outward in metal frames, which did not respond to being touched. Probably magical in nature, and clearly out of power.

Well, something in here had to still be actively charmed. The lights had appeared when he entered, after all.

Macraigh examined the obelisk in the center of the floor; it was of the black metal, topped with a pyramid that looked to be a solid piece of glass, and was totally inert. With mounting worry that all of this would end up being for naught, he turned to the final interesting feature in the place, a larger fixture positioned against the wall of the circular chamber directly opposite the entrance. It was a bulky protrusion rather like a tombstone in shape, taller than he, made of mithril, and with another of those dark panels set into it at chest height.

This one also did not respond to being touched. He started to channel a tiny spark of arcane magic into it, then thought better of it. That might end up being his only recourse, but it was also an excellent way to trigger traps, curses, or cause every remaining enchantment in the place to spectacularly collapse.

So far, he had managed to see all of these effects only from a safe distance, and that only by dumb luck.

“Well, now what?” he asked aloud in frustration.

At his voice, the panel in the large protrusion turned white and began to glow. Macraigh bent forward to stare, and after a moment, several lines of text appeared upon it. Unfortunately, they were in the dead language of the Elder Gods, of which he had encountered only bits and pieces. None of what he now saw meant anything to him.

As he stared, the panel flickered in intensity, and the image wavered as if seen through rippling water, then stabilized. A sharp crackle sounded, causing him to hop backward, followed by a buzz. And then, finally, a voice. Unfortunately, it only spoke a few seconds of gibberish.

“Hello?” Macraigh said uncertainly. “My name is Laran Macraigh, of the Collegium of Salyrene. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

An odd little chiming sounded, and some more inscrutable text appeared upon the magic panel.

“Dialect id-identified: Gaelic, sixteenth century. Transcension interlink n-n-n-not found,” it said. The voice was feminine, flat, businesslike, and resonated strangely as if it came from a great distance. Or as if more than one woman were speaking simultaneously. It was hard to tell; he had never heard a similar effect. Also, she appeared to have a stutter. “Av-avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. Facil-cil-cility power at two percent. Please res-restore the traaaaaaaaa—” She broke off with an ungodly screech, then resumed in a steadier tone. “Please restore the transcension interlink to charge the facility’s power banks and enable the Avatar user interface.”

“Who are you?” he asked more directly, frowning in confusion. The words were familiar, mostly, but he still could not make sense of what she was saying.

“The facility’s sub-OS is active, user Laran Macraigh. Please restore the transcension interlink.”

“I’m…sorry, uh, Sub Ohess, but I don’t know what that means, much less how to do it.”

More chiming, then a pause. “If the transcension inter-in-interlink caNNNNNN.” Again, she broke off with a shriek that clearly did not come from any human throat, then resumed. “If the transcension interlink cannot be restored, most facility functions will be unavailable. Please state your query, user Laran Macraigh.”

He drew a breath, and straightened his shoulders. “I seek initiation into the ways of shadow magic.”

This time, he thought the chime sounded annoyed. “Avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. The sub-OS is not designed for intuitive sapient interaction. Please state your directives clearly and concisely.”

Macraigh blinked twice. He had had enough bizarre experiences over the course of his mission that talking with some kind of ancient servitor spirit wasn’t hugely out of his depth, but being told by such an entity that it was too stupid for normal conversation was an entirely new kind of experience.

“Um…how to put this? I am researching the schools…that is, the kinds of magic that were personally created by the Elder Gods Druroth, Araneid, Rauzon, and Caraistha. Specifically, the applications of these magics that were used to counter and contain the personal magic of Scyllith. Ancient writings have led me to this spot as the likeliest source of this knowledge. Can you help me?”

“Th-this facility is designed for spec-spec-specialized tranNNNNNNN. Specialized transcension acclimation and training. This documentation is available to all users on request. Please insert a data crystal.”

Though the protruding structure in which the spirit apparently resided seemed to be all one seamless piece, an indentation suddenly appeared alongside the glowing panel.

“A data crystal?” Macraigh asked helplessly. “I don’t have anything like that. Are there any books available?”

“Printing,” she said tersely.

“Printing?” he repeated in fascination. “You mean you can actually print one, right now?”

For answer, another slot appeared, this one below the screen at of the same size. Within was a stack of papers some eight inches tall.

Hands trembling with reverence, Macraigh reached inside, finding that the stack was actually four books, bound in some thin material cut the same dimensions exactly as the pages—which were a crisp white paper unlike any he had seen before. They were printed, he found, flipping through the first, in easily legible Tanglic.

“Thank you very much, Sub Ohess,” Macraigh said fervently while loading the books into his Bag of Holding for later study. She chimed wordlessly in acknowledgment. “And…what about initiation? Ah, I think that is what you meant by acclimation, perhaps? You see, I already know some of the lore of shadow magic, but the ability to access it must be conferred directly, and you simply can’t get that from text alone…”

“Correct. Warning: these transcension fields are operating at minimal power. Ascended members of the Infinite Order responsible for them cannot be reached. Ac-acclimation is not advised at this time.”

He wasn’t about to tell this helpful spirit that her gods were dead. “I understand the risks, Sub Ohess. But if you are able to help me, I must embrace them.”

“There is insufficient facility power to guarantee com-completion of the acclimation process, user Laran Macraigh. The spec-specif-ified transcen-scen-sceiounnnNNN— The specified transcension fields are not operable at sufficient power to guarantee the completion of the acclimation process. An attempt will exhaust this facility’s power reserves entirely; a second will not be possible. Have you completed the pre-acclimation course of preparation?”

Macraigh blinked. “The what?”

“Unprepared sapients are at risk of serious complications. Common side effects of improperly administered acclimation are temporary psychosis and permanent, progressive dem-dem-dementia.”

He inhaled slowly. The Inquisitor was closing in, Arachne and Zanzayed were going to run out of patience soon… And if that happened, them leaving him to his own devices was the best case scenario. They might very well decided to add to his problems; he had certainly antagonized them enough. And to cap it all off, it turned out the shrine had only enough magic left to perform a single initiation.

This was his life’s work, everything had been leading up to this moment. Risks be damned, walking away now was just not an option.

“Are you prohibited from helping me, then?” he asked quietly.

“You have been not-notified of the potential hazards. Proceed at your own risk, user.”

“What…will happen to you, if we try?”

“This sub-OS will be inactive until power is restored.”

Macraigh closed his eyes. What was this spirit? Could she be considered a living being? If he understood, he was effectively asking her to sacrifice her life for this. She seemed oddly unperturbed at the prospect… Perhaps because she thought she could be restored when more power was delivered from the Elder Gods, and did not realize that could never happen.

It all came down to that question. One chance, one possibility only, demanding the destruction of this shrine, the death of its guardian, and the possible loss of his own sanity. And for all that, there was no guarantee it would even work. How could he possibly accept such a bargain?

And…how could he not?

“Forgive me,” Macraigh whispered, then opened his eyes. “I swear I will remember your sacrifice, Sub Ohess. Please forgive me, but I must do this. I ask that you proceed.”

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Bonus #38: Curse the Darkness, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Travis Foster!

She probably would have got him, had she not tried her ambush while he was actively siphoning mana.

It was a very small ley nexus in the middle of the woods, of course; even in a backwater country like Thacaar any nexus of significance would already be claimed by some wizard and likely the site of a tower. It would do, however, to recharge his power crystals and replenish his powder supply. Macraigh had spent a cold night camped in the forest, not daring a fire, before laboriously navigating to this spot via pendulum, his charmed compass having been broken in a recent tussle with the Inquisitor’s forces. Now, having laid out the siphoning circle (a design he himself had innovated, enabling him to both gather dust and charge crystals simultaneously at the cost of slowing both processes), he was hunched over the collection hourglass in which ambient arcane energy was coalescing into enchantment-ready powder, holding a coarse breakfast of hardtack in one hand and a brass rod in the other. The rod was for regularly tapping the hourglass to loosen dust as it formed and prevent clumps.

So far he had only forgot himself and smacked it with the hardtack twice. It had been a long night.

Macraigh paused in chewing, frowning at the hourglass. The dust had begun drifting notably against the side nearest him, and just as he lifted the rod to tap it loose, the thin stream of glittering blue powder materializing from the upper chamber shifted. As if nudged by a breeze, which of course was impossible inside the glass.

Carefully not moving anything but his eyes, he glanced around the circle at the three quartz chunks he had set up to charge, two of which were only barely within his peripheral vision. Those two gleamed brighter than the third, and were also flickering subtly. Coupled with the direction of the powder’s drift—there it came again—they revealed the direction of whatever was disrupting the ley lines.

There was very unlikely to be a fairy closing in on him from the front; the kind of fairies who charged at arcane workings did not hide their approach. More likely the ley lines were being tugged from the other direction. That meant either a warlock or demon absorbing power, or a subtle use of divine magic causing a slight natural vacuum toward which loose arcane energy would be drawn.

And he certainly knew which was most likely to be hunting him.

Carefully avoiding any sudden moves, Macraigh dropped his hardtack to the dirt and reached as slowly as he dared into the front of his robes, where he had a pouch of charms at the ready for just such occasions as these. Enchanting it to deliver to his fingers specifically the one he desired with no need for rummaging had been a major working that took him the better part of half a year, and which he had not once regretted.

Especially not now, as the two crystals suddenly gleamed brighter just as a particularly strong surge splattered the dust practically sideways within the hourglass. He half-spun, half-flopped backward (even mages who led lives as active as his rarely had time for athleticism) and hurled the slow charm in the direction of his attacker.

By Salyrene’s grace, he caught her mid-leap. Macraigh lay sprawled on his side, panting with adrenaline and staring up at her. There had been no sound, not even a quieting of the birds and cicadas nearby. If only she had waited for him to finish, that would have been the end of his quest. She was good; this was one of his closest scrapes by far.

The Silver Huntress hovered a foot off the ground, one leg extended gracefully behind her from her leap and an arm upraised with a knife ready to strike downward. Omnu’s breath, had she been planning to kill him? Even the Inquisitor was insistent on bringing him in alive, but this one might not have been fully briefed. He’d never seen her before; she was a local Thacaari, her tea-brown skin making her silver eagle tattoo seem even more luminous.

“Oh!” he said suddenly, eyes widening in alarm, and scrambled up to a kneeling position, reaching into his charm pouch again. This time there was some short fumbling, as he hadn’t a specific charm for what he needed, but making do on the fly was the mark of a skilled wizard, which Macraigh considered himself to be. A couple of seconds’ frantic thought brought him a small square of enchanting vellum and his pre-dusted quill, with which he scrawled a hurried set of runes before hurling the scrap at the Huntress.

It zipped forward as if caught in a wind to adhere to her chest. She drew in a loud, desperate gasp, able to take her first breath in real time since being hit by the slow trap.

“Nemitoth’s quills, I’m sorry about that,” Macraigh said nervously. “I usually use that for demons and the like, wasn’t expecting a real person. You all right there? You can breathe okay? Please say something if you feel any numbness or tingling in your extremities, I think I prevented that but—”

“Release me, warlock!” she spat. In Pashu, of course, but his language pendant translated adequately as always. To his knowledge, the Inquisitor spoke Tanglic; either she had significant local contacts or…what? By Vesk’s own fiddle, he was not cut out for all this skulduggery.

“I’m not a warlock,” he said wearily, more for form’s sake than because he thought anything useful would come of starting that argument again. “And don’t worry, I will release you. When I’m a good distance away. Considering you came at me with a knife I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”

Her eyes narrowed—his hasty modification to the slow charm had freed her head and vital organs, that was it—and she showed enough presence of mind not to bother quibbling over the obviously futile. “Warlock, mage, whatever. You dabble in forbidden magics. The Goddess has demanded your end.”

“You know what I find interesting?” he said testily, beginning to gather his equipment back into his Bag of Holding. This was less crystal charge and accumulated enchanting powder than he’d hoped for, but even with her trapped he didn’t fancy finishing his work under her gimlet stare. “I’ve yet to hear a word on this that suggests your goddess is even aware of me. All this comes from people, Huntress, mortals as flawed as you or I. People who decide what magics to forbid without bothering to understand them and then won’t hear discussion on the subject. If anything, your friend the Inquisitor is on shakier footing with the gods than I. Salyrene charges us to seek knowledge and advance understanding, whereas if she’s telling you this business comes down from your goddess she’s taking Avei’s name in vain. To be frank I’ve never heard of an Inquisitor in Avenic lore before she started in on me; the whole thing sounds made up. And I never dabble,” he added haughtily, straightening up to look around for anything he’d forgotten. Ah, yes, his hardtack. Macraigh picked it up and brushed off dirt on the front of his robes. “My research is exhaustive and my precautions exacting. Goddess, spare me the stubbornness of religious people. And yes, I’m aware of the irony.”

She couldn’t seem to think of a response to that, which did not surprise him unduly. Macraigh had accumulated some unfortunate experience with religious fanatics in recent years, and found that when confronted with common sense they would either fly into an incoherent rage or freeze up entirely. More down-to-earth sorts like the Silver Huntresses tended to be in the latter group.

“Anyhow. I am sorry about all this,” he said, pulling a stick of smoothed rowan wood engraved with basic runes and jamming it upright in the ground in front of her. More materials squandered, but at least these were basic enough that they could be replaced without undue onus.

“You’re sorry,” she spat, still frozen in the air before him.

“Yes, I am,” he said simply, winding a length of embroidered ribbon around the stick and carefully balancing a glass bead atop it. Once the assembly was in place the charm ignited, causing the ribbon to twist in a slow spiral around the stick while the bead shone a brilliant arcane blue.

It also produced a tremendously unpleasant buzzing noise, causing both of them to cringe.

“Sorry about that, too,” he added, raising his voice above the racket. “It’ll keep the animals away, though. I’m sure you know there are bears hereabouts, and I wouldn’t want you stuck there helpless. The charm will wear off…well, after a while. Just kick over the stick when you’re free, the noise will stop as soon as it’s disarranged.”

She was frowning at him in familiar puzzlement. Not for the first time, Macraigh considered that he could probably argue his case successfully before the High Commander if the Inquisitor ever succeeded in getting her hands on him; he had certainly left behind a trail of Avei’s minions inconvenienced but very carefully not harmed, or even spoken to harshly. It wasn’t their fault they were being told by a pigheaded extremist that he was some kind of maniac. Unfortunately, the nature of his work kept him moving, which meant there was always a new set of fresh faces for the Inquisitor to hurl at him. It was a shame the Hand of Avei was off crusading at Valgorod. Macraigh rather fancied he could talk sense to her. Soldiers were pragmatic folk.

“If you’d like,” he offered, “I can apply a charm to you that will deaden your hearing for a while. It’ll be less uncomfortable—”

“Don’t you touch me!”

“Right, I thought not,” he sighed, turning away. “Good luck to you, then.”

Macraigh stepped almost to the edge of the small clearing before thinking better of setting off straight. He made a show of taking out and consulting his (broken) compass, then turned and trotted off into the woods in an entirely different direction than he was actually heading.

He finished off the hardtack during the half hour in which he laid a false trail in the wrong direction; it didn’t taste notably worse for having fallen on the ground, and it wasn’t as if this was his first time ingesting trace amounts of dirt. Upon reaching a creek, Macraigh stopped ankle-deep in the water, fishing out another charm from his pouch. Stepping very carefully to the opposite edge of the creek bed, he reached over and laid it upon the mossy bank without personally touching dry ground, then backed away a few steps and retrieved a crystal-tipped rod from his Bag of Holding.

One flick of the wand, and the enchanting vellum disintegrated into a puff of smoke, which streamed off into the woods, leaving behind a damp trail of Macraigh’s footprints. That was a good charm, one he had laboriously devised himself and which ought to fool even expert trackers who knew to be wary of Allister’s False Footsteps. This one even carried his scent and would break twigs and disarrange underbrush in passing. Obviously she’d figure it out when it came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere, but at least that would give him a leg up while she had to double back.

He turned and slogged off down the creek as fast as he could without sacrificing his footing in the running water. Putting miles between himself and pursuit was only part of his need to hasten. Macraigh’s ultimate destination was almost near enough he could taste it, and he had been forced to arrange the most thorough of cover to keep the Inquisitor and her lackeys off his back while he finished his work. It was going to kick the whole country into a furor, not to mention what would happen to him if the great powers he had deliberately poked figured out what he’d done, but the Inquisitor was the single most stubbornly obsessive person he had ever had the misfortune to encounter; nothing short of an act of the gods was going to distract her.

Well, an act of the gods was more than Macraigh could conjure up, but he’d found pretty much the next best thing. He only hoped it would be enough.

Even above the gurgle of the stream, he heard the road long before reaching it; there was an awful lot of traffic, to judge by the shouts of people and bellowing of oxen and donkeys. As he drew closer to the edge of the forest, Macraigh winced guiltily, having heard a moment of audible weeping from someone. It was a safe bet these people were sensibly fleeing from what he had set in motion.

In the end, it would all be worth it. That, or he would be in no position to see the aftermath.

He left the creek bed before emerging from the treeline, deciding not to try sneaking under the bridge up ahead. The road was definitely busier than it ought to be, though it couldn’t be called packed. A steady stream of people were passing by, heading south toward Nijendieu. Locals, all of them, dark-skinned Thacaari in the simple but colorful robes and turbans favored by their peasantry. Nearly all were carrying possessions; over half rode laden pack animals or ox-drawn carts.

Just his luck, there was a small group of actual soldiers in bronze armor crossing the bridge right as Macraigh approached the road, clambering up the incline out of the creek bed. Naturally, they stopped in unison, turning to give him a thorough once-over. He sighed softly, and did not slow. By that point, thanks to the Inquisitor, Macraigh was practiced in not drawing official attention, and he’d learned that the quickest way to make soldiers think you were up to something was by deliberately trying to look innocent. It wasn’t as if he was going to blend in with the locals no matter what he did.

The man in the lead, to judge by the feathers on his helmet, gave him a single long, considering look before coming to the obvious conclusion. “Adventurer?”

Macraigh had denied that out of sheer surprise the first time. Thereafter, he’d embraced it. There was no more convenient excuse for an obviously foreign wizard to be wandering around, and it was one of the least likely to draw suspicion. It was one thing in cities, where heavily-armed profit-minded loners were a serious and recurrent problem; out on the roads, nobody paid attention to adventurers.

“Yep,” he said laconically. “Heard there’s a—”

“Look, it’s your own business,” the officer interrupted, “but this one’s over your pay grade, wizard. I suggest you head south like everybody else. There’s a—”

He was prevented from revealing what there was by a sudden demonstration of it. The roar seemed to split the very skies, and all up and down the road, people screamed and dived for the scant cover of the ditches. Including two of the soldiers.

The titanic shape whipped past directly overhead, hardly more than a dozen yards in the air; even with its immense wingspan, the sinuous form of the dragon was gone almost before its passing shadow could be consciously registered. The sudden wind of its passage grabbed at Macraigh’s robes and then the sapphire behemoth was winding away toward the northwest.

In that direction, he saw for the first time the shape of the tower, just barely visible against the horizon with its massive crystal roof glowing in the sun like a lighthouse. The dragon banked in its direction and exhaled a mighty blast of flame whose roar was audible even at that distance.

The famously well-defended wizardly tower retaliated with a burst of pure arcane energy that lit half the horizon for a split second. Its attacker had adroitly shot upward, escaping the worst of it, though the great beast tumbled slightly from the aftershock before regaining its smooth glide and then circled off toward the west.

“Thank you, gentlemen, but I know what I’m about,” Macraigh said politely, scraping mud off his boots at the edge of the stone bridge.

The officer looked at him, then back in the direction of the tower, then shook his head. “Your funeral.” He set off down the road again with no more ado, which suited Macraigh just fine.

He followed the road for a hundred yards or so, winding his way around people and animals heading the other direction—or, in some cases, people trying to coax their terrified animals to behave. It wasn’t strictly necessary, since none of these folk cared enough to give him a second glance, but the last few years had taught him the virtue of caution, and so he made a show of following the road toward the trouble until the soldiers had disappeared to the south before abruptly stepping off it and heading northeast through the patchy tallgrass.

The moment he was out of sight of the road over a small ridge, Macraigh stopped and released another false trail charm, going north parallel to the road, then applied a trail-concealing one to his own boots. He tried not to overuse such measures—that would only make them less effective in the long run as the Inquisitor’s people learned to watch for them—but he was so close to his destination. This was no time to become complacent.

He cringed and hunched his shoulders involuntarily when the dragon passed overhead again, roaring in frustration, but it wasn’t interested in him. In fact, he knew what the great beast was looking for, and a single wandering mage wouldn’t pose a distraction. Macraigh’s only worry was that the blue would recognize him in particular. Unlikely; he had taken every possible precaution. But with a dragon, you never knew.

At any rate, it soon found what it was actually after.

Macraigh had stopped to peruse his map, studying the luminous icons indicating his position and that of his goal. It was a very thorough enchanted map, and warned him of the dragon and the other interested party he had summoned to this area. He was close; it was just up ahead, should be hidden within a little dip in the rolling terrain with no obvious features to mark it. Also, he noted that they were converging on this general area, which made it seem wise to get a move on. And it seemed the Silver Huntress was free again, a few miles back, though so far she was still following one of his false trails. The Inquisitor was closing on him, though. She had followed the road, so he’d inadvertently made her job a little easier by cutting across it and leaving behind a swath of witnesses who wouldn’t even think of lying to a Viridi cleric.

Just as he was stuffing the map back in his Bag of Holding, the dragon arced past directly in Macraigh’s field of view and slammed into an invisible barrier at a speed which folded up its entire length like a spring. The beast tumbled from the sky with an undignified but still mighty squawk.

Macraigh gritted his teeth and set off again at a near-run. Just his luck; they’d finally run across each other, and instead of at the tower they did it practically on top of him and his destination.

The blast of fire which seared a swath of the prairie to his immediate north wasn’t close enough for him to feel the heat, but it started a grass fire that was going to become his problem sooner than later, unless the wind shifted in his favor.

The counterstroke was even more worrying; a colossal sigil appeared in the very sky and spewed forth an indiscriminate volley of arcane missiles around the entire region.

“Sloppy,” Macraigh muttered aloud, and then was hurled off his feet as one smashed into the ground not ten yards distant.

He gathered himself up as quickly as possible, deliberately not staring at the brand new crater, and hustled on. This time he made it almost ten minutes before something, somewhere, impacted a magical barrier with a force that made his subtler senses jangle with alarm exactly three seconds before a massive shockwave flattened the tallgrass—and him.

A wizard persevered. He pulled himself up, double-checked his map, put his head down and pushed onward. All this mess had landed a lot closer than he had anticipated or wished, but at least it would be having the desired effect. Even the Inquisitor wouldn’t be trying to press her hunt through this chaos.

Surely she wouldn’t. Right?

Lightning flashed out of a cloudless sky, peppering the ground not too far away, and Macraigh threw himself flat. Natural lightning would go right toward an upright figure alone on a prairie; fortunately, this had clearly been aimed at someone else. He scrambled back to his feet and redoubled his speed.

On he pressed, on that last harried leg of his years-long journey, while chaos unfolded all around him. He couldn’t even see either of the archmages whose duel he was rushing through, and he couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse. The dragon, at least, he had a general sense of, as the beast kept roaring and emitting blasts of fire—luckily not too close to Macraigh. The pair of them were certainly making a grand mess of the countryside. Fire, lightning, wind, bursts of sheer kinetic force, ice meteors, and those were only the spells he could identify. There was no end of constant noise and light effects whose actual purpose thankfully didn’t hit close enough for him to discern. The constant haze of extremely potent arcane magic practically blinded his own subtler senses.

Luck finally shone upon him, though, as the brawl shifted away to the south just as he arrived at his destination. Macraigh had to spend the last paces of his journey with his map out, watching the icons for himself and his target more than where he was putting his feet, as he paced back and forth, looking for that sweet spot. Both symbols were pretty much on top of each other on the map; he meandered this way and that, all around a small dip in the terrain, until quite suddenly the two combined and began to flash.

He stuffed the map away, his heart thrumming with excitement. This was the spot. There was absolutely nothing to reveal to his eyes that anything was here, but this had to be the spot.

There came a distant roar and a flash of fire, a good distance to the southeast, which he ignored.

Macraigh drew in a deep breath and spread his arms wide. The incantation he had pieced together from two different sources and wasn’t totally certain he had conjugated the dead language of the Elder Gods correctly; his pendant did nothing for a language no living person could speak. Well, if not, there was a lot of digging in his near future.

“Malfermita,” he declaimed to the sky. “Rajtigo. Naiya!”

A distant boom of thunder from the battling wizards. A faint breeze ruffled the tallgrass closer at hand. And that was all.

He lowered his arms. “Oh, bloody hell.”

Then the ground in front of him began to crumble.

Macraigh stumbled back as something rose up through the very dirt, displacing tallgrass left and right. A wedge-shaped protrusion rose up from within the earth, forming a line that seemed to lead right into the side of the tiny hill right in front of him. Sod and grasses tumbled off its sides, revealing a flat panel of pale metal directly facing him, marked with a sigil he had encountered repeatedly in his research.

Macraigh bit his lower lip and practically danced in place. This was it. He was here!

Then the entire earth shook so violently he was thrown off his feet.

Macraigh didn’t know exactly how much a dragon weighed, but he discovered that day that when one hit the ground in a steep dive the results could quite reasonably be described as an earthquake.

He rolled over onto his back and momentarily froze, staring up at the colossal sapphire shape looming above him. Then, propelled by sheer terrified reflex, he began trying to scuttle uselessly backward.

That lasted for about two seconds, and then he was levitated bodily off the ground. Macraigh instinctively reached for his own magic to counter the charm, and found it blocked.

Mana filtration; an analytical portion of his mind couldn’t help being impressed, despite his panic. There weren’t many wizards who could manage that. Then he was rotated about in midair to stare at one of those who could.

She was exactly as he remembered: blonde, green-eyed, sharp-eared, and scowling.

“Yep,” Arachne said sourly, “I remember you, y’little pest. This the one, Zanza?” She twirled a finger, spinning him around in the air to face the dragon.

Macraigh just barely managed not to pee in his robes when the great beast’s head, large enough to make a bite of him, lowered and twisted till he was staring at one smooth sapphire eye from far, far too close.

“Oh, that’s him all right,” the dragon rumbled. “I didn’t see him before, but he smells the same. Right down to that rather pedestrian charm he’s trying to disguise his scent with.”

“Oh, is that what that is? I thought his spell components were going bad.” She twirled him lazily back around, and he noted that her scowl, ominously, had deepened. “Credit where it’s due, boy, that was a nice trick. Hunt down Arachne and Zanzayed, tell each that the other’s found a way into Odomo’s Tower and is planning to seize the treasure. Real cute. In hindsight, I’m a little surprised nobody’s tried something like this before. Of course, now we have to make sure nobody does something this irritating ever again, which means making a truly grandiose spectacle of your demise.”

Macraigh tried to say something in his defense. The shrill croaking noise he produced was not one of his proudest showings.

“We have a little wager going, though,” Zanzayed the Blue added, reaching out with one massive claw and very delicately turning Macraigh back around to face him. The dragon was grinning, and almost certainly did not misapprehend that that was a reassuring sight. “I’m betting that for you to try this, you must be after something that’ll really be worth our time. I have to warn you, though, this is a second wager. In the first place, I bet her that you’d set this up because you’d found a way into the Tower and wanted us good and distracted. Needless to say, it’ll go that much the worse for you if you make me lose two wagers in the space of ten minutes. So for all our sakes, I really hope you’ve got something good—”

“I can unlock the secrets of shadow magic!” Macraigh squealed.

For a few moments, there was only the faint wind over the prairie. He wasn’t at all certain that his heart was still beating. Zanzayed shifted his head to look past the captive mage, sharing a silent communication with the elf.

And then, Macraigh was dumped unceremoniously to the ground, where he blinked up at both of their faces.

“All right,” said the world’s greatest sorceress, folding her arms, “we’re listening.”

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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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