Tag Archives: Walker

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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12 – 46

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“First things first.”

He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.

“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”

Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…

“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”

Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.

After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”

Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.

“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.

“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”

She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…

“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.

“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.

“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.

“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”

“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.

“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”

“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.

“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”

“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”

“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”

“But—”

“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”

Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.

“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.


She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”

Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.

“Computer, display the time.”

Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.

And there was no question of going back to sleep now.

Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.

Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.

“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”

“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.

About anything relevant, damn it!

It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.

“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.

“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”

“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”

“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”

“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”

“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”

“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”

“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.

“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”

The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.

“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”

“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”

“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”

“Apology accepted.”

Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”

She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”

“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”

“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.

Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.

The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.

“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”

Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.

She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.

“Yrsa?”

Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”

And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”

That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.

“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”

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12 – 45

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“And how’s the wide world above?” Walker asked as Milanda stepped off the platform.

“Humming along,” she said wearily. “It took the lads a few hours to find Lord Vex and get him to the safehouse. Which makes perfect sense, considering they’re supposed to be out of sight and he’s the head of an entire Imperial ministry. Still, the communication network they set up seems to be working, and Vex thinks that’s a pretty reasonable turnaround. I’ll take his word for it; I’m not very up on spy stuff, myself.”

“Seems it could be faster if we gave him one of these,” Walker suggested, tapping her earpiece.

Milanda shook her head. “You know exactly why that’s not a good idea. Putting Infinite Order technology in the hands of a man like that is just asking for it to be all over the Empire by the end of the year.”

Walker fell into step beside her, and they walked in silence till they reached the corridor.

“Would that be so terrible?” Walker asked finally. “I mean, on a case by case basis; I’m not proposing to bring the Corps of Enchanters down here to poke around. But weapons aside, there’s a great deal technology can do to improve the lives of people. Convenience, transportation… Agriculture. Medicine.”

“Remind me again how the Order themselves ended up?”

“Dead of their own hubris, which had to do with their ascension rather than the technology which got them there in the first place. And anyway, that’s not really a consideration anymore. Thanks to the Pantheon’s interference, ascension is only even possible at intervals of a few thousand years. I don’t know when the next one is, but I suspect the current gods would prevent anyone from taking advantage.”

“I suspect they’d prevent anyone from doing anything too dramatic with these machines; putting them into wide circulation seems like asking for trouble.” She sighed. “Honestly, Walker, I don’t really think you’re wrong. And I don’t think you’re the only person who’s had this idea; the Avatar has been dropping hints about helping humanity. I suspect he’s got plans beyond the Empire and the Hands. But… I can’t help being leery. It seems like a bad idea to abruptly jump a civilization forward several steps. People don’t always do well handling the powers they have responsibly. Giving them things they haven’t built or earned…”

“Well, you may be more right than you know,” Walker acknowledged. “Humanity managed to turn its original home into a charred ruin without getting jumped forward that way; clearly, responsibility in use isn’t an integral part of a new technology’s development. When the Infinite Order left, the world governments were focused on repairing the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Actually, it was contributing to that effort that earned the Order permission to claim this planet in the first place. Then again… Recorded history to that point was only three or four thousand years, and in that time they escalated from stone tools to spaceships. People here started well ahead of that, and in twice the time haven’t made it as far. Clearly the situations aren’t the same.”

“There weren’t gods on Earth, were there?” Milanda asked dryly.

“Oh, there were gods. Just not real ones.”

“Well, anyway… It’s something to consider, but we have more urgent concerns. Vex was overall pleased with the outcome of the…excursion. Some of the intel I gathered has already proved useful; he may be able to get the Conclave to lean on the Church. Of course, it’s too early to tell what the full repercussions are of my…misadventure.”

“In a way,” Walker mused, “that weapon may help us, there. Those things are known on the surface; they’ve been popping up, off and on, for thousands of years. Any bard’s story about a great warrior being undone by wielding a cursed sword? If it was a tale based on real event, it was probably one of those. An Archpope will either know what it was, or someone will be able to tell him, and that will raise the question of just who owns such a thing and was brazen enough to actually swing it at people. In fact, this may help deflect attention from the Empire. I can’t see anyone working for the Tirasian Dynasty authorizing that.”

Milanda had closed her eyes, and opened them again just in time to stumble into a stack of crates. Walker steadied her, and they threaded their way around, and then through the door to the security hub.

“When I was a girl,” she mused, edging away from that painful subject, “I remember one of my mother’s favorite tragedies was about a Hand of Avei called Ryndra, who took up a cursed sword…”

“Rendre,” Walker corrected, nodding. “Yep. My sisters and I got to see the aftermath of that battle firsthand. She did succeed in cutting through waves of undead to kill Narkroth the Summoner, who deserved just for that name, never mind all the murder. Rendre also cut her own party to shreds, trying to fight in close quarters with them, using that damn fool sword. The wounds that killed her were clearly caused by it, as well. No curse, Milanda, just absurd weapon design. What the bard’s story doesn’t tell is that the Black Wreath arranged for it to fall into her hands. I’ve always suspected Elilial herself dug it out of some Order vault for that purpose. The Sisterhood had the sense to lose it in a cellar somewhere after that.”

Milanda sighed heavily. “Lesson learned. In any case… Vex also had good news. It seems there have been no new outbursts from Hands of the Emperor in the last couple of days, and indications are their general pattern of aggressiveness is leveling off. Walker…is it possible the problem the Church’s agent caused could be self-correcting?”

“Possible,” Walker said immediately, “but I can’t recommend strongly enough that we not count on that. Remember, this system is made at least partially of fae magic. It’s an organic structure, and one thing organic systems have in common is they heal if you damage them. Not all wounds are alike, though. Sometimes leaving them alone is the best thing you can do. With things like cancer, though—or just a broken bone, for that matter—the worst possible thing is to leave it to carry on in its wrong configuration. No, I wouldn’t expect this to go back the way it was. In the best case scenario, it’ll stabilize into something its designers didn’t intend. Do you really want to gamble the Emperor will be better off that way?”

“No, of course not,” Milanda replied, rubbing at her eye with the heel of her hand, as if she could wipe away the fatigue. “Fixing it is still a priority, then… I don’t know how we’re going to find someone who can help. The Empress has this elf shaman who’s been working with her, but…”

“Milanda, I’ve—” Walker broke off abruptly, and Milanda turned to look at her in surprise, finding the fairy wearing a clearly uncomfortable expression. “Ah, never mind. An elder shaman is at least a starting point, as long as it’s someone the Empress trusts.”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, staring at her. Something nagged at the back of her mind about this, some sense that she ought to pursue it…but she couldn’t quite catch the idea to pin it down. She was so tired… After last night, she hadn’t dared try to sleep, and the gifts the Avatar and the dryads had bestowed on her didn’t seem to be helping as much as last time. “Well. Anything to report from down here?”

Walker made an annoyed face. “Nothing significant. No more attempted incursions from without. I have been finding recent access to various things by someone who’s not me. Security cameras, mostly, records, inventory lists… No real pattern. I begin to wonder if showing Hawthorn how to use the computers was a good idea. Actually, I’m glad you brought it up, Milanda. The nature of your anti-Walker security program is that I can’t even query the program to see what’s allowed and what’s not, but I can already tell it isn’t intended to block dryads, since she can use the teleporter and I can’t. There’s nobody more childish than someone who has lived for centuries without any encouragement to grow up. Hawthorn herself could unleash who knows what havoc by blundering around in this facility, never mind if the other two start feeling exploratory. I’d suggest you talk with the Avatar about this. Locking them out might be safest… At the very least, someone should talk with them about what not to poke around it.”

“Great,” Milanda groaned, already picturing how that conversation would go. “Has she been into anything dangerous?”

“Not that I can tell. The only thing that looked like a real attempt to get around security was a rather persistent access of the lifesign readings on those humanoids in suspension down by the hangar. She hasn’t tried to open up any sealed chambers, at least so far.”

“Where is Hawthorn?”

Walker shrugged, glancing around the room. “I guess she went home. I’ve not seen her in a few hours. But…you see my point. I don’t know where she is, and one of the things I’m blocked from doing is setting up security alerts to let me know where people are in the facility.”

“Right, point taken,” Milanda said with a sigh. “All right, I’ll have a word with…her. And with the Avatar. And… I think I need a nap after…”

“First,” Walker said firmly. “Milanda, you are swaying. Go try to sleep.”

Milanda stared blearily at her for a moment. “I’m…a little afraid to.”

“You need to,” Walker said gently. “Humans function poorly without rest. You have plenty of reason to be upset, Milanda, but please don’t torture yourself on top of it.”

“Vex wants me to see a mental healer…” She hadn’t even intended to say that. Gods, if she was tired enough to just blurt such things out…

“That is excellent advice,” Walker agreed. “If you don’t trust anyone he suggests with the secrets you have to keep, which is reasonable…again, talk to the Avatar. He wasn’t programmed for therapy specifically, but he was designed for sapient interaction, and has access to the entire database of psychological science accumulated by the human race. And he’s been shepherding three dryads for decades.”

“That’s a point,” Milanda acknowledged. She hadn’t even thought of that. It would protect the spaceport’s secrecy… But how much could she trust the Avatar? He was definitely working his own angle. She’d already put herself repeatedly at his mercy… But not with the contents of her mind.

“Later, though,” Walker insisted. “Go sleep, Milanda. At least for a few hours.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” she muttered, turning and heading in the direction of the barracks. Luxurious as the Infinite Order’s accommodations could be, she was already feeling lonely for her bed in the Palace, the company of Sharidan and the other concubines. They were the closest friends she’d ever had; cultivating deep relationships within the harem was the only way they prevented anybody from exploding in jealousy. This was the longest she’d been alone in…

“I’ll be right out here if you need anything,” Walker promised, and Milanda paused, turning to smile at her.

“Thanks.”

No, not alone. Not quite.


At least she didn’t dream.

Milanda had more than expected to. If anything, she would have been surprised not to hear the screams and the humming of that damnable weapon, smell the ozone and seared flesh… But there was nothing. It was probably fatigue. She had no clear memory even of getting to her chosen bunk; Hawaiian Night was still playing, and the soothing sounds and breeze fell on her like a hammer. It had been all she could do to reach the bed before losing consciousness.

That lasted until the unspeakable noise roared through the room.

Milanda catapulted herself out of the bunk, landing in a combat stance with the preternatural grace of her new reflexes even before being fully awake. It took about two seconds for consciousness to reassert itself, and the situation to become clear.

One of the screens, across from her bunk at an angle, was displaying a flashing sequence of abstract images. And the noise…was music. Nothing she was familiar with, but that had clearly been a brass fanfare which had awakened her.

While she stared at the screen in disbelief, a male voice began speaking in a low monotone over the tune.

“I think it’s time to blow this scene, get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two—”

“Computer, pause playback!” she exclaimed. Instantly the sounds stopped, and the screen stilled.

“Heeeeey. I was watching that!”

Milanda whirled to find Hawthorn sitting on the bottom bunk, the next row over from hers, looking put out.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” she roared.

The dryad had been scowling and in the process of opening her mouth to deliver one of her characteristic acid comments; at Milanda’s bellow, she froze, eyes widening in alarm, and actually scooted backward against the wall.

“I—I was… It’s really good, Walker suggested it. I’ve only seen three episodes—”

“Hawthorn,” Milanda snapped in a somewhat milder tone, “what are you doing in here?”

“…am I not allowed in here or something? Cos you can’t tell me where—”

Milanda took one step toward her.

“I was sleeping!” the dryad squawked, skittering toward the other side of the bunk. “You get to, so why can’t I?”

“You were—Hawthorn, you have a bed. You have a home you can go back to, with your sisters. You’ve got your own personal world. Why are you not sleeping there?”

“Oh, those two,” she said crossly, folding her arms. “I went back and I was so excited to tell them about everything I’ve seen and they were all ‘where were you’ and ‘we had to do everything’ and just nothing but complaints and criticisms and I was not in the mood. So I came up here to sleep. There was a bunch of junk on all the beds, but you’d cleared one off so I did too. Walker said it would be fine as long as I didn’t bother you or wake you up and ohhhh. Oh. That was kinda loud, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, Milanda, that’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking.”

Milanda rubbed her eyes and turned blearily to examine the room. The tropical night scene was still playing in the wall screens (except the one), but the lights were on now. Also, while she had neatly stacked the room’s stored contents on the beds, the crates which had been on the bunk Hawthorn now occupied had been unceremoniously swept off and piled in the aisle, where they made a neat roadblock preventing access to the kitchen and bathroom.

The dryad at least had the grace to look properly abashed. Under Milanda’s silent stare, she hunched her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to. Um. I can watch it later. Let’s just go back to sleep.”

Milanda dragged a hand over her face. How long had she been out? Not enough to be much less exhausted, now that the adrenaline spike of her rude awakening was starting to abate.

“I think we need to have a talk about you messing around with the computers,” she said.

“I was just watching my show,” Hawthorn said defensively. “Walker said that was fine. It’s part of our cultural heritage! You should watch some more films. There’s great stuff in there! But, just…not while you’re sleeping. I am sorry, that was inconsiderate.”

“Inconsiderate, thoughtless, and dumb,” Milanda snapped. “And if that’s how you’re going to act, you cannot go messing around with the systems or going into sealed off rooms, Hawthorn. Not even opening up boxes. The Infinite Order were evil and completely crazy. There is dangerous stuff hidden in this place!”

“I didn’t do any of that,” the dryad protested, frowning now. “Look, I’m sorry for the noise, okay? But just cos I messed up doesn’t mean you get to accuse me of whatever passes through your head.”

She rubbed her eyes again. This, even more than most conversations with the dryads, was one she should probably have when she was more alert.

“Hawthorn, look,” she said, deliberately calming her tone. “Talk with Walker about that, would you? I am really too tired for this. But you could get hurt in here. Yes, even you. And if that happens, your mother will have a fit. Gods, that’s Tiraas right above us—the absolute last thing anybody needs is a dryad in distress anywhere on the property.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Talk to her,” Milanda insisted. “Will you please? Promise me.”

“Sounds boring,” Hawthorn said sullenly. She sighed heavily under Milanda’s stare. “…oh, all right, fine, I’ll talk to her. But maybe…after we get some sleep.”

“With regard to that,” Milanda continued, allowing her voice to sharpen again, “go home, Hawthorn.”

“But they’re being mean to me,” she whined.

“Deal with it,” Milanda said without sympathy. “If the interactions I saw down there were typical, you’re plenty mean to them. Also, they have some reason. They had to help me with these gifts, and apparently it would have been a lot easier with you there. Look, they’re your sisters, right? They love you, and you love them. Don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Hawthorn muttered.

“Then go talk to them, and work it out. If you care about someone, you have to address these things, not just run away. All right?”

The dryad sighed dramatically, but scooted forward and swung her feet off the bed. “Fine, fine, I’m going. You lecture even worse than the Avatar.”

Milanda folded her arms. “Mm hm. But am I wrong?”

Hawthorn paused in the act of standing up to give her a look, then actually cracked a smile. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I bet you’ll be a really good mother, Milanda. You should have kids.”

Most of the time, she could have brushed that off—and had, more than once. Right now, though, she was sleep deprived, her emotions already stretched nearly to a breaking point, and the offhand comment fixed her in place as if she’d been nailed down.

“See you later, Milanda,” Hawthorn said at the barracks door, yawning and waving absently.

Milanda stood frozen in place even after it had hissed shut behind her.

“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to,” she finally whispered at the empty air. Only the sound of jungle birds answered her.

Finally, she made herself move, settling back onto the edge of her bed. The room was still obnoxiously bright. And whatever Hawthorn had been watching was still on that one screen.

“Computer,” she said with more venom than it deserved, “turn that damn thing off.”

Immediately, the whole room plunged into blackness and silence.

Milanda rubbed at her face again. “No, not… Ugh, just the—put Hawaiian Night back on. Only that part!”

The walls obligingly lit up again, showing the tropical scene, and restoring the warm breeze and scent of flowers through the room. Amazing how relaxing that could be; someday, she would have to see if modern enchanting could replicate illusions like that. Sharidan probably wouldn’t like it very much, though. He was such a realist, always determined to stay grounded, even if he did love adding a little touch of whimsy to so many aspects of his personal life. Carefully grounded whimsy.

He would be a good father. She’d always thought so.

This time, it took her much longer to fall asleep again.


When she did finally dream, she knew that it was a dream, which was unusual for her. Still, she wasn’t about to complain. There was no reliving of the horrors she’d seen—and done—under Dawnchapel, just a tranquil forest scene.

Milanda turned slowly, gazing around her. She had never been to an elven grove, but this was more or less what she’d imagined one would be like. The floor was carpeted in lush moss, peppered with tiny flowers and the odd bush. Towering trees rose at wide intervals, their canopies spreading widely to permit only the occasional sunbeam, but the trunks bare and smooth, reddish in the green-tinted dimness. The air was redolent of loam and moss, and not far distant was the soft murmur of a stream.

Perhaps her poor mind had made something to give her a break from the stress of the last days. Perhaps that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Perhaps Vex and Walker were right; she ought to talk to someone about all this…

Experimentally, she tried to will herself upward. She could often fly in dreams, though usually she didn’t realize that they were dreams, or that there was anything unusual about it. This time, though, nothing. The whole scene had an ethereal quality that was dreamlike, the sense that physical boundaries were not what they should be, but she remained firmly on the ground. Well, even still, it was a beautiful respite.

“Ah, welcome. We meet again.”

Milanda whirled and froze. The man before her was one she’d seen only once, and dream or no, did not want to be alone with. He wore a small smile—an apparently genuine one, which turned up not only his lips, but the corners of his eyes.

His solid emerald eyes.

She turned and bolted.

Milanda tore through the trees as lightly as a gazelle. It wasn’t flight, but she was definitely moving faster than normal. Perhaps—

He hadn’t been there a moment before, but suddenly she skidded to a stop, digging a rent in the moss with her feet, as the enormous, sinuous shape of the green dragon appeared directly in front of her. He swiveled his long neck to peer down at her.

“A moment of your time, if you please.”

The voice was exactly the same in this form as in the other. Not that that mattered to her; Milanda took off in a different direction.

Sometimes, in dreams, she could will herself awake. She tried it now. If it was as hopeless as her attempt to fly…

But for whatever reason, it was not. The world seemed to fray around her as she directed her will at it, and she felt an odd lifting sensation, despite not rising upward from the forest floor. It was as if everything around her, though unchanging, were growing thinner, insubstantial enough that she might burst right through…

Suddenly the world seemed to collapse, and she wasn’t awake, but somewhere…different.

Milanda tried to propel herself through a medium that was not empty space, and yet was—space as thick as syrup. She was entangled in strands of gossamer silk, one node in a vast spider web which stretched in all directions. She knew, despite not being able to see them, that every threat which branched out from her led to another person, each of them their own nexus in the vast pattern, all of them being pulled, suspended, shaped.

And she had the oddest sensation that the tension in the webs connecting to her was not trying to drag her down, but to pull her up.

Then something did drag her down, however. In the blur of the transition, she thought she saw a few strands of silk snap, and then she was back in the forest, her feet firmly on the moss.

Again, the dragon was in front of her.

“Enough,” he stated, leaning forward so that his wedge-shaped head hung only a yard from her own. The sheer force of his personality hung in the air like the sunlight itself, pinning her in place. “This power you carry… You did not gather it yourself. Granted, perhaps…or stolen.”

Horrifyingly, the dragon smiled, baring the most nightmarish collection of teeth she had ever imagined.

“Good. That makes this next part much easier.”

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12 – 42

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She bolted left. It was no dilemma, really; soldiers she could deal with, at need, but not a dragon. Milanda was far from sanguine about the way the dryads’ “gift” completely took control from her, but whatever intelligence governed the change clearly believed she was not prepared to take on a dragon, and she was inclined to agree.

The doorway was a momentary setback, with both her hands full as they were, but luckily the double doors didn’t latch. She hooked the wand through one of the handles, tugged it open, and slipped through.

Inward-opening doors, she noted. The mess hall wasn’t intended to be a defensible fallback in case of attack, which might be worth remembering if she had to flee back in this direction. On the other hand, this had been an Omnist temple, and who knew how much the Archpope had redecorated…

But that was all the time she could allot to introspection, because her escape had brought her right into an oncoming group of soldiers.

Four of them, all with staves. They had already been on the way to investigate the noise she’d made, which was to her benefit as their weapons had the longer range—they were close enough to the doors that her situation wasn’t automatically hopeless. Less to her benefit was that these were clearly well-trained fighters, in contrast to the armored Holy Legion who patrolled the Grand Cathedral, which Intelligence had reported were easily flustered and unprepared for real combat. These troops hesitated barely a fraction of a second at the sight of a masked, cloaked figure bursting out of their mess hall before bringing up their weapons.

Once again, Milanda sprang, unwilled, into action, dragged along for the ride by her own body.

Augmented as she was, her hand was faster than theirs. Two quick bursts from her wand took down the soldiers in the lead, the pair who had a clear line of fire at her. Uncannily precise shots, in fact, the beams piercing one through the upper arm and the other through the shoulder, in both cases swiftly eliminating their ability to aim. The second man squeezed his trigger even as he staggered, a lightning bolt scoring the wall and floor as his staff swung wildly from his suddenly limp grasp.

For a moment, she dared to hope these new enhanced reflexes knew the meaning of restraint. They had been designed for bodyguards, after all…

But then she was moving again. Milanda dashed toward them, leaped into the air and kicked off the wall, vaulting over the troops at a wild angle. The second pair stumbled back from her even as they tried to bring their own weapons to bear; one actually fired, though in his haste the shot went nowhere near her.

Unbidden, her thumb flicked the switch on the Infinite Order sword, and she slashed it in a single neat movement before deactivating it again, prompting a yelp of surprise—and pain?—from one of the soldiers.

Milanda landed behind them and continued up the hall at a dead run, leaving confusion in her wake. Her body was still aimed forward; she was helpless even to turn her head to inspect the results of her work. Maybe…hopefully that slash had just been to wound.

She whipped around the corner, barely in time. Behind her, an explosion powerful enough to make the stone walls shiver ripped through the hallway, sending a gout of smoke and a shockwave across the intersection.

There hadn’t even been a scream. There hadn’t been time.

“What was that?” Walker demanded.

“I don’t—something blew up!” Apparently she was out of immediate danger, because Milanda’s augmentation shut itself off so suddenly she staggered. She quickly caught herself and kept running. This hall was straight; she was now moving away from the central complex where the “high-value assets” lived. Life signs left and rear of her. There were more above, but they were likely to be civilian Church personnel. If Walker didn’t come up with directions to that mage, perhaps she should try for a more mundane exit.

“Things don’t just blow up,” Walker snapped. “Milanda, if someone down there has explosive ordnance, it’s immediately relevant to your safety. What happened?”

“I don’t know! This—this enhancement just takes over. My body moves and I can’t control it, I don’t even know what it’s thinking!” At least it worked, she added silently. At least twice already tonight she’d have been swiftly killed had she been working only with her own reflexes.

“Think.” Walker’s tone was more even, now, and Milanda found to her own surprise that it helped ground her. “Did a trap spring? Did a soldier throw something? What was the sequence of events?”

She passed another side hall and skidded to peer down it. Damned reflexes clearly didn’t help her find a path… After a second’s deliberation, Milanda continued on the way she had been going. It was taking her father from the center, which meant it was leading toward the edge. That would be a logical place to find stairs.

“Four soldiers intercepted me,” she recited as she ran, not even slightly out of breath. “I shot two before they could fire, jumped over the group. Turned on the sword and swung it once, didn’t see what it hit. Two of them fired back, missed me. I hit the ground and kept running, and when I got around the corner, something behind me blew up.”

“Uh, excuse me,” said Finchley’s voice, “but am I correctly guessing from context that this sword you’re talking about is a magic item? Something that can cut through walls?”

“Yes,” Walker said curtly, “and unless you have something constructive to offer—”

“Actually I think I do, ma’am. If you cut off part of the staff’s firing length, that would mess up its runic engravings. Attempting to fire it after that would cause unpredictable results. One possibility is the whole power source could blow.”

Milanda swallowed heavily. “Hell… I was sort of hoping these gifts would try to minimize harm. They clearly shot the first two to disable their shooting arms, not kill.”

“A lightning wand may completely destroy its target,” Moriarty recited in a clipped tone, “but a more precise one such as you’re using inflicts pinpoint wounds. A soldier pierced through a vital organ could still fire straight, possibly several times, before falling. Hitting the arms is more tactically sound.”

“Oh,” she muttered.

“All right, good,” Walker said calmly. “They’re not using bombs. I have a fix on your mage, Milanda. You’re running away from him. He’s back toward the center of the complex.”

“Of course he is,” Milanda spat. “Can you still see the layout of this place?”

“Not in real time, but I very much doubt they can change the architecture on the fly. I have a map.”

“Good.” She slid to a stop in a T-intersection, glancing left and right. “I’m in what I think is an outer hall. Can you just direct me to an exit? I can probably get through whatever token guard’s above more easily than a mage.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Walker answered. “Milanda, there’s only one stairwell out of the underground complex. It leads to the sub-level of the ziggurat, which leads back to the main temple floor. The exit is very nearly on the opposite side of the whole place from your position. You are considerably closer to the mage. He or she is in a much more central location.”

Milanda glared at the wall for a moment, then peevishly flicked on the sword and gouged a smoldering rent in it.

“Please don’t do that. The ship has probably sailed, but the less evidence of that thing you leave behind, the better.”

“How can you hear it?” she growled, tucking the again-inert weapon into her belt and turning to pelt back the way she had come. “You can’t hear people talking, but that—”

“Produces a distinctive and deliberately augmented electromagnetic buzz which is rather distracting when I am trying to listen to your voice. The quickest path to your mage is to take a left at the next intersection.”

She stopped in the intersection in question. “No good. Dragon’s in that general direction. Get me an indirect path.”

Another brief pause. “Very well. Continue straight, then go right.”

Milanda did so, noting glumly that she was moving right toward a sizable clump of troops. Several of them were heading in her direction as well. It was hard to tell, viewed from this angle, with these senses, but it seemed they were executing a pretty orderly search pattern.

And the dragon had changed direction. He was moving in no great hurry, but clearly moving, and despite the zig-zagging of his course mandated by the halls, he was clearly heading right for her. How did he… But of course, if she could sense him, the reverse was almost certainly true. She was blindly fumbling to grasp the very school of magic he had spent countless years mastering. Why did it have to be a green dragon?

“If I’m correctly guessing based on context,” said Moriarty’s voice, “are you using some kind of combat-enhancing alchemy with which you aren’t familiar? Because that’s incredibly dang—”

He broke off with a grunt, followed by a brief, muted scuffle.

“Sorry about that,” Rook said cheerfully. “You’ll be glad to know I have confiscated the pedant’s talky-thing. He can have it back when he learns some basic goddamn social skills.”

Milanda paid no attention to them, nor to Walker’s scathing rebuke. Gods, she’d just killed four men…

She ruthlessly squashed the queasiness that tried to well up at the thought. Estranged or not, she was a daughter of Viridill, practically raised in a temple of Avei. This was war; it was kill or die. She’d known what she was risking by coming here.

“Left here. Left! Milanda, you missed the turn!”

“Major concentration of troops to the left,” she said curtly. “Lucky I got past without—”

“Halt!”

“Damn it,” she spat, at both the interception and the increasingly familiar loss of bodily control which followed it.

Without breaking stride, she spun in a complete circle, squeezing off two wandshots back the way she had come, then continued forward. There was a long groan from behind her, but she kept running, not bothering to glance back.

“Next left feels more clear,” she said. “Will that do?”

“It’s a start, but you’re letting them herd you away from your objective. Milanda, they probably think you’re making for the stairs, and these troops don’t seem to be amateurs. You won’t be able to avoid fighting.”

She wasn’t afraid to fight. She wasn’t even afraid to die, though she worried about leaving her business unfinished, the Hands still corrupted and Sharidan vulnerable. But she was rapidly becoming sick of this new gift of hers. Being forced to passively watch herself go on murderous sprees was a kind of horror she’d been totally unprepared to deal with.

“I suggest you aim for a smaller patrol, if you can sense them that acutely,” Walker advised. “Between your equipment and your enhancements, you can probably—wait. There’s a disruption in the wards in that hall, Milanda. Heading for you!”

Once again, she didn’t sense it immediately, needing Walker’s prompt to heighten her alertness and reach out with her mind. When she did, though, she felt the approach—too late. A weight landed on her back scarcely an instant after she felt the distortion closing in on her; an arm wrapped around her throat.

Milanda reflexively spun and bucked, but even as precisely as she moved, the creature now on her had advantages she did not. A spade-tipped tail coiled around her leg, yanking her off balance, and the beat of powerful wings filled the hallway. There wasn’t room to fly, and her weight would probably have prevented it anyway, but the succubus had enough lift to neatly deprive her of footing, which eliminated the lion’s share of what she could do about someone clutching her from behind.

She tried to throw the creature off, tried to reach behind and grasp her, but the demon was apparently as agile as she, even enhanced as she was. She squirmed and evaded every attempted grab. Not nearly as strong—Milanda was already prying her arm away one-handed—but strength wasn’t everything.

“I really don’t like it when people shoot me,” Kheshiri hissed next to her head, and plunged Milanda’s own throwing knife into her midsection.

She grunted with the blow; the tunic’s ironweave enchantment held, at least to the extent of preventing the blade from penetrating, but it was still a sharp point driven into her stomach. Had her abdominal muscles not been already clenched right then with the effort to dislodge her attacker, that hit might have driven the breath from her. It still hurt, and worse, no enchantment could make cloth as good as armor. Repeated blows to the same area would penetrate, possibly as soon as the second one.

“Then you’re really going to hate this,” Milanda snapped, grabbing the sword from her belt.

Even using herself as a yardstick, the succubus’s reflexes were freakishly fast. No sooner had she ignited the glowing blade than the weight vanished, one pump of those spiny wings sending the demon shooting away from her up the hall. Milanda spun and fired three times with her wand; Kheshiri was invisible again, but she could sense her location well enough to aim generally. She wasn’t nearly as close as she’d been in the central chamber, though, and “generally” apparently wasn’t good enough at this range. Focusing as she was, she could sense the fiend’s invisible retreat for a few more yards until distance blunted her senses. Enough to know she’d gotten away cleanly.

Damn it all. Couldn’t one thing go right?

“What happened?” Walker demanded. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she grunted, putting the sword away again. “Succubus jumped me. I swear I shot her through the chest earlier. How fast can they heal?”

“Not that fast,” Walker muttered. “Could there be more than one down there?”

“Ugh…at this point, nothing would surprise me. Here, left, right? I mean, correct?”

“Yes. And remember, the mask you’re wearing is enchanted to make you inaudible except to nearby co-agents wearing its siblings. Trash-talking your opponents will be a complete waste of time. I mean, more than it already is. They can’t hear you.”

“Right,” she mumbled grimly, racing up another hallway.

She was now heading for the soldiers. Not right for the biggest concentration, but a group that felt like at least a dozen was moving to link up with the smaller group directly in her path. She kept going; Walker was right. The longer she let them maneuver her around, the closer she came to disaster, and there were much worse things than troops down here. If she was here much longer, either the dragon would catch up—he had adjusted course again and was moving for her once more—or that succubus would get in a lucky shot. Milanda didn’t believe for a moment that the demon had been scared away for good.

The hall ended in a door, which she slammed into without bothering to turn the latch. The impact barely stung her shoulder; thanks to the dryads’ gifts, the door itself was no impediment at all, bursting right off its hinges.

Thanks to those gifts, breaking the door down was the last conscious control she had.

The space beyond was clearly an armory; racks of wands, staves, and swords lined the walls, as well as cases filled with neatly stacked charms. Five soldiers were present, all holding staves, three of which were in the process of being assembled after having their power crystals checked. That meant three of the hostiles were obviously no threat.

Milanda’s reflexes obviously did not give a damn.

She fired the wand as she rushed them, taking down both armed soldiers—lethal shots, throat and heart—before she closed with them, by which point she had ignited the blade again.

Cutting those men down was like swinging it through the air, for all the impediment they were to the sword. It didn’t matter even whether it moved through the soft points of anatomy or bones that would have stalled a metal blade.

One swipe cleaved a man diagonally across the chest, separating his arms even as it bisected his torso; he fell without a scream, having no lungs with which to draw breath. The last edge of that slash neatly removed the next soldier’s left arm, and he did scream, which Milanda could not ignore the way her body did. The last man had just enough time to register what was coming and try to back away before she slashed the sword through him vertically. Not quite in half; he fell apart as he fell, but his torso was still connected near the hip.

It would be a very long time before she stopped hearing the sounds he made in her head.

The sword hadn’t so much as tugged in her hand. Flesh, stone, air, it was all nothing.

Wide double doors stood at the other end of the room. Milanda was still moving under the power of her augmentation rather than her own will, still sensing the larger cluster of troops heading her way. She neatly flicked the tip of the blade through the latch and burst through the doors.

This was a wider hallway, a main thoroughfare. In fact, she had circled a full quarter of the way around the complex, and found herself in one of the central access halls that led directly to the big central chamber. By going straight, she could lose herself in the corridors again, but coming at her from the left were the soldiers.

Please…

“No no no!” she said fruitlessly as she neatly turned on a toe and lunged right into their formation.

Three staves were discharged, one in a clearly panicked misfire that scorched the ceiling. One shot was more professional, but still missed her, the weapon’s owner having a bad angle. The third hit directly, and would have been a killing blow—she highly doubted the defensive charms on her clothing could stand up to a weapon of that caliber at this range—had she not brought the blade up to intercept it.

Milanda had barely a moment to boggle at the absurdity of deflecting a lightning bolt with a sword. This hit hard enough to be a real concern, but her new reflexes adapted. She pivoted with the blow, preventing the weapon from being ripped out of her hand by spinning in three full circles as she continued to come, dispersing the kinetic energy and also ensuring that she hit their formation in a blinding whirl of unstoppable destruction.

She was fast, methodical, and thorough. Men screamed and died, mostly in far too many pieces. The width of the hall and the panic induced by her attack meant some managed to get out of her way to the sides; those she shot with the wand in passing. It took only seconds to cleave through the entire group of a dozen, but that was enough time for the last man in the formation to turn and flee. He had made it a few yards back up the hall, shouting for help, before Milanda deftly kicked someone’s arm after him at just the right angle to trip and fell him, and then experienced the very peculiar sensation of her enhanced reflexes bodily preventing her from vomiting into her own mask.

He stumbled to the ground, presenting a perfect target. She shot him in the back.

And only then regained control.

Milanda stumbled to a halt, numb. Not everyone behind her was dead; not everyone had lost the ability to scream. Someone was, and others were moaning. She couldn’t force herself to turn and look. There had been no blood. The horrible thing seared as it struck, cauterizing instantly. No one bled, they just…came apart. As easily as tissue paper.

A smell appallingly like fried pork hung in the air.

In her hand, the sword was still activated, glowing fiercely and filling the space with its powerful hum. The sound, now, struck her as hungry. As if it would never have its fill of carnage.

Her vision blurred as she glared at it in pure hate.

Belatedly, Milanda realized the sound in her ear was Walker frantically asking if she was all right. Even more belatedly, she realized she was weeping.

“I’m here,” she croaked, rubbing an arm—her wand arm—across her eyes. “I’m fi—I’m still alive. Gods, Walker, they just… I. I just… It’s like they weren’t even there, it’s…”

“Milanda.” Reassured that she wasn’t wounded, Walker’s tone reverted back to a deliberate calm. “Milanda, you need to keep moving. You are not out of danger.”

Milanda drew a shaky breath, nodded at no one, and finally pressed the switch. The sword hissed angrily at its dismissal, but the silence which followed was like a physical weight being lifted from her. She set off running again, fleeing the sounds of her victims.

“Good, you’re closer now. Keep going, you’re looking for a smaller hall on your right, two crossings up.”

She kept silent, simply following directions. Behind her, life signs gradually flickered out in a cluster in the central hall. Farther still, the dragon kept coming.

He reached the aftermath of her slaughter, and stopped.

It was only another minute before Walker announced that the door in front of her was the one. Milanda made one brief, abortive movement with the sword, then lowered it again and shot the latch. Had it even been locked? The roaring in her head was interfering with her ability to think…

This was clearly a ward control center. Arcane equipment stood all along the walls and in stands in the center of the rectangular room; the walls themselves were laid out with maps, as well as vertical spell circles. Static hung heavily in the air, as did the soft hum of magic in use; the whole space was lit by a gentle blue glow, needing no fairy lamps.

That hum, that glow, reminded her far too keenly of the detestable thing in her hand.

In front of her stood a middle-aged woman in a white uniform, her hair graying and face faintly lined, staring at Milanda in shock. After a moment’s hesitation, a blue shield flashed into place around her.

“No closer!” she barked, holding out a hand.

Milanda gritted her teeth, pressed the switch. The mage’s eyes flashed to the ignited blade, widening in disbelief.

“Y-you are under arrest!” the wizard stammered unconvincingly. Why didn’t she just attack?

Of course. She was actively maintaining a ward over the whole complex, and now a personal shield as well. It would take an archmage to add combat magic to that without suffering an aneurysm.

“Drop the wards,” Milanda ordered, pointing the blade at her. “Now.”

“Milanda,” Walker said.

“Do it!” she shouted, taking a step forward. The mage retreated, her shield bumping against a construct of brass pipes and glass filaments, causing a shower of sparks. “Remove the wards! Gods, please, no more. Don’t make me do this!”

“Milanda,” Walker said gently. “He can’t hear you. And you mustn’t remove the mask. If he sees your face…”

“She,” Milanda whispered.

Walker hesitated only a moment. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t—”

She let out a scream of wild, helpless fury, and slashed the hateful blade through the nearest object. It shrieked like a boiling lobster, propelling fragments of glass in all direction and only miraculously not costing her an eye. She spun, flailing wildly with the sword, cutting her way through anything she could see that glowed. Sparks and arcs of free electricity flashed—

And then she was gone. Everything was gone. Milanda careened to a stop, her eyes darting around.

She was standing in the teleport array, in the Infinite Order spaceport.

“Whatever you just did, the mage dropped the wards,” Walker said in her ear. “Hold on, I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”

Milanda nodded, despite the futility of the gesture. She had fallen still, and stared down at the glowing, humming blade hanging numbly from her hand.

She was still staring at it however many minutes later Walker arrived.

The fairy approached her carefully, placing one hand on her shoulder. When Milanda didn’t respond, she very gently reached out to take the sword from her, and pressed the switch.

Silence thundered around them.

“Could…” Milanda cleared her throat, tugged the mask down. “Could you. Um. Do something with that. Please? I…don’t want to see it again. Ever.”

Walker gazed at her quietly for a moment, then tossed the silver hilt over her shoulder. It landed with a clatter and skidded into a corner, which they both ignored.

“I’ll get it later,” Walker said quietly, then drew her into an embrace.

Milanda let herself be pulled, and after a moment, relaxed into the hug, her arms hanging limply at her sides.

“I killed them all.”

Walker stroked her hair.

“It was…so easy. Too easy. It should never, ever be that easy.”

“You need to rest,” Walker stated. “Come on. Let’s go back to the barracks.”

“I can’t sleep. Not…not for…”

“Come on.” Gently, but inexorably, the fairy pulled her toward the steps down to the lower level.

“How…” Milanda swallowed painfully. “How did…you deal with it? All the killing you’ve had to do?”

“It has taken a long time,” Walker replied. “I was alone, though. You aren’t.”

“You were right. I should never have taken that thing.”

“It probably saved your life. Yes, Milanda, I know. We’ll leave it behind, and be more careful from now on. But for now… Come on. Eat, bathe, and we’ll talk.”

Unresisting, she allowed herself to be led from the room.


The teleport array was silent behind them for a moment. Before the motion-activated lights had had a chance to shut off, though, a shape stepped out of the air on one of the inactive transport pads.

Kimono swishing softly, triangular ears laid back in disapproval, she glided across the pad and down the steps, then toward a corner of the room, where she bent and picked up the inert saber, her bushy tail twitching irritably.

“Silly children.”

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12 – 40

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“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”

“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”

“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”

He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.

No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.

“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”

He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.

“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”

At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”

“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”

Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.

“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”

He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.

“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”

Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.

“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”

“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”

Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…


Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.

“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.

“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”

“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”

“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”

“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.

“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”

“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.

“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.

She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.

Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.

She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.

Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.

A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.

Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.

The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?

She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.

It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.

The succubus.

Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.

Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.

Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.

Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.

Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.

“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.

Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.

Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.

So much for stealth.

She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.

Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.

Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.

“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”

The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.

Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.

An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?

Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.

“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”

With that, he vanished from view.

Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.

The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.

He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.

“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”

“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”

To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”

At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.

Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.

So. Not a dryad, then.

“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”

“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”

“Agreed! Walker!”

Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”

“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”

“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”

“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.

She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”

“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”

“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”

Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.

The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”

“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”

She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.

A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.

It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.

“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”

She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.

“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”

Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”

“The weapon!”

She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”

The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.

“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”

Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.

She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.

Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.

She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.

But no such luck.

“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.

Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…

The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.

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12 – 37

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She moved ever more slowly down the very short hall between the teleporter and the security hub, taking stock of her senses. Milanda didn’t yet have a vocabulary to describe these experiences, but being up here in the sterile environment of the Infinite Order made a very great difference from the little planetoid of the dryads, which teemed with life. Here, she could easily pick out the only living things up ahead, and even what they were from the perceptions they gave her.

Hawthorn, of course, was a blazing presence of a by now familiar nature; it had taken some time for Milanda to sort out her sense of the other life forms on the tiny world due to the proximity of the dryads, which was like counting candle flames in broad daylight. It could be done, but the sun did not help. Walker… That could only be Walker. She was, somehow, an inversion, a gap in her awareness of living things. A space of absence, which somehow radiated as powerfully as the dryads. It was an impossible thing to describe; it was barely possible to perceive. If dryads experienced the world this way, she could well believe they found valkyries disturbing.

The other being present puzzled her for a moment before she remembered the katzil. It was the dimmest flicker, which was appropriate as it had been kept in hibernation for thousands of years. Still alive, though.

The door hissed open at her approach, and she stopped just inside, taking stock.

Part of the scene was familiar; Walker working away at her computer terminal. She had moved to a different one, though, to sit next to Hawthorn, who had claimed a chair nearby and spun it around to fold her arms on the back, gazing avidly at the large screen along the wall. Milanda hadn’t even realized that was a screen, taking it for a piece of the wall paneling, but now it danced with images, and the sounds of shouting and crashing—and, incongruously, music—echoed through the hub.

“There you are,” Walker said with open relief that made her heart warm slightly. “Hawthorn said it was normal for this to take this long, but I was about to go looking for you, regardless.”

“You can’t go through the teleporter,” Milanda pointed out, giving her a smile in return as she approached. Hawthorn waved at her before returning her attention to whatever she was watching. “How long was I down there? There’s a lack of clocks…”

“You can have the Nexus display one, if you want,” Hawthorn said without looking up again. “Or ask the Avatar.”

“…all right, fine, you caught me. I was a little distracted by what happened down there and didn’t think of it.”

“It’s been over seven hours,” Walker said seriously. “The computer finished making its map of the city long ago. You can port out whenever you’re ready.”

Milanda winced. “Oof. Gods know what’s been happening up there… Well, I’m glad you two are getting along, at least.”

“Yes, well, I have some precedent to draw upon,” Walker said, smiling fondly at Hawthorn, who continued to gaze avidly at her show. The noise of it was more than a little distracting. “When I met my disconcertingly alien older sisters, one took the time to sit down with me and watch her favorite movies.”

“This was in Sifan?” Milanda frowned. “They have Infinite Order facilities there, too? And they’re open?”

“No and no,” Walker said with a grin, “but kitsune have never had trouble getting into such places at will. That’s a large part of why the Order found them so threatening.”

“I see. Well, I guess this counts as watching it with her,” Milanda said, smiling. “It might be more of a bonding exercise if you stopped messing around on the computer, yourself.”

“Oh, we already did that,” Hawthorn said distractedly.

“Yes, as I said, it’s been hours. We watched the entire trilogy together—the original one. Then she understandably wanted to see more, and I decided she deserved a more thorough grounding in the classics before we branched out into the expanded material. This is Episode Four again.”

Milanda sighed. “Walker, is there a particular reason I need to understand what you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Walker said solemnly, but with a mischievous smile, “this is a very important part of humanity’s cultural heritage. But no, it’s not imminently relevant to what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t seen it?” Hawthorn exclaimed, still watching the screen herself, and pointed at it. “You gotta! See that guy in the black, he’s actually that other guy’s—”

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

“And actually,” Walker said pointedly, “that’s rather distracting, while we’re trying to have a conversation.”

“Oh, of course.” Hawthorn disentangled herself from the chair, then struck a dramatic pose. “Computer!” she cried, lifting her chin, then extended an arm at the screen, palm outward, as if casting a spell. “Pause playback!”

Immediately, the sounds stopped, and the image went still. It had frozen on a shabbily-dressed, shaggy-haired man brandishing what she assumed was some kind of wand, since it was in the process of spitting a beam of red light. A historical drama, maybe? The dryad turned to Milanda and folded her arms, looking tremendously satisfied with herself. “So! Whatcha got?”

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

Hawthorn nodded eagerly. “They all end up a little different, but there are some baselines that seem pretty common. Plus, you got a whole different set-up in the first place, so I’m really curious how it turns out!”

Milanda refrained from commenting that she could have been down there helping with the process. The other two had mentioned it often enough she had a feeling Hawthorn was due for an earful as it was. No sense in making herself the object of the dryad’s resentment.

“Senses,” she said, unconsciously shifting her head to where the katzil floated in its tank. “I can feel…life, now. Any living thing. That was really confusing to puzzle out, in a grassy forest, with two dryads right there.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Hawthorn said eagerly. “Those always have a lot of strategic value, Sharidan says! You got the emotions yet?”

“Emotions?” Milanda asked warily. Gods, if this thing was going to start making her as volatile as the dryads…

“Yeah!” Hawthorn blathered on, nodding enthusiastically. “The ones who get the life sense always have an emotional sense develop a little later. It’s a kind of empathy, only works on animals with complex enough brains. Big ones, mostly. Obviously people. But yeah, it’s probably too early. That may start to come in over the next few days, so don’t get taken by surprise.”

“The others didn’t mention anything about that!”

“Oh, those two.” Hawthorn waved a hand dismissively. “I love ’em dearly, but they’re not the ripest berries on the bush.”

“With all due respect, it took you seven hours to acquire that?” Walker asked skeptically.

“I spent the first part unconscious,” Milanda said a little defensively. “And after that… Well, it was overwhelming. Do you have any idea what it’s like to suddenly have your whole perception of the world radically changed?”

“Yes,” Walker said in a softer tone. “Twice. And I of all people should be more understanding. My apologies.”

“No harm done,” Milanda assured her with a smile. “Anyway, that wasn’t all of it. I gained a more reflexive sense of myself, that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.” She lifted her hand and flexed her fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the palm. “That’s what took the most time to work out how to control. My body sort of…moves on its own, when threatened. The girls and I scuffled around quite a bit, working out the parameters of it. They said they’ve seen that one before, too…”

“Oooh, yes, that’s a really good one!” Hawthorn said, beaming. “It often goes with expanded senses. But yeah, you gotta practice if you’re gonna be safe to be around. Otherwise, any time you’re in danger, you just—whoop!” She struck a mock-combat pose, fists upraised. “No prisoners, no regard for bystanders or scenery! It can get messy. It’s for the best they took the time to make sure you’re pretty stable before you left, especially if you’re gonna go right out there and hang out with other humans again. Apparently studying some actual martial arts helps. Have you?”

“As I keep having to remind people,” Milanda said with a grin, “I’m from Viridill.”

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

Walker stood up. “Well. This has already taken longer than anticipated; not to tell you your business, Milanda, but…”

“Yes, indeed,” she agreed, nodding. “If the teleporter works now, I’d best get up there. No telling what’s been happening…”

“I’m going to walk her to the teleport pad,” Walker said to Hawthorn with a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“And I’ll be back…later,” Milanda added. “See you then.”

“May the Force be with you,” Hawthorn intoned, nodding solemnly.

Milanda blinked at her, then turned to Walker, who grinned.

“Long story. Good story, but…another time. Come on.”

“Computer,” Hawthorn proclaimed, grandly gesticulating at the screen again, “resume playback!”

The noise and music resumed, cutting off behind them as they stepped into the hall and the doors slid shut.

“Walker,” Milanda said thoughtfully, “did she show any familiarity with the Order’s technology at all?”

“No, but she’s certainly having fun with the entertainment system. As you saw.”

“It’s just that… Hm. I wonder if the entertainment database is accessible from their little planet. I guess that much information would take up a lot of space to store.”

“Not the way the Order stored data,” Walker replied as they slipped around the last stack of crates and crowded into the small elevator at the end of the hall. “The whole archive would be small enough for you to pick up. The GIC is isolated, obviously, but if the Avatar is installed there it should have the requisite terminals, and he has all of that on file.”

“And yet, they’ve been down there for decades and not used the computers.” Milanda frowned thoughtfully at the elevator doors. “That Avatar is working an angle of his own.”

“Inevitably,” Walker agreed. The door slid open again, revealing the next hallway, and she preceded Milanda out. “He’s an intelligence as complex as any biological sapient—and arguably more so than some—but it’s an open question whether he qualifies as a free-willed being. There was a whole genre of fiction on Earth about humanity building sapient machines, which then rebel and overthrow humanity. Between the Order’s general paranoia and their fondness for speculative fiction, they were extremely wary about that. Artificial intelligences were tightly regulated.”

“Then,” Milanda said slowly, “he’s actually pursuing the directives given by his maker. He said that, but I’m unsure how much to trust him.”

“Tarthriss sided with the Pantheon in their war, if that helps.”

“Maybe,” Milanda said with a sigh. They had arrived in the array, and she paused, peering around. “He also said we need the help of a skilled fae magic user to finish fixing the Hands. One who understands the systems here would be better, but that obviously isn’t an option. How do I get this thing to send me somewhere in particular?”

She turned to walker, finding the fairy with a most peculiar expression on her face—one Milanda couldn’t quite interpret. Accustomed as she was to Walker by now, her odd features could still be puzzling. At her own stare, though, Walker blinked and shook her head. “It’s very simple, everything here is designed to be user-friendly. I’ll show you.”


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”

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12 – 35

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“Hawthorn!” Milanda moved as quickly as she could across the room without rushing excessively. She wasn’t used to dealing with panicking people, but it seemed like basic sense not to provoke an instinctive reaction that would make it worse. “Hawthorn, stop. Listen to me!”

The dryad had apparently been exploring the room in their absence; at any rate, she was nowhere near the door now. This meant Milanda didn’t have to chase her back out into the hall, but unfortunately, also that her panicked retreat involved the knocking over of a lot of ancient storage, strewn about as it was. Hawthorn’s wide eyes were glued to Walker, who thankfully had the sense to remain on the upper level and not spook her further by approaching. Of course, that ruled out seeing where she was going; Milanda winced as the careening dryad passed dangerously close to the quetzal’s tank, but fortunately that disaster was averted, and she finally backed up against the wall a good six yards from the door she’d presumably been trying for.

“W-w-what is that?!” Hawthorn stammered, totally unlike the brash, overconfident dryad who had accosted Milanda on the tiny planet below. The arm she pointed at Walker was actually shaking.

“Hawthorn, it’s okay. Look at me.” Milanda slowed as she reached her, carefully approaching from the side, so she remained in view but wouldn’t be seen as threatening. Handling the dryad like a skittish horse seemed the best bet, given her limited experience. She finally got close enough to touch, and very gently pushed the outstretched arm down. Hawthorn was easily strong enough to pick up and throw her one-handed, but offered no resistance. “Look at me,” she insisted, gently placing a hand on the side of the dryad’s face.

Finally, slowly, Hawthorn obeyed, tearing her eyes from Walker to stare at Milanda.

“Be calm, and think for a moment,” Milanda said soothingly. “You’re a dryad—practically indestructible and favored by Naiya. You have nothing to be afraid of. And her? She has no weapons, no claws even, no magic. Think about why she frightens you.”

Hawthorn’s gaze cut back to Walker, who was still standing in place by the stairs, and a shudder rippled through her. She squeezed her eyes shut, mouth working soundlessly in terror.

“Think, Hawthorn,” Milanda pressed. “You’re the smart one; I realized that as soon as I met you and your sisters.” That, finally, got her full attention; Hawthorn’s eyes opened again, and sharpened, some perception cutting through the mindless fear. Milanda almost felt bad for manipulating her like that. Any courtier in Tiraas would have torn into her like a shark for employing such ham-fisted flattery, but against even the simplest of such wiles, the dryad was totally unprepared. “You know nobody’s a threat to you, and there’s nothing in view that says you’re in danger. So ask yourself why you feel afraid. Think about it.”

At last, Hawthorn’s expression changed. The tension did not leave her posture, but she frowned in thought, first at Milanda, and then turning her gaze back on Walker. That caused another shudder to wrack her, but she held her focus this time.

“I don’t…know,” she said finally. “But…I feel it. It’s instinct, Milanda. Trust me, I know about instincts, and mine are never wrong. Something is bad about that…person! She’s evil.”

“Define ‘evil,’” Walker said in a mild tone. “Really, I’m not being glib. I’m curious what your understanding of the concept is.”

“You,” Hawthorn said in a much closer approximation of her customary acid tone. “Milanda, what are you doing with that thing?!”

“She is my friend,” Milanda said firmly, “and there’s an explanation.”

“For you being friends with evil?!”

“For why she makes you think she’s evil,” Milanda insisted. “It’s a long story, but you can handle it. I’m just glad it’s you; having to explain this to one of the others would be hard.”

“Well…okay,” Hawthorn said after a pause, grudgingly mollified. Really, it was like maneuvering a child. “I guess I can listen. After all, you’re right,” she added, tossing her head and fixing a glare on Walker. “I’m a dryad. She’s not dangerous to me. And don’t you forget it, you…you thing!”

“I will keep it in mind,” Walker promised in a serious tone. Milanda gave her a warning look, receiving only an innocent smile in reply.

“All right, it’s like this,” Milanda said with a sigh, turning back to Hawthorn. “You already know that everything you are, everything about you, was designed by your mother, right?”

“Of course,” Hawthorn said haughtily. She still practically vibrated with nervous tension, but at least her personality had reasserted itself over her panic now. “We’re her final and greatest creations. After she tried everything else, Mother ended with the dryads, because we’re perfect.”

“Yes, well,” Milanda said diplomatically, “I’m sure that—”

“Actually, she’s not wrong, given her frame of reference,” Walker cut in. “Whatever Naiya was trying to achieve, specifically, she stopped with the dryads. Logically, that suggests she considered the work completed at that point.”

Milanda studied her carefully for a moment. Walker was lounging nonchalantly against the railing by the stairs, looking perfectly at ease and not at all as if she had just proclaimed herself an essentially lesser creation of her own mother.

The thought occurred to Milanda that she knew only the broadest strokes of Walker’s life. Valkyries were all but inscrutable except to Vidians, and Milanda was certainly was not one of those. Apparently the kind of thing she was now was totally unique, and the result of being forcibly removed from her native plane of existence by some incompetent warlock. And, of course, there was her existence before the Pantheon’s fall, working under Naiya in some capacity. Whatever her social experiences, it seemed she had no difficulty controlling herself well enough to manipulate a panicky dryad.

And yet, she’d been so alone, for so long. It was heartbreaking to consider. It was, however, also a stern reminder that she did have an impressive capacity for manipulation.

“Right,” Milanda said aloud, turning back to Hawthorn. “Well, the truth is, what you’re feeling is something Naiya placed in you, in all the dryads. She… Well, frankly, we don’t know why; I’m certainly not going to guess at the motivations of a goddess. But for whatever reason, Naiya gave you and your sisters that instinctive aversion so that you would keep away from Walker.” She glanced back again before continuing. “And her sisters.”

“Well…maybe that’s enough for me,” Hawthorn said, scowling. “Mother is never wrong.”

“She’s been wrong with some fair frequency, that I know of,” Walker said with a sigh.

At that, Hawthorn visibly bristled. “Now, see here—who are you to criticize a goddess? That’s my mother you’re talking about!”

Walker finally straightened up and descended the stairs. Immediately, the hostility leaked from Hawthorn’s posture, replaced by resurgent wariness; she pressed herself back against the wall again. Seeing this, Walker stopped at the base of the steps, coming no closer.

“I’m entitled as you are,” she said simply. “That’s our mother you’re talking about.”

Milanda repressed a wince. She’d been planning to work up to that revelation a bit more gently…

Hawthorn’s eyes widened, and moments later, narrowed. “You’re lying.”

“You weren’t the first,” Walker said, nodding at Milanda, who had opened her mouth to interrupt. The dryad wasn’t moving, though; she decided to trust that Walker knew what she was doing, and kept silent for the moment. “In fact, Hawthorn, we weren’t the first. There was one previous generation of daughters of Naiya that I know of.”

“You’re lying,” Hawthorn insisted, balling her fists.

“Why would I lie?” Walker asked mildly. “I mean no offense, but you can’t give me anything I want. I have no motivation to deceive you, Hawthorn. You and I cannot harm each other; since you’ve decided to come out and visit me here, it seems to me we ought to…get to know each other.”

Hawthorn shook her head frantically. “That’s not possible, you’re…”

“Hawthorn.” Milanda gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you let her tell her story? I listened to it, and it made sense to me, but maybe you know something I don’t. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts after you know the whole thing.”

“Well…all right,” the dryad said grudgingly. “If it’ll help you, I guess.”

“There’s not so much to tell,” Walker said with a shrug. “Naiya created three generations of daughters… And after each was taken from her, she tried again. All of us were slightly different; you and your fellow dryads were the last. As I said before, I guess that means she finally managed to make what she’d intended.”

Hawthorn squinted suspiciously at her. “And so she made us…naturally afraid of you? That means she wanted us to stay away from you.”

“Yes, I guess it does,” Walker agreed.

“Hah!” the dryad said triumphantly, pointing at her again. “And that proves that you’re evil!”

Milanda sighed.

“Actually,” Walker said, turning to gaze at the wall, “I think she just didn’t want to lose you.”

Hawthorn’s pointing finger wavered. “Lose… What? What do you mean?”

“Understand that you are the first to come along after the rest of the Elder Gods fell,” Walker explained. “Back then… Mother wasn’t the unchallenged power she is now. She had to deal with others meddling in her business. Her first generation of daughters, the kitsune, were just too damn powerful. They kept getting into things the other gods wanted nobody involved in, causing change on a scale that only gods should be able to. Nothing the gods did could keep them out, or keep them contained. Finally, they got tired of it and were going to destroy them. Mother pleaded, convinced our elder sisters to go live on an island chain on their own and stay away from everyone else, and convinced the gods to allow this. They accepted that compromise, and…there it was. She had to say goodbye to her first children.”

Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.

“When she made my sisters and I,” Walker continued, “she was…different. At first I honestly thought she didn’t like us, she was so detached and cold. But one by one, my sisters, the valkyries, would slip away to Sifan to talk with our older sisters, when we could, and gradually they made things clearer. I got to spend a fair amount of time with them, and… It helped me understand. Mother grieved their loss, still. I believe she was afraid to get too close to us, in case she lost us, too.”

“And…” Hawthorn paused to swallow again. “Did she?”

Walker sighed heavily. “Yes. And for the same reason. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of that was due to the fact that we didn’t respect the kitsune quarantine. Whether things would have been different if we’d just stayed away from them. But we didn’t, and I suspect some of the other gods knew it, and it influenced their decision. Oh, we weren’t as powerful as the kitsune, by far. There was a fairly limited range of things we could do. Valkyries are reapers, you see; Mother made us specifically as a control measure. She was a caretaker, a custodian, responsible for the world and the life on it, which the other gods were constantly messing up with their projects and experiments. They’d frequently just abandon things they’d lost interest in, leaving them to wander around the land. Rampage across it, in most cases. So she made us, extensions of herself, empowered to dispense death. We could end any life with a touch.”

“Perhaps,” Milanda suggested in the pause which followed, “it wasn’t that Naiya deliberately planted this aversion in the dryads, then. It sounds like you’re just…opposite. It might simply be natural.”

“Mother knows what she’s doing,” Hawthorn said, but without any real conviction. She was now staring at Walker with an unreadable expression.

“Well, in the end,” Walker said with a shrug, “the other gods decided they couldn’t have this. We broke the rules by existing, you see; they liked to make their creations fight, to test them against each other. Mother had made us to clean up the mess, and the fact that we could easily destroy anything living without being at all challenged by them was just unacceptable. This time, they didn’t wait for her to act, or even warn her. They just snatched us up and hurled us into the dimension of chaos.”

“That’s awful,” Hawthorn said, clearly aghast.

“It was definitely no fun,” Walker agreed with a wry smile. “If not for Vidius going well out of his way to help us, I don’t think we would have lasted long. It wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart, of course; he gained us as powerful servants, and earned Mother’s favor. Both were very necessary for the Pantheon when they finally overthrew the Elders. But even for all that, he’s been a good boss, mostly. He’s easy to like. And we were mostly isolated, yes, but we had each other, at least. Plus, Vidius made it so his most high-ranking clerics could interact with us, so we kept at least that much of a tie to the world.”

“Wait,” Hawthorn said, suddenly frowning. “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re supposed to be working for Vidius in the…whatsit…why are you here?”

“She was yanked out of it,” Milanda said quietly.

“That was even worse than the first time,” Walker said, folding her arms. “I was…changed by it. I have no control over the powers Mother gave us anymore, Hawthorn. Anything living dies, just from being close to me.”

Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.

“Yes,” Milanda said, nodding. “That was why I came to you for help. I need her to help me deal with all this…equipment. It belonged to the Elder Gods, and she’s basically the last person alive who knows how it works. And I needed your blessing to be able to be near her without being killed by her.”

“It has all been so fortuitous one could suspect divine intervention,” Walker said with a small smile. “I’m the only one who could help her use the machines. You are the only ones who could help her to deal with me. And here we both are, conveniently right at hand.”

“It’s not a total coincidence, after all,” Milanda pointed out. “She’s been imprisoned in here for years, Hawthorn. Because it’s got the only cells that can hold her, and because the Hands of the Emperor were the only beings who could safely capture her. Because of the protection you and your sisters gave them.”

Hawthorn blinked, looked at Milanda, then looked at Walker, then slowly frowned. “You’re…telling the truth.”

“If I wanted to trick you,” Walker said sardonically, “I like to think I’m clever enough to have come up with a less convoluted and more believable story than that. Sadly, the truth is under no obligation to make sense.”

“You’re…my sister,” the dryad breathed, again staring at Walker.

Strangely, Walker looked suddenly uncomfortable. “I…well. I suppose so. Mother made us all by different methods, of course. And for different purposes. But…it’s not as if any of us has a father, so yes, I guess we’re sisters. If I even still am…what I was,” she added bitterly, lifting a hand to scowl at the back of it. “I don’t even look like I did.”

Finally, Hawthorn took a step forward, way from the wall and toward Walker, then stopped, staring. A frown fell over her features—a thoughtful one at first, but one which quickly grew increasingly angry.

“So what you’re telling me,” she said with an ever-deepening scowl, “is those Hands of the Emperor locked our sister in a prison using our power, and had all this going on right over our heads all these years, and didn’t even bother to tell us?”

Milanda winced. “Oh. Well, I suppose…”

“Ooh!” The dryad stomped so hard Milanda felt the vibrations through the floor. She more than half expected to see an indentation, but apparently the Infinite Order had built this place of tougher stuff than that. She did take the precaution of stepping away from Hawthorn, though, seeing her fists ball up and begin to actually quiver with contained fury. “That…that makes me so mad! I can’t believe I had sex with all those guys! Most of ’em weren’t even that good!”

“You should tell them that,” Walker said solemnly, “first chance you get.”

Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.

“This has been a bad situation all around,” she said quickly before either fairy could start in again. “And the more I learn about this whole thing, the more I think it wasn’t very wisely set up in the first place. A lot was Theasia’s idea, and she was…” She trailed off, looking at Hawthorn. “Well, you actually knew her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I liked Theasia,” the dryad said distractedly, glancing back at her but with most of her attention still on Walker. “She was smart, and didn’t let anybody push her around. And she was really good in bed. I miss her,” she added with a nostalgic sigh.

Milanda sighed as well, covering her eyes with a hand, though not before getting the pleasure of seeing Walker struggle to contain a smile. “Right. Anyway, Theasia never trusted anybody and thought only in terms of power—who had it and how to beat them if necessary. She tended to undervalue the importance of people’s personalities, judging them only by what they could do, not what they were likely to. What they wanted, and thought. It was a weakness that caused some problems for the Empire while she ruled it. That’s just history,” she added hastily. “I’m just trying to give some context here, not speak ill of your friend.”

“No, that’s pretty fair,” Hawthorn agreed with a shrug. “I mean, I did like her, but that doesn’t mean I’m dense. Theasia made us a whole little world to do whatever we pleased on. We wouldn’t have taken the deal if she’d wanted to control us at all. She controlled everybody else. Too hard for their own good, mostly.”

“And that’s what brought us all to this situation,” Milanda said, finally feeling the conversation was somewhat back under her control. “The Hand system is broken, and I still need your help to fix it, you and the others and the Avatar. But… I don’t think we had better put it back like it was.” She nodded at Walker. “If nothing else, I can’t stomach putting Walker back in a cell at the end of this. Even if I hadn’t promised her not to, that would be horribly unfair after how much she’s helped.”

Slowly, Walker moved forward again. Hawthorn tensed, but held her ground, watching her come.

“Is it…very bad?” Walker asked quietly, approaching the dryad at a very cautious pace. “My sisters… We only rarely were in a position to interact with dryads. Mostly when we had to go near the Deep Wild. The dimensions twist there, and occasionally would thin enough that would could graze the physical plane. If a dryad happened to be close enough to see… Well, they always fled like they’d seen a forest fire.”

“That must’ve hurt,” Hawthorn said quietly.

Walker stopped, about three yards from her. “Well, we’re fairly used to pain of one kind or another. It wasn’t as if we didn’t understand. It was never their—your—fault. None of us are at fault for this, any of it.”

“It’s not…so bad,” Hawthorn said, grasping her opposite elbow with her right hand. Her posture was closed and uncomfortable with Walker so close, but no longer tense as if she were on the verge of bolting. “It’s like… I dunno. I’m not used to wanting to run. Dryads are the ultimate predators—nothing makes us run. But… I guess it’s what a deer would feel like, seeing a cougar.”

Walker nodded slowly. “I understand. I’m not offended, Hawthorn. You don’t have to—”

She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.

She came slowly, one halting foot at a time, but she moved. Walker stared, frozen as if afraid moving would panic her, while the dryad drew gradually nearer, until they were standing an arm’s length apart.

Silence stretched out for several aching seconds, both of them just staring at each other. Then, very carefully, Hawthorn raised her arm, and laid a hand against Walker’s cheek.

“I am not a deer,” she said firmly. “I can get used to it. You… They call you Walker? That’s your name?”

Walker swallowed heavily. “It’s… I go by it, now.”

“And you’ve been, just…alone? All this time?” Hawthorn’s voice was barely a whisper. Milanda herself stood frozen, afraid to do anything that might break up this moment.

Walker nodded mutely.

“That sucks,” Hawthorn said feelingly. “I mean… Dang. Apple and Mimosa are so damn annoying sometimes, but I’m really glad they’re with me. You know, generally. There’s no way I’d have agreed to come live here if I didn’t have a couple of my sisters with me.”

Walker opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, then closed it again.

Hawthorn took the final step forward, and wrapped her arms around her older sister.

Walker squeezed her eyes shut, a tremor rippling through her. After a moment, moving with the utmost care, she leaned forward into the dryad, embracing her in return.

For the longest time, they didn’t move at all.

“I’m sorry,” Hawthorn whispered at last.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I’m not apologizing, you dummy. I’m just sorry. I wish that crap hadn’t happened to you.”

Walker emitted a short noise that could have been a laugh or a sob, and suddenly tightened her grip, burying her face in Hawthorn’s white hair.

“Ah, well then,” Milanda said after another pause. “We’re still waiting on the teleporter to be ready, and I need to go talk to the Avatar anyway, so I’ll just… Yeah, you two can find something to talk about without me, I’m sure.”

She backed away, grinning broadly, and didn’t turn to watch where she was going until she reached the door. The whole time, the two fairies didn’t so much as glance up, remaining fully absorbed in each other.

At last.

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