Tag Archives: Walker

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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 – 15

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“I realize it’s difficult to plan when walking into an unknown, but we need to have some kind of strategy ready for this,” Toby said, following Fross into the outskirts of the city. Puna Dara’s buildings did not grow smaller or more sparse as they climbed; flanked as it was by craggy mountains on all sides, the city had long since filled up all the available space, but the streets grew steadily steeper as they climbed toward the limits of its confines.

“I think Gabe had the right of it before,” Juniper replied. “This is a lot less delicate than our previous assignments. All we have to do is wipe out the Rust, and the problem is basically solved. Doing it in their hidey-hole outside town where nobody else will get hurt is just an added benefit.”

“First of all,” Teal said sharply, “mass slaughter is never an acceptable solution to anything. And second, we’re making a sweeping assumption if we go in there thinking we can just take them all out.”

“That, exactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Let’s keep in mind these guys vanquished an entire Silver Legion without apparently being there. I know we’re used to out-classing enemies in a straight-up fight, but like they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Seems like a bad idea to face everybody just blithely assuming we can take ’em.”

“What did happen to the Legion, exactly?” Toby asked. “I know it was a magical plague of some kind, but we seem to have missed out some important details…”

“That would have been an excellent subject to study in detail before embarking on a mission to engage these Rust in battle.”

“Gabriel,” Teal said tersely, “does your sword have to say something snotty at the most inopportune time?”

“I am designed for precision and analysis, not social interaction.”

“You seem plenty designed for snark,” Juniper observed.

“Snark is merely the byproduct of being constantly surrounded by lesser intellects.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel said wearily. “We had enough of a hassle getting out of the Rock and convincing Ruda not to come, I think missing some details is forgivable. Anyway, the plague…”

“Its symptoms are weakness and lethargy to the point of making basic movement difficult,” Fross chimed at the head of the group. “It appears to have been designed to be non-lethal, though several Legionnaires did perish, as is to be expected of any large group subjected to such an effect. Whether this was meant to be compassionate or to saddle the Rust’s enemies with the burden of providing for several hundred incapacitated soldiers is a matter of debate. Its cause and nature have not been identified last I heard; they’ve been evacuated to Rodvenheim where the dwarves and the Salyrites have been working on this.”

“Bless you, Fross,” Toby said.

“Thank you!”

“So what are we going to do, if the plan’s not to go in wands blazing?” Juniper asked.

“First, diplomacy,” Toby said firmly. “In fact, this whole situation reminds me of a worthwhile lesson in negotiating I got from Trissiny before she left.”

“Oh, good, it’s almost like old times,” Teal muttered. “Usually she has to be here to turn everything into a fight.”

Gabriel and Juniper both looked at her sidelong with slight frowns. Up ahead, Toby turned around to give her a deeper one.

“One thing we could all stand to learn from Trissiny,” he said, “is to recognize when our own education has left us blind spots and work to correct them. That is what she’s off doing right now, and I respect her a lot for it. No, I wouldn’t generally take the approach she recommends for diplomacy, but what she did say that I’ve taken to heart is that it’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength.” He finally turned to watch ahead while they walked; the road continued on up into the mountains, but the end of Puna Dara’s structures was fast approaching. “Omnists do not think in those terms, as a rule. But the truth is the Rust must be quite confident in their power, if they have presented enough of a threat to keep Blackbeard from moving on them directly. It will look different if we, who represent more of a physical threat than the Fourth Silver Legion did, show up in their base which they thought was secret. Hopefully, we can get them to come to terms.”

“And what’s plan B?” Juniper asked.

Toby shook his head. “Well…still to talk. Even if they won’t meet us halfway, talking will buy us time to look around and hopefully learn. The problem is how little we know. Plan B may have to be concocted on the fly.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “If they are using Elder God stuff, once we get a look at what they’ve got in there, I may be able to do something. Vestrel is familiar with the magic they used; she says a lot of it came from or through machines, which fits with the mechanical parts these people have. She can give directions…assuming whatever they’ve got in there is set up in a way she recognizes, of course.”

“How is Vestrel so familiar with this?” Teal asked, frowning.

“Valkyries are also daughters of Naiya,” Juniper said softly. “I’ve…looked into this. It seemed relevant, especially after how they terrorized Aspen. The Elder Gods banished them from reality, and Vidius saved them from being destroyed completely. That’s how he won Mother over to the Pantheon’s side. But yeah…Vestrel would have been around when the Elders were in power.”

“Now, that’s definitely something,” Toby said, turning his head again to look at Gabriel while he walked. “Not to put too much on her shoulders, Gabe, but does she know anything else about the Elder Gods’ magic that might help?”

Gabriel shook his head. “I asked. Without seeing what the Rust have in there, we can’t predict how much she’ll recognize. Anyway…most of them don’t think fondly of the Elders, as you can imagine. There was one valkyrie who remained interested in their stuff, and loved to study history and tell anybody who’d listen about it, but she was lost a long time ago.”

“Lost, how?” Juniper asked. “I thought I understood valkyries are basically untouchable in the chaos dimension.”

“I didn’t ask,” he said shortly. “Maybe drop it? Vestrel can hear us, June, and she’d have offered any information that would have been useful. If something happened to one of your sisters that could be described as ‘lost,’ you probably wouldn’t care to have it brought up, either.”

“Gabe,” Teal said quietly, “that is one of her sisters you’re talking about.”

His face immediately turned two shades darker. “Oh. Gods… Juniper, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

The dryad shifted a little closer and reached out to take his hand, giving him a smile. “It’s okay, Gabe. Remember that time I broke your shoulder? I figure that buys you a whole bunch of thoughtless comments.”

“The way I heard it, thoughtless comments were what led to his shoulder being broken.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” Gabriel and Juniper exclaimed in unison.

“I keep forgetting about your invisible friends, Gabriel,” Teal added. “Can they maybe scout ahead, get a sense of what we’re walking into?”

“It’s actually just Vestrel here at the moment,” he said apologetically. “She’s the only one really assigned to accompany me; the others like to hang around because I’m interesting to them, but they have jobs, too. Right now, most of them are off dealing with something in Sifan.”

Toby came to a stop, turning to face him with a wary expression. “…do we need to know?”

Gabriel grimaced. “One of the orcish clans opened some kind of portal into Athan’Khar.”

“Ooh, ouch,” Juniper said, cringing.

“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “But apparently everything living in Athan’Khar is both technically undead and partially phased out of this dimension, so they are vulnerable to to valkyries. The girls are holding the line while the clan and a blue dragon seal that thing back up. They’re trying to get it done before the kitsune become involved. Kitsune, as you likely recall from Professor Ekoi, are only amused by their own jokes. Other people making a mess on their lawn…”

“Say no more,” Toby said, shaking his head and turning around again. “The valkyries are busy, got it. But as for Vestrel scouting ahead…?”

“She offered.” Gabriel wore a frown now. “Honestly…I asked her to hold back a bit. When we’re closer, she can keep an eye on our perimeter, but I’m wary of sending her alone into that. These guys probably are using Elder God stuff, which is also probably one of the very few things that could detect and even harm her.”

“Mm,” Teal said thoughtfully. “But if they did do something to Vestrel, wouldn’t that get Vidius involved? I mean, that’s one way to put a swift end to this.”

Now Gabriel stopped walking, rounding on her in shock. “Teal!”

She froze as well, suddenly looking stricken. “Oh. I didn’t mean… I mean, I was just…I didn’t…”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said soothingly, coming back to them. “I’m sure Teal didn’t intend that the way it sounded. We all know very well she’s not at all heartless.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabriel said, giving Teal a smile. “The phrasing just, uh, took me by surprise.”

“Sorry,” Teal said, still cringing.

Fross chimed softly, fluttering over. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Gabe, but intentionally or not, she had a point. Sending out scouts always involves a risk to them, but it’s important to do anyway. And if anything, Vestrel is less vulnerable than any other prospect, not to mention vastly stealthier.”

“Ah, yeah,” he said with a wince, looking up the road ahead, where the mountains rose up to blot out the night sky. “As for that…”

“While you kids were chattering about your feelings,” Ariel reported, “Vestrel delivered some succinct and insightful commentary about being lectured on how to do her job by twenty-year-olds, and departed to scout the Rust’s base.”

“Right,” Gabriel said irritably, grasping her hilt. “So, that’s that done, I guess. We may not want to be in a hurry, here. If we give her time to look around and come back, we’ll be better off.”

“Incoming,” Teal said, looking back down the road toward the city. Everyone turned to follow her gaze.

Brother Ermon did not seem out of breath, despite having run what must have been a long way. He slowed as he approached, coming to a stop just a few yards distant, and bowed, only a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead betraying his exertion.

“I’m glad I caught up with you,” the Huntsman said. “Tracking in the city is never easy, but the royal seneschal had a good idea which route you had taken.”

“Evening, Brother Ermon,” Toby said, nodding. “Has something happened?”

“I fear so,” Ermon said gravely. “I’ve come to join your hunt, if I am welcome.”

They exchanged a few glances.

“It isn’t that you’re not,” Teal said carefully, “but each of us are…well, extremely durable, in our own ways. We are walking into a confrontation with people whose power we don’t understand, and hoping we can end this with just words. But…”

“I imagine it was very difficult to persuade Princess Zaruda to remain in safety at the Rock,” Ermon replied, with a faint crinkling at his eyes hinting at a smile his beard otherwise hid.

“Gods, you have no idea,” Juniper muttered.

“And I imagine, further, that what persuaded her was the awareness of her duty, and importance to her people,” the Huntsman continued, his gaze growing serious again. “It is duty that brings me here. As Mr. Caine and Juniper told us, Brother Arlund followed the Rust cultist you met at the Omnist temple, seeking to find their base. As of my departure from the Rock less than an hour ago, he has not returned.”

Toby covered his mouth with a hand, eyes widening. “Oh, my… I didn’t even think. Ermon, I cannot apologize enough—”

“Please.” The Huntsman held up a hand. “Arlund is a brother Huntsman and as such I will act to aid him as best I possibly can, now that I see the need. That does not mean I’m unaware of his…personality. I hardly expect anyone else in this city to make such an effort.”

“I appreciate that, but it was still inexcusable,” Toby said, his expression truly haunted. “At the very least I should have remembered.”

“We both should have,” Juniper agreed. “I think we owe Arlund a big apology. And that’s after getting him out of there.”

Toby drew in a deep, calming breath. “Omnu send that we still have that option.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, though,” Gabriel warned. “He might not have come back because he’s still following that guy around who knows where. Or anything else.”

“The man just had his arm torn off,” Ermon said grimly. “A wounded animal returns to its den. Arlund may, indeed, still be studying the area rather than captured, but you are right, Mr. Arquin; it is best, at this stage, to assume nothing. I foresee your objections,” he added. “Yes, I understand the danger. These Rust neutralized a Legion, I have been briefed. Duty demands my presence. Death and suffering are facts of life, and are not to be feared. What a man should fear is that his pain or his death may be without purpose. The best way to ward off that fate is never to shrink from duty.”

“Well put,” Teal said. “If you’re sure, I don’t think we can turn afford to down an ally.”

“On the contrary. You do, of course, have the option of forbidding him to help,” Ariel pointed out, “especially as this effectively means you’re going to have to watch out for him in addition to dealing with the Rust.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said with barely-restrained aggravation, “be silent. Huntsmen of Shaath are the most expert trackers and marksmen in the world, and you are not daft enough to fail to see the utility in his presence. Stop being an ass!”

“I see utility chiefly in magic, for the record, but if you say so.”

“You flatter me,” Ermon said, visibly amused. “If I may assist in scouting the enemy’s den before we approach, please put me to work.”

“Ah, well, actually,” Toby replied, “funny you mention scouting. We were only just—”

He broke off as Juniper abruptly spun to face the city, shifting her feet to a ready stance. She flexed her fingers, shifting her head to study the buildings behind them carefully.

“What is it?” Teal asked in alarm.

“It’s…nothing, I guess.” Slowly, the dryad straightened up, still wearing a puzzled frown. “I must have imagined…”

“June, I have never seen you go on point like that without a good reason,” Gabe said.

“Not to mention that you don’t have the imagination to concoct flights of fancy.”

“Ariel, I am going to throw you in the harbor!” he exclaimed.

“No, you aren’t. The dryad has very keen senses, and I stand by my previous observation. If she sensed something, she sensed something.”

“Instinct should not be allowed to make your decisions for you,” Ermon added, “but it should never be disregarded.”

Juniper shook her head, still peering at the city behind them. “It’s…there is nothing there, I’m certain of it now. I reached through the attunement as well, and…nothing. But for just a moment… I thought I smelled dryads.”

This time, the look which bounced between the rest of them was wary.

“All right,” Toby said at last. “I agree…that is probably not nothing. If there’s one thing I’d expect you to pick up on, June, it’s that. But if you can’t sense them clearly, it may not have been what it seemed.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine there’s another dryad in Puna Dara,” Teal added. “They tend to make a stir. Which raises the tricky question of what would feel like one to a real dryad.”

“Vestrel?” Toby suggested.

Gabriel shook his head. “We know from long experience Juniper can’t perceive them directly, and the last time I saw a dryad who could see valkyries, they threw her into a panic. Okay, how about this. We’d best keep it in mind, but with nothing more to go on, I think we’d better get back to the mission at hand. When we come back, tomorrow we’ll get in touch with the local Thieves’ Guild, since Locke said they’re such rumor-mongers, and see if they’ve heard anything about a cannibal serial killer or something like that in Puna Dara. For now…”

“For now,” Juniper said slowly, with a grudging nod, “you’re right. Focus on the now. I think that’s a good plan, Gabe. C’mon, let’s get this done as quick as possible. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be an easy night.”

She finally turned her back on the city and started walking again, the others falling into step alongside. They had this last stretch of street to themselves; there were still structures lining it, but no one else was out at this hour, and only a few had lights in their windows. There were, this far out, no street lamps. Only the darkness of the trail up the mountain loomed ahead of them.


Milanda lay flat against the rooftop, counting breaths and staring up at the stars without seeing them. After waiting two full minutes, she very carefully wiggled forward to the edge of the roof, and craned her neck to peek over it sidelong, not sticking the top of her head up. Just the way Lord Vex had taught her, and despite the discomfort, she well understood the utility of the maneuver.

The students from Last Rock, now with that Huntsman in tow, were once again on the move. With her heightened senses, a gift of her elevation by the dryads, she could still make them out, but they had moved beyond the glow of the city, climbing the old trail that led up to the mines.

She rolled over and wriggled forward to watch them from a slightly more comfortable position. “Walker… I’ve never heard about Hands of the Emperor encountering dryads in the wild. They’re usually sent to deal with sensitive, mostly human threats, in settled territory. How probable is it that a dryad could sense me because of my…connection?”

“That’s impossible to say for sure, for the very reason you just stated,” Walker’s voice replied in her ear. “Your situation isn’t exactly that of the other Hands, either, and the only dryads you’ve met since the change were the ones who did it to you. I’ll ask the girls next chance I get, but I wouldn’t count on them being able to say.”

Milanda nodded, mostly to herself as Walker of course couldn’t see the gesture. “I wonder whether it might just be Juniper.”

There came a short silence before the reply. “According to the Empire’s notes, Juniper is the youngest dryad. She’s also the most acclimated to human society apart from Ash, who as you mentioned recently is actually associated with Imperial Intelligence. Also, during the periods when classes are out at ULR, she goes to study druidism with a tribe of wood elves. Based on that alone, I think it’s quite likely she can perceive things her sisters may not.”

“Lovely,” Milanda grumbled, finally rising to her knees. “As if following them around in the dark wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge…”

“Milanda, this is getting ridiculous. Those kids are here, you don’t really have any means of getting them un-involved. That Huntsmen, likewise. You have days at most before some of the Avenists the High Commander sent reach Puna Dara, and you know they’ll go to the Rock and link up with them as well. Eserites are already present, and likely the source of whatever lead the students are following. It is worse than nonsensical for you to be running around trying to do this yourself while so much talent is being moved into place. Even if you don’t accidentally get yourself killed by one of these should-be allies, you’re going to mess up their work just as they’re interfering with yours. The only people who profit from this standoffishness are the Rust.”

“And I know the Emperor’s political concerns don’t matter to you,” Milanda replied quietly, adding a soft grunt as she landed lightly in an alley, having dropped the three stories straight to the ground. “But they matter to me. It’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you say, and I’ll probably end up offering them my help. I’ll probably have to, just to keep from creating a worst-case scenario like you just described. But not until all other options are exhausted.” She slipped past the last of the buildings, a little bit distant from the road, and stopped to finish conversing; once she started actually tracking the students and their Huntsman friend through the dark, it would have to be in silence. “If nothing else, Blackbeard doesn’t want Imperial help, and as soon as he knows I’m Imperial help, he’ll forbid me to get involved. Anything I do after that point will have diplomatic repercussions.”

There was another silence, and Milanda had just taken a step into the darkness when Walker spoke again. “If I’m not mistaken, this Left Hand of the Emperor business hasn’t been announced. Right?”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, frowning into the night. “The idea is not to stifle it, but to let rumors grow. Hands are already boogeymen to an extent; with something even more—”

“Yes, yes,” Walker interrupted impatiently. “And every previous Hand of the Emperor has been a man, correct? So why would you need to tell anybody who you are, or who you represent?”

“A mysterious woman in black with awesome physical prowess will arouse questions,” Milanda said thoughtfully. “Especially one who may or may not smell like dryads.”

“Sure, but where are they going to get answers? Come on, you are acting in the capacity of a spy here, Milanda. Why was announcing yourself ever part of your plans?”

“Huh,” she grunted. In hindsight, it did seem rather self-evident…

Walker’s tone took on a heavy hint of irritating smugness. “And to think, you complain about my speeches. How ever did you get along without me to point out obvious facts for you?”

“Well,” she drawled, “shortly before I met you, my most important consideration was how much Sharidan liked it when I used my—”

“All right, enough, stop!”

“You know, on his—”

“Please! I give already!”

Grinning, Milanda raised the mask dangling from her neck to cover the lower half of her face, adjusted her hood, and set out into the night.

 

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13 – 14

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The hum filled the air, powerful enough to make her bones resonate sympathetically, but not loud enough to drown out the screams. She tore through the corridors, a prisoner behind her own eyes, unable even to scream as she carved away lives.

Palace guards tried to shoot her, but she effortlessly swatted lightning bolts aside with the burning shaft of light in her hand. It pulled her onward, hungry for revenge, and she slashed two soldiers into shrieking fragments with one wide swing. The smell of seared meat competed with the sharp tang of ozone in the air.

She did not stop, pulled forward by the sword. Cutting down servants, clerks, more guards, everyone who came within range of her swing. Faces of people she knew, frozen in horror and betrayal as she ended them. The sword didn’t care; it only needed blood.

Somehow, she had made it to the harem wing, and Isolde was ahead of her, fleeing in panic. Fruitlessly, of course; she ran the other consort down and impaled her through the heart from behind, and Isolde fell, screaming a question for which she had no answer.

Around the next corner, Empress Eleanora had barely a moment to give her a shocked look before the blade whipped through her body in a swift Z formation, reducing her to chunks, and still she pushed forward. Beyond the Empress was what the sword wanted.

Sharidan watched her come, wide-eyed. She could hear nothing but the powerful buzz of the weapon, but saw him mouth her name in disbelief as the blade came down.

The screams finally tore past whatever force silenced them, and everything vanished in confused panic. It took her a few seconds to understand where she was and stop shrieking. There was no angrily humming Infinite Order weapon; she was alone in a shabby little room in Puna Dara, entangled in the thin blanket that came with her rented cot, and one of her neighbors was pounding on the wall, shouting imprecations. Also, there was a frightened voice in her ear.

“Milanda! What happened? Are you all right? Say something!”

“Sorry, Walker,” she rasped, then paused, working her mouth to wet it a bit. “Just…a nightmare. I’m fine.”

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

Milanda paused in extricating herself from the blanket to give the room’s wall a wry look. “Now that the noise has stopped, nobody cares. I chose this neighborhood for a reason; the odd scream here and there won’t draw a response.”

“So these dreams are now determining your choice of where to stay?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Milanda muttered, rising and going to the basin of water to splash her face. “You know why I’m here; the Punaji will not work with Imperial agents on this. They won’t even allow me to work if they find me, and once I’ve been explicitly told to butt out by Rajakhan’s government, my presence becomes a serious provocation. Nobody will look for me here.”

It was a sign of Walker’s concern that she didn’t allow herself to be baited into a long-winded discussion of the situation. “You never did see that mental healer, did you?”

“I haven’t had time,” Milanda said shortly, “and I don’t really care to discuss it.”

“Too bad. Milanda, this is like trying to operate with a high fever or a broken leg. Mental injuries are not less serious because they’re invisible!”

“What time is it?” Milanda asked. Her third-floor shack of a room was luxurious by the neighborhood’s standards for having an attached toilet; a window was not among its amenities.

Walker hesitated, as if about to argue, but then answered the question. “Almost twenty hours. Actually, I was about to wake you anyway. Hope you got some rest; this may be a long night.”

“Why? What’s happened?” The slight tingle of alarm was enough to banish the last of the sleep cobwebs from her brain, and she paused in the middle of the floor, just listening.

“The Avatar wasn’t able to improve the data gain from the transcension field by much, so we’re operating at a very low sensor capacity, but you carrying that receiver in your ear around Puna Dara has helped. We’ve finished mapping the cave systems around the city and found more than one that lead to an obviously artificial shaft which terminates at Fabrication Plant One. One of these, an old mineshaft outside the city, has Infinite Order tech operating at low levels. We weren’t able to interface with any of it to see what it’s doing.”

“That’ll be where the Rust have their base, then,” Milanda said, running a hand over her hair. She probably looked like a mess, but that was a lesser consideration right now. “I’ll have a look before deciding our next steps. Point the way, Walker.”

“Wait,” Walker advised. “The rest of the news isn’t good. Our system was able to identify the technology the Rust cultists are using.”

“Really?” Milanda couldn’t restrain a grin of excited satisfaction. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, and that is the bad part,” Walker said grimly. “It came up as classified. Even the Avatar refused to discuss it. He was very apologetic, but said it’s an absolute rule. He can’t act against his programming.”

Milanda’s smile melted into a frown. “…I thought our whole rigged-up system was logged into the Order’s tech under Naiya’s credentials. Why would anything be classified to her?”

“There are several things that would be; technologies and information that the Order as a whole agreed never, ever to use, or even discuss. Long before their fall they had devolved to infighting of the worst kind. The only thing that brought them all to the table was a weapon or technology which scared them so much they were all willing to permanently give up access to it as long as it meant none of the others could have it either. And these are the people who were screwing around with time travel and solar system-sized spatial distortion fields.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“Yeah,” Walker said in response to the sound.

“That’s really bad.”

“Potentially. It also raises very troubling questions. How did these yokels defeat the Infinite Order’s highest security? The Avatar in Fabrication Plant One would never have allowed anyone to access classified technology, and if they somehow disabled him, there should be no way to access it. Only an Avatar governing intelligence is able to extract sealed data from the computers.”

“Hm.” Milanda had been conducting a quick check while Walker was talking; she’d been napping in her clothes and already had everything she needed at hand. Stepping out of the room and shutting the door behind her, she lowered her voice. A young woman walking around muttering to herself was far from the strangest thing to happen in this neighborhood, but still. “Maybe they interfered with the Avatar somehow? Altered him?” The rickety exterior steps creaked woefully as she descended. Milanda had suspicions about the quality of carpentry that had been done after the last hurricane.

“That would almost have to be it, but I can’t see how. Remember that our altered system only works because Empress Theasia convinced the Avatar to help set it up that way in the first place. As nervous as the Order were about AI, they’re supposed to be impervious to tampering. Anyway, I wanted you to be aware of the level of danger you’re walking into—and repeat my objection that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“This is the whole point,” Milanda muttered, tucking her chin down as she reached the street. Nobody was paying her any attention; dark had fallen, but the city was still lively at this hour. “The Archpope is trying to rally everybody under one banner to prevent the Throne from turning on him, and I don’t buy for a second that he didn’t knowingly penetrate our system in the first place. I’ll buy that the Rust are a serious threat, but I also don’t want to let him scapegoat them. If I can deal with this quietly, without involving the Punaji or the cults…”

“Let me remind you that I do not work for the Empire, nor does Akane or the Avatar or the dryads. You’re the only party here who has an opinion on the Silver Throne’s political goals. What matters to the rest of us is that some humans are messing with the most dangerous technology the Infinite Order possessed and have already shown themselves willing to weaponize it somehow.”

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

“And even that wasn’t why I wanted to wake you. While doing those scans, the system identified someone it recognized moving through Puna Dara, and according to what I’m tracking toward the Rust-infested mineshaft I just mentioned.”

Milanda frowned, picking up her pace, then came to a stop, realizing she didn’t know where she was going. “Which way, Walker? And who is it? I thought those sensors weren’t acute enough for that kind of detail at this range.”

“If you’re determined to stick your nose into this, head to the southern edge of the city and toward the mountains, and I’ll guide you further from there. And no, they generally aren’t, but the presence it picked up resonates very strongly through the specific transcension field it’s using. It identified them as Administrator Naiya with thirty percent certainty.”

“Wait… That means—”

“One of her avatars, yes,” Walker said. “This system knows what kitsune and valkyries are; it’s able to accept our girls as having Mother’s clearance specifically because it doesn’t recognize dryads as a specific, separate thing. That, in fact, is how it identifies them: as Naiya, but without complete certainty.”

Milanda ran a hand roughly over her face. “Omnu’s balls… Walker, I need a favor.”

“It’ll cost you,” Walker said solemnly.

She almost missed a step, then smiled ruefully and picked up her pace. “Uh huh, good one. Has the Emperor made his nightly visit yet?”

“I don’t know, Milanda. It’s not as if he comes down to my hidey-hole.”

“Right. Well…any way you can, please try to get in touch with Lord Vex.”

Walker hummed thoughtfully into the headset. “You understand the handicap we’re under with regard to getting anybody’s attention up top? Everyone down here either physically can’t get to the surface, or really, really shouldn’t.”

Milanda made a mental note to see about having a Hand of the Emperor stationed down there at all times. Waste of talent for what amounted to a pageboy’s job, but given how Hands were made, she doubted they’d begrudge the chance to loiter with the dryads. Akane, though, was another matter…

“I understand. Whatever you can do, please. It’s very unlikely that this is just some random dryad wandering through. That would have created a major incident by now.”

“I’ve already checked the Empire’s reports on dryad activity, which Sharidan so helpfully brought us last week,” Walker replied. “Banana roams up and down the Punaji Coast, but in two centuries she’s never shown the slightest interest in approaching human settlements. Seems more standoffish than most of her generation.”

“Right. Which leaves two possibilities that I’m aware of. Either this is Ash, who works for Lord Vex, in which case he is meddling in my mission without my knowledge and I am going to have words with him… Or, unfortunately more likely, the sophomore class of Last Rock U has showed up to…help.”

“If they have,” Walker suggested, “let them. You’re in over your head, Milanda. If you absolutely insist on not involving any of the cult assets that have been moving into the city, those kids at least don’t have political ties to the Empire.”

Milanda did not bother to address that erroneous statement. “I’m more concerned with their particular manner of help. They shot Sarasio to hell, almost started a riot in Tiraas and burned half of Veilgrad. I’m just going to hope I’ll have to yell at Vex—or maybe deal with a rogue dryad. The last thing I need right now is those meddling kids.”


Fred kept his head down, hurrying on through the gathering darkness toward his destination. Last Rock wasn’t as sleepy a town as it had been not long ago, but even so, it was notably less active than in daylight. Also dimmer, lacking an organized system of street lamps. The mayor had been talking about adding just such a thing, what with all the new construction going on. Privately, Fred somewhat resented these changes in his comfortable life, but at the same time, he knew that for the silliness it was. Progress happened. All a man could do was buckle down and do his best.

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

He came to a stop a bit too abruptly, so much so that he staggered and nearly fell, but that beat the alternative. Even so, Maureen backed away in alarm, clutching her basket of metal parts and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Omnu’s—I’m so sorry, missy!” Fred blurted, snatching off his hat. “I plumb wasn’t looking. Didn’t step on you, did I?”

“Not so much as a toenail, don’t you worry,” the gnome assured him, smiling now. “I’m pretty quick on me feet; even the tall folk who keep a lookout can’t always spot me in the dark. Really, though, are ye doin’ all right? Y’look a wee bit under th’weather.”

In fact, he was suddenly feeling even worse, but plastered on a smile, gamely trying to conceal his unease. “Oh, pardon me, miss. Not to worry, just rushin’ to finish off errands I should’ve managed earlier. One o’ those days, y’know the kind.”

“Aye, that I do,” she agreed, nodding.

“Can I, uh, offer you a hand?” he asked politely.

“Oh, that’s all right, it ain’t as heavy as it looks,” she said cheerfully. “Just pickin’ up some scrap fer me pet project. I won’t keep ye any longer. Sorry fer almost trippin’ ye!”

“My fault entirely, Miss Willowick,” he said, tipping his hat again. “You have a good evenin’, now.”

“Same t’you!”

Once he was past her, Fred allowed himself to cringe. That…that was absolutely the last thing he’d wanted to see…

His path took him through the back ways of the old town, along dark alleys that just barely deserved the name. As Last Rock grew, it was developing such features in truth, but in the oldest parts of the village the spaces between the backs of buildings had never been used for much; it had barely had enough streets for such alleys even to exist. Fred stepped carefully in the darkness, mindful of old rubbish tossed back here, and even despite all his efforts stumbled repeatedly over unseen obstacles, having to bite his lip to keep from cursing aloud.

He found the shed without difficulty, though. Annoyance and discomfort, but not difficulty. It had been there his whole life, the storage shed behind the Saloon, tucked into a little nook left by the odd shape of the alchemy shop which had been constructed closer to the mountain and the students who had always been its main custom. In Fred’s youth the Crete’s tool shed had been kept locked and chained shut, but Jonas Crete’s fixation on magical gizmos had resulted in him moving all his stuff into the convenience of extradimensional storage inside the Saloon itself. Thus, the shed was empty, and had been for years.

And tonight, was occupied.

He slipped inside and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, turning to face those present. It was even darker, obviously, though the slits between loose boards admitted faint moonlight, enough to discern two dim figures, and the faint glint of their eyes. Fred couldn’t tell which was which, and so bowed deeply in the general direction of the space between them. Obviously, this wasn’t going to get any better; those same gaps would light the whole shed up like a beacon if they ignited a lamp. All it would take was one person glancing down the alley to see that something improper was happening in the old Crete toolshed.

“Carson,” said the Hand of the Emperor’s voice from the figure to his left. “Well?”

Fred cleared his throat self-consciously, tugging his hat off and kneading it in both hands in front of his body. “Well, sir, like you said, I found a student. Um, students, that is, here in town. The Masterson boy is just across the other side of the square down there, around the A&W.” He paused; the other dark figure had shifted as if turning to stare at the Hand.

“And?” the Hand prompted in a sharper tone. “You said students. There are more?”

Fred swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Th-there’s one other. As I was comin’ to meet you I ran across young Miss Willowick, comin’ out of the blacksmith’s. I dunno what Chase is up to, but she’ll be headin’ up the mountain toward campus. Maureen’s a good girl.”

“Mm. Even better,” the Hand said quietly. “Then we have our target. Reich, focus your ability on the crowd in the Saloon; rile up everyone amenable and target them at the gnome.”

“Oh, but sir!” Fred burst out, forgetting himself. “She’s the sweetest little thing, ain’t never said boo to a goose! Nobody cares what happens to Chase, that boy’s a prick. Couldn’t we—”

“That is precisely the point,” the Hand said in a dangerous tone. “The more sympathetic the target, the stronger the reaction.”

“But—”

“Carson, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, I am always aware of details you are not, and my plans extend well beyond you; what may seem a cruel action from one perspective may lead to ultimately benign results. Second, I speak for the Emperor. I must balance complex needs and make hard choices—and, if need be, sacrifices for the greater good. Any harm that results will be on my head, not yours. You have served your Emperor well. Do it, Reich.”

“I will,” the voice of Lorelin Reich replied from the other dark figure, “but I want it noted that I am doing this under severe protest.”

The Hand spun on her so abruptly that Fred staggered back against the closed door.

“Why is it,” the Hand grated, “that just now, when I am finally moving to enact all the planning we have done, I find myself surrounded by disloyalty?”

Fred opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t disloyal, immediately thought better of that, and shut it again, grateful his lapse had been invisible in the dark.

“I know my duty,” Reich replied, her tone perfectly calm as far as Fred could tell. “I will serve my Emperor’s will without hesitation. But I have just spent a great deal of time being reprimanded by my cult, by an Imperial Grand Magistrate, and by Imperial Intelligence that exerting this kind of influence on unsuspecting citizens is a repulsive abuse of my abilities. I took those lessons to heart, sir. I will obey, and trust that a greater good is being served. But for the record, I consider this action vile, and am in a better position than most to know.”

“Your objections have been noted,” the Hand snapped, “and in the future, you will register them after the moment to act is not rapidly escaping us. Do it, Reich! Thanks to you two, I now have to go pull other strings to slow down our quarry, or this will all be for nothing. Carson, make sure she’s not disturbed.”

He shoved brusquely past Fred, who almost literally fell over himself to get out of the way, then vanished through the door into the night.

They stood in frozen silence for two heartbeats before Reich spoke in a soft tone.

“Carson, I think we have a smilodon by the tail, here.”

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

Her shadow shifted incrementally as she shook her head. “Something agile enough to kill you no matter where you grab it.”

With that cheerful observation, she sank down into a lotus position to concentrate her magic on whipping up maximum carnage among the people of Last Rock.


As the black-coated figure of the Hand slipped away down the alley, moving silently in the dimness and with none of the tripping that had plagued Fred, a much smaller, chubbier shape reared upright on the roof of the little shed. After watching, whiskers a-twitch, until the Hand had vanished into a nearby cellar, the raccoon scampered to the edge of the roof and then climbed down one corner of the shed, its claws inaudible against the old wood.

Moving with impressive speed despite its waddling gait, the raccoon skittered off the other way up the alley, then rounded a corner and across the backyard of a small house, around to its front porch. There, an old woman in a heavy shawl sat in a rocking chair, creaking steadily while knitting a pair of socks by the light of a single oil lamp. The raccoon scrambled up the porch rail and shuffled rapidly along till it stood right beside her.

Quite unlike the usual prairie-dweller’s response to the sudden presence of a disease-carrying wild animal, she leaned subtly toward it while the raccoon stood on its haunches, craning its neck forward to chitter softly in her ear.

Moments later, she dropped her knitting and rose from the chair with astounding speed and agility. Fortunately no one was in the nearby street to see as the incredibly spry granny vanished entirely from sight in the act of vaulting over the porch rail. There came a rush of air from the beat of invisible wings, and then a figure flickered into view high above, shooting upward toward the distant campus.

The raccoon waddled over to the oil lamp, neatly opened its shutter, and blew it out. In the ensuing darkness, it scampered back into the town, in the direction of the old shed behind the Saloon.

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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13 – 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama!”

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

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

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

“I heard the—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

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

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plastic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Till next time, friend.”

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

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

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

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

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


Setbacks.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, your Holiness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Apparently!”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“A-hem!” Hawthorne barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” the Emperor said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 48

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

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

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

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

“You are a big jerk!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cheers.”

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

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

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