Tag Archives: Ruda

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“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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13 – 29

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After its previous chaos, the darkness and quiet of the fabrication plant was oppressive. It also served to alarmingly magnify the sound of rushing water.

“Looks like something’s still switched on,” Gabriel said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of the group crept back in behind him. Indeed, directly ahead, lights still glowed in the central command station. It was the only source of illumination aside from the transparent ceiling, which barely emitted enough sea-filtered light to stand out from the darkness.

“I will go check it out!” Fross chimed, and zipped forward before anyone could stop her. The pixie vanished into the station and the rest of the party watched her silver glow dart around within while they lined up at the base of the metal stairs.

“Wouldn’t your valkyrie friend make a better scout?” Milady murmured. “Undetectable and invulnerable…”

“She’s already looked, says its safe,” Gabriel replied quietly, then grinned. “Fross saves all our butts twice in an average week; I don’t like to discourage her from jumping in.”

“Time is a factor,” Principia said pointedly, glancing at the nearest spout of water, which glistened faintly in the dim glow of the command center, and stepped forward off the stairs and onto the walkway proper.

Before she got any further, Fross returned. “It appears safe!” the pixie reported. “There are still some lights turned on in the machines built into the walls and floor and I couldn’t tell what they do but nothing that was nailed down reacted to my presence. There is something else there, though, some kind of golem, I think. It looks like a trash bin with metal spider arms and one of those little flat display panels for a face, and it makes bell noises almost like me!”

“See!” Juniper exclaimed. “Giant mechanical spider! I told you!”

“Oh, a Caretaker unit,” Milady said eagerly. “That’s good news! They’re meant to look after Infinite Order facilities like the Avatar, but they’re kept separate from the machines and their programming can’t be altered. Poor guy’s probably the only thing holding this place together; we couldn’t ask for better help in fixing it. Come on!”

She set off down the walkway, Principia close behind her. Fross shot ahead again, a silver streak zooming back into the alcove. The rest followed more slowly, peering warily around at the darkness as they went.

Their approach was halted just before the entrance to the command alcove, when a chunk of the machinery within detached itself and moved to sit in the doorway. It was very much like Fross had described: a squat tube on wheels, bristling with multi-jointed mechanical arms and with a single flat panel on the front of its upper segment which glowed with lines depicting a stylized face.

“See!” Fross chimed, zipping back to hover above the golem. It emitted a chiming noise in response, the lines of its “face” altering to form a broad grin. It made unmistakable beckoning gestures with two of its arms and retreated back into the alcove.

“And…you’ve seen those before?” Toby asked warily.

“One,” Milady admitted. “And…it wasn’t turned on. But I’ve had their functions described to me in detail.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” Principia said. “Caretakers are perfectly harmless at worst. They’re designed to be annoyingly friendly and helpful. The Mysterious Stranger here is right, this is a stroke of luck. C’mon.”

She brushed past Milady and stepped into the alcove after the Caretaker golem, leaving the rest to follow.

The platform was octagonal, with entrances on two sides for walkways and walls of glass that sloped outward; it had no ceiling, being open to the roof of the plant itself with its view of the murky seawater above. The original construction seemed to have included transparent panels at waist height, horizontal and slightly angled, which housed the controls. Several of these were knocked out, though, and more machinery had been installed, in a rather haphazard fashion. The additions looked altogether tacked-on and seemed to be the product of a different mind than the clean, glossy aesthetic of the Infinite Order. With moving parts, blinking lights, protruding hoses and wires, they looked rather like things modern dwarves might build, or even the workings of an enchanted factory. These ran along the edges, a couple were installed onto the floor itself, and several extended from the upper edges of the slanting walls to hang overhead. Altogether the whole looked too heavy for this platform to support, but the metal felt as solid beneath their feet as the very ground, not vibrating at all when stepped on.

One entire wall had been knocked out to make room for a flat display which protruded half out into space, and this was the source of most of the light still active. It was a broad, flat table with a three-dimensional map of the middle part of the continent, its geography obvious to those familiar with it, centered on the Golden Sea and with the Wyrnrange, Stalrange and Dwarnskolds forming borders, apparently crafted of solid light. Hovering above this, also formed from light, was a slowly rotating globe. It was difficult to gather around the map because a large gate of some kind had been installed attached to it, little more than an empty metal door frame on a thick base with built-in machinery and control panels. This jutted out into the center of the alcove, taking up much of the available space.

The Caretaker wheeled over to this apparatus and began gesticulating at it and at them with its multiple arms, whistling and chiming urgently.

“Okaaay,” Ruda drawled. “So…it’s a map, and a globe of the world.”

“That’s not the world,” Juniper said. “Look, the continents are all wrong.”

“It’s a world.” Principia slipped past the Caretaker and leaned partly over the map display, peering closely at the planet hovering above the continent. “That’s Earth.”

“I thought this was earth,” Toby said.

“What?” Milady frowned at him. “I’ve never heard it called that.”

“Every word for the world I’ve encountered in any language means some variation of ‘dirt,’ ‘land,’ or ‘home,’” said Fross, now orbiting Earth and casting very odd shadows across its luminous surface. “I guess planets only need names if there’s more than one, otherwise it’s just a constant, like the air or sky. And there aren’t any other planets within sight of our telescopes or astro-scryers, so…”

“Adventurers and their bantering,” Principia muttered. “That is Earth, the planet the Elder Gods came here from, thousands of years ago. Where the human species originated.”

“Okay,” Ruda repeated irritably. “What the fuck is it doing hovering over the Golden Sea?”

“Hey, there’s Last Rock!” Juniper said, pointing to the protrusion of the familiar mountain near the edge of the map.

“It’s their escape hatch.” Everyone turned to stare at Gabriel, who himself was staring off to the side, frowning in concentration in the way he did when relaying words from Vestrel. “It’s… Okay, the thing itself isn’t here, but this gadget is clearly some kind of link to it. Apparently… The Elder Gods were prepared for their experiments here to go badly, so they set up a permanent portal back to where they came from. Except, not exactly there.” He paused, his frown deepening. “It’s…not exactly Earth, but an alternate dimension. That’s what a lot of their technology was based on, traveling between dimensions. It’s how they came to this planet without having to spend years in—Vestrel, do we really need to know that part? Okay, so they opened a portal to this alternate Earth that was almost identical to theirs, at a fixed point in the past where a lot of their favorite myths and stories came from and where the technology was advanced enough they wouldn’t be dealing with ignorant savages, but not so much that the people there could have stood against them. If they had to abandon this planet, they were gonna go there and conquer it.”

“That,” Ruda stated, “is vicious, cowardly, and generally fucking despicable.”

“Sounds about right,” Milady remarked.

“And apparently the gate still works and is still open.” Gabriel transferred his pensive stare to the map display. “And…it is in the center of the Golden Sea, which is what causes the whole region to be spatially unstable. Huh. The things we learn.”

“I am just kicking myself for not spending more time asking Vestrel about the past,” Fross chimed in agitation, now zipping back and forth in midair. “Of course I can’t exactly talk to her but there have to be workarounds there and I didn’t realize how old she is but oh the things she must know!”

“Vestrel would like everyone to know that she’s not an encyclopedia,” Gabriel said wryly. “And also I’m to add to our enigmatic friend here that if she wants to hear long-winded valkyrie explanations, she knows who to ask.”

“Oh, good, that fun conversation isn’t done, then,” Milady muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

“None of which explains what the fuck all this is doing here,” Ruda said loudly. “This place is flooding as we fucking speak, guys. Archaeology later, fixing this shit now!”

“That is a point.” Principia, now frowning deeply, slid out of the group and began prowling around the edges of the alcove, studying the panels. They were active, emitting a faint glow, but displayed nothing but the Infinite Order’s sigil. “We told this thing to reboot, right? I can’t help noticing that nothing is booting up. I realize this place is wrecked, but the central computer was functional enough to talk to us. Should it take this long?”

“You’re asking us?” Juniper exclaimed. “I thought you were the expert! Isn’t that why we brought you?”

“Vestrel recommends percussive maintenance,” Gabriel reported. “If that means what it sounds like, I have…doubts.”

The Caretaker began chiming loudly. As they all turned to stare, it backed up to the far edge of the alcove, and then retracted all its metal arms until just the clawed grabbing mechanisms from each protruded from its central body.

“Um,” Juniper said hesitantly, “what’s it doing—”

She broke off as the golem suddenly burst into motion, charging across the alcove to slam its body against the side of the metal gate. It rebounded, chiming in agitation, and toppled over; Toby reflexively dived to catch it, and then yelped and was borne to the floor under the golem, whose weight he had clearly underestimated.

“Oh, that’s grand,” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought you said that thing would be helpful!”

Suddenly, all the lights in the room flashed, and the panels turned red. A hum rose in the air as technology came to life around them. Everyone froze, though moments later Juniper un-froze at Toby’s grunt and resumed heaving the Caretaker off him.

“I am not going to say that,” Gabriel muttered into the tense silence which followed. “If you want to tell people you told them so, get somebody else to summon your spooky ass.”

The oddly resonant, feminine voice from the panels outside suddenly spoke, though not comprehensibly. Several of them jumped in surprise, while the rest just frowned at the unintelligible jabbering.

“I recognize some of those syllables,” Fross said thoughtfully.

“You’re doing better than I am,” Toby grunted, brushing himself off. The Caretaker chimed apologetically at him, extending an arm tipped with an actual brush to help.

“Is this…progress?” Principia asked.

Milady cleared her throat. “Computer, set language to—”

“Dialect identified,” the computer’s voice declared from all around them. “English, North American, twentieth century. Warning: there are multiple leaks emitting seawater. The facility’s structural integrity is below seventy percent and in danger of collapsing from water pressure. Warning: the Avatar governing intelligence has suffered catastrophic corruption and cannot be safely booted in its current state. Warning: there has been a category one security breach resulting in nanite contamination of the planet’s surface. Warning: this facility is flooded. Warning: widespread damage to the facility has reduced the production capacity of this fabrication plant below twenty-five percent. This facility’s condition is beyond critical. Multiple immediate actions are urgently necessary.”

“No shit!” Ruda exclaimed. “How the fuck do we fix this?!”

“Uh, computer!” Fross said loudly. “What course of action do you recommend to begin repairs?”

“That’s what I just said,” Ruda growled.

“The major repairs necessary will require the guidance of this facility’s Avatar.”

“But the Avatar’s broken!” Principia exclaimed. “That’s the whole damn problem, you hunk of—”

“A fresh iteration of the Avatar can be loaded,” the computer informed them. “Corruption resulted from the installation of unapproved equipment, which can be removed with the Avatar’s guidance. Recommendation: the extant iteration of the Avatar program should be isolated behind firewalls and left inert, and a new iteration loaded from the last stable restore point to oversee repairs. It should be possible to complete repairs before the Avatar becomes too corrupt to function, and then either debug its program or load another fresh iteration.”

The computer stopped talking, and they all peered around at each other in varying degrees of confusion.

“Did you guys follow any of that?” Toby asked.

“I think so,” said Fross. “If I understand correctly, it sounds like sense.”

“Yes, actually,” Milady said slowly. “I think that would work.”

“Vestrel agrees,” Gabriel added. “Okay, then, if there are no objections? Then I think you’re still nominally the voice of Naiya here, Juno. Care to do the honors?”

“I, uh…” The dryad shrugged fatalistically. “Oh, why not. Computer thingy! Do the…stuff you just said. The plan. The iterations and loading and all of it.”

A musical chime sounded from the air around them, and a circular image appeared on all the surviving screens, slowly cycling down.

“What was that, now?” Ruda demanded.

“Two ascending chimes is an affirmative acknowledgment,” said Milady. “It’s doing it. So now, I guess, we wait…”

And then the screens cleared, and patterns of light appeared all around them in the air. From one rose a three-dimensional, translucent projection of the bald man in tight purple clothing. Unlike his previous appearance, he was calm and composed in aspect, smiling slightly at them with his hands folded.

The Caretaker began chiming in delight, brandishing its arms victoriously overhead.

“Greetings,” his resonant voice said soothingly from the machines all around. “Welcome to Fabrication Plant One. I am Avatar Zero Two, the governing intelligence of this facility. And… I am extremely embarrassed.”


“Are you seriously going to stand there doing drugs?”

“You should try some of this, Eleanora,” the Emperor said with a smile and a hint of mischief.

“I will not,” she said scathingly.

“There’s barely enough coffee in here to be detectable,” he said, taking another sip and ignoring her growl. “It’s mostly milk, sugar, whipped cream and…some kind of syrup. This is basically a warm mug of dessert.”

“It’s called a Tiraano, your Majesty,” Underminister Shanaar said tremulously. A mousy woman with large spectacles and a habit of holding her thick folder of paperwork before herself as if she could hide behind it, she was clearly overwhelmed at presenting her report to the Imperial couple in person. “It’s… Ah, that particular one is from La Chez, a Glassian cafe which has pioneered artisanal coffee in the city. I have procured samples from six other establishments if you wish to try—”

“That will not be necessary,” Eleanora said frostily, and Ms. Shanaar cringed, shuffling surreptitiously behind her cart of warming mugs. The rich scents of coffee, cream, and flavored sugar filled the room headily, drifting from the steam her “samples” emitted.

Sharidan gave Eleanora a reproachful look, and she repressed a sigh, but deliberately moderated her expression. He was right; there was nothing to be gained by bullying hard-working public servants just doing their jobs as ordered.

Shanaar cleared her throat and began shuffling papers pointlessly, lowering her eyes to them. “Yes, well, um, your Majesties… As you can see for yourselves… Or, uh, not, if you prefer… Most of the uses of coffee in the city’s upscale cafes are relatively harmless. The flavor of the raw stuff is quite unpalatable and the upper class don’t seem to take to it without heavily mixing it with more, ah, wholesome ingredients. The temperance movement is targeting them mostly because the rich are usually the source of major social impetus. My report clearly indicates the only potential public health risk is from the less-common uses of the drink in its purer form, which is beginning to catch on among the working class. The Thieves’ Guild has begun to make institutionalized use of it, and it’s increasingly popular among factory workers… Actual risks are uncertain, we haven’t linked coffee to specific diseases. It simply grants a rush of energy when consumed. The, uh, long-term effects… There’s just no data, yet. We need time to study. It will take years to know the full implications.”

“The short-term effects are already known,” Eleanora said brusquely. “And this is beginning to grow popular in the city?”

“The first coffee crops planted on the continent have been harvested, processed, and distributed,” Shanaar said timidly. “Not much yet, but it’s a start. They’re out in the Onkawa highlands, the only region with the right climate in the Empire. With that, the price has suddenly dropped, and… That is, yes, your Majesty. My department has recorded a nearly four hundred percent increase in use over the last five years. That began from negligible numbers, of course, but still. Coffee is still much less popular than alcohol or glittershrooms, but it is catching on.”

“It seems simple enough to me, then,” Eleanora said, turning her disapproving stare back on her husband, who continued to sip appreciatively at his mug of the drug under discussion. “We add it to the list of proscribed narcotics and begin issuing exemptions for establishments that want to sell it, just like alcohol or opium. We silence those temperance harpies and gain a new source of revenue…”

“We can’t do that, your Majesty.”

Shanaar quailed at Eleanora’s cold stare.

“Can’t?”

“Th-the active ingredient is called caffeine,” the Underminister sputtered. “I-it is also the source of th-the stimulant properties of tea and ch-chocolate. If the government declares it a health hazard, entire industries will be massively disrupted, channels of trade—”

Quentin Vex suddenly strode into the room; the Hand of the Emperor standing discreetly in the corner looked at him but did not otherwise move, indicating he detected no threat. Vex stepped to one side of the door and coughed softly into his fist.

“Underminister,” the Emperor said smoothly, “you will please excuse us. Thank you for your report; we will finish this meeting at a later time.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Shanaar squeaked, pressing her folder to her chest and scurrying gratefully out. Vex shut the door behind her.

“Well?” Eleanora demanded.

“Tellwyrn, Vadrieny, and the Sleeper were all in the city a few minutes ago,” the spymaster said immediately. “Fortunately, that ended as well as it possibly could have. Tellwyrn bound the warlock—the Masterson boy—from using magic, then allowed Vadrieny to abduct him. She headed off in the direction of Tar’naris with him in tow.”

“Well, that’s one way to resolve that,” Sharidan murmured. “Narisian justice might be exactly what that little beast deserves.”

“Further,” Vex continued, “I have addressed the issue of the traitors by informing Tellwyrn of their probable destination.”

“I suppose that means we won’t be getting that airship back,” Eleanora said sourly. “Really, Quentin, you usually prefer a lighter touch.”

“Desperate times, your Majesty.”

She shook her head. “And the situation in Last Rock?”

“Is under control. She did not mention it.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, she didn’t mention it?”

“Just that, your Majesty. She made no reference to the renegade Hand on site. Thanks to Fedora’s appeal to his surviving connections in the city, we know she must be aware. That she did not request further help with the matter tells me she is addressing it. As I said before, your Majesties, Tellwyrn putting him down is an optimal outcome. She has nothing to gain by exposing Imperial secrets or using them as leverage against us.”

The Hand present glanced at him again, then resumed his ceaseless survey of the room.

“Unless Fedora is working against her, as well?” Sharidan suggested.

Vex shook his head. “If there is one child of Vanislaas I trust not to bite the hand that feeds him, it’s Fedora. He only turned on us because he had neared the end of his usefulness to the Throne, I would soon have needed to get rid of him, and he is too intelligent not to discern those facts. Tellwyrn can keep him busy potentially forever. No, I rather expect she’ll find Murgatroyd a surprisingly loyal agent. More than any of his kind I’ve encountered, he desires stability. Further, we have independent confirmation from Colonel Azhai that she warned Tellwyrn to the best of her ability. She and Reich both smelled a rat, but Azhai toed the line. Reich was willing to defy the renegade Hand’s direct orders to get back in touch with Intelligence. I suspect the Archpope’s influence there.”

“And she didn’t mention this.” Eleanora turned to stare at the window, frowning deeply in thought.

“Nora,” Sharidan said quietly, finally setting down his absurd coffee-laced beverage, “I have never pried into this, but you haven’t exactly made it a secret that you’ve got some personal grudge with Tellwyrn. Be mindful of your bias, here.”

“You’re right,” she said, then returned her stare to Vex, noting for the first time that he looked physically haggard. The man had apparently not slept in two days. “Quentin, in your professional opinion, what is the error in judgment Arachne Tellwyrn is most likely to make?”

He hesitated only momentarily before replying. “She is rather prone to overestimating herself, your Majesty. So…your point is taken. That Tellwyrn believes the situation in Last Rock to be under her control does not necessarily mean it is so.”

“What, specifically, do we know of the situation? Beyond the presence of the renegade Hand and his intentions?”

“…little, your Majesty. He has recruited Reich and several local civilians. With the departure of the zeppelin in that direction we can assume someone in the Archpope’s conspiracy has knowledge of these matters and an interest in intervening. We do not know his exact plans or timetable. I have dispatched agents to investigate, but it will take time for them to get in position. And there is also the inherent danger of irritating Tellwyrn.”

“Damn Tellwyrn and her precious little feelings,” Eleanora barked. “She lost control of one of her students, who has cause a major crisis with that hellgate, assaulted Narisian diplomats and apparently was just in the capital. Quentin, can your people penetrate her wards on scrying and teleportation?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said warily. “In theory. But…so doing will, of course, provoke a response. She’ll strengthen the wards and it will be that much more difficult the next time. With Tellwyrn, that could very quickly make them impenetrable, even to us. Again, I prefer not to poke at—”

“Sharidan.” She turned to the Emperor. “Am I overreacting?”

“You’re reacting more personally than usual,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But…no, Nora. I think you’re right; the combination of the Sleeper, the conspiracy, and an apparent connection to Justinian’s plots, plus our own renegade, and you’re right. I believe the time for the hands-off approach has ended. Quentin.” He turned back to the spymaster. “I want you to shift every scryer you can spare to punch through those wards. Find out what is happening in Last Rock, in detail.”

“And,” Eleanora added, “have mages standing by to teleport troops on site.”

“Now that may be too much,” Sharidan warned.

“Invading the University in force would be a disaster,” she agreed, “as I bet the renegade is about to learn. But if what we learn from scrying indicates that the situation there is as out of control as I fear, we should be ready to move in support of the Professor. A small force, comprised of specialists.”

“Very good,” the Emperor agreed, nodding. “Put a strike team and a squad of the Imperial Guard on standby, but do not deploy anyone without our express order. I’ll want your report on the situation on the ground ASAP, Quentin.”

Vex, in defiance of both his customary demeanor and all formal protocol, heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes, your Majesties. Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.”

Then, while they watched in bemusement, he stepped forward, picked up one of the steaming cups of coffee from Shanaar’s tray, and took it with him as he strode out to make the arrangements they had ordered.

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13 – 27

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Darkness receded into dimness, and most of the group shifted physically, both to fall into balanced stances and to peer around at their surroundings. It was a tunnel, that much was no surprise, but after the few seconds it took to make sense of the view they discovered that the walls were curved lengths of glass, or at least something transparent. The murky landscape outside and the relatively faint light they emitted was due to the view being of the bottom of the harbor. There was little to see except mud and the odd strand of kelp, and at that depth there would have been little sunlight even had it not been storming above. The broken wreck of a ship barely visible through the gloom off to their right helped put it all into perspective.

“Ta dah!” Mogul sang, spreading his arms and grinning at them. “Here’s what I can tell you: the Rust themselves stay away from here, and have for years now. They do try to control the access tunnels so you’d have had some issues pushing through, but this place is dangerous as hell and they’ve long since got what they need outta there. So, you’ll have privacy, at least.”

“And you know this because…?” Ruda turned a scowl on him, fingering the hilt of her sword.

“We keep an eye on them,” he said. “I’ve already been over this. I also warned you that I am not going in there, but it bears repeating: this is where we part ways. Nor am I gonna loaf around out here; I don’t mind doing the odd favor but I’m not a taxi service. You’ll have to make your own way back. Try not to let your friend in the cloak get killed and you should be able to find the path. And with that, I will wish you good luck and bid you farewell.”

He stepped back into the dimness, bowing and doffing his hat, and darkness thickened to encompass him, then dissipated to leave nothing behind.

“How thick would this glass have to be to be…um, solid, under this kind of water pressure?” Gabriel asked, touching his fingertips to the curved, transparent wall.

“I am pretty sure that’s not glass,” Fross replied, “if only because the answer to your question is ‘no.’ Really, I don’t get the utility of making the tunnel transparent, anyway. It’s not like there’s anything to see.”

“If this is part of the original construction, then ‘utility’ probably wasn’t a factor,” Milady said, squeezing past the rest of them in the crowded tunnel to approach the door up ahead. “The Infinite Order liked everything grandiose and extravagant. And also, it may not have been underwater, then. It was Naiya who flooded or buried all their facilities, and that was long after the Pantheon’s uprising. Let’s see…”

The tunnel terminated in a metal wall just beyond them, a smooth surface too glossy to be steel and inset with an unfamiliar sigil. It was encircled by an arc of glass—or otherwise transparent—tubing where it met the arched walls of the tunnel, which emitted a weak purple glow. Nearby, a few small screens were attached directly to the transparent walls, flickering faintly.

Milady stepped up to touch the sigil in the center of the door. Nothing happened.

“Surely you didn’t think it would be that easy?” Principia asked, slipping through the press of bodies more adroitly after her.

“Not really,” Milady replied with a sigh, turning to the nearest screen that was still active. “But it was worth trying. It’s awfully embarrassing to try to pick a lock, only to find it wasn’t locked in the first place.”

“Hah! You’re not kidding. I’ve actually had that experience.”

“You, the great thief?”

“We all start somewhere, kid.”

Principia hovered back slightly, watching, but let Milady fiddle with the screen, the pair of them leaving the students to their own devices. Ruda positioned herself at the rear of the group, facing down the empty tunnel with her sword drawn, while Toby pressed himself awkwardly against the arched wall, trying to get a look at what lay ahead. The angle made that fruitless, unfortunately.

“This place is spooky,” Juniper muttered, wrapping arms around herself. “I know I’ve abused the word in the past, but it’s unnatural. I hope my bunny’s okay…”

“I hope my city’s okay,” Ruda said, absently poking the curved wall with the tip of her sword.

“Uh, maybe don’t do that?” Gabriel suggested. “If it’s reinforced by magic, prodding it with mithril…”

“Yeesh.” Ruda whipped the blade away from the walls and stepped to the center of the tunnel.

“Okay, this doesn’t even constitute security,” Milady said, straightening. Even as she spoke, the purple tube encircling the wall ahead began to glow more brightly. “I think the Rust tried to shut this down without really knowing how it works; they turned off the power to the door but didn’t manage to lock it.”

“Probably didn’t have permission,” Principia said, watching the door. “This thing seems to think Scyllith is using it, so it probably wants her credentials before it’ll do anything too—”

She was cut off when, with a flash of the sigil in its center, the metal door abruptly slid straight downward into the floor, opening an archway into the space beyond. Immediately, an ungodly torrent of noise blasted out, a blended cacophony of thumps like distant thunder and the constant roar of rushing water. Before the group could even begin to make sense of this, or the bare glimpse of a large open space beyond, the noise was overwhelmed by an even louder sound: a shrill burst like nails on a blackboard, causing all of them to cringe back and cover their ears and Principia to fall against Milady with a cry of pain.

And then, a scream.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” howled an echoing voice from within, and the door slammed shut again. This time, the purple half-ring around it turned a dull red and began pulsing slowly.

For a moment, they just stood there, straightening up and staring. Then Principia laughed weakly.

“Hey, good news!” she said, massaging her long ears with both hands. “We’re in the right place.”

“Hm.” Milady was already back at the panel. “Now it’s locked. Avatar override… Drat, we need a member of the Infinite Order to countermand this.”

“Well, we don’t fucking have one of those,” Ruda growled.

“We might,” Milady said, frowning thoughtfully at the screen. “I’ve previously convinced devices like this that I had Naiya’s permission to use them by getting help from her daughters… But that was with more than one, and with a stable Avatar that was willing to work with me in the first place. I don’t have a better idea, though. Juniper?”

The dryad was already at her side, peering at the screen. “How’s this work?”

“It responds to either touch or speech,” Milady explained. “And the facility should have the ability to sense your connection to Naiya’s transcension field. I mean, magic. Here, I’ve pulled up the door controls. Touch that green rectangle there, please.”

Juniper did so, and received a pleasant chime from the screen in response.

“Access insufficient?” she read from the result. “Rude.”

“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward, drawing his wand, which then extended to its full scythe form. “Give me a little room if you would, ladies. I would really hate to nick somebody with this.”

Everyone backed up while he approached the door. There was no room in the tunnel to swing the long weapon, but he grasped it just below the blade and, carefully holding its haft out of the way as best he could in the confined space, drove it against the metal.

Incredibly, even with his relatively weak swing, the ragged-looking blade sank fully half its length into the glossy door, right in the middle of the Infinite Order sigil.

Reddish tendrils of oxidation began to spread outward from the rent, deepening as they expanded. Right before their eyes, metal darkened and curled away, beginning to fall in flakes to the ground. Rust spread like a colony of lichen, arms reaching all the way to the edges of the door, and the innermost surface rippling and crumbling to emit the chaotic noise from the facility.

“I…don’t know what that alloy is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t rust,” Milady said weakly, staring at the door as the ancient metal rotted away.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel said in a soft tone which was almost obliterated by the sounds from within. Enough of the door had dissolved that the scythe had come loose, and he set about scraping it against the edges of the hole he had made, encouraging the oxidation to spread further.

“Holy fuck, Arquin,” Ruda exclaimed above the noise emerging from the gap. “And you’ve just been carrying that fucking thing around for the last year?!”

“Perhaps Vidius entrusted it to him because he’s not the sort of person who would carelessly swing it about,” Toby suggested.

“Hey, June, a little help?” Gabriel turned to her with a grin. “I think the rest of this calls for more muscle than I’ve got.”

“Now that I can do,” she said, stepping up and grabbing one edge of the rusted gap he had made. Her first few handholds simply collapsed in her grip, but finally she managed to seize a relatively solid edge and pull. The weakened metal tore away in her grasp, and with a little more tugging she finally ripped a large chunk entirely free, exposing a gap big enough for them to step through.

By that point, there was nothing between them and the clamor inside the facility; it was almost too loud to converse. Gabriel slipped through first, ducking under the bent exposed edge of the torn door, Juniper right behind him. The two stepped forward into the space beyond, forming an advance guard while the rest of their party came through in single file—with the exception of Fross, who zipped in right behind Juniper.

Fabrication Plant One was a vast open space apparently set deep into the floor of the bay; at any rate, they emerged right under the ceiling. In fact, directly above the metal platform onto which they stepped was a transparent dome supported by an artistic lattice of metal filaments, revealing the murky light of the ocean above. Stairs descended from directly in front of them to a series of walkways which mostly extended around the edges of the huge chamber, though one, supported by apparently nothing, stretched out dead ahead to terminate in a machine-lined emplacement right above the center of the room.

Ladders extended down to the open area below, where enormous machines stood upon the floor, or were attached to the walls. Or so it appeared they should be; it was hard to tell, because the chamber was partially flooded. About three stories down, seawater rippled under the glow of the room’s bright lighting. There was little order in the equipment there, as well, further obscuring the architecture. It was not like the mess of lichen-like machine parts that characterized the Rust’s hideaway; all the devices here were built on a much larger scale and mostly at angles, lacking the sense of organic growth. It was still chaotic, though, with screens, cranes, grasping arms, and other devices of inscrutable purpose protruding randomly from the water and poking this way and that, affixed to each other in peculiar arrangements serving no obvious purpose. Some moved in evidently pointless patterns, others emitting various noises of constant motion—and in some cases, impact, as they crashed against each other and the walls, showing no evidence of any governing intelligence.

There were no less than four visible leaks in the walls, all near spots where pieces of machinery were flailing with particular abandon, one emitting sparks from some kind of energy cutter. Streams of seawater of varying size poured into the chamber. Large networks of pipes had been built, lattices chaotically extending over the other equipment, attached to pumps which were taking the water away…somewhere. A number of them had been broken by other machines and were squirting seawater back into the flood.

Oddly enough, once they were out in the open space and not the confined, echoing tunnel, the noise didn’t seem nearly so oppressive. At least, they had no trouble hearing Ruda’s muttered observation.

“What a fuckin’ mess.”

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’d better get to quickly,” Principia noted. “I don’t know how long this has been going on, but sooner or later it’s gonna flood completely. Or maybe just collapse under the water pressure.”

“WHO DARES!” bellowed the voice from before. One of the huge machines extended an arm to grab at another, and ripped free a large transparent panel, then raised this to hover near their platform at an angle. In the large sheet of what was probably not glass there suddenly appeared the translucent image of a man, seemingly made of purple light. He was bald, clad in a tight suit of some kind, and leering at them with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Who dares intrude upon the sanctum sanctorum of the Infinite Order?!”

Milady stepped forward and raised her voice. “We’re here to—”

“Hah! It was a rhetorical question, fool! NONE SHALL PASS!”

The arm abruptly dropped the panel, which splashed into the flood below, and reached down in a different direction, this time seizing another extending arm which held at its tip a spark-spraying arc of energy clearly designed to cut, judging by the singed and sliced-off state of several nearby chunks of metal. The larger arm grabbed it behind the cutting device and yanked; with an appalling screech, the second arm was torn free, its damaged end emitting a gout of sparks and occasional arcs of electricity. The machine raised this up, rearing back in clear preparation to slash at them.

“No, you don’t,” Gabriel snapped, leveling his scythe. Black light blasted from its tip, impacting the improvised weapon and knocking the cutting arm cleanly from its grip to tumble into the floodwaters below. Where the dark energy struck, the original arm began to seize up, its joints ceasing to function as rust spread along them.

“Well played!” cried the eerie voice again, and another transparent panel popped up from below, this one held aloft unevenly by two hovering machines. It bobbed and wove awkwardly about, the poorly-coordinated flyers apparently trying to tug it in different directions, but it was steady enough to give them a ghastly view of the purple man grinning insanely at them. “But I have many weapons in my arsenal, oh yes! SOON YOUR DOOM SHALL—”

They never did find out what to expect of their doom, as one of the flying machines abruptly won the tug-of-war, jerking away and subsequently losing its grip on the display panel, which sailed off to clatter against the wall and then tumble gracelessly down to the water.

“There is a crazy man living in the walls,” Fross reported. “Is that normal?”

“All major Infinite Order facilities have an Avatar,” Milady explained, “an artificial intelligence installed in the machines who runs the place, keeps it in order. The one I’ve dealt with before was the very soul of self-possession; the state of this poor fellow is probably the reason this place is such a disaster, and also how he lost control of whatever it is the Rust are using. I think we need to get to there.”

She pointed ahead, at the central platform. It was a partially enclosed spot, with transparent walls sloping outward such that whoever stood within would have a good view around the fabrication plant’s floor. It had also clearly suffered a great deal of recent construction, most of which was visibly haphazard. Machines had been grafted on, parts of the transparent walls ripped away and some shattered to let beams, wires, and pipes pass through. The large clusters of technology affixed to it were supported by a mixture of pillars rising from the flooded floor below and beams attached to the ceiling above.

The ceiling was mostly transparent; some of them had been bolted right into the clear surface. Several of those attachment points were emitting tiny sprays of water.

“Of course we fucking do,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“It occurs to me,” said Toby, “that crossing that narrow walkway while the crazed Avatar flings pieces of machines at us is going to be…dicey.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Principia noted.

“Gabriel!” Ariel said suddenly. “Grounding and deflecting charm, applied to the platform, now!”

“What?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just do that without—”

“I can!” Fross chimed, zipping around them in a circle and emitting a blue glow as she did so. A gleaming set of runes appeared on the metal beneath their feet.

Barely a second later, a snake-like protrusion slithered up from one of the nearby banks of machinery, its “head” sparking with unevenly discharged electricity, and jabbed itself against the metal walkway adjacent to them. Immediately, a circular area around them lit up and sparked violently as voltage surged against and around it. Fross’s enchantment held, however, keeping the current being pumped into the metal from reaching them.

“Why, you sneaky bastard,” Gabriel said almost admiringly, taking aim with his scythe again. Another dark blast of energy reduced the metal tentacle to shrapnel and cutting off the voltage.

“Will you stop doing that?!” came the Avatar’s voice from somewhere below them. “Security protocols require that you just DIE already!”

“There’s no way,” said Juniper. “These catwalks are horribly vulnerable. And if we make it there, what then? All he has to do is knock that whole mess down and that’s it.”

“That’s clearly a command center,” said Milady, “and he has obviously augmented it. I think it’s too important to destroy; if we get there…”

“You’re counting on two very uncertain things,” said Ruda. “That you’re right, which we can’t know, and that this guy’s lucid enough not to stab himself in the heart even if that is his heart. Which, from the looks of him, he’s not.”

“Actually,” Principia said thoughtfully, “I suggest we retreat.”

“We can’t fucking leave!” Ruda exclaimed. “We have to fix this shit!”

“I said retreat, not surrender,” the elf replied patiently. “Back up, guys, out into the tunnel. We need to regroup and come up with a plan.”

“Yeah, you’d BETTER run,” the Avatar crowed at them as they clambered backward through the wrecked door. “Flee for your insignificant lives! FLEE MY WRATH!”

“It’s a little disappointing that we can’t slam this,” Juniper said as she climbed through. They went in reverse order, making her the next to last to exit, Gabriel right on her heels with his scythe shortened back to wand form.

“Here’s the thing,” Principia said once they were back outside the immediate range of the mad Avatar’s machinations. “Infinite Order systems are supposed to be decentralized.”

“Of course!” Milady exclaimed. “Some functions may be locked to certain consoles, but there are screens out here. If we can get into them, we can do…something, surely.”

“I thought you said he locked those down,” Ruda snapped.

“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” Fross chimed thoughtfully. “If we can get him to make a mistake…”

“How?” Toby asked.

“Arquin.” Principia turned to him. “I know valkyries are only able to interact with the mortal plane under certain conditions. Can you make those conditions?”

Gabriel frowned, then tilted his head and looked off to the side the way he did when listening to Vestrel.

“…apparently I can,” he replied after a moment. “It’s within the purview of the highest-ranking priests of Vidius, which includes me, and the divine scythe provides a shortcut. What did you have in mind?”

“You said you got the Infinite Order’s computers to recognize you as Naiya by getting her daughters to help,” Principia said to Milady. “We’ve got a dryad, a valkyrie, and a pixie.”

“What does the pixie have to do with it?” Milady asked, frowning.

“Oh!” Juniper straightened up. “Well, she’s sort of a…granddaughter of Naiya. Pixies are created by one of my fallen sisters, Jacaranda.”

Milady blinked. “They are?”

“You think that’ll be enough?” Toby asked.

“Not for anything too complex,” Principia said. “Look, I’m no expert on this technology but I have had brushes with old Elder God machines a handful of times, and I do know one trick that consistently works. If they’re not functioning right, you can reset them.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Ruda demanded.

“Shut them off,” Milady said, her eyes widening, “and then turn them back on. Yes! When these systems boot up, they’ll automatically seek to identify and correct any flaws in their program. If the computer will recognize Juniper, Vestrel and Fross as having Naiya’s credentials, we can trigger an emergency shutdown. That’s an important but simple command, so hopefully they’ll be enough. Then we can deal with the sub-OS and find out what’s wrong with the Avatar!”

“The sub…what?” Gabriel scratched his head.

“Long story,” she said impatiently. “It’s a good idea. What do you need to do to get Vestrel out here?”

He was looking off to the side again. “Okay. Vestrel says a simple invocation will do; apparently these things are connected enough to magic that if she can just brush the mortal plane, it’ll detect her presence. I’ll just need a little space here. Clear a circle, if you would.”

They all backed away while he extended his scythe again and began gesticulating carefully with it, marking a circular area on the floor in front of the door.

“Brace yourself,” Milady said softy to Juniper. “One thing I discovered working with a mix of valkyries and dryads is that for some reason, your older sisters are inherently frightening to your generation.”

“I know a bit about that,” she replied. “Aspen told m—”

Juniper cut herself off, eyes widening, and stumbled backward into Toby. The circle Gabriel had lightly scraped on the floor had begun to glow a faint gold, and a wavering figure appeared in its center. She was translucent and obscured, as if seen through cloudy water, but they could make out the shape of a person garbed in black, with folded wings, carrying a scythe.

“You okay?” Toby asked, bracing Juniper by the shoulders.

“I…yeah,” she whispered, straightening up. “Thanks. That’s just… She’s just…”

“Over here,” Milady said gently, beckoning her. “Fross, you too. I’m hoping Vestrel is close enough to register automatically… I need you to instruct the computer to initiate an emergency shutdown of the Avatar.”

“I…okay.” Juniper edged toward her, eyes never leaving the vague shape of Vestrel within her summoning circle until she reached the screen closest to it. There, finally, she turned away, leaning down toward it. “Um… What was the word? Computer? Computer!” she said more forcefully in response to Milady’s encouraging nod. “I…instruct you to…initiate an emergency…shutdown…of the Avatar!”

Nothing happened.

“Tell it who you are,” Principia muttered urgently.

The dryad cleared her throat. “My name’s Jun—oh,” she said, breaking off as Milady elbowed her. “Right. I am…Naiya!” Juniper winced, mumbling to herself, “that seems really disrespectful to say…”

Abruptly, all the screens changed to a flat white display with the sigil of the Infinite Order in its center.

Beyond, the noise of the fabrication plant did not let up.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Ruda said sardonically. “What was Plan B?”

“Computer!” Fross chimed, zooming straight up to the nearest screen. “We are avatars of Naiya, here because this is an emergency and she is not able to come in person! Check our inherent magic—uh, transcension field connections to verify this! You will need to compensate for a partial translocation to the chaos dimension in the case of the third avatar present. This is an emergency command, due to the obvious state of disrepair of this facility! You will shut down the Avatar and all connected systems immediately.”

“Acknowledged,” an oddly resonant feminine voice suddenly said from nowhere. “User Naiya identified with seventy percent confidence. Confidence sufficient to initiate reboot in safe mode. Rebooting.”

And then, abruptly, the lights in the fabrication plant went off, the machines shut down, and total silence descended.

“How,” Milady asked incredulously of Fross, who was now the only source of illumination, “did you know how to do that?”

“Well, it’s a machine, right?” the pixie replied. “A thinking machine? It stands to reason that a machine which thinks would do so in the most logical way possible. I can kinda relate. That’s how I would’ve preferred to—”

Something enormous landed right on top of the arched transparent ceiling with a deep thud, making all of them jump and several shout. In the faint glow of Fross’s silver aura, they could make out a patchwork of scales and metal plates pressed right against the tunnel walls, all but blotting out the entire view.

“It’s…the serpent,” Ruda said slowly. “Holy shit. Is it…dead? Does that mean we won?”

“I really hope this stuff is a lot stronger than it looks,” Gabriel muttered, reaching out to touch the transparent barrier.

“If it can stand up to the water pressure for thousands of years I don’t think that is going to hurt it,” Fross chimed. “Also, it may not be dead. Some creatures go dormant in bad weather; I don’t know anything about sea serpent biology but we did arrange for that storm in part to make it retreat from the surface. So, hey, at least we’re making progress!”

Milady drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Don’t celebrate prematurely. Now we have to figure out what damaged the Avatar, fix that, turn him back on, figure out what nanites are and how the Rust got them, put a stop to that…”

“And,” Gabriel added, cracking his knuckles, “it occurs to me that with everything shut off, those machines are no longer pumping out the water coming in through those leaks, so we just put ourselves under a very unforgiving deadline. Let’s get to work, guys.”

 

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13 – 26

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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