Tag Archives: Toby

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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 sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.

The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.

Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.

And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.

They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.

None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.

Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.

“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”

“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”

“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.

“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”

“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”

“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.

Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.

“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”

“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”

“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”

“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”

“That damned school,” another man muttered.

“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”

“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.

“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”

“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”

“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”

“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”

“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”

“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.

“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”

“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”

“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”

“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”

“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”

“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”

That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.

“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”

“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”

“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.

He caught it, looking bemused.

“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”

“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”

“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”

“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”

“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”

“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”

“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”

“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”

Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.

“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”

“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.

“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.

“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”

“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.

Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.

He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.

Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.

It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.

“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”

Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.

“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”

He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.

Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.

“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”

“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”

There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.

“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”

“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”

“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”

“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.

“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”

“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.

“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”

“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”

“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”

“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”

“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”


Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.

They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…

This mission was altogether not going well.

Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.

Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?

And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?

Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.

“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”

It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?

And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.

“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.

“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”

What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.

And in either case, how the hell had she found her?

Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…

“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.

“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.

The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”

She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.

She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.

“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”

Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.

“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”

“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”

“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”

So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.

“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.

Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?

Gods, she was so tired.

“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”

“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.

“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”

Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.

“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”

And suddenly the dryad was right there.

The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.

“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”

Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.

She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.

She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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13 – 18

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The apparent leader of the Rust was a more visibly impressive specimen than most. Fully half his face was covered by a coppery mask, accented by wires which appeared to be brass; his left eye was a blue glass orb which gleamed from within. Though he had no beard, the half-mask did not extend over his scalp, and he sported a full head of luxurious hair trailing down his back, once black and beginning to shift toward gray. He wore only a kilt, serving to accentuate both his lean physique and especially the reddish metal which covered him. His entire right arm was of machinery, except, somehow, the flesh-and-blood hand attached beneath some kind of cloth wrapping which obscured the junction. It was a more elaborate arm than the rest of his followers sported, physically bulkier as if housing additional machinery, and attached to a shoulder mount which extended partway across his chest. A green glass disc was situated above his heart, emitting dull flickers of what looked like contained lightning. Below the kilt, his left calf and foot were machine, the right human but with odd patches of metalwork and protruding wires, as if he had machinery implanted beneath the skin.

The supreme confidence of his smile was somehow more unnerving than his collection of unnatural attachments.

Gabriel finally broke the silence. “Yeah, well, if you’re expecting to do anything about us, mister, you may be taking too many things for granted.”

“So I may,” the cultist replied, then suddenly hopped across the gap between his giant mechanical mount and the door platform, causing the lot of them to reflexively shift backward. Seeming not to notice their reaction, the man swept a deep bow. “I am called Ayuvesh, speaker for the Infinite Order. And already, it seems I have spoken out of turn. After all, it is protocol in many places to attend to old business before raising new, is it not? Mandip!” This last was spoken in a sharper tone, the cultist turning his head to direct himself back at the throng of his followers below.

A man stepped forward from the group, and Toby drew in a deep breath. The cultist stared up at them through narrowed eyes, and made an abortive move as if to fold his arms, which did not work as he had only one. The other was metal from the shoulder to the elbow, where it ended in a small profusion of tiny coppery struts and wires, almost like a miniature scaffold. At that distance, whatever was inside it was hidden from them.

Mandip continued forward; as he stepped upon a growth of lichen-like machine parts which had crawled across the stone floor, a column pistoned up out of the ground beside him, bringing a small panel of buttons to chest height. On the wrong side, forcing him to twist awkwardly to push three keys. That done, he continued on with incredible aplomb as a series of hinged struts and pulleys manifested from various pieces of the surrounding machine overgrowth. They swung swiftly and precisely into place for each of his footsteps, forming an impromptu staircase whose every step withdrew behind him, some re-positioning themselves to assist him upward. In moments, he stood upon the platform with them and Ayuvesh.

Then, to their surprise, Mandip bowed deeply.

“I owe an apology,” he said in a stiff tone. “It is not the way of the Infinite Order to push, provoke, or defy. I should have departed the Omnist compound once asked to by the monk. For that, I am sorry.”

An incredulous silence hung for a moment before Toby cleared his throat. “Well. On behalf of the faith of Omnu, apology accepted. And perhaps one is owed to you, as well?” He turned a pointed look on Juniper.

She frowned back at him. When Toby did not back down, the dryad sighed softly and shrugged. “Yes, well…you were right. You had no business inserting yourself there when they told you to go, but…yeah, I guess I may have reacted a little more harshly than was…necessary.”

Mandip had straightened, and now stared at her through slitted eyes which belied his polite tone. “Perhaps a little.”

“Well, then, I’m sorry, too,” Juniper said, folding her arms. Mandip’s nostrils flared once.

“There!” Ayuvesh proclaimed grandly with a broad gesture of his metal arm. “All friends again! And perhaps, if you are so inclined, honored guests, the return of Mandip’s arm would be a conciliatory gesture.”

Toby glanced at the others, receiving shrugs from Gabriel and Teal; Juniper was still watching Mandip as though expecting him to spring, a gaze he returned in equal measure.

“I can’t exactly promise that, at this point,” Toby finally answered. “It’s in the possession of the Crown. But we have a little pull with the King and Queen, and I can’t think of any use they’d have for it. Yes, that’s fair. You have my word I will attempt to secure its return for you.”

“Mm.” Ayuvesh folded his arms, lightly drumming his flesh fingers against a metal forearm. “Yes, I suppose by now you’ll have learned all you can from it.”

“Nobody’s ever learned all they can,” Fross opined.

“How very wise!” Ayuvesh said, grinning broadly.

Ermon cleared his throat. “There is other old business to attend.”

He was gazing down below, where another figure had appeared from a side passage, this one familiar and accompanied by a female Rust cultist who strode on two mechanical legs with digitigrade feet like a dog’s.

“Ah, yes!” Ayuvesh said, turning to follow Ermon’s look. “Brother Arlund, thank you for joining us. I believe your friends would like to be reassured as to your status!”

“I am well,” Arlund said curtly, his voice projecting easily through the cavern. “I cannot say whether I am a prisoner, as I have not yet tried to leave. My invitation to come inside was polite, but…insistent.”

Ermon’s eyes flicked to the Rust’s leader, then back to his fellow Huntsman. “You are unharmed, though?”

Arlund’s mustache shifted enough that his sneer was evident even from a distance. “These machines are an unholy abomination, and the dogma I’ve been forced to listen to is the most asinine drivel I have ever imagined. But I cannot fault their hospitality,” he added in an openly grudging tone.

The cultist with him cracked a sly smile at that, and bowed; Arlund just gave her a sidelong look and set off for the stairs which followed the wall up to the door platform. Nobody volunteered to trigger a moving mechanical staircase for him, which was probably for the best.

“So!” Ayuvesh turned back to the students, now wearing a patrician smile, and folded his hands behind his back. “That is the past, attended to. Let us now discuss the present.”


Due to Walker’s probing of the whole region via magic—transcension field, as she irritably corrected Milanda when thanked—they had a complete three-dimensional map of the mining tunnels. It was the work of only minutes for Milanda, following Walker’s guidance, to slip through a series of turns to a dark little dead end, where she planted herself on the ground with her back to the wall, the detached viewscreen laid across her lap. Its dimensions made this slightly awkward; the thing seemed not to have been designed for human use, unlike the highly ergonomic Infinite Order computers with which she was familiar.

“Only one risk I can think of,” Walker buzzed in her ear. “Gabriel Arquin is a Hand of Vidius, and while there is no precedent for what that means I’d be astonished if he doesn’t have at least one of my sisters hanging around him at all times. Probably Yngrid, she was always a little boy-crazy. I also don’t have a basis for comparison between a valkyrie’s extradimensional senses and the modern enchanting that keeps you invisible. So it’s not impossible that you’re being watched.”

Despite herself, Milanda raised her eyes to glance around the tunnel. It wasn’t quite pitch-black, there being a faint glow from the piece of technology she held, but even so it took all of her dryad-augmented senses plus the enchantments on her hood to give her a clear view of the apparently empty corridor. A normal human would be all but blind down here.

“As long as none of the physical ones followed me,” she replied. “Valkyries can’t touch anything on this plane, right?”

“Only on Vidian holy ground or where dimensional barriers are abraded for other reasons. Again, though, there are unknowns. It was Infininte Order technology that cast us to the dimensional insulation layer in the first place, and it does not appear that these Rust people understand what they’re fooling with. I can’t say what might have resulted from all their button-pushing.”

“Mm. I’m going to consider that a remote possibility, all the same.”

“Probably for the best. Just don’t get complacent.”

“What, me? Complacent? You jest.”

“You sure didn’t go out of your way to befriend those adventurers.”

Milanda ignored that, studying the screen again. She had selected this one for the indicators that it had its own attached power source and transcension field connection, icons which Walker had coached her on how to recognize. Unfortunately, it was also the largest of the screens which had been attached to the walls by the gate; between that and its peculiar shape, it was awkward to hold the thing with one hand while navigating the touch screen with the other. Still, at least it was working.

“These menus are all different from the ones in the spaceport,” she muttered, flicking and tapping with one fingertip. “I mean, it’s clearly the product of the same intelligence. Same…what did you call it? Operating system. But it doesn’t do any of the same stuff. Everything’s set up differently.”

“Hm. Touch screens are a fallback for when holographic interfaces are turned off; if it’s set to some kind of minimal settings, you can try closing every active window. If there’s a base desktop below them, it may have labeled icons to identify any installed programs.”

Milanda paused, raising her eyes to frown into empty space. “What are holographic interfaces, and why don’t we have them back home?”

“It’s a long story, and because the Avatar apparently disabled them when setting up his system with Theasia. I couldn’t say why, except that voice commands and touch screens are simpler for novice users. Anything?”

“Yes, actually.” She hadn’t been able to close the active programs running, but had managed to move them into a neat stack onto one side, exposing the screen’s base layer. There were, indeed, icons. “I can’t read them, though.”

“Oh…it’s probably set to Esperanto. That makes me wonder how the Rust are interfacing with the computers if they’re not set in a language they recognize. Tap the background twice on a spot that’s away from any icons. A menu will appear; you want to touch the line that says ‘Settings.’”

Milanda did this, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “None of them say that. None of them are in Tanglish.”

“…oh. Right. Try ‘Agordoj.’”

“That’s the goofiest word I ever heard,” she muttered, touching the appropriate line. At least Esperanto apparently used the same alphabet, more or less.

With Milanda guiding and translating, she managed to switch the machine to Tanglish—or English, as it was labeled.

“There we go,” she said in satisfaction as the labels beneath the icons changed. “Now, these are more sensible. Network, hardware… What is Silverfox?”

“Silverfox? That’s Druroth’s personal web browser. What a weird thing to find on… I mean, it can’t possibly still work, Naiya disabled the transcension field the Order’s systems used to communicate with each other. Unless they’ve piggybacked it on one of the others, like we did…”

“It just says there’s no connection when I pull it up.”

“Well, that tells us a bit. The Rust clearly don’t have much control; they may not even be using the software themselves. Which, of course, just raises more questions. If has to be connecting to something if it’s working, otherwise it would be a mass of error messages. Maybe tachyon or radio transmission…”

“Nanite control,” Milanda muttered. “Walker, what does ‘nanite’ mean?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never heard the word. You’re sure it’s in the right language?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“English and Tanglish are maybe ninety percent identical, there are bound to be some words that don’t translate exactly. Hang on, let me call the Avatar and ask him.”

Milanda nodded absentmindedly, forgetting that Walker couldn’t see her, and touched the icon.


“And we’re back to us getting dealt with,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“I wonder,” Ayuvesh mused, “how aware you are of the circumstances into which you have stepped?”

“You’re effectively holding Puna Dara hostage,” said Teal. “Behaving barely enough to avoid provoking the King to clamp down, while trying to undercut his authority.”

“Oh?” He grinned. “Tell me, what have I done to undercut his authority?”

“Attacking and disabling a Silver Legion is an inherently hostile act,” Fross charmed. “The ruling monarch of the country in which you did it can’t help but interpret that as a threat!”

“Just so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “Let us follow that line of thought, then. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Infinite Order are behind the fate of the Fourth Legion, clearly we would have the power to overthrow the government in Puna Dara. And yet, we have not. If we are not behind it, this whole subject is moot.” He spread his hands disarmingly. “By your logic, my actions would seem to make no sense!”

“Perhaps you could elucidate for us?” Toby suggested. “Your perspective on these events is one thing we do not have. I was very much hoping we could learn more about it.”

“Ah, so you are here to learn.” Ayuvesh’s smile broadened slightly. “And so naturally, you chose as your delegation two paladins, a Huntsman of Shaath, and an unstoppable archdemon in the thrall of the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me?” Teal exclaimed. “I am in no one’s thrall.”

“The Narisian robes are an interesting touch,” Ayuvesh acknowledged, pointing at her chest. “You clearly have complex allegiances. I am mostly interested in that fascinating pin you wear.”

She raised her hand to touch her Talisman of Absolution, the icon bearing the holy sigils of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius, and marking her an ally of the gods despite Vadrieny’s nature.

“Interesting,” Gabriel said, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “That sounded like a threat assessment, but no mention of Juniper, who you already know can physically tear your machine men apart.”

Ayuvesh again folded his hands behind himself, and this time turned to stare at the walking contraption he’d ridden up to the platform. “We are heirs to a truly ancient legacy. The Infinite Order, as we call ourselves, were first a group of scientists and philosophers from another world, who came here to pursue the greatest of all possible goals: the unlocking of humanity’s full potential, and the ascension of the universe itself to its next higher state.”

“They have gone on and on about this,” Arlund grunted, folding his arms. “The prattle about empowerment and being beyond limits isn’t just for personal appeal. Apparently, they think the universe is trying to evolve and consciousness is one of its means of doing so.”

“I thought the Infinite Order meant the Elder Gods,” Fross chimed. “That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing.”

Ayuvesh’s long hair shifted as he nodded slowly. “Indeed. The Order…lost their way. Their means of seeking that most noble of goals was to attain godhood for themselves, which ended every bit as badly as history tells us. Absolute power is extremely unhealthy for mortals. They descended into vile selfishness and cruelty, and were rightly brought down by rebellion from within.” He glanced back at them, his faint smile visible in profile. “Naiya, of course, aided the Pantheon’s revolt. Scyllith helped passively by refusing to take sides—a grave loss for the Order, as she commanded their greatest destructive powers. Tarthriss, however, was the one who truly planted the seeds for the salvation of the Order’s vision.”

Toby frowned. “Who?”

“He is sadly forgotten by this world,” Ayuvesh said softly, again staring out over the cavern. “The greatest of them; the greatest god, in fact, who ever lived. He aided the Pantheon in bringing down his comrades, even sacrificing himself in the process. More importantly, he left all this behind.” He held his arms wide, as if to embrace the chaos of crawling machinery which had overgrown the huge chamber. “And the records of the Order’s original purpose. So you see why we may have a problem with agents of the Pantheon today.”

The cultist suddenly turned to face them again, grinning, and executed a mocking little bow. “While we seek only peace in which to practice our faith and pursue our vision, the Infinite Order and the Pantheon are still in a state of declared war, eight thousand years in abeyance only because the Order was thought crushed and its survivors weakened or contained. And worse, we have been brought into modern politics not of our choosing. You see, children and Huntsmen, we are not the only souls to have unearthed fragments of the Elder Gods’ power. Both the Tiraan Empire and the Universal Church possess such artifacts. Possess…and use.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Perhaps you, as Hands of two of the greatest gods, know something of this?”

Gabriel and Toby exchanged a puzzled glance.

“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Juniper said bluntly.

“Don’t you?” Ayuvesh raised his only eyebrow. “Well, whether you do or not, I shall give the benefit of the doubt and explain. Both activated and used their respective systems against one another in a shadow war which, inevitably, exploded into real violence. And this, students, upset the delicate political balance in Tiraas. The Throne and the Church cannot be openly in conflict; the Enchanter Wars are too recent and vivid a memory for that to be a palatable option. So they sought out a scapegoat. A patsy.” His grin took on a distinctly hostile cast. “Someone possessing and using the machines left behind by the Elders, who could be falsely blamed for having intervened and caused the infraction.”

“I realize you have no reason to trust us,” Toby said slowly, “but upon my word, I know nothing about any of that. I can do my best to find out, but…if it was the Church and the Throne, even my cult may not know. It will take time to make those inquiries, however.”

“While you are taking time,” Ayurvesh said, folding his arms, “consider our position. Unjustly condemned by Sharidan and Justinian for their misdeeds, we are forced to be wary of Pantheon or Imperial agents. And the sudden arrival of an entire Silver Legion, with backing of Salyrite casters from all four Colleges… Well. That demands more than simple wariness, does it not?”

“I can see,” Teal said slowly, “how the arrival of paladins and Huntsmen and maybe even me would look to you in that case…”

“The particular means of your arrival, I have to say, do not assuage my concerns,” he replied.

Toby drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right… Let me ask you this, then. Whatever you did to the Fourth Legion has kept them incapacitated. Can you lift that…curse, or whatever it is?”

Ayuvesh raised his eyebrow again. “I? When have I acknowledged responsibility for such a thing? A convenient event for us, to be sure, but still tragic. I wish no ill upon anyone who wishes none upon me and mine.”

“Oh, you smug little—”

“Juniper,” Toby snapped, cutting her off with a warning look.

“We, if left alone, are a threat to none,” Ayuvesh said. “Not the Empire, not the Church, or their gods, and certainly not the Crown of Puna Dara. Rajakhan is a good King, and I do not desire the chaos that will erupt in my city if his government is overthrown.”

“You have to understand that it’s no longer that simple,” Toby replied. “After what befell the Legion.”

“Of course,” Ayuvesh said, nodding deeply. “But so it is with all the great powers of the world; they respect one another out of fear that war between them will be more destructive than profitable. Those with no claws to bare are snapped up or crushed. All we desire is to be left in peace, and sadly, that requires that we demonstrate the means to insist upon it.”

“Then maybe we have grounds to begin reaching a compromise,” said Toby. “If your story is true, than you are victims in this. We have little pull with the Empire, but Gabriel and I can command at least some action within the Church. The Archpope has no obligation to listen to us, but we have influence to wield.”

“And you will do this for me, out of the goodness of your divine hearts?” he replied pleasantly. “How noble.”

“Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, man,” Gabriel retorted. “If it comes down to claws, as you put it, you might not survive the night.”

“Gabriel!” Toby exclaimed.

“But!” Gabriel held up a hand. “We’re in the same position as you, basically. It would be for the best if everybody backs off and no one further gets hurt. So, what we want is for you to release whatever hold you’ve got on the Fourth Legion and provide some assurances that you aren’t going to upend Puna Dara. What you want is assurance that the Empire, the Church, and the Punaji aren’t going to land on you. Yes?”

“Succinctly stated,” Ayuvesh agreed, nodding again.

“It strikes me,” said Ermon, “that those are a very difficult set of goals for anyone here to attain.”

“Yes, they are,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Ayuvesh. “But not inconceivable… And even in them, I see potential for common ground. After all, it best serves us if the Church and the Throne are both prevented from underhanded shenanigans. We can start with small gestures. For instance, Mandip’s and Juniper’s apologies, and Arlund’s safe return. We can procure and return Mandip’s arm to complete the cycle. Little things, in the grand scheme, but they at least show good faith. It’s something on which to build.”

“And in the meantime,” Teal added, “perhaps we can all work on…deescalating. The Punaji are just about up in arms; I believe we can persuade the King to show further restraint, if he’s provided with a reason.”

“You have something in mind?” Ayuvesh asked mildly.

“Several of the Legionnaires have already died,” Toby said. “I understand the curse on them seems designed not to kill, but anyone that weak is vulnerable to other maladies. If there were a way to lessen—”

Abruptly the light in the huge chamber changed to a deep red, and a cacophonous series of whistles and sirens began shrilling from dozens of points among the machines crawling across the walls.

“What is that?” Juniper exclaimed.

“That,” Ayurvesh replied, bracing his feet in a wide stance and baring teeth, “is the sound of saboteurs being caught.”


“He wouldn’t say!” Walker’s voice when she abruptly returned to the line was excited. “The Avatar refused to answer questions about nanites, which means they’re a classified Order technology. That has to be the Rust’s weapon!”

“I know!” Milanda replied in the same tone, fingers working furiously at the screen. “This thing is showing me a map of nanite distribution on its front page—they’re all over Puna Dara, but concentrated here in the mines, in a spot out under the harbor, and in a big knot up in Rodvenheim! This is what we’re looking for!”

“I’m searching the sub-OS for information,” Walker said. “It won’t tell me anything directly but there may be mentions of them among other literature. Anything might help me extrapolate in general what we’re dealing with…”

“I bet this thing’ll tell me a lot more,” Milanda said, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Hum… There’s a list of processes. What does that mean?”

“Assuming it means the same as in computer terms, those are tasks the nanites are performing.”

“There’s a red warning, here…insufficient resources. There are more processes pending than being executed. Walker, does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means these things are a finite resource, and they’re being stretched way beyond what the Rust want to do. Which means we officially know their first weakness.”

“Finally, some good news,” Milanda said with a vindictive grin. “I wonder if I can make their problems even bigger…”

“Step very carefully,” Walker cautioned. “We still have no idea what these things are. Why are they invisible and undetectable? Learn details before trying to make changes.”

“Right, you’re right. Let’s see if it’ll tell me more.” She touched one of the pending processes, choosing it for the only term she immediately recognized: Fabrication Plant One. The line of text indicated maintenance and repair. That line immediately shifted forward at her tap and grew to cover the middle of the screen, but changed color from pale blue to yellow, and additional text appeared above it. “Huh. Walker, what does ‘retinal scan’ mean?”

“That’s a secur—Milanda! Don’t look at the screen!”

Too late; the whole display flashed, and a new line of bright red script informed Milanda that this access was unauthorized.

“Um,” she said warily, “now it’s telling me that this activity has been logged and reported…”

“Oh, no.”

Her entire screen turned red, and began emitting a shrill tone. Not shrill enough that she couldn’t also detect similar noises echoing through the tunnels from a much louder source deeper in.

Milanda cringed behind her mask. “That…is not good, is it.”


Gabriel clapped a hand to his forehead. “The woman in black. I told you.”

“Aw, nuts, she took one of those shiny thingies,” Fross fretted, darting back and forth. “The one that controlled the door and who knows what else…”

“A woman in black,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “How mysterious.”

“She’s the one who opened the gate,” Toby said quickly. “She wouldn’t speak to us and as soon as she’d got it open, ripped off a piece of your machinery and fled. We don’t know who she is or what she was doing there, but she knows something about these machines of yours, obviously.”

“Oh, obviously,” he said flatly. “And somehow, has gone undetected. We perceived you approaching before you even entered the mine, but not this enigmatic woman in black.”

“I realize how this sounds,” Toby began.

“Oh, please,” Arlund scoffed. “That is not believable enough to be a lie. A woman?”

“You should not talk anymore,” Juniper informed him.

“Please listen to me,” Toby said urgently, but Ayuvesh held up his hand to forestall him.

“I will indeed listen, Hand of Omnu. And in fact, I am still willing to negotiate. But we must have parity, don’t you think?”

Before they could react, he whirled and bounded back to the top of his machine, his agility astonishing considering how much he had to weigh with all that metal in his body. Ayuvesh whirled lightly into the seat, placing his hands on control panels affixed to its arms.

“You have aided your negotiating position with a show of force,” the Rust’s leader said with a broad grin. “Well done! I salute your brinkmanship. Now, allow me to reply in kind!”

 

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13 – 16

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“Well, hey there, li’l lady! Need a hand with that?”

Maureen sighed, coming to a stop, and turned to face the man approaching. “Thank you, no, I have it well in hand.”

Chase sauntered up, hands in his pockets and grinning his customarily cheerful grin. Despite the fact that he’d never harmed anyone (that she’d heard), Maureen felt instinctively unsettled at being approached by him in a dark alley. She knew from her childhood coaching to listen to those instincts, and also to avoid showing any unease. A certain kind of person responded to any perceived weakness with outlandish aggression.

“Aw, don’t be like that, shorty,” he said easily. “What kid of gentleman would I be if I let a girl like you haul a basket of…” He came to a stop, looming over her, and craned his neck to peer down. For once, she didn’t have the impression he was trying to look down her blouse, and somehow that wasn’t reassuring. “…scrap metal? You’ve got interesting hobbies. Anyhow, what kind of gentleman would—”

“I feel obliged to point out that a gentleman wouldn’t make fun of a person’s stature, nor push when he’s been politely invited to sod off.”

He laughed, and stepped back, pulling his hands from his pockets to hold them up disarmingly. “All right, all right, fair enough. So what’re you doing skulking around in the back alleys? That’s not like you.”

“I could ask you the same,” she said tersely.

That got another laugh, and a roguish wink. “Maureen… It’s me, Chase. You wonder what I’m doing skulking in alleys?”

She rolled her eyes and turned to resume walking. “Aye, fair enough.”

To her annoyance—but not surprise—he strolled alongside her, moving at a leisurely amble that kept pace neatly with her bustling stride, given the difference in the length of their legs. That same difference meant running away from him was an unlikely prospect.

“You, though,” Chase continued merrily. “You’re such a fine, upstanding citizen. Heading back to campus, then? Cos there’s no storefronts back here…”

“An’ what makes y’think I’m headin’ ta campus?”

“And there goes the accent,” he observed. “I can never figure out if that means you’re more or less happy. Anyhow, this arc’ll lead you through the back ways of the old part of town by the least-traveled path, where there is absolutely nothing until you come out right at the base of the mountain, a good few dozen yards from the stairs.” He looked down at her and winked again. “I may have had cause to slip through Last Rock without attracting notice. Y’know, once or twice. A day. For three years.”

She sighed, and shook her head. “Town’s funny t’night…all riled up, innit? I passed the A&W on the way in, an’ the noise was like a full-blown party. Seem t’be knots o’ people chatterin’ in the streets, too, but lookin’ nervous about something. Not like usual. Even with all the new construction, Last Rock’s a sleepy sorta place.”

“Yeah, I noticed the same.” For a wonder, the vacuous grin faded from his features. Maureen chanced a glance up at the human, finding him looking ahead with a thoughtful expression. It made a surprising difference in his aspect; that smile was unnerving, but now he just seemed like one of her classmates, mulling a question. “I also veered close enough to overhear a few snatches of those conversations. You know, purely by accident,” he added solemnly.

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

“Folks seem to be tetchy about the University in particular this evening,” Chase continued. “Apparently Tellwyrn posted an announcement about the first major research project she’s funding, and it’s to do with summoning demons. All the yokels are worked up something fierce.”

“Huh,” she grunted noncommittally, shifting her basket to her left hand. Not actually planning to drop it on his foot, but making that prospect more available.

“So, you may have had the right idea,” he said, that grin returning. “Perhaps this isn’t the best night for casual encounters with the Rockies, eh?” When she didn’t reply, he went merrily on. “So, I’m sure you won’t mind if I keep you company on the way back! After all, you’re probably downright starved for company these days. The Well must be feeling pretty empty, huh?”

Maureen stared straight ahead at the distant gap where the alley opened out below the mountain, concentrating on keeping her breath even. One ear twitched, but not because of him; there was a swell of noise in the near distance, as a crowd of men passed through the street, talking loudly. Shouting, actually… She couldn’t make out many individual words, but the anger was obvious.

“Everyone’s been assuming we’ll wake the Sleeper’s victims just cos I woke up,” Chase said suddenly, after she failed to respond to his last comment. “I wonder if they’re really just asleep, though? I mean… There are ways to keep the body alive, even when the mind and soul passes on. It’d be a ridiculously cruel thing to do, but hell, who can say how this asshole thinks? That’d be a kick in the pants, if Tellwyrn finally cracks the curse and it turns out they’re all just dead after all.”

“What is wrong with you?!” Maureen exploded, rounding on him and hopping backward, her ears shifting back in agitation. “You are the most—why are you like this? How can any person not want anything outta life except t’just make an arse of ‘imself? Haven’t you one bloody thing better to do than scamper around irritating everybody?”

Chase, somewhat to her surprise, didn’t pounce now that his needling had finally provoked a reaction. In fact, he turned to face her, tilting his head quizzically, and regarded her in silence for a moment before speaking. “Heh. Y’know, you’re actually the first person to ask me that since I came here? Even at the lodge they’d given that up long before I left, and Tellwyrn never bothered.”

“Aye, well, at least you’re aware you’re a horse’s arse!”

“I’m aware of a lot,” he said cheerfully, turning and sauntering off in the direction of the mountain. Maureen let him pull ahead a few steps before following slowly, keeping a distance between them. “Let me put it this way: I’ve heard it said that the thing which separates sentient beings from the animals is our capacity to be more. A wolf or bison or prairie dog just does what it does, but a human or elf or gnome creates things, improves themselves beyond what biology intended.”

“Sapient,” she said automatically.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her. “Hm?”

“Wolves an’ bison an’ prairie dogs are all sentient. They sense an’ interact with their surroundings. You mean sapient beings.”

Chase chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, maybe I don’t. Because I’ve done a lot of people-watching, and I’ve noticed that the happiest people are reliably the dumbest ones. The key to bliss is not having a thought in your head. Everything that’s good in life—food, sex, sleep, humor—it’s all basic, animal instinct. Being more is just a pointless pain in the ass.”

“Humor, is it?” she asked, intrigued in spite of herself. Maureen had never expected to hear Chase Masterson’s philosophy on life; until that moment it had never occurred to her that he might have one. “That seems like a pretty sapient thing.”

“Ever played tug-of-war with a dog? Or watched a bluejay tease a cat? Or how about wild pigs who sniff out glittershrooms to get high?” Chase laughed lightly, jamming his hands back in his pockets. “Not to mention that everything has sex, and you’re never gonna convince me it’s because all those animals think it over and decide what they really need is to be responsible for a smaller version of themselves for a while. Fun is the only true universal good, my dear little friend. All the rest is just bullshit people make up to feel more important than they are.”

He emerged into the open air, with the mountain looming above, and stopped. Maureen was still a few steps behind; by the time she caught up, Chase had turned to their right to peer in the direction of the main street. She peeked around the corner, following his gaze.

A crowd of men and women were milling around, several carrying lamps and one or two actual torches. The buzz of conversation which hovered over them was distinctly angry, and loud enough it seemed it might burst into shouting at any moment.

“Well, that’s different,” he mused. “I heard there was an actual mob in Last Rock a while back, but honestly I was never willing to believe these folks that that much initiative. Or organizational skills.”

“A mob doesn’t take much in the way o’ skill, ‘specially not of the organizational kind,” she replied, frowning at the townspeople.

Chase just laughed. “Oh, I know my townies, trust me.”

His bark of amusement attracted notice. A few people turned to face them, and then to Maureen’s horror, they erupted in shouting and imprecations. The group started toward them with long, aggressive strides, beginning with those nearest but the rest quickly catching up, as if the whole crowd were some sort of huge amoeba sensing prey. It was dark, but the lights they carried were enough for Maureen to make out scowls and snarls on far too many faces.

As she stood, gaping, one man in the lead broke into a trot, quickly followed by several others.

“Oh, my,” Chase observed in a fascinated tone, then turned to her with a cheerful grin. “Hey, here’s a crazy idea! I think we should run.”


The mineshaft was mostly horizontal for the first leg of its journey; only after turning sharply to the left did it begin descending. Nowhere around its periphery were there any obvious signs of activity, though Ermon said that tracks in the dust showed the whole area saw regular foot traffic. Now, the group was descending gradually along a seemingly endless shaft, which occasionally branched off to the sides or opened into disused chambers, some containing the wreckage of old crates and tools. There was no light except Fross’s silver glow.

“I can’t make out any sounds,” Juniper muttered. “The echoes down here are weird… Plus, there’s this…thing.”

“Thing?” Teal’s voice was a little strained. “What kind of a thing?”

“I don’t know,” the dryad said, frowning and shaking her head.

“Phrasing, June,” Gabriel said. “The atmosphere’s pretty tense already without us suddenly being told there’s a thing.”

“Let’s not make it worse by picking at each other,” Toby said soothingly. “Can you describe it, Juniper?”

“Mm…sort of like…bees,” she said pensively.

“Bees?!” Teal’s voice rose half an octave.

“The buzzing, I mean,” Juniper hastily clarified. “There’s this low hum, at the very edge of my hearing. All I can tell is it’s coming from deeper below, and that only because it’s been getting louder as we go down. Like I said…echoes. It’s a mess to try to track anything in here.”

“It certainly is that,” Ermon agreed. He had placed himself at the head of the group, off to one side and behind only Fross, where he studied the floor, walls, and ceiling in detail as they passed through. “I can make out only traces; this ground does not like to leave tracks. It does see traffic, though, both coming and going. And I have seen no signs of any kind of struggle in the distance we’ve come.”

“Well, let’s consider that a hopeful sign,” said Toby.

“I’d caution against excessive optimism,” the Huntsman replied. “I’m sure you have reason to be confident in your power, but following prey into its own den is always a highly risky venture.”

“Vadrieny wonders if we’d rather she take over from me, here,” said Teal.

Toby glanced back at her. “I appreciate the offer. Remember, though, our first plan is to talk. Vadrieny is, let’s face it, pretty intimidating. Having her out might seem hostile in and of itself.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, touching Teal’s shoulder momentarily. “And if this does come down to trouble, best we hold something in reserve. If they get aggressive, maybe we can prevent a throw down by suddenly showing we’ve got bigger fangs than they thought.”

“Okay,” she said with no further comment.

“I can feel arcane magic up ahead,” Fross added, “but…well, the distance is an impediment, but there’s not much. Assuming the rest of what the Rust does is like that arm, it might employ small arcane charms here and there but whatever it runs on is its own thing. I haven’t figured out a way to detect it directly. Ariel, anything?”

“I perceive nothing. My senses are designed for precision of analysis, not range. I will have little to add until we are much closer, if the conventional enchantments involved are as minor as you say.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes, which seemed longer than they were owing to being spent creeping through oppressive darkness. When Gabriel suddenly stopped, shifting his head as if watching something invisible, the rest of the group halted as well, turning to look at him.

“Vestrel’s back,” he reported with a grin of clear relief, which slowly faded as he continued, speaking with a halting cadence indicating he was repeating observations as they were given to him. “Okay…up ahead they tunnel opens out into a very large chamber, a natural cave that’s had mineshafts carved out of it in multiple directions, and that’s where the Rust has all their stuff. People, and machines…” He hesitated. “Vestrel recognizes some elements of what they’ve built, but it’s way different from the Elder God—okay, fine, Infinite Order stuff she remembers. Also…she says the machines are…weird.” He paused again, then sighed. “…apparently we’ll have to see them ourselves to understand.”

“How helpful,” Ariel commented. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh!” Gabriel brightened, turning to Ermon. “Arlund is here! I mean, down there. She wasn’t sure about his situation; he hasn’t been harmed and doesn’t seem to be restrained, but he looks angry.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is, in and of itself,” Ermon replied ruefully. “But I thank you, Vestrel, for the information.”

“And they’ve built some kind of…gate, across the tunnel,” Gabe continued, turning again to stare into empty space where the valkyrie apparently stood. “A pretty solid one, made of that reddish metal of theirs and a bunch of cobbled-together junk that resembles their artificial limbs. Vestrel can pass through most objects, but no idea how we’re going to get past it. The good news is all the Rust cultists are beyond it, in their big cavern. There’s nobody between us and the gate.”

“Okay,” Toby said, nodding. “That’s something. If we can’t figure out how to get it open, we can always try to force it. I very much doubt any gate will stop Juniper and Vadrieny.”

“Uh, I thought the idea was to try the friendly approach first?” said Fross. “If the thing is locked, maybe our first move should be to just knock.”

Toby hesitated, then chuckled. “Well, I can’t argue with that, can I? All right, guys, on we go. Gabe, any details while we walk? How far we are, how many cultists up ahead?”

“Only a couple dozen. Vestrel didn’t get a precise headcount because they were all milling around, doing something. She couldn’t tell what. And…apparently we’re closer to the gate than we are to the entrance of the tunnel, now.”

“I wonder,” Teal mused. “They can’t do much back-and-forth from here to the city. It’s a hellishly inconvenient approach, and somebody would have noticed that kind of traffic going in and out of the mountains.”

“We’ve already passed a lot of side tunnels,” Juniper pointed out, “and Vestrel said there are more below, from their actual lair. The mine entrance was just the one the Thieves’ Guild found. I bet they’ve got a more direct path into Puna Dara. Probably more than one, actually.”

“We’ll see what we see,” Toby murmured, and they fell silent again.

It was another few minutes of walking before they reached the gate Vestrel had told them of, which also revealed what she meant about the weirdness of the machines.

The tunnel was blocked off by a ring of steel, in which stood an obvious door of the same metal, split down the middle in an asymmetrical pattern unlike any standard doorway. Thick bars were set vertically into the metal in front of it, spaced too closely for a human to slip through, even had there been anywhere beyond it to go. The whole thing was set in a most peculiar melange of metallic parts. They were mostly of the reddish alloy that characterized the Rust, unlike the steel door and bars, though there were a number of small lights set in various places, some glowing steadily, others blinking in repeating patterns. Obvious machine parts were in evidence, from simple struts and braces to exposed gears, some actually moving. Pipes crisscrossed the entire thing at intervals, a few with valves which produces periodic little spurts of steam. In several places scattered throughout were oddly-shaped surfaces which glowed in the darkness and depicted peculiar systems of glyphs and markings; some of these held steady, while others changed continuously.

Most alarming of all was the way it was all constructed. Machines were usually logical, even mathematical in their design, featuring a lot of straight lines and right angles. By comparison, the gate’s housing was just crazy. Though they all connected together, pipes, gears, metal supports and blinking screens were layered around the walls haphazardly, in wild angles, as if they’d been laid down erratically and built up to cover the whole tunnel. Miscellaneous bits of inscrutable purpose extended out from the structure to crawl along the walls toward the distant exit like the questing roots of a tree.

“If a spider spun machine parts instead of silk,” Gabriel said after they had stood regarding this in silence for a few moments, “the result would look like this.”

Teal sighed. “Spiders, and bees. I never had an aversion to bugs until just now…”

“What if there is some kind of huge mechanical spider in there?” Juniper suggested. “That could explain this. Well, not explain it, but it’d make a little more sense…”

“Great,” Teal said sourly. “That’s a lovely thought.”

“Well, at least we figured out where that hum you talked about is coming from,” Toby said. Actually, though it clearly emerged from the peculiar machine, this close it seemed to be a number of different hums. Parts of it emitted periodic soft beeps and chimes, the pipes thrummed with some hydraulic force, gears clicked and whirred together, and several segments of the construction put off sharp electrical buzzing. From a distance, it all did blur together to resemble the tone of a beehive.

Juniper suddenly whirled, shifting her feel to a braced stance, and stared back up the tunnel. “There it is again!”

“The bees?” Teal asked.

“No. The smell. If I couldn’t feel the lack of any through attunement I would swear there was a dryad heading this way!”

All of them turned, Ermon drawing his tomahawk and hunting knife. Gabriel eased out the wand that morphed into his scythe, but did not activate it yet, and placed a hand on Ariel’s hilt without drawing her.

“I think you should know,” she said into the tense silence which ensued, “that there is a very sophisticated invisibility spell attached to something moving this way down the tunnel.”

“How close?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“Presuming standard human hearing, close enough to be aware of this conversation. I believe I recently pointed out that my senses are not designed for great distances.”

“Is someone there?” Toby called, staring ahead into the darkness. Fross fluttered back to hover above their heads, casting silver light on the tunnel walls around them.

Several of them twitched, Teal emitting a muffled noise of surprise, when a figure suddenly appeared seemingly out of thin air right in front of them. The person who had arrived was garbed entirely in black, and manifested in the process of lowering the hood of a black cloak. Beneath it was another hood, attached to her fitted jacket, and inside that a mask which obscured the lower half of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Her black attire was mostly of supple leather, and fit closely enough to reveal this was a woman.

“Oh, invisibility cloak,” Gabriel said after a tense silence. “Nifty. You don’t see those often.”

“Greetings,” Toby said to the mysterious woman. “Friend, or foe?”

She tilted her head minutely to one side, eyes flickering across them. Then she took a step forward. When everyone tensed, she paused again, and held up one finger, which she then pointed at the contorted apparatus around the gate behind them.

“Hello?” Juniper said sharply. “Yes? No? Anybody home?”

“That mask has a silencing spell attached,” Ariel announced. “If she spoke, you wouldn’t hear. There are a good number of impressive enchantments on this person’s equipment. She is either a skilled enchanter or exceedingly wealthy.”

“That’s interesting,” Juniper said bluntly. “And why do you smell like dryads?”

“And couldja maybe take the mask off and talk to us?” Fross suggested.

Ermon shook his head. “People who don masks are rarely willing to remove them upon meeting someone new.”

The woman watched this conversation inscrutably, but at that, pointed at Ermon. Then she stepped forward again, angling to pass between Teal and Juniper on her way to the gate.

“Hey!” Juniper moved to bar her path, scowling. “You don’t just show up out of nowhere in a place like this, at a time like this, and refuse to explain yourself!”

“Enchantments aside,” Ariel interjected, “the magic roiling off this person is extremely potent and extremely confusing. I detect all four schools, heavily favoring the fae, with additional branches of shadow magic, all intertwined in ways I have never seen and whose purpose I cannot discern. In terms of raw power, she is on a level with most of you. I advise against starting an altercation.”

The woman’s dark eyes shifted right to Ariel—itself interesting, as few people who heard her voice immediately suspected the sword—and then back to Juniper. She held the dryad’s gaze for a moment, then carefully shifted to edge past her again. This time, though she kept her stare locked onto the interloper, Juniper did not move, and allowed her past; Teal even edged back out of the way.

The woman in black squeezed by, then headed straight for one of the tunnel walls which was covered by the overgrowth of machinery, holding up another finger in their direction as if cautioning them to wait. She carefully pored over the exposed pieces as if searching for something, pausing at each of the display screens. Several she touched with her fingers; two responded by changing their contents, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the results and moved on.

Finally, she came to a roughly hexagonal screen attached to the mess by only a single length of pipe, extending out from the wall not far from the gate itself. This time, she hunched over it, quickly working at it with her gloved fingertips. Sigils and pictograms shifted at her touch, accompanied by soft chirps and whirrs.

“I suppose there’s no point in asking how you know how to do that,” Gabe said irritably, shifting closer and craning his neck to watch.

She raised her head to look at him, and winked, then returned to what she was doing.

The group jumped again when the gate suddenly moved. The entire circular steel housing rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, causing the bars to spin fully around. Once it stopped, there came a loud thunk from somewhere deep inside the machinery, and the bars suddenly retracted into what was now the floor. Then, with a deep rumble, an inner section of the circle began rotating in the opposite direction. When the door itself had been turned fully upside down—or right side up?—it parted smoothly, both doors sliding into the walls to either side. Another set of bars were revealed beyond it, which now slowly rotated back in the first direction, and then retracted just as their cousins had.

“There is really no reason for that to have been so elaborate,” Ariel opined.

“Well, thank you for the help,” Toby said to the woman, who after glancing into the now-open gate had resumed studying the screen. “I gather you’re a person who values her secrets, but I’m sure you understand if we—”

She abruptly grabbed the metal edges of the extended screen, and with a strength clearly beyond the human, ripped it clean off the wall, leaving its broken mount trailing a few sparking ends of wire.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted. Orange light suffused the tunnel as Vadrieny emerged, but they hardly had time to react beyond that.

The woman in black moved like an elf, darting past them and actually running up the wall for a few paces as she dashed by. Ermon spun and nocked an arrow, drawing a bead on her as she raced back up the tunnel, but with her free hand she whipped up the hood of her invisibility cloak and vanished entirely into the darkness.

Once she did, not even the sound of footsteps betrayed her presence.

“So,” Gabriel said irritably after they had all stared after the mysterious figure for a moment. “Carrying a bunch of pricey enchantments, made of a weird combination of all magic, smells like a dryad, somehow knows how to use weird-ass Elder God magic machines even better than Vestrel. And, best of all, showed up in the middle of all this. Yeah, there’s no way in hell we’ve seen the last of her. I will bet you a semester’s tuition her next appearance is going to be even more annoying.”

“No bet,” said Vadrieny. Ermon turned at the sound of her voice, peering at the archdemon with clear wariness.

“I could’ve frozen her to the ground,” Fross said apologetically, “but based on what Ariel said and what I sensed I wasn’t sure it’d be a good idea to poke that bear. There was a lot of magic in that lady, and I couldn’t tell what basically any of it did, and this seems like a really, really bad place to start an unnecessary fight.”

“I think you’re right,” Toby said with a heavy sigh. “No worries, Fross. For now, we’ve got a mission we’d better stick to, but we should also follow up on this as soon as we’re back in the city. See what the King and the Guild and maybe the Avenists and monks have seen.”

“For now, though, onward,” Vadrieny agreed, then faded away to leave Teal among them again.

The tunnel beyond the gate was much shorter, and horizontally level. It was also made entirely of smooth metal—apparently steel, once they stepped beyond the crawling clutter of machine parts that housed the gate apparatus itself. The group clustered together as they emerged from its mouth onto a platform overlooking a vast cavern.

The whole scene was a study in contrast between organic and angular forms. Large, glaring fairy lamps were almost blinding after the dimness behind them, but at least they exposed everything—which in this case meant a clearly natural cavern which had been both cut and built up with stone bricks to form even floors, walls, and platforms that had once served the mining operation in some capacity. In the ceiling and in the walls of sections not adapted for human use, the smooth natural curves left by eons of erosion were still evident. Remnants of wood and stone construction remained, but all of it had been partially covered by reddish metal growths which seemed to have spread over everything like crawling lichen.

There were Rust cultists present, as well, roughly two dozen as Vestrel had advised. Every single one present had at least one metal limb, some two or more, and several were partially augmented with further metallic pieces of uncertain purpose. Now, however, they were not milling about engaged in any task. All of them stood all but motionless, scattered around the chamber and staring flatly at the group which emerged into their midst.

A chilling silence hung between them, until a large piece of the machinery occupying the back wall began detaching itself.

When housed against a huge overgrowth of metallic parts it had been just another inscrutable piece of the morass, but as it pulled free and stepped closer its shape immediately became clear. The thing walked on two enormous legs, had a round torso with what appeared to be a circular eye of green glass occupying most of its front, and two metal arms extending from the upper edge of that. Despite its lack of a head, it stood nearly twenty feet tall. Each of its footfalls echoed through the chamber with a crash.

“Giant mechanical spider,” Juniper muttered. “Well, I wasn’t too far off…”

The Rust cultists stood still, keeping their attention on the intruders and paying the huge construct no mind—not even the two it had to step directly over on its way toward them. The group edged backward toward the tunnel mouth as it came, but it stopped a few yards distant.

With a hiss and several bursts of steam, the round glass face came loose and tipped slightly forward. Another metal piece on its top shifted up like a trap door. Whirring sounded from within the metal beast, and slowly a man rose into view from inside it, seated in a chair installed on a platform which now climbed upward. He stood up when it came to the top, which put him almost perfectly on a level with the group.

If the Rust cultists were given more mechanical parts as they rose through the ranks, this man must be their leader; he seemed at least as much machine as human. Enough of his flesh and blood face remained, however, to smile broadly at them, and he held his arms wide.

“Welcome, honored guests!” he boomed in a voice clearly accustomed to public speaking. “Honored indeed, even if not invited. And now, we will have to decide just what to do with you.”

 

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