Tag Archives: Walker

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”


“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”

“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”

“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”

“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”

“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”

“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.

“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 23

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“Any problems?”

Milanda glanced up at the door, where Walker had appeared, and shook her head. “No…just more junk. I ended up piling it on the other beds, so I could reach the…you know.” She waved vaguely at the other end of the barracks.

The room was long and narrow, rather like a corridor branching off from the security hub. Immediately inside the door from the hub was a seating area, lined by generously padded square benches, with low tables in front of them. Then it descended six steps to its main, central section, where the walls were lined by double bunk beds, four on a side. These, too, were well-padded; Milanda had cleared off the one closest to the door and on the bottom right. Past the sleeping area, six more steps climbed back up to the kitchen, where she had identified sinks, a cold box and an oven/stove apparatus, as well as half a dozen more devices whose purpose was inscrutable to her. A door behind the kitchen led to a small room containing toilets and showers. In design, the barracks sort of reminded her of the belly of a ship, except for its squared edges. Every section of wall not covered by beds or other furniture appeared to be a screen, each currently displaying the symbol which she by now assumed was the sigil of the Infinite Order.

Like the security hub, they had found the room full of junk once it was unsealed. Milanda had stacked crates, boxes, tools, and garments on all of the beds except the one she’d chosen, and the bunk directly above. Walker had claimed to need no sleep, but it seemed inhospitable not to at least make some little arrangement for her.

“Hm.” Walker’s eyes flicked dispassionately across the room. “If this ends up taking more than a few days, it may profit us to take an inventory of all these containers. What’s in them might be useful. Or dangerous. At the least, it doesn’t belong…piled around, like this. It looks like the default environment; is it to your liking?”

Milanda frowned. “The…environment? Well, the whole place is generally sterile, despite being messy. I can’t say I would want to live here.”

“No, I meant the controls for…” Walker trailed off, then smiled slightly. “Well, let me show you. Computer, load environment preset: Hawaiian night.”


“I suppose that only makes sense,” Walker said ruefully. “You try.”

Milanda gave her a dubious look, getting only a mildly expectant one in return, then sighed. “Computer…do what she said.”

Immediately the light dropped to the level that might be provided by a full moon on a clear night. A moment later, the air warmed, the humidity rose significantly, and the scent of greenery, flowers, and the salty ocean breeze suffused the room; in fact, a faint, warm wind was now blowing through. The sounds of the ocean and of chirping insects and night birds filled the air. Most amazingly, all of the viewscreens paneling the walls activated, showing a scene of a nocturnal beach, the ocean stretching away in one direction and a distant, forested rise of mountains in the other, as if they were all windows looking out over a scene upon which the barracks sat.

Milanda gasped, and then could only gape. The detail was amazing… It all seemed so real.

“It has a number of preset arrangements,” Walker said, looking pleased by her reaction. “You can change the individual factors to suit you, though. Temperature, humidity, background noise, aroma, view… You can also add fog or light rain, though those aren’t part of the preset suites by default. In theory, it could do heavy rain or snow, but you’d need to get in there and monkey with the settings, since they aren’t considered part of an indoor environment anybody would want. The furnishings should be impervious, but be sure to remove anything fragile if you’re gonna add precipitation. You’re lucky; this room’s previous occupants had to argue with fifteen other people about the environmental arrangements.”

“This is unbelievable,” Milanda whispered, turning in a slow circle to gaze around at the room. It was just like being outside on a beach. In fact…amazing as this was, she rather doubted she’d be able to sleep with it like this. Presumably the computer could give her something that felt a little less exposed.

“Anyway, I’ve made some progress out here, too,” Walker said, turning and walking back into the hub. “Come see.”

Following her was like stepping indoors; the door hissed shut behind her, cutting off the Hawaiian night and leaving them again trapped in the Infinite Order’s sterile environs. There was a change in the room since Milanda had gone to arrange the barracks: above the central structure around which the computer terminals were arranged, there was now projected a luminous, transparent model of the whole facility, with the faint outline of the mountain itself around it. Being almost a full story tall, it gave her a much better sense of the scale of the place than the much smaller map out in the corridor had. Walker went back toward her selected screen and sat down.

“Basic security’s set up,” Walker reported. “I tested the instructions you gave the computer, just for thoroughness’s sake, and it’s fine. The door outside will remain hidden unless one of us orders it activated, so the Hands shouldn’t be able to find this place. Didn’t test the alarms, obviously, but there’s not reason to think they won’t work. We should have warning when they’re in the facility. I’ve been checking over the facility as a whole to see what’s what.” She pointed at the floating, three-dimensional map. “The yellow marks are corpses of sapients.”

“Not very many,” Milanda murmured. At a glance, she could only see half a dozen of them, scattered throughout the whole structure.

“It gets more interesting. The blue ones represent life forms held in suspended animation.”


“Asleep, but preserved, and alive. In theory, ready to be awakened. There are usually some health issues associated with awakening from long suspension, but fairly minor ones. If we activated the requisite medical drones first, they should be fine.”

“These are people?” Milanda asked, fascinated. Several dozen blue marks were scattered across the map. “Actual, living people, from the time of the Elder Gods?”

“No, just life forms that someone considered important to preserve. Sapients in suspension are identified by green marks. Look, down here; this is a medical wing, and the only place that has any.”

Indeed, in the small room to which she pointed, there was a whole row of green person-shaped icons, each marked by floating notations which made little sense to her. Seven of them.

“Who are they?”

“The computer does not know,” Walker said, giving her a significant look. “Which is way against procedure. Somebody took the good time and trouble to erase that data. Look, if you mean to leave this facility open and explore it in the years to come, you or the Emperor or whoever may decide to wake ’em up and see. Personally, I wouldn’t. It would be cruel to just dump them into the world as it is now, and anyway, they stand a very good chance of being far more trouble than they’re worth. Meanwhile, for our purposes, they’re nowhere near here, and I’ll repeat my recommendation that we not open anything up that we don’t expressly need.”

“Agreed,” Milanda murmured, then pointed. “That blue dot, up there… A non-human life form that can be awakened, right? Isn’t that this room?”

Walker turned in the chair to nod at her, then turned further to stare pointedly at the transparent cylinder containing the katzil—or quetzal, as she called it. “That doesn’t look like any suspension chamber I ever saw, but just because standardized designs existed doesn’t mean everybody used them. It’d have to be hooked into the power grid. None of the Order’s portable power sources would have kept running for eight thousand years.”

“Let’s not wake him up,” Milanda said fervently.

“Good call,” Walker replied with a grin. “I just point it out, because it means we can’t move that thing out of here without disconnecting it. Which might kill it, or wake it up, depending on how it’s set up.”

“Well, I guess it’s not hurting anything, sitting there. What’s this big room, next to the sleeping people?”

Indeed, the medical wing containing the green marks was adjacent to the second largest open space indicated on the map, dwarfed only by a vast round chamber far below it containing a hovering sphere, which had to be the tiny planet where the dryads lived. That whole space was well below sea level, reached only by a few descending shafts, and seemed to have a diameter comparable to the whole size of the city above. The room to which she pointed was long and much wider than tall, apparently butting right up against the base of the mountain, just above the sea level. In fact, it looked like it should open out onto the ocean itself, though there was assuredly no sign of any such thing visible from without.

“Shuttle hangar,” said Walker, standing and sticking her finger into the display to indicate the labeled shapes arranged within. “Larger ships parked on the flat top of the mountain, but several ranking members of the Order kept personal spacecraft in there. Just status symbols, really. Ascended beings have no need of vehicles, but having fancy ships to carry one’s personal staff around was a grand affectation.”

“You mean, there are working vehicles down there?” Milanda said, fascinated. “Ships that can travel off the planet?”

“No, it’s empty. If I ever have a god of the Pantheon at my mercy, I’m going to make them explain to me what happened at this port complex. Everything’s stacked in boxes, there are hardly any bodies, so the place was evacuated. All the shuttles are gone, but something hit the mountaintop above hard enough to melt it. People in suspension… And why was the only open part a prison wing? The whole thing doesn’t add up.”

“It’s not empty,” Milanda protested, pointing. “Look, I can see the ships! They have labels and everything.”

“That’s not a live feed; it’s showing you the reserved berths. Look, see how they’re outlined in red? That means the ships themselves aren’t there, it’s just displaying where each one goes. Trust me, I checked. There are no spacecraft or even pieces of them anywhere in here, not even the little maintenance skiffs that should be tucked away in various access compartments. That means somebody went to serious effort to remove them.”

“I see,” Milanda murmured in disappointment. She rose up on her toes to peer closely at the ships’ outlines, which didn’t give her much insight into what they looked like. Their profiles certainly resembled nothing she would have thought of as a ship. The labels were interesting, though. “Are these their names?”

“Yes. And those of their owners.”

“It’s funny…”


She shook her head. “The way you describe the Infinite Order, I’d have expected more pomp and grandiosity. Like this one, Enterprise. That seems fitting. But some of these are so…whimsical. Dawn Treader, Heart of Gold…” She frowned and leaned closer. “…Beans With Bacon Megarocket?”

“Bunch of dorks,” Walker muttered, turning back to her terminal and tapping the screen.

Milanda backed away from the map and blinked at her. “Bunch of…”

“And about a hundred years too late for it to be trendy, so I understand. The Order were a pretty tight-knit group, and had some very particular interests in common. That’s why I pointed you at Tolkien. Some of their shared hang-ups explain a lot about the general state of affairs on this planet, even now.” She shook her head, grimacing. “Nobody on Earth was sorry to see them leave. That had more to do with their attitude than their hobbies, though.”

“The way you were talking earlier, I thought you were born on this world. You also got to visit…Earth?” She wondered, but did not ask, if there was any significance to the fact that the origin planet shared a name with a Tanglish word for dirt. Actually, most of the things she’d heard her own world called meant something similar…

“No,” Walker said tersely, shaking her head again. “This solar system has been dimensionally isolated since long before my sisters and I came along. That was one of the first things they did. I did some research, though, and Mother was sometimes willing to answer questions, if I caught her in the right mood. It was impossible not to wonder, born as I was into a world governed by all-powerful beings, most of whom were late in the process of going completely mad. The history was fascinating to me, and important. Anything to help me understand where it all came from… What it all meant.”

Milanda seated herself next to Walker, then leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and stared expectantly at her.

Walker gave her a sidelong look, continuing to poke at the screens in front of her. For a few long moments she was silent. Then…

“Humans need something to believe in. They need faith, and to be part of something larger than themselves. The physical universe is just not enough; a human being requires purpose. Religion has been part of your species as long as it has existed, which is a very different fact to you than to your distant ancestors, because you live in a world in which gods are a real, verifiable thing. On Earth, they weren’t…but religions were. Some were systems of principle, sort of like the dwarven animism around what they call the Light. Many, though, posited divine objects of worship, which clearly did not exist. And the irrationality that resulted in this has caused untold war, suffering, and subjugation throughout the long history of your race.

“As science advanced, atheism rose as a coherent system of thought, and gradually gained traction, but never grew to be more than a minority. It didn’t address the fundamental, emotional need people had for faith, for purpose. That is what gave rise to the Infinite Order. They were, in essence, a cult which worshiped science. Reason was their doctrine, engineering their sacrament. They were trying to reconcile the emotional need for belief with the practical need for rationality. And…no, they were not well thought of. Neither atheists nor the faithful of the old cults appreciated the competition. Honestly,” she added somewhat sourly, “they brought the worst of it on themselves, managing to combine atheistic condescension with religious sanctimony. Their arrogance was really something to behold. ‘Infinite Order’ is a fair enough name for a group of people who bent reality to their will, created a whole world and all its inhabitants… But they called themselves that from the very beginning, starting when it was among the most staggeringly pretentious things anyone on their world had ever done.”

“I suppose I understand why they wanted to become gods, then,” Milanda murmured.

“Not really,” Walker said with a humorless little smile. She had already stopped tapping the screen, and now shifted to face her audience more directly as she continued. “The Order never particularly cared what anyone thought of them—or so they insisted in the records they left here. Personally, I strongly suspect they resented their rejection by society and spent the next few thousand years denying it, just because that would be consistent with their personalities as I observed them. But that’s only my opinion. Regardless, what they were trying to do here… The Ascension Project… That was something much greater.”

She finally shifted fully to face Milanda, her expression solemn. “In the beginning, in the very beginning, all existence started. There was nothing but heat and the base elements, exploding outward for a near infinity of time. As the deep ages passed, material coalesced together due to gravity, eventually forming the first stars. The stars lived, burned, and billions of years later, died, exploding and spewing out dust and elements refined in their cosmic furnaces. This detritus drifted through the void, becoming the interstellar dust clouds, showers of debris, some of it forming together to make new stars…and planets. On some planets, the right combination of elements occurred to spark self-replicating chemical reactions—life. Living things evolved, growing gradually more and more complex, until some produced sapience.

“At the most fundamental level, Milanda, when you peer closely at what matter and energy truly are, it turns out that they are mostly nothing. Things are made of molecules; molecules are made of atoms; atoms are little more than infinitesimal electric charges and patterns of probability. Mass is illusion; existence is built of stacked-up equations. And among the most startling discoveries in the history of science is that on that basic level, the constituent particles of reality respond to consciousness. What they do depends entirely on what they are observed to do. By being an intelligent thing examining the building blocks of the universe, one determines how those blocks are laid. To observe is to affect.”

“Magic,” Milanda whispered, nodding.

“Not exactly,” Walker said with a wry grin. “That’s jumping ahead a bit. The Infinite Order held central the belief that reality, the collective laws of physics, was a conscious thing, and the physical universe was its attempt to understand itself, possibly to reach its own fulfillment. Evolution marked the long process from base elements to sapient life, and was a purposeful and meaningful event. They believed their goal here, ascension, was both the ultimate scientific and spiritual objective of all life, of all reality. By remaking themselves as beings not bound by their biological shells, they sought to advance the goal of the universe itself. To move beyond evolution, outside the cycle… To give meaning to existence by transcending it, seeing what lay before the big bang and after the heat death of the universe.”

“I guess I was right, then,” Milanda murmured. “Grandiosity hardly begins to cover it.”

Walker smiled again. “Yes. I think it actually was a noble goal… It’s a shame how it turned out, for more reasons than the suffering they ended up causing. The only thing the Ascension Project ultimately proved is that absolute power is psychologically unhealthy for sapient minds. Which, frankly, was a matter of open record and didn’t need to be validated. In a way,” she said with a sigh, “this…all this, this world and everything that has happened on it, has ended up being history’s grandest and most cosmic waste of everyone’s time.”

The silence hung over them, Milanda having caught some of Walker’s suddenly morose mood. It was, indeed, a heavy thing to consider. Before depression could begin to set in, she shook herself and spoke.

“But…you talked about consciousness affecting the basic structure of reality. I’m no mage or enchanter by any means, but that sounds a lot like the underlying theory of magic. I’ve read a little about arcane physics. The math is way over my head, but the concepts are actually rather beautiful.”

“Quantum physics,” Walker replied with a faint smile. “But yes. That…is not what magic is, but how magic works. Objective physics become subjective, physical reactions occur in response to thought. That’s the nature and the function of transcension fields.”

“It sounds like the Elders needed magic, needed their transcension fields, to achieve ascension.”

“Yes.” Walker nodded. “It’s an absolutely necessary part of the process. You see, quantum physics is materially useless to most people most of the time, because it governs interactions they’ll never see. It takes very advanced experiments even to observe quantum effects; for the rest of all interactions, human perception doesn’t initiate wave function collapse because humans cannot percieve the infinitesimal particles involved. And if they could, the number of such interactions it would take to achieve a macroscopically useful effect would be in the trillions, far more computations than a human mind could possibly make. Transcension fields bridge these gaps. They interface between sapient perception and the subatomic world, and they perform the necessary calculations to turn countless wave function collapses into, say, a fireball or luck enchantment. They have a third purpose: to impose limits, and order. That’s why individual transcension fields—individual schools of magic—have their own unique traits and interactions. Obviously, you cannot have every stray thought every sapient produces affecting physical reality; the carnage that would result would be unimaginable. The fields impose limits, of whatever nature seemed most appropriate to their makers.

“Magic is not power, you see. The power is inherent in reality; there’s enough fundamental energy in a square meter of space to instantly vaporize the world’s oceans. Magic is…” She paused, tilted her head to one side in thought, then smiled. “Data processing.”

Slowly, Milanda stood. Without really meaning to, she began to walk, gradually making a full circuit around the central structure of the chamber, navigating around upended chairs and piles of boxes without really seeing them.

She was a practical person, at heart. Politics, history, human relationships, those were the things she found interesting. Art and music and the like, sure. Philosophy had always been an annoying abstraction to her, advanced magic a useful science whose benefits she appreciated in society, but which was the province of other people to actually perform and understand. Having the central mysteries of the universe dropped right in front of her, having answers provided to staggering questions she’d never even thought to ask…

It was quite a mouthful to chew.

“Anyway,” Walker said suddenly, causing Milanda to twitch in surprise and stop walking. Without realizing it, she’d done a complete circuit of the chamber and come abreast of Walker’s station again. “There’s been no further visit from our mysterious friend, but I’ve been doing what I can to prepare for him. I have to tell you, though, that I’m somewhat less confident than I was.”

“Oh? What’s wrong?” Milanda asked, turning to her and glad to have something more immediate and concrete upon which to focus.

“As I said before,” Walker explained, “I think I can shut him out easily enough. The system’s inherent defenses should be more than adequate; all we would have to do is turn them back on. What’s tricky is taking the opportunity to identify and retaliate.”

“If it’s at all possible, I would still like to do that.”

Walker nodded. “Then…I may need help. I can use the computers just fine, Milanda, they’re designed to be simple. Getting into their deeper functions is another matter. I’m not a programmer…and just for the record, while I was made with the knowledge of how to operate systems like these, I haven’t done so in over eight millennia.”

“You’re rusty?” Milanda asked with a smile.

“I can figure it out,” Walker said a little testily, “but that will take time. I’ve been researching methods here—fortunately, these systems contain literature on every conceivable subject. But we’re talking about me acquiring a level of skill at hacking that we don’t have time for, with the Hands up there running loose. We need to deal with this guy before we can start putting the system right. This is your project, so I’ll leave the decision to you: shut him out and proceed straight to repairs, or try to engage and neutralize him more permanently?”

Milanda frowned. “Can you think of anything to make this faster? More feasible?”

“Yes,” Walker said immediately. “Ask the Avatar for help. He could do this as easily as you can breathe, but he’s not here. If he’s got an apparatus down there that lets him produce data crystals, though, I bet he can put together a program that will make all this much easier. You can plug that into the console up here, and it’ll make my job a lot easier, if not do it for me outright. A fully automated program is probably too much to hope for, but if he can give me a software suite that’ll let me engage an intruder and counter him without needing to know the ins and outs of the sub-OS’s digital architecture, that will help immensely.”

“All right,” Milanda said, nodding. “It sounds like a plan. I’m too keyed up to try sleeping, anyway; I might as well go talk to him.”

“You’ll be wanting to do that in any case,” Walker added with a smile. “If what they did to you is anything like what they do to the Hands of the Emperor, you’ll have gained a lot more by it than strength, vitality, and immunity to fae effects. The Hands have powers unique to the individual, which they need some individual coaching to master; considering what we’re up against, it seems a shame for you to be walking around carrying abilities like that, and not know how to use them.”

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12 – 20

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“Computer! Map!”

Walker waited in expectant silence for a few seconds before heaving a sigh.

“Security protocols,” Milanda said. “With all due respect, you are not trusted with unfettered access to the system. And where are you going? The terminal is here.”

“There’ll be terminals concealed in most every surface,” Walker replied, pacing back toward her. “I know how the Order like to arrange their structures; there’s probably a terminal at the end of this hall, where it turns, and also probably a door facing the teleporter. If not, the ‘porter itself can be reconfigured to send us somewhere else. At bare minimum, there will be one right next to the teleporter. But since you are here, would you do the honors?”

Milanda raised her eyebrows wryly, but turned to the currently exposed wall terminal. “Computer, map.”

The screen lit up with a complicated series of red squiggly lines on a black field which resembled no map Milanda had ever seen.

“Project in 3D,” Walker ordered. Nothing happened; after a moment, she turned a pointed look on Milanda, who dutifully repeated the phrase.

Then she instinctively stepped back as the diagram lifted off the surface of the panel to hover in the air above it. As it did so, it suddenly began to make sense. The red lines formed a network of chambers and tunnels which, to judge by their general shape and arrangement, had to run through a large portion of the mountain.

“Hmm,” Milanda mused. “Can you make it bigger? And focus on this location?”

“The computer is fairly smart, but it’s not designed for social interaction like the Avatar. You get the best results with clear and precise instructions. Terse, even.”

Milanda made no response, occupied as she was studying the map as it shifted, grew, and moved, the lower portions fading from view. Despite Walker’s admonition, the computer had apparently understood her request. A small section of hallway rose to prominence and the red wire-frame structure was filled in with light, conforming to the shape of the hall in which they stood, cells and all. Icons represented the entrance, with the elevator just beyond it, as well as the teleporter. Right across from that, exactly where Walker had said it would be, was a door leading to a larger, round chamber, with more hallways branching off from it, and three elevator shafts descending lower into the complex.

In the course of the shift, before they were moved out of the map’s current frame of view, Milanda noted that the nearby surface elevator was not the only one protruding upward toward the city. She made a mental note to investigate that later. It seemed unlikely anyone but the Empress had found a way down here, or more would be known about it. If the possibility had existed that someone one day might, it was worth taking precautions. After all, she had no idea when or how Theasia herself had discovered this place.

“Perfect,” Walker said in a satisfied tone. “As I suspected, that’s a security station. Apparently a fairly important one, from the size of it. Look, there’s a crew barracks attached; that will provide you a place to sleep. I’m assuming, here, that you are not eager to go back above and explain yourself to the Hands.”

“Not until I’m ready, anyway,” Milanda agreed, still studying the map. The Avatar had warned her that she and the Hands would be able to sense each other if they drew close enough together. That was to be avoided, which meant she should avoid the Palace for the time being.

Walker had already headed back down the hall again; when Milanda joined her, she was waiting patiently at the intersection, and gestured toward the flat wall.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Computer… Uh, door.”

Lines appeared in the blank milthril surface, delineating a doorway; a second later, the cut-off mithril panel slid silently into the floor, revealing a door that appeared to be of steel, marked with the same emblem as the outer door.

Milanda carefully stepped forward and touched it with her fingertips. Nothing happened.

“Computer,” she said, annoyed, “open the door.”

“Warning.” The computer spoke in a rapid tone devoid of inflection. “Security lockdown in effect.”

Milanda sighed. “Well, end the—”

She broke off and stared at Walker, who had begun waving frantically to get her attention.

“Clear, precise, terse,” she said firmly. “Since the Avatar apparently gave you clearance, if you just tell it to end the lockdown without any qualifiers, it’ll do so everywhere. There is no telling what’s buried in these halls, or what might happen if all the doors are suddenly unsealed. You can open rooms one at a time, which is what I strongly recommend.”

Milanda regarded her uncertainly for a moment before nodding. It was true that Walker’s incentive here was to make herself useful, but it was difficult to trust the eerie creature. It would have been even if she were not alone with her, in the apparently perfectly functional ruins of a civilization that Walker fully understood and Milanda did not. Hopefully, at minimum, there would be no more head-grabbing. In this case, at any rate, her advice made sense.

“Computer,” she said carefully, “end the lockdown only in the security station beyond.”

A pleasant, two-toned chime sounded. Milanda frowned, turning to Walker.

“That’s an acknowledgment,” the ex-valkyrie explained. “Descending tones means there’s an error; in that case, it’ll usually explain what’s wrong.”

“I see.”

“You’ll pick it up quite quickly,” Walker continued. “I’ve heard it said that the degree of a civilization’s advancement can be judged by how much of its work is automated; the Infinite Order were very advanced, and arranged their structures to avoid having to lift a finger without need. The computers are designed for maximal efficiency, convenience, and user-friendliness.”

“Then why is the door still not open?” Milanda asked in some irritation.

Walker smiled. “That room has been blocked off for eight thousand years, and with lockdown protocols in effect, the systems wouldn’t be working to keep it habitable. It won’t open the door until it’s safe. Housekeeping functions are cycling in fresh atmosphere, removing dust, purging any biological contaminants. It should take just a minute or two.”

“A minute or two?” Milanda asked, turning to gaze thoughtfully at the door. “To clean eight millennia of mess?”

“Very advanced indeed.”

In fact, it was faster than that; no sooner had she spoken than the ascending chime sounded again, and the door opened on its own with a soft hiss.

Milanda stood there uncertainly, craning her neck to peer through the opened doorway, until Walker sighed and pushed past her, striding into the security station. Suppressing her annoyance, Milanda followed.

The room’s general shape she could recognize, both from the map and as the product of the same minds which had designed the Nexus on the dryads’ mini-planet. It was round, and sizable; the central floor was sunken, with doors opening in four directions (including the one from which they entered), and an upper ring of floor forming bridges over the doorways, reached by four narrow flights of stairs which had those glowing lights under each step. Another round structure stood in the center, chest-high and flat, with screens and panels protruding from it on all sides. The arched ceiling was black and decorated with a pattern of glowing stars which slowly rotated, the whole thing supported by rounded steel beams, culminating in a round purple hemisphere in the center which was faintly luminous. Lights were cleverly hidden along the steel walls, illuminating the space more completely than any fairy lamps Milanda had ever seen.

It was clean, the air fresh, and there was no sign of dust. The room did not look as if it had been sealed off for eight thousand years, but it was still a mess. Metal crates and barrels of various sizes were piled haphazardly all around, as well as racks and display cases of various kinds of equipment, all of it unfamiliar to her. There were chairs, strewn without order across the floor, a few on their sides, and quite a lot were piled with boxes or draped with lengths of clothing. Just to the left of the doorway through which they emerged stood a transparent cylinder taller than she, illuminated from within by a sickly green light. Milanda stared at this in fascination; the unmistakable shape of a katzil demon was suspended, motionless, within it.

“Well, look at that,” Walker marveled, studying the demon. “A quetzal. Such graceful creatures. You can tell they were some of Scyllith’s early work.”

“Can you?”

“She always had a strong sense of aesthetics,” Walker said, now examining the cylinder in which the katzil hung, seemingly unsupported and not touching the walls. “Initially, that meant she created beautiful things. As time went by and her personal transcension field began to have an effect on her psyche, she took to collecting the more hideous and horrible cast-offs from her colleagues’ experiments, so that she and her own work appeared more pleasant by contrast. Never a likable woman, so I understand, even before succumbing to infernal corruption.”

“What’s it doing here?”

“That is a fascinating question,” Walker mused, turning to pace slowly through the maze of chairs and containers. “I wasn’t on this plane of existence when the renegades attacked the spaceport. There must have been quite an interesting chain of events, to result in these piles of random junk being shoved into what seems to have been a major security hub. I confess I’m at a loss. This reinforces what I said, though; let us refrain from unsealing any more rooms unless we find a good and specific reason to enter them.”

Milanda picked her way through the mess, pausing to examine a segmented cylinder perched on wheeled legs, its protruding spider-like arms drooping. “What’s this?”

“A Caretaker unit,” Walker said. “Maintenance droid. Curiouser and curiouser… Lockdown protocols shouldn’t have shut them off, and if it was running, it would be able to repair itself indefinitely. Having a functioning Caretaker in here would have gone a long way toward keeping it orderly. This place looks like a student dorm after a party. Just what did the Pantheon do here, I wonder?”

“Hm. Maybe we should turn it back on, help clean this out.”

“Let’s wait and see how much time we’ll need to spend here, first.” Walker picked up an overturned chair, carelessly tossing aside the garment that had been draped over it, and set it in front of one of the panels sprouting from the central structure. She sat down, focusing her gaze on the panel itself. At a touch from her, it sprang to life, and two more narrow ones slid out from its frame, one below and one to the side. The symbol that marked the doors hovered in the middle of the transparent central screen, while a series of glowing icons appeared in the smaller ones. “I believe I will need your help, here. Would you kindly instruct the computer to give me access to the relevant records?”

Milanda paused to consider her phrasing, mindful both of Walker’s advice regarding talking to the computer, and her own lingering unease toward her new companion.

“Computer.” She paused, and the affirmative chirp sounded. “Give user…uh, Walker, here, access to records of changes made to…um, anything to do with the programming. For the last…” She looked helplessly at Walker, who was just giving her a sardonic stare. “…since the dryads moved in. Uh, go.”

The computer chimed again, and lines of text popped up on Walker’s terminal.

“Smoothly done,” she said, turning to examine it.

“Oh, shut up.” Milanda rescued a nearby chair, carefully moving a stack of rounded boxes from it to the floor, and set it down beside the fairy, positioning herself where she had a good view of the screen.

“Hmm,” Walker murmured, eyes flicking across the display. The lines slid up and down as she moved her finger on the smaller panel to the right. “Okay, this part is simple enough. The changes made are all fairly superficial… Some affect only the maintenance functions of the facility and shouldn’t impact the dryads or Hands at all. Since most of the facility is inactive, though, the majority of these dealt with that network. There just wasn’t much else to be messed with. I can reverse these changes. Actually, I can designate a restore point in the timeline, here, and simply reset the whole thing to how it stood there.”

“It’s that simple?”

“Not remotely. All I can affect here is the code. Think of it like…” She paused, ruminating for a moment. “The system is like vines climbing a trellis. They die off and are restored with each season, they grow naturally, they change. Change the shape of the trellis, and the vines will clearly be affected, but they’ll continue growing. Put it back the way it was…”

“And the vines won’t go back the way they were,” Milanda finished.

“Exactly. Restoring the code is a start. It’s very likely, though, that in order to restore the whole system to its previous state, we will need to do what was done to set it up in the first place, which will involve the conscious cooperation of the dryads.” She turned to look seriously at Milanda. “And as I said before, I really think you would be better off nixing the whole structure and restarting from scratch. If you want to make it identical to how it was before, the Avatar should remember what was done. That would be an excellent chance to make improvements, however.”

“Taking your analogy of vines further,” Milanda said slowly, “restoring such an organic network to a previous state is…difficult, and unlikely to work, correct? You can prune a vine, but that won’t make it a younger vine.”

Walker nodded. “And an elaborate spell structure made purely of fae magic is the very definition of organic. The code gives it shape, but the magic is what manifests the effects. That the Hands are so clearly affected shows it is doing just that.”

“Is there anything else you can learn from it?” she asked, putting off that decision for the moment. “Information on who did this would be extremely helpful.”

“Quite. Let me see.” Walker touched the large screen, and the lines of code shifted, retreating to the background while another box of text popped up. She touched this, moving the text. “Hm… This is interesting. This was done under Scyllith’s credentials.”

A chill worked its way down Milanda’s spine. She gave no outward sign of it.

“What else can you tell?”

“There’s a peculiar lack of information here,” Walker murmured, frowning at the display. “This should have logged details about the computer which interfaced with this one, but…there’s nothing. Like there was no computer, and the changes were just…made.”

“You mean, Scyllith did this personally?”

“No…there’s a record of a login under her user account. Direct access by an ascended being would be recorded differently. It’s as if she logged into some kind of void. This makes no sense… Huh.”

“What?” Milanda demanded when Walker fell silent.

“This isn’t the first time. These incursions started three days ago, but there’s something else in the records… The whole structure goes back decades ago, when it was first installed under Theasia’s reign. But there was another alteration made…about ten years ago. Also under Scyllith’s name. That one from a recognized facility.”

“What did it do?” Milanda exclaimed.

“I can’t tell.” Walker was frowning at the screen. “It definitely impacted the Hands…but this is a very minor, very careful and specific change. I don’t think this was the work of the same person who’s been meddling with this in the last week. To enact such a light touch and in such a way that it avoids leaving traces is the work of someone familiar with the system. This new person is fumbling about, trying to figure out what all the buttons and blinking lights do.”

“You said it was from a recognized facility?”

“Fabrication Plant One.” Walker touched all three screens in rapid succession, and the central one changed abruptly, showing a map of the continent. A glowing dot pulsed on the coast in the northeast.

“That’s Puna Dara,” Milanda breathed.

“Under it, more likely,” said Walker. “Possibly underwater off the coast. Any surviving Infinite Order facilities are well-buried at this point; Mother saw to that. No further access from there. Whatever happened, Scyllith or someone with access to her user account, likely someone working for her, tweaked the system and then hasn’t touched it since. Very curious…the transcension field connecting the Order’s facilities was supposed to be disabled. Mother saw to that, too. They must have piggy-backed on one of the other active fields, but that would be very difficult to do without seriously in-depth knowledge of how these machines work.”

“This is horrifying,” Milanda mumbled.

“Quite. Scyllith does not need access to these or any systems… I repeat, this appears to be a separate issue, but it also bears investigating. Honestly, Milanda, I believe we’ll need the Avatar’s help with both matters.”

Milanda leaned back and heaved a sigh. “And he can’t be brought up here. Is there any reason you can’t go down there?”

Walker shrugged. “Physically, no. It would severely agitate the dryads, though. It’s rare that they’ve been in a position to interact with a sister of my generation, but they always take it poorly. I think Mother built something into their nature that causes an instinctive aversion.”

“That seems cruel.”

“Cruelty is about taking pleasure in the pain of others,” Walker said evenly. “Mother is never cruel. Heartless, though, that would be accurate. She is generally not concerned with others’ pain, one way or the other. I’m going to set up a simulation,” she continued, her fingers suddenly flying across the narrow screen on the bottom. “Every little bit of data helps; this may give some insight into the ripple effects caused by the recent incursion. This may take some time…”

Milanda sighed, glancing around the room. “I guess I can find…something to do.”

“I recommend you do not touch anything in here,” Walker said, eyes on her screen. “Some of those devices are weapons and most of the rest are potentially dangerous if mishandled. Here… Computer, activate entertainment playlist on the next terminal. Novels, J.R.R. Tolkien, order of publication.”

The computer chimed obligingly and the next terminal came to life, text and icons appearing on the main screen and the supplemental ones sliding into place.

“Oh, how lovely,” Walker said with a smile. “It seems I don’t need your permission to access the entertainment database. The Avatar must feel somewhat sorry for my long imprisonment.”

“What’s this?” Milanda asked, scooting her chair over to frown at the lines of words on the other screen.

“Just a little something you may find interesting. Tolkien was quite popular among the Order; I rather think this will illuminate much of why your world is the way it is.”

Your world, Milanda noted. According to Walker’s own story, she had never lived on any world but this one, yet she didn’t think of herself as part of it. Well, considering how it had treated her, that was somewhat understandable. Out loud she said, “I suppose I could try. Are these number page counts? I’ve never been fond of dense novels…”

Walker shot her a look of pure irritation, unmistakable even on her peculiar features. “Fine. These systems contain the entire literary output of your species; perhaps Disney animated musicals would be more your—oh ho!” Suddenly she hunched over her screen, grinning fiercely. “Our friend has just appeared again!”

“What? What’s he doing?” Milanda demanded, scooting her chair back over and peering at the code, which didn’t help her at all to understand it.

“More of the same,” Walker murmured distractedly. “Poking around. Hmmmm. I could block his access. That will tip him off that someone’s here, working, however.”

“You’re of the opinion this person is a modern human?” Milanda said thoughtfully.

“It’s my leading theory, but of course I don’t know.”

“Can you get more data with him actively engaged?”

“I’m trying… This is so strange. He’s logged in as Scyllith, but Scyllith wouldn’t be doing this foolishness. It’s the same effect, though: it’s as if the machine he’s on…” She trailed off, her eyes widening. “Wait. I think… I think he built it.”

“Built it? A machine that can access the Infinite Order’s computers? How?”

“That is a question to which I would love an answer… Hang on, I’m querying his system specs.” She paused, then narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “…that kicked him off. His rig didn’t even have the processing power to handle the request while logged in. He did, Milanda. The simplest surviving Order device would register and handle such trivial tasks effortlessly. Somehow, he’s doing this on something he made. From modern enchanting parts.”

“Well, he knows we’re here now, if you knocked him out of the system,” Milanda pointed out.

“Maybe.” Walker leaned back gazing thoughtfully at the screen. “Whatever he’s using is so primitive the sub-OS here doesn’t even recognize it as a fellow computer; something like that would be prone to crashing on its own. This does change the color of the matter. There’s something else odd…something there, but not, like the machine itself. See, it’s indicating an Avatar’s presence, but it isn’t identified.”

“You can identify Avatars?”

“Indeed. They are numbered, and few; the Order didn’t like to leave artificial intelligences lying around.” Milanda glanced over at the deactivated Caretaker while Walker continued speaking. “Each Avatar should be instantly recognized by the computer; it’s registering the presence it recognizes as one, but it doesn’t know which, and that doesn’t make sense.”

“The Avatar I spoke to was many, many times more complex than the most advanced modern golem,” Milanda said slowly. “He was effectively a person. Would I be correct in assuming such a thing couldn’t possibly be run on contemporary logic controllers?”

“You would. The idea is laughable.”

“So…what if he’s somehow got hold of an Avatar and is running part of it? Just enough to make his system work without overloading it?”

“That…is…not impossible,” Walker said grudgingly. “If so, we have a real problem on our hands, Milanda. An Avatar is an AI designed by a spacefaring society to administer city-sized complexes in the most minute detail. This character is trying to run one on a cobbled-together steampunk gumball machine. The significant fact isn’t that it doesn’t work, but that he got it to boot up at all. If the theory is correct, this person would have to be a genius of a caliber even the Order would have respected.”

Milanda blinked, working her way through several unfamiliar terms in that sentence. “…what kind of machine?”

“Mother had one,” Walker murmured, leaning forward and again rapidly touching sigils on the control panels. “A valuable antique from Earth… I suppose it’s rusted away to scrap in some vault, now, if it wasn’t destroyed outright in the uprising. She even had the fabricators make gumballs for us.” She smiled faintly as she worked. “Vile things, really. Nothing but sugar, dye, and…glue. Still. It was…a happy memory. All right, I’m working on a little something, here, for the next time he logs in. We can shut him out easily enough, but that doesn’t help us figure out who this is or how he’s doing this, which I gather is a priority. It’ll take some adjusting to get the sub-OS to interact fluidly with his incredibly dinky computer, but…” A sly grin stretched across her uncanny features. “I do believe we can turn the tables.”

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12 – 19

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Everything was the same, but the world was totally different.

According to the Avatar, the initiation was designed to fully incorporate the proper muscle memory and thus avoid the difficulty moving that could come from a person being suddenly far stronger and more agile than before, but he had warned her that this modification of the Hand procedure could have unpredictable side effects, and that she should take it slow.

She felt fantastic, however, and fully in control.

The first test of her newfound athleticism had come when she returned to the hallway where the Dark Walker was imprisoned. The door, apparently, remained stationary while the “planetoid” (the Avatar’s word for it) slowly rotated; finding it necessitated walking south until she came to the long band cleared of trees around its equator, and then following that. Looking at it, she felt rather foolish for not having noticed before, though at least now, she was accustomed enough to the peculiar shrunken horizon to find it less disorienting.

The door had drifted slowly toward her, but Milanda hadn’t waited for it. She didn’t even need a running jump; one smooth hop, and she was through, landing lightly in the brightly-lit mithril hall beyond.

The lack of visual stimuli here actually helped her re-orient herself. There was just nothing to see but mithril walls, the little lights in the ceiling, the turn of the hallway just ahead. It made her even more conscious of her own body…her own strength.

But there was nothing to be gained by standing here.

Milanda strode purposely forward, rounding the corner and continuing to the proper cell.

“You look well,” the Dark Walker said calmly upon her arrival, sizing her up. “I gather the outcome of your…adventure…was optimal? I recognize that calm self-possession; it wasn’t on you earlier. Of course, I could sense the truth, if not for this.”

She rapped her knuckles on the transparent panel. Despite transmitting sound as if it were nothing but empty air, when struck it made a muted noise as if she had tapped on a stone wall a yard thick.

“I have protection from you, now. Apparently.”


Milanda studied her, taking in the eeriness of her features. The almost-humanity of her.

“The Avatar was confident it would work. And that you can help. Before doing anything rash, however, I have questions for you.”

“That’s wise.” She spread her arms. “I have nothing but time. Ask.”

“How do you know how to help, if the Emperor and the Hands themselves don’t?”

The Walker gazed at her impassively for a moment, then smiled, and there was something in that expression Milanda didn’t care for. It was hard to tell exactly what, though; her features were so doll-like, it was as if she were a machine built to convey emotion but not truly feel it.

“It amuses me how you’ve made gods of the ascended beings of your so-called Pantheon. Sure, by any reasonable definition they might as well be… But the Infinite Order were more powerful beings by far, and they never built actual religions around themselves. At first, they were scientists, conducting experiments. In the end, they were kings and queens, drunk with power and lacking any feeling for the people living on this world. But gods? The idea would have insulted them.” She shook her head. “But then, it seems Scyllith got in on the act. In her case, specifically, it does not surprise.”

“What does this have to do with what I asked you?” Milanda demanded impatiently.

“I am explaining why your Emperor, and the Empress before him, did not do a more thorough job of setting up this system properly.” Again, she tapped on the transparent screen between them. “Religions are the creation of primitive people to impose a semblance of order upon a world they do not understand. Science renders them…obsolete, but not unnecessary, because it is a feature of human psychology that you need something to believe in, for your lives to be fulfilled. So it is with the systems here. Sharidan is quite intelligent. Theasia was more so. But in this facility, they tampered with things vastly beyond their comprehension, and succeeded to a point by imposing the structures they knew, the systems of magic and religion. They achieved…a happy medium. The system works. For it to be truly refined, they would have to know how it works. They do not.” She grinned. “I do.”

“You said you were not a… The exact words escape me.”

“A computer tech, which I am not.” The Walker began to pace back and forth in her cell, swiveling her head smoothly to keep Milanda in view as she did. The effect was even more creepy than she herself was. “A computer is a machine that processes information. Not a true thinking machine; that is an AI, an artificial intelligence, such as the Avatar you met in the gravitational isolation chamber. Tech is just a shortening, in this case, of technician, though in other contexts it can also mean technology.”

“Then how can you help, if you’re not one?”

She stopped her pacing, and shrugged. “I hear tell of wondrous enchanted devices you have, now. Lights that need no fuel; vehicles that travel without horses.”

“I’m sure that must seem abominably backward to you,” Milanda snapped.

“Not really. You are still primitive compared to the Infinite Order at its height, but recall, I have been on this planet these eight thousand years. I am accustomed to thinking of humans as mud-dwelling apes with marginally better linguistic skills to compensate for their lack of upper body strength. Your current civilization is actually rather impressive. But this is beside the point: you can use an enchanted carriage, yes? Or a fairy lamp? To live in your society, you would perforce need to know how.” She smiled again. “But could you build one?”

“What we are talking about doing,” Milanda said slowly, “is a great deal more complex than driving a carriage. Certainly more so than flipping a switch. I take your point, but still…”

“Very well, you require more data to be reassured. That is reasonable.”

The Dark Walker broke off and paced a complete lap around her cell, counter-clockwise, seeming to gather her thoughts. When she was front and center again, she turned to face Milanda, and folded her arms behind her back.

“Of the daughters of Naiya, there are three generations, of which I am of the second.”

“You’re a valkyrie?” Milanda asked in surprise.

The creature raised an eyebrow. “A valkyrie is a thing out of Norse myth. But…I suppose, thanks to Vidius, the description is more or less accurate, depending on whether one agrees that the things my sisters gather are in fact souls, which is a vast debate for another time.”

“What are you doing here?”

She smiled thinly. “In this cell, or upon this world?”

“I know why you’re in the cell. Valkyries were banished from the mortal plane.”

“To the dimensional insulation layer, yes. It is a peculiarity of all Naiya’s daughters, resulting from the immense power accessible through us, that when heavily traumatized, we mutate in entirely unpredictable ways.” She leaned one forearm on the barrier, lounging against it, and gave Milanda a recognizably sardonic look. “When one has been banished to the dimensional insulation layer, being ripped back out of it by a third-rate warlock is an extremely traumatic experience. Take my word for it. I wouldn’t wish it upon you.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said automatically.

“Are you? Well, that doesn’t really matter. Thank you for the sentiment. We were discussing more practical things, though.”

She straightened up, and again began pacing back and forth, this time keeping her gaze where she was going and not bothering with eye contact.

“Most of the Infinite Order regarded their experiments and creations, sapient or not, as of no more significance than lab equipment. Naiya, however, created daughters; she truly did care for us, and presumably still does, no matter the lengths she has gone to in her efforts to care less. The first generation… They truly were her children. She actually raised them, brought them up in the traditions of her own native culture, which they have since recreated in Sifan. Part of the Order’s whole purpose was breaking with the customs of old Earth, but by that point, none of them were much listening to each other, and I suspect she longed for the comfort of familiarity. When the kitsune proved too dangerous for the other members of the Order to allow running around, it was all she could do to insist on their containment on the islands, rather than their destruction. After that… Well, obviously, she tried again. But I think she grieved that separation, and wanted a bit more…distance, this time around. To protect herself.”

Milanda felt another platitude bubbling up, and silenced it. She was getting the impression that the Walker didn’t much care for displays of sentiment. If nothing else, she definitely enjoyed hearing herself talk, and Milanda had known enough people like that at court to know better than to interrupt.

“My sisters and I were made with fully-formed minds, not educated through a childhood like our elders. Mother preferred not to develop so close a relationship, I think. I resented it, until I saw how she has treated the dryads. I’ve come to…count my blessings, as they say. She was distant, with us, imperious… But at least she was present. And she made certain to look after us. Regardless,” she went on, suddenly more brisk, “the point is that what I know of the systems and functions of Infinite Order technology is part and parcel of my very being. My mind was constructed to have all the relevant information, organized and complete in a way that no…organically learned skill ever truly is.” Smiling faintly, she tapped her temple with a fingertip. “Would you be better off with an actual specialist? Undoubtedly. Sadly for us both, you don’t have one. Unless you can tempt a kitsune here from Sifan to help you, or one of your gods down from their celestial palaces, and bring yourself to trust such a creature, I am the only source of that information to be found on this world.” Her smile broadened; her teeth were blindingly white and perfectly even. “And most fortuitously for you, I am right here. How very…providential. Is it not?”

She was right, of course, but it wasn’t that which held Milanda’s concentration at the moment, but something she had just realized. It hadn’t been necessary for the prisoner to talk about her creator and sisters to make her points, nor to go on digressions about history and the world she had known eight thousand years ago. Despite her reserve, she was desperate to connect with someone.

Isolated first from her sisters by being jolted back to this plane, and then from everyone in this cell. Whatever else she was, this woman, this creature, was unbearably lonely.

That didn’t make her a whit less dangerous.

“All right,” she said aloud, “you have, in theory, the correct knowledge. But you are still an incalculably dangerous creature, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m reluctant to unleash you on the world on the basis of theory.”

“Ask anything you need to,” the Walker said calmly. “One of us has all the time in the world.”

“Then let’s hear some specifics,” Milanda said, folding her arms. “Tell me what’s going on, and how you would fix it.”

“This facility has been remotely accessed by a third party,” the Walker said immediately, tapping the window. “You saw the information feed in this panel—it has been keeping me updated. And no, it would not be standard policy for prisoners to have access to that, it’s just another artifact of the slapdash half-measure rigging that was done to set up this network of yours. And that, I believe, is the core of your problem. Most of the essential functions of the facility are either turned off or doing something they weren’t meant for. If everything were running properly, there would be firewalls in place to prevent unauthorized access. If the Avatar were installed here where he should be, instead of having been yanked and moved to the GIC to ride herd on those three dryads, he would have detected and countered any such incursion. As it is, the system was, and is, defenseless.”

“Who has done this?” Milanda demanded.

“I don’t know. This only gives me information, and not much at that; it doesn’t allow me to give commands, or I’d just have it let me out. With clearance and access to a proper terminal, I could examine more detailed records of what was accessed and changed, and give you more information. I will tell you one thing, though.” Again, she leaned against the panel, smiling faintly and reminding Milanda of several cocky young men who had tried to flirt with her when she was newly arrived in the capital. “To do this, someone would need two very important things: a piece of the Infinite Order’s technology capable of interfacing with this facility’s systems, and personal clearance granted by a member of the Infinite Order.”

Despite her practiced poise and the heady feeling of power now coursing through her, Milanda’s breath caught.

“You mean… An Elder God did this?”

“They would hardly have to do something so subtle, nor would it be in their nature. At least, not if they were acting directly.” The Walker shrugged. “Several possibilities come to mind. Scyllith does have her own cult, now; they are theoretically isolated underground by Themynra’s drow, but it wouldn’t be the first time one of them dug a long tunnel straight up and got loose on the surface. That doesn’t usually last long before the Pantheon’s agents land on them—or, for that matter, Elilial’s—but there’s precedent. It is also possible, though it would be out of character and contrary to her established pattern of the last few millennia, that my mother has decided to intervene in the mortal world again. Alternatively, it may be that one or more of the Infinite Order thought slain in the Pantheon’s uprising has survived, and now resurfaced. Ascended beings are nothing if not resilient, and most of them were exceedingly intelligent. Then, too, some members of the Pantheon would know how to use these systems, even before acquiring the nigh-limitless knowledge of godhood. They picked up some walking detritus in the course of their adventures, but a good few of them were trusted lab assistants who worked directly under members of the Order.” She shrugged. “The list of possibilities is long… But it is, now, a list, and not the wide-open vagueness it was when you stepped into this hall.”

Milanda unconsciously frowned and rubbed her chin, a gesture Sharidan made when concentrating. Catching herself at it, she immediately ceased.

“All right… You can find out who did it, then?”

“I’m not going to make promises based on information I don’t have, but I believe so. The access made to the systems gave me the impression it was…exploratory. Incompetent, even. A trained user would not have bumbled about, messing with random functions, the way the interloper did. My personal theory at the moment is that this is another human who’s got his hands on something he shouldn’t. If, somehow, somebody unearthed a functioning terminal with transcension field access and an authorized user’s credentials still active, that might be enough.”

“So…it’s an inexperienced user.”

“That much I can all but guarantee.” The Walker smiled. “I, as we have discussed, actually know how to use the systems. Provided our uninvited guest doesn’t get too much more time to practice, I should be more than a match for him. There’s been no such activity in the last day or so. Perhaps he’s asleep.”

Milanda frowned. “Can you reverse what was done to the Hands?”

“That’s trickier.” The prisoner began to pace again. “The system logs will tell me every change made by the intruder; putting everything back the way it was should be a very simple matter. This, however, is a hybrid system, designed to run at least partially if not mostly on the highly intuitive magic of the dryads. What’s been done may have had ripple effects that we can’t so easily put right. The whole mess is easily complex enough for chaos theory to be a potential factor. It should, in theory, still be correctable, but if that happens, we’re looking at a longer and more difficult operation entirely.”

“Especially if we want to take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again…”

“In all honesty,” the Walker said with a grimace, “if you’re going to do something like that, I would recommend dismantling the whole system and replacing it with another one, built from the ground up by someone who knows what they are doing.”

“Someone like you.”

She shrugged. “I could help, yes. The Avatar would be a better choice. I’m mystified what sequence of events could have led him to be stuck down there while this nonsense is going on up here. Theasia clearly persuaded him to help; she’d have been far better off persuading him to design her whole Hand apparatus. It couldn’t have been made without his input, but he definitely did not engineer this jury-rigged thing.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and peered around the empty hall. “All right… What, then, would you do? I assume there’s more to this facility than this hall, but I don’t see any doors…”

The Walker grinned and tapped again on her invisible barrier. “You wouldn’t. You don’t see one here, either, but I assure you, this is where it is. This facility was put under lockdown when the renegades attacked, and that order was never rescinded. Most of it is inert and walled off. I don’t know how this was left open enough that comparatively simple humans thousands of years later could have entered and turned on the lights, but here we are. I can unlock the rest of it, easily. There will be terminals in this hall; you just have to know how to access them. We’ll want something more central to do the kind of work necessary, though.”

“How big is this place?” Milanda asked curiously.

“It runs through most of the mountain,” the Walker replied. “You’ve built your city upon what used to be the planetary spaceport. The Infinite Order were rather paranoid and grew increasingly mistrustful of one another; they insisted on there being only a single point where spacecraft were permitted to land and depart, so they could all watch it, and thus watch each other’s comings and goings, as well as see who was doing what with the off-planet facilities scattered about the solar system. To that end, they flattened the top of this mountain and used it for a giant landing pad, building all the actual facilities the port needed underground.”

“But…the mountain isn’t flat,” Milanda protested, fascinated in spite of herself. “Tiraas is on a perfectly symmetrical hill.”

“It isn’t flat now,” the Walker said with a mirthless grin. “The Pantheon, when they came visiting, were not in a…talking mood. But yes, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s scarcely a snowball, the gravitational isolation chamber notwithstanding. That, by the way, is deep below the mountain, accessible only by teleporter; it’s not actually at all close to here. These passages are practically a city unto themselves, with spaces set aside for every conceivable use. I would suggest,” she added, suddenly frowning, “that we not unlock anything more than we need, which should be minimal. The security lockdown caused by the renegades’ attack would shut off virtually all of the housekeeping functions in chambers without living occupants—which would be all of them. A space that hasn’t been touched in eight thousand years will not be pleasant to visit, and there’s no telling what the Order had in some of those chambers. This, up here, was clearly a detention wing; there should be a security station close by. That will do splendidly for our purposes. If not, or if it’s not accessible, the hidden terminals here will have maps.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, aware that what needed to be said had already been said. She was stalling, now, afraid of the implications of what she would have to do here. But there was no time for that.

“Very well, then. Terms.”

“Terms,” the Walker agreed.

“First, you are not to leave here,” Milanda said firmly. “Ever.”

The Walker tilted her head. “From one prison to another?”

“It’s the same prison, and surely having the run of it is a different matter than being cooped up in that cell.”

“Very true. All right, I accept.”

“Second, your access to the facility’s systems will only be toward specific goals approved by myself or the Emperor. Third, you will not go near the Emperor, or any other guest who does not have the Hands’ protection against your magic. I’ll warn you, I am explaining, not bargaining; all the terms I am laying out will be programmed into the system, and you will not have the clearance to alter them.”

“You can do that?” the Walker asked mildly. “Then I’m curious why you need me.”

“I can’t,” Milanda replied, “but I know someone who can.” She tucked a hand into the pocket hidden in her skirt and withdrew the object the Avatar had given her, ejected directly from a small fissure in his metal complex back at the Nexus, where the dryads kept their personal effects. It actually rather resembled a power crystal, though more square in shape and encased in a framework of steel, with a complex little apparatus on one end. The Walker’s eyes fixed on it instantly. “So no, you will not go near the Emperor. When he approaches, or anyone who is potentially in danger from you, the system will issue a warning and give you time to secure yourself in a cell. This one, or another. There you will remain until the facility is cleared, at which time you will be free to resume roaming the whole complex at will. If you do not secure yourself in a timely fashion, interior defenses will be activated to do it for you.”

“If those were a threat to me,” the Walker said in a deceptively calm tone, “the Infinite Order would not have bothered to banish my sisters and I to the insulation layer, against Mother’s wishes.”

“The Infinite Order were very impressive, yes, but they did not have dryads, or the ability to use Naiya’s personal transcension field against you through their auspices. Or have you forgotten how you were corralled into that cell in the first place?”

The Walker stared flatly at her, all pretense of friendliness erased now, but after a long moment, she nodded.

“Very well. Your concerns are entirely valid. And…this is still a step up from my current situation. I accept those terms, and will not cause needless difficulty.”

Milanda, ever the courtier, caught the qualifier; what was needless was in the eye of the beholder, and someone who had no intention of causing trouble wouldn’t need to cover herself that way. She let it pass for the moment, however.

“I wasn’t finished. Fourth, these terms are not final; more may be imposed as they are deemed necessary by the Emperor, or his heirs.”

“There, we have trouble,” the Walker said, folding her arms. “You ask me to agree to an open-ended deal which you could change at any time to any terms you like.”

“Fifth,” Milanda barreled on, “and pursuant to the point above, if you resist or attempt to attack any Imperial personnel, you will be conclusively terminated.”

The Walker’s eyes narrowed to slits. “If you could do that, you would have.”

“Once again, the dryads—”

“Don’t talk to me about dryads,” she said curtly. “I am far too dangerous to be left alive. That I am proves my captors don’t have the capacity to kill me.”

“That’s where you are sadly mistaken,” Milanda said softly. “I have not spoken with the Emperor about you, thanks to the geas on this place, but I know him as well as anyone alive, and it’s no trouble for me to understand his position on this. It would trouble his conscience enough to keep you imprisoned, simply because of what you are through no fault of your own. He places duty and necessity above his personal feelings when he must, but he would absolutely not countenance the injustice of executing you when you are not to blame for what you are.

“His mother was a different matter. Empress Theasia, I’m afraid, never learned the lesson of Athan’Khar despite her own father’s remonstrations; her ministers had quite a time preventing her from creating and stocking, much less using, horrible weapons with the advances in magic and alchemy which occurred under her reign. None of that is common knowledge, of course. In fact, now that I’ve met you, I suspect the world owes you a debt. I do believe part of the reason the Empress allowed herself to be persuaded not to pursue such projects was because she had you down here, ready to be unleashed on any enemy she judged deserving of it. Theasia was quite the pragmatist, not to mention ruthless and paranoid even by the standards of politicians. I sometimes wonder if she wasn’t part drow.”

“I see,” the prisoner said tonelessly.

“And allow me to elaborate on your earlier objection,” Milanda continued grimly. “I am not negotiating with you, as I said, nor asking for your approval. I am explaining what will happen. Computer, display terminal.”

With a soft beep, a section of flat wall next to the Walker’s cell suddenly manifested borders, then slid upward to reveal a glowing panel above a rack of controls that vaguely resembled the runic interfaces with which Milanda was familiar. Positioned as it was, the Walker couldn’t see it, but her eyes cut in that direction regardless. Milanda, as the Avatar had directed her, carefully inserted the data crystal into the appropriate slot.

“Security protocols updated,” a curt and toneless feminine voice said from the air all around them. “User Milanda Darnassy acknowledged.”

“It’s done,” Milanda said, stepping back and dusting off her hands. “Once you’re out of there, the rules as I have explained them will be in effect. It was worth doing, on general principles, since the Avatar went to the trouble of making that for me. All this, though, has been my way of deciding whether I want to run the risk of letting you out.”

She stepped toward the panel again, meeting the prisoner’s featureless black eyes.

“Help me decide.”

They locked gazes, and the seconds slipped by. Finally, though, a small smile crept onto the Dark Walker’s thin lips. It was hard to tell, peculiar as her face was, but Milanda had the distinct feeling the expression was genuine.

“I like you,” the imprisoned fairy said simply. “You’re smart. Very well, it’s not as if there is a downside in this for me; your deal is an unqualified improvement in my own situation. I don’t at all mind helping you in exchange. In fact, after all these years, I find myself eager at the prospect of something constructive to do.” She stepped backward from the barrier, then bowed. “We have a deal.”

Milanda drew in another calming breath and let it out. “What’s your name?”

The eerie woman’s expression closed down again. “It doesn’t matter. The name belonged to…who I was. With my sisters. She is gone.”

“Well, in modern folklore you’re known as the Dark Walker,” Milanda said wryly. “I have to call you something, and forgive me, but I’d prefer it not be that.”

“Indeed,” the prisoner mused, “in all my years I have rarely met anyone who could pull off being called ‘The Dark’ anything. Walker is fine. I do enjoy a good stroll.”

“So be it, then. Computer, open the cell. Come on out, Walker.”

Even as she finished her sentence, the facility’s sub-OS beeped in acknowledgment, and an aperture suddenly appeared in the transparent wall near its right edge; roughly door-shaped, with rounded edges, it manifested silently where before the surface had been utterly seamless.

Walker moved without hurry, slowly pacing toward it, then as Milanda backed away to give her room, out. She paused in the corridor, then drew in a deep breath, her thin chest expanding.

Milanda smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but abruptly Walker whirled on her, lunging forward to grasp her head in both hands. Milanda seized her forearms reflexively, feeling her own newly-enhanced strength; she could have picked the woman up and tossed her one-handed, and that was the least of it. Walker’s grip was like iron, though, strong enough that even she couldn’t hold it back by brute strength alone.

The fairy smiled, however, and released her a moment later.

“You really are protected,” she marveled, still standing uncomfortably close, but having relaxed her arms such that Milanda was able to shove them apart and away. “Forgive me. You cannot imagine how long it has been since I could touch someone. All right!”

Grinning, she pulled back completely, rubbing her hands together in a mimicry of the gesture Milanda herself had made moments ago. “Then it seems we have work to do. There is no sense in delaying further. Come!”

She stepped around her, heading back up the hall toward the bend to the teleporter, and Milanda could only follow, desperately hoping she had not just made a critical mistake.

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12 – 15

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“What are you doing here?”

Milanda had nearly reached the spot Sharidan had told her about. At the sudden voice, she turned—carefully. Despite its abruptness, she did not jump. She was not a jumpy person to begin with, and years at the Imperial court had honed her self-control to a fine point.

There had been no one in the hall with her, and she had heard no one approach, but now a Hand of the Emperor stood scarcely three yards away, glaring suspiciously. They really could teleport now, then, and apparently without the characteristic crackle-and-flash of arcane teleportation or dark visual effect of shadow-jumping. That would have been very useful if they’d been able to do it while obedient and predictable.

“I live here,” she said, looking as nonplussed as she could. It had been the Empress’s suggestion to act as if they had noticed nothing at all amiss with the Hands, which the Emperor had agreed with. She could see the point—their behavior was suddenly almost childlike, their loyalty to their master constant but their execution of it wild and without judgment. Eleanora had already run afoul of the simmering paranoia behind their eyes, and deemed it best that no doubt be cast on them, as they would likely take it as provocation.

This only applied to the three of them, though. Hands did not hobnob with just anyone, but people in the highest levels of the government did interact with them, and were starting to notice. Even she had heard the rumors.

“Here,” he snapped. “In this hall. What is your business here?”

Milanda frowned slightly—perplexed, uncertain, the aspect of someone confused why she was being challenged. That took no political training, but only the experience of a strict Viridill upbringing which had never agreed with her. “This hall? It leads between the Emperor’s apartment and the west solarium without passing through the central corridor. The servants are busy cleaning in there right now. Why?” Sharpening her gaze, she took an impulsive step toward him, affecting not to notice the abrupt movement of his hand despite the jab of panic that it caused. He did not attack, though, nor even pull away when she “impulsively” laid a hand on his arm. “Is something wrong? Is the Emperor all right?”

“The Emperor is engaged in a task which requires privacy and isolation,” the Hand said, still watching her suspiciously, but with less overt hostility now. “You were informed of this.”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Affecting frustration, Milanda released him and stepped back, folding her arms beneath her breasts. That achieved nothing useful, and not just because of the modest gown that Sharidan preferred her in; never once had any of the Hands looked at her with lust, nor hinted that they were capable of such. Before today, she had much appreciated that. It had been worth a try, anyway. “No doubt you think I’m just a silly girl, but I do care about him. I know he has the very best people watching over him, I know he is smart and capable as any man. But… He’s not here, and I can’t help…” She trailed off, and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to waste your time. You’ll tell me, though, if anything happens?”

Milanda took another step closer to him, gazing up with wide eyes, head carefully angled so she didn’t accidentally look coquettishly through her lashes. A more direct stare helped sell the emotion. Clasping her hands before her would have been too theatrical, but she bunched them in her skirts, a nervous habit she had deliberately cultivated while at court so she could hide real nervousness by not displaying it.

The Hand had relaxed visibly, now. He still frowned, faintly, which was far more emotion than she was used to seeing from any of them, but appeared no longer on the verge of attacking her.

“I can’t promise that, as you know,” he said, only a little stiffly. “You will be informed of anything relevant to you. And you needn’t worry, his Majesty is in full control of his current situation. If you want to help him, go about your daily routine as normal. It is central to his plan that any parties observing the Palace detect nothing amiss.”

“Yes, so he told me,” she said with a sigh. “Perhaps I am a silly girl, on some level. My apologies.”

She curtsied carefully, not a whit more deeply than was proper, then turned and continued on up the hall without even a suggestion of hurry. There was silence behind her; she did not turn to see whether he was still there, or had vanished as suddenly as he’d come. And she definitely did not so much as glance at the marble bust of Emperor Sarsamon against the wall, which concealed the access to the secret entrance.

Lakshmi wasn’t best pleased to have her door knocked upon first thing in the morning, scarcely after Sanjay had headed off to school. The neighborhood wasn’t moneyed enough to be afflicted with salesmen, but several of the cults did proselytize. It had been a few weeks, though; she’d begun to hope she had finally trained all the nearby temples not to pester the resident Eserite household…

Upon angrily opening the door, she couldn’t decide whether she was more or less pleased than she’d have been by wandering preachers.

“Peepers!” Sweet said, beaming and holding out his arms as if for a hug.

“Oh, what the fuck now,” she demanded, folding her own arms.

“That’s a little thing we do,” Sweet said, turning to address the man accompanying him, a stranger to her. “We Eserites like our byplay—almost as bad as bards, sometimes. This one here is a classic setup/payoff; you’ve probably seen it in a play at least once.”

“It was a tad vaudevillian,” the other man agreed politely.

“Sweet, it’s early,” Lakshmi said curtly. “And you’re grinning at me, which is downright unnerving. Early and unnerving are a combination that doesn’t work for me. What do you want?”

“I need a favor, Peepers,” he said, his expression suddenly earnest.

She snorted derisively. “Are you outta your gourd? The last time I did you a favor, I ended up getting chased around by goddamn demons.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” He held up a remonstrative finger. “That was a job. This is a favor. Totally different! And no demons involved this time, I promise. Or warlocks. Much of anything, really.”

“And I’m going to do you favors because…?”

“She’s still huffy at me,” Sweet explained to his friend. “Because of the demon thing.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s entitled,” he replied seriously. “Have you tried the usual? Chocolates, flowers, empty flattery?”

“I was going for the old ‘pretend it didn’t happen and hope she forgets’ routine.”

“Ah.” The newcomer shook his head regretfully. “A classic blunder. You never try that on the smart ones.”

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

“Right, yes!” Sweet turned his charming grin back on her, and she had the sneaking suspicion he was deliberately doing it to be annoying, now. “Aside from the fact that it’s just generally helpful to be in the good graces of people with my kind of connections, this is the sort of favor that comes with payment, in the amount of far more than it deserves.”

“So it is a job.”

“No, it’s a paying favor—the best kind! A job is where you have to go out and do stuff. This won’t affect your plans in the least, unless you were going to burn down your apartment for the insurance money.” Sweet grinned and edged aside in the narrow doorway, gesturing grandly to his companion. “This is my friend Danny. He needs a place to crash for a few days.”

Danny, assuredly not his real name, was a moderately well-dressed and actually rather good looking man of local Tiraan stock, in that indeterminate area between later youth and early middle age. He bowed politely, and formally.

“It is an honor and a privilege, Miss Peepers.”

“Psst, it’s just Peepers,” Sweet stage-whispered. “You don’t combine a tag with a title, unless you’re talking to the Boss.”

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

“And the reason he can’t stay in your giant house is?”

“C’mon, you’re sharp enough to know better than that,” Sweet replied. “A discreet sort of place. Where people won’t come looking for him. It’s just a few days, no more than a week. He doesn’t eat much, even.”

“People who need discreet places to crash are hiding from something,” she said, unimpressed. “I have a little brother to worry about, Sweet.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got everything covered,” Sweet assured her. “I will have people keeping an eye out—discreetly. Any trouble heads your way, he’ll be shuffled outta here, and you’ll get backup. But that’s just to satisfy my own sense of preparedness. I’m not gonna drop more trouble on you than you can handle.”

“Once again,” she said acidly, “demons.”

“Oh, let’s be honest,” he retorted airily. “Nobody expected that to turn out like it did, and I still had it under control, anyway. You’re mostly irked because that means you can’t blame me for it.”

“I can blame you for anything I please,” she informed him. “Woman’s prerogative. And now you’re dropping some shifty noble with me, one who’s running from trouble? Noble trouble is almost worse than demons, Sweet.”

“Who says I’m a noble?” Danny asked, seeming more amused than affronted.

“Is that a joke?” Lakshmi demanded. “That cheap suit is not a disguise. No calluses, nails expertly manicured. Your hair is styled, in a way you didn’t do yourself, unless you happen to be a professional barber. Omnu’s hairy balls, Sweet, the man’s wearing perfume. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”

“It’s just my natural musk!” Danny protested. “I eat a lot of…” He lifted an arm to sniff delicately at his wrist. “…hibiscus, tangerine, and sanguine vanilla. My doctor swears it’ll add ten years to your life.”

“Well, he can banter up to my standards,” Lakshmi acknowledged grudgingly. “That’s better than nothing. But seriously, this is a three-room apartment in a contentedly cheap neighborhood. You will not like it here.”

“At least the company’s charming!” Danny said gallantly.

“It’ll be fine!” Sweet wheedled. “If he gets bored, you can teach him to do coin tricks. Hell, make him wash dishes, it’ll be character-building.”

“Hm,” she grunted, now studying Danny, who seemed amused. She would be astonished if the man had ever done housework in his life, but he wasn’t bridling at the suggestion, which meant he wasn’t the worst kind of noble. “I dunno…”

“Well, let me see if I can make it easier for you,” Sweet said. “Five decabloons up front, just for taking on the inconvenience, and an extra twenty in gold per day that he’s here. Plus, I’ll owe you one.”

Lakshmi was too experienced a bargainer to betray any reaction to the named sum, which was more than she’d paid in rent for this place the entire time she and Sanjay had lived here. Thanks to Principia’s accounts, she didn’t need money, but it was a measure of how serious the matter was. “Even though you’re paying me?”

“Hell with that, he’s paying you.” Sweet jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Danny. “Guy’s loaded. I’m just hooking him up with a reliable and trustworthy person who can provide him with a couch for a few days—for which, as I said, I’ll owe you. Come on, Peepers,” he added more softly. “Everything else aside, that thing with the warlocks just went south, and I never even suggested in the first place it would be safe. You know I wouldn’t put any Guild member in more danger than they could handle, or mislead them about the situation I was setting them up for. This is me, telling you I believe this is safe. If at any point I change my mind about that, I will haul ass down here immediately and pull him out. My word on it.”

She pursed her lips, making a show of mulling it over. “If he causes or attracts any trouble that affects my little brother, deal’s off then and there. And I keep the five decs and any gold paid up till that point.”

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

“And,” she added, “for thirty per day.”

“You’re proud of this place, aren’t you?” Danny observed with a smile.

“Oh, not at all,” Lakshmi replied, grinning at him. “I just enjoy squeezing you. Get used to it, roomie.”

On her way back through the hall, Milanda carried an apple. It wasn’t much as props went, but she had a story worked out to explain her presence here now that the servants had finished in the harem wing’s central halls. She had given it an hour, to be safe; with one Hand already suspicious of her, it was too risky to loiter in this region, or be seen here too often.

No one accosted her this time, though. Despite her looming awareness of the potential threat, Milanda moved without hurry, stopping in front of the side table on which the bust sat. She had seen this thing a thousand times and never paid it much attention, it fit so well with the décor of the Palace.

Now, moving as deftly as she could given the unfamiliarity of the motions, she reached under the table, her fingers finding the lever exactly where Sharidan had said it would be. She set the apple down on the table top, pulled the lever and held it, then carefully touched the rune hidden among the abstract patterns embossed in the table’s surface—also found right where she had been instructed to look.

There was no glow, or crackle, or any of the effects that tended to come with modern enchanted devices, nor even a mechanical click from inside the wall. A section next to the display simply shifted backward in silence, its borders marked by seams which had not existed a moment ago. After moving back six inches from the surface of the wall, it slid to the side, revealing the door.

Milanda retrieved her apple and stepped quickly through, not pausing a moment to study this spectacle. The moment she was through, the wall silently slid back into position, the apparatus clearly having been designed for maximum discretion. She didn’t find it particularly galling that Sharidan had been keeping this secret from her. Frankly, there was a lot he didn’t tell her, and she accepted that just as she did the fact that theirs was not a conventional relationship. She was not the only woman he kept in these apartments, and hadn’t even been his most preferred companion until the sudden departure of Lillian Riaje last year.

The less said about that, the better.

A small fairly lamp ignited as soon as the wall shut, saving her from the darkness. She was in a space no bigger than an average closet—an average closet from back home, not one of the cavernous spaces where the Emperor or Empress kept their clothes. Its walls matched the corniced marble from the corridor outside, a touch which amused her. Opposite the secret door was a ladder set into the wall, which vanished into an opening in the floor.

Milanda paused only for a moment to get her bearings in the cramped space before proceeding. She had no suitable pockets and it didn’t seem wise to leave litter in here, so she descended the ladder carefully with the apple clutched in her left hand. More tiny fairy lamps were set along the descending shaft; they came on when she approached, while the upper reaches of the ladder fell back into darkness.

This was a disorienting effect. Down she went in her own little island of light, which moved along with her, hiding what meager landmarks there were and erasing any sense of how far she had come. Already this had been a longer climb down than from any of the trees she had scaled as a child, and still, there was only darkness below. The Emperor clambered up and down this shaft? Alone? What if he fell? The sheer recklessness of it…

Halfway through that thought, her grip on the apple slipped. Milanda winced but did not jeopardize her balance by grabbing for it, resigning herself to having to find some way to clean up applesauce at the bottom.

It only fell two feet, though, before coming to a stop in midair. Well, of course; this had apparently been set up by Empress Theasia, who had been famous for never missing a trick. Obviously a place like this would have the best safety enchantments in existence.

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

It was at least ten minutes, maybe longer, before she finally put her slippers on solid ground again. The chamber at the base of the ladder was stone, well-cut but clearly old—it looked like it belonged in some ancient fortress rather than the opulent Imperial Palace above. Still, nothing about it was evocative of ruins. It was clean and in good repair. Milanda gave it scarcely a glance.

On the wall of this chamber opposite the ladder was the door. Sharidan had been unable to warn her in detail of what she would find beyond the hidden entrance above, which was modern work and no part of the geas governing and empowering the Hands, a geas which apparently protected itself by preventing any in the know from speaking of it. Only the fact that she expected some kind of door made her assume that was what this was.

It was metal, that much was plain, but not steel. It was too pale, and shone too brightly even in the dim light of the tiny fairy lamp set next to the ladder. The door itself was a mostly vertical panel engraved with a sigil which meant nothing to her, flanked by two columns of glass in which a faintly luminous purple substance slowly oscillated. This seemed to glow, but the strange metal did not take on any purple tint from it.

In fact…

Milanda’s breath caught as she realized what she was looking at. Mithril. The whole wall was made of it. In addition to being totally impervious, the value of this thing would practically buy the Palace itself. Slowly, she crept forward, reaching out to inquisitively touch the sigil in the center of the door.

It instantly shifted upward into its frame with a soft hiss. She did not jerk back, but paused momentarily to study this.

The room beyond was tiny. Scarcely wider than the ladder shaft and circular except for the flat wall which made up the door, it was also formed entirely of pale, glossy mithril.

Milanda stepped carefully inside, peering around for some hint what she was meant to do next. The thing was almost featureless, though there was a palm-sized panel beside the open doorway which was made of a different material. Some kind of glass, perhaps, like the tubes outside; it glowed faintly, this one a pale blue like the characteristic luminosity of arcane magic.

The door suddenly hissed shut behind her, and this time she did jump. A low hum rose from the metal floor, and in the little glowing panel appeared a black circle, which began to dissolve starting from a point at its top and cycling around clockwise until it vanished completely. The instant it did, only a few seconds later, the door opened again, unprompted.

It wasn’t the same room outside. Belatedly, Milanda realized that the little round chamber wasn’t actually a room, but a conveyance, which had just taken her… Well, hopefully where she needed to be.

This was clearly the product of the same minds which had made the moving chamber. Everything—everything—was made of mithril. She was in a short hallway, brightly lit, the air incongruously fresh considering how far underground this had to be. The lights were set into the ceiling, while more glowing purple columns marched along the walls. Up ahead was another door, this one larger.

Milanda strode forward with more confidence, reaching out to touch the sigil engraved on the door’s surface. This time, she wasn’t surprised when it vanished into the ceiling.

Beyond that was another corridor, which extended up ahead for a few yards before terminating against a mithril wall, where the hall itself turned to the right. The lights and border columns here were the same, but this corridor was lined by glass panels opening onto other rooms.

Tiny, empty rooms.

She paced forward, carefully peering into each as she passed. What was the purpose of this? There were eight of them along the hallway, but the third one on the right had another mithril wall instead of a glass pane with a room beyond. When she came abreast of that one, though, she had to stop and stare.

The cell opposite it was occupied.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” the resident observed.

Milanda was not at all sure what she was looking it. It was a woman…sort of. In fact, she looked more like a doll than a person. Her skin was deathly white, as she had heard Vanislaad demons described, and subtly glossy. It didn’t look like skin at all. She had black eyes, so dark their pupils were invisible, which did not contain any reflection, a most eerie effect. Her features seemed oddly stylized, with a very pointed chin and enlarged eyes, as if she had been crafted by someone working from a rough description of elves and not really striving for believability. She had normal human ears, though.

That wasn’t the limit of her strangeness. The woman’s hair…was not hair. It took a moment’s study for Milanda to realize what was wrong with it: what looked at first glance like short black hair was simply the shape of her skull, pigmented to contrast with her face and formed to look roughly like a backswept hairdo, but it was all of one glossy surface. And her black clothes were not clothes. They were part of her, hanging in ragged edges from her cuffs but fading into being from her throat, with no collar; her skin just shifted color and changed shape to very roughly mimic garments. The slightly baggy “pants” they formed tightened below the knee to cover gleaming black feet which seemed bare. At any rate, they had visible toes.

“…who are you?” Milanda asked, only belatedly realizing she had been staring.

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

“Because I am dangerous.” At that, she smiled. Her lips were bloodless as the rest of her face, and painfully thin.

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “…what do you know about the Hands of the Emperor?”

“Ah.” The woman’s smile widened. “I suspected as much. You’ll be having some trouble with them, no doubt.”

Milanda turned to face her directly. “What do you know of this?”

“Little,” the prisoner replied. “I could find out more, given access to the resources in this facility. I might be able to help you fix the problem, though I am reluctant to promise that. The system access is designed to be user-friendly, but there have been tweaks made to the underlying code itself, and I’m not a computer tech.”

Several terms in that speech were unfamiliar to Milanda, who decided to pass over them for now and focus on what she did understand. “I was cautioned not to let you out.”

“Very wise,” the prisoner said, nodding. “If you do, I’ll kill you.”

She stepped back. “Why would you do that?”

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

“Anyway, you have more immediate problems,” the prisoner continued. “You are not authorized to be here. Hands will be coming to check soon—they’ll know when someone enters here, and I suspect they’ll know it’s not the Emperor or one of their own.”

Milanda backed away against the far wall. “You’re trying to trick me into letting you out.”

“You should not let me out,” the woman said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you want to get out?”

“Of course I do, but that’s another subject. We’re talking about you. There is only one place for you to hide until the Hands investigate and leave—down there, at the end of the hall. Fortunately, what you’ll find in there is exactly what you need to proceed with your goal anyway. Unfortunately, they’ll probably kill you, too.”

“Is there anything in this place that won’t kill me?” Milanda demanded in aggravation.

The prisoner shrugged again. “That’s not the right question. They might kill you. I will. I might be able to help you. They probably can. They are your only hope, however slim, of surviving the next few minutes. And if they do decide to help rather than kill you, their help could even make it safe for you to let me out. This doesn’t seem like a dilemma to me.”

Milanda started to grasp at her head in frustration and belatedly realized she was still holding an apple. “I have no reason at all to trust you.”

“You can either go back, or go forward. You can’t do anything standing here except talk to me. It’s nice to have company, but I can’t do much for you while I’m in here.”

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

“I can’t kill you while I’m in the cell,” the woman replied in complete calm. “That’s why you should not let me out.”

“Are you insane?”

“Yes,” she replied, still calm. “Isolation does that to a person, and I’ve been down here for a long time. My mind was damaged by trauma long before I was captured, though. That’s why I kill everything. Regardless, you’re concerned with your own business, right? I could trick you into getting killed, which would be entertaining very briefly and gain me nothing. Or I could help you, which could be entertaining for much longer while you struggle to survive and overcome this situation, and that course might potentially end with me getting out of here.”

“At which point you’ll kill me,” Milanda said. “No, thank you.”

“As you are now, yes, I would,” the woman said frankly. “If you go see the others, they might change that.”

“Who are they?”

“Less dangerous than I.” The prisoner smiled again. “Marginally. I am very predictable. I’m really not sure what they might do. Honestly, I don’t think they are, either.”

Suddenly, lines of text appeared in the upper corner of the glass panel which walled her off from Milanda, in a language she couldn’t read.

“Someone’s coming,” the prisoner said, studying the script. “Either the Emperor or one of his Hands. I extrapolate from your presence that it’s not the Emperor. It’s time for you to move.”

“Bloody hell,” Milanda cursed uncharacteristically, bolting down the short remainder of the hallway. Behind her, the imprisoned creature offered no further comment.

After its ninety degree right turn, the hall terminated in another door, this one obviously a door. It was more heavily built up, with an elaborate frame of metal which was a matte black, clearly not mithril; the door itself was of the same material, inset with glowing blue runes. No, not runes—letters. Some of them were the same as the alphabet used in Tanglish, though the words made no sense to her.

Grimacing and clutching her apple for moral support, Milanda stepped forward and pressed her hand to the door.

Nothing happened.

In growing panic, she prodded at various words, none of which had any effect.

“You’ll need to find the access panel in the frame,” said the prisoner’s voice from around the corner behind her. “It should be on the left.”

Milanda hesitated, then stepped back, studying the heavily carved door frame. In fact—yes. On its left side, at chest height, was a little square space about the size of the one in the tubular conveyance. At her touch, this came alight, displaying more lines of illegible text.

A second later, the door opened, parting along a central seam and sliding into the frame on either side. It was thicker than the other doors, and more complex, revealing a second set of panels which slid apart in different directions. What it revealed was nothing but a wall of blue light.

Milanda carefully reached out to touch this, then thought better of it. Who knew what that creature in the cell was trying to trick her into doing? After a moment’s thought, she stepped back and gently tossed the apple in.

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth. The Hands were coming; even if the prisoner had lied, they would be anyway, and probably soon. The creature in the cell had been right about one thing: it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else for her to go down here. Muttering a quick prayer, she stepped carefully forward, holding up her hands, and began to pass through the light.

She just had time to watch her fingertips vanish into its surface before her apple came whizzing back out, clocking her right on the forehead. Milanda yelped and fell backward, landing painfully on her rump halfway through the door, whereupon she discovered that whatever was beyond didn’t have a floor on the same level. Flailing gracelessly and disoriented by the blow to the head, she slid and tumbled through into the unknown.

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12 – 9

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Scorn frowned, looking sidelong at the man who approached her with a greeting and a cheery wave. “I don’t know you. What are you doing here?”

“And it’s nice to meet you too, Scorn,” he said amiably, falling into step beside her. Considering her legs were three quarters the length of his entire body, he had to practically jog to match her pace, but for all that he kept his knowing smile in place and seemed not at all out of breath, or otherwise discomfited. “It is Scorn, I assume? I mean, I flatter myself that if there was somehow another Rhaazke demon attending this or any Imperial university, I’d know about it. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.”

She came to an abrupt stop, turning to glare down at him.

“This is not an Imperial university,” Scorn stated, “and Professor Tellwyrn says I am allowed to throw reporters off the mountain. There is a sign posted by the gates this semester. You consent to these terms by coming in here.”

“Yes, I saw,” he said, his grin actually widening slightly. “Real classy. But no, I’m not a reporter. Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence.” He turned back his lapel momentarily, flashing a silver gryphon badge at her.

“I do not need to talk to Imperials,” she said sharply. “Tellwyrn does not answer to the Empire. I am a student here.”

“Well, Scorn, there are needs, and then there are needs,” he said lightly. “You can blow me off, sure, but I think you’ll find—”

He made no effort to dodge as she bent forward and grabbed, nor did he resist, passively allowing her to hike him off the ground by the neck. The Inspector dangled in her grasp, regarding her sardonically, while she glared and bared her fangs.

“Listen closely, annoying tiny man,” Scorn growled. “You are bothering me, and I don’t have to hkraasf it. I get a little annoyed with you, maybe I just toss you off the mountain. I get very annoyed, I take you to Professor Tellwyrn and you learn all about not being a dumbass on her lawn.”

“I’m here at Tellwyrn’s invitation, if that matters to you,” he said, his voice only slightly strained by the grip around his neck.

Scorn narrowed her eyes. “That is the bull shit.”

Fedora huffed a soft laugh. “By all means, go ask her. And as for you and I and questions, this isn’t even about you, Scorn. I’m looking for answers about the sleeping curse.”

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

“Good,” he replied, smiling disarmingly. “Then we needn’t have a problem. Mind setting me down?”

She stared at him a moment longer before complying, more abruptly than was necessary.

“Thanks,” he said without a trace of irony, straightening his coat. “Here’s the thing, Scorn: I’m not really considering you as a significant suspect. But the facts are, we’re looking at infernal magic as a very likely vector for this thing, and it’s of a craft and style which is hitherto unknown and has so far defeated the efforts of some of the best magic users alive to even examine it. And here you are, the world’s only resident Rhaazke. A hitherto almost unknown demon species, known to be extremely powerful, both physically and magically. You see why this is—”

“I know nothing about that!” she snarled, taking an aggressive step toward him.

Fedora just looked placidly up at her. “Okay, I believe you. But I answer to Imperial Intelligence, as I said, and think about how all this looks to them. If I can’t bring them something, some kind of alibi for you, you’re likely to end up as a major suspect no matter what I say. And I’ve gotta warn you, young lady, getting aggressive with the first person who comes asking you questions about this makes you look guilty as hell. So how about we help each other out, here?”

She bared her teeth and drew in a deep breath as if preparing to start shouting, but quite suddenly the tension drained from her powerful shoulders, and she squinted suspiciously.

“You believe me? Why?”

“Motive,” he said promptly. “Personality. Circumstance. There’s no benefit to you and substantial potential loss in stirring up trouble here, and if you were the type to do so just for shits and giggles, it’s hard for me to credit that it would’ve taken you this long to start. No, this is a formality. But I do need some details from you, Scorn. And who knows? Somewhere in your extra-dimensional knowledge of magic, there may even be a tidbit we can use to put a stop to whoever’s casting this curse.”

“What if they come at you next?” she demanded.

Fedora’s smile widened to a broad, distinctly malicious grin. “You really are an innocent, aren’t you, Schkhurrankh? Or at least, you’re no mastermind.”

“If you are just to insult me,” she began.

“Look at me,” he ordered. “Look closely. Use your senses. Get a good whiff.”

She was already inspecting him with more attention than before, and at that, her eyes suddenly widened and she took a step back, hands balling into fists.

“Yeah,” Fedora drawled, “let’s just say I am not particularly worried about being struck by the Sleeper. Now. Why don’t we stroll over to someplace a bit quieter—”

“I have class,” she said curtly, stepping backward again.

“Oh?” The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “It’s rather late in the afternoon for—”

“I have extra classes,” Scorn snapped, “tutoring. Because I missed the last semester of classes, and also twenty years of knowing how this world is work—how it works. I have to catch up. I am going to my teacher now. After, I will find Professor Tellwyrn and as if you are allowed here and I am to answer your questions. If she say yes, then we will talk. If she say no…” Scorn leaned down till her slitted eyes bored into his from less than a foot away. “I will pull all your limbs off like an ant, and watch you try to squirm around. Yes? Good.”

“It’s a date,” Fedora said, tipping his hat to her.

She snorted nearly hard enough to loosen it, then turned and stalked off down the path.

“Be seeing you real soon, princess,” he murmured, watching her go.

“Smile, dear,” Eleanora murmured, squeezing his arms.

Sharidan gave her a sidelong look. “About what?”

Her own lips quirked in faint amusement, prompting a responding smile from him. In truth, it was not their wont to go about beaming with beneficence. Their public facades were very carefully crafted: he maintained an aspect of serene calm, while she carried herself with sternness hinting at the possibility of incipient executions. Good guard, bad guard. The “smile” thing had been a joke, but she was right. He’d been allowing weariness and worry to creep into his expression, and that would not do.

“Are you all right?” she asked even more softly.

He squeezed her hand in return. “Yes, just a little overtired. I didn’t sleep well.”

“Then do so tonight,” she said, still softly, but firmly. “You know you can’t let yourself—”

“Yes, I know.” He patted her hand, giving her another small smile.

Their entourage as they returned to the harem wing of the Palace was as small as usual, which was still not insignificant. Simple protection mandated escort by one Hand of the Emperor and four Imperial Guards, arranged in a defensive formation surrounding the Imperial couple; this deep inside the Palace, they were purely practical, not an honor guard. Not that he had ever been attacked this deep in the palace, but his grandfather had, and that at the instigation of an Archpope less powerful and hostile to the Throne than the current one. A steward also accompanied them a few steps ahead, and two servants in the rear, just in case they should happen to need something between the throne room and their private apartments. Not all the weight and authority of the Silver Throne was able to put a stop to some customs; Sharidan had ended several of his mother’s more excessive practices, but his seneschal had flatly put his foot down on the subject of even risking the Emperor’s momentary discomfort when hundreds of individuals were actively employed to see to the running of the Palace. At Eleanora’s wry observation that they were at least helping fuel the economy, he had given in.

The steward picked up his pace, moving ahead to open the doors to the harem wing for them. The two Imperial Guards standing at attention to either side saluted, but did not otherwise stir, as was proper. Sharidan nodded to each of them in passing; they kept their eyes ahead and made no response, also as was proper. Truthfully, there was nothing obliging him to acknowledge military personnel only doing their duty, and it wasn’t as if he paused to speak with every soldier in every formation he passed. In his opinion, though, failing to show basic regard for people serving him when he was that close was what made the difference between a healthy reserve and the kind of aloofness which made rulers dangerously out of touch.

The grand entrance hall of the wing was clearly a seraglio in the old style, with a sunken middle lined with rugs and cushions, and a profusion of potted plants and hanging curtains arranged to grant privacy. The harem’s original designers had doubtless envisioned this space with concubines lounging decoratively about, and to be sure, under some previous rulers this had been the case. Sharidan and Eleanora, however, didn’t keep enough women between them to fill the room, and none of their paramours were merely decorative. The wing also housed a library, gymnasium, and even a small observatory, not to mention rooms where visiting officials could be entertained. To share a bed with the Emperor or Empress, one was expected to be sharp of mind and useful to the Imperial administration.

At the moment, only Milanda was present; the current acknowledged favorite, she took it upon herself to act in a wifely manner toward him in the privacy of this wing, where Eleanora let that facade drop. She now stepped forward with a smile and a graceful curtsy, and Sharidan had to smile back, taking her hand and laying a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

Eleanora cleared her throat. “His Majesty,” she said pointedly, “has seen fit to exhaust himself in the service of his people. He requires to fully rest this evening.”

“I shall see to it that he does, your Majesty,” Milanda replied demurely, earning a nod of acknowledgment. She was only demure with Eleanora, who generally approved of but did not personally like her. Not for the first time, Sharidan counted his blessings that he enjoyed as much peace as he did in his home.

Eleanora had stepped away, giving him a final pat on the shoulder, and now glided toward the hall leading to her own rooms. Milanda slipped her arm through his, looking coquettishly up at him through her lashes in a way which made his blood begin to warm. She had a very effective way of ensuring he slept well, and to judge by the way she pressed herself to his side, she clearly planned to get an early start.

He had absolutely no intention of disobliging her. But first, last, and always, he was still Emperor.

“The matter of—”

“Will keep,” Eleanora said with clear exasperation, stopping and turning to give him a look. “The elves, the dwarves, the Sifanese, the Wizard’s Guild, the bards, that absurd business in Last Rock, and all the thousand other things going on are being attended to. Sharidan, I love the responsibility you feel toward your people, but I grow tired of explaining that you serve them poorly by wearing yourself down. You employ the best people alive to administer your Empire. They will manage all the ongoing situations while you have a well-earned respite; if something arises which demands your attention, they will come to inform you. They are all of them competent enough to know such a situation if it appears.” She tilted her head forward as if to look at him over nonexistent spectacles, and once again he regretted confiding the effect on him that gesture had had when his mother had habitually done it. “Let it be.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sharidan said wryly, turning to the servants waiting by the door toward his own chambers and slipping an arm around Milanda’s waist. “Some wine and fruit, please. Oh,” he added, shifting toward the Hand of the Emperor standing guard a few feet away, “and in the case of the ongoing operation in Rodvenheim, with all respect to my lady wife, I decline to wait for Lord Vex’s judgment to decide I should be informed. The moment word of progress appears, it is to be brought to me.”

The Hand’s face abruptly snapped toward him, scowling. “It is being tended to!” the man barked. “We know our duty. Have patience.”

Silence and total shock descended.

The Hand turned again to resume his constant, blank-faced survey of the room, as if a threat my spring out of any shadow—and as if nothing had just transpired. Everyone else, however, stared at him. Sharidan and Eleanora, as much politician as feeling human being by that point in their careers, kept impassive, though in the glance they exchanged he discerned her shock as clearly as his own. Milanda was a veteran courtier herself, and maintained her own outward equanimity, but her sudden stiffness against him told a different story. The Imperial Guards present had all shifted stance, wide-eyed and uncertain, and two had half-raised their staves. The servant about to leave to fetch the Emperor’s wine and fruit had frozen, gaping at the Hand of the Emperor in horror.

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

“Of course,” Sharidan said pleased by the mildness of his tone, then turned and added offhandedly to the servant. “Oh! Bring a carafe of coffee, as well.”

He squeezed Milanda, even as he met Eleanora’s resigned stare. He had no idea what this meant, but it meant something, and it was clearly not a thing he could afford to ignore.

Rest would have to wait.

Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

“I’m telling you, it’s too late,” Aspen said petulantly. “Humans are fussy about their diurnal rhythms. You can’t just visit them during sleeping time, they get all grumpy.”

“Yes,” Ingvar said, giving her an amused smile and reaching out to pat her back. “Yes, I think you’re right. Well, I really thought we were making better time. Here we are, though.”

“How come you think faster time’s better time?” she asked. “We came here, we got here. There’s plenty of tomorrow to go say hello. The elves were right, humans are way too obsessed with being speedy. Time’s just time, is all.”

“Elves, like you, have forever in which to live,” he said. “We have to do things while we can.”

The look she shot him was filled with sudden dismay, and he found himself feeling uncomfortable under her regard. It wasn’t the first time, lately. It was simple fact that she could live more or less indefinitely, while he had only the usual span of decades, but Aspen seemed to be having trouble with the idea. Darling’s warning about the nature of her growing attachment to him sprang once more to the forefront of his mind.

“So,” he said, more to fill the silence than anything, “would you like to go into town and get a room for the night?”

“Is that a joke?” she asked, her momentary unhappiness gone in the scathing tone she so enjoyed employing with him. “Dryads aren’t allowed in human towns, as people keep reminding me, and you know very well both of us are more comfortable in the wilderness than in beds.”

“Once again, you’re right,” he said solemnly, rather enjoying the satisfaction on her face. She loved being right, and loved even more having him acknowledge it. “The tallgrass isn’t quite the wilderness either of us prefers, though. I miss trees.”

“Present company excepted?” she asked with a grin.

“Of course.”

“Yeah, well… Still beats being under a roof.”

“I have to agree,” he replied, hitching up his pack, then turned his back on Last Rock and the looming mountain beyond it. “Well. Let’s backtrack a little bit, then. If you’re going to camp close to a town, I find it’s best not to camp too close. People range about, and it can be awkward if they trip over you in the dark.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” she muttered, following him.

They were content with silence and each other’s company, by this point in their travels together. It wasn’t any particular attunement to her that enabled him to sense her mood, though; Aspen wore her every passing feeling right on her face. As they walked and the tallgrass blazed red around them with the deepening sunset, she gazed glumly at the ground in front of her feet, a pensive little frown now and again flickering across her features.

“It’ll be all right,” Ingvar said quietly. “Trust me. She’s your sister. She’ll understand. Just from what you told me, I’m certain she loves you.”

“I’m…not worried about that,” Aspen said, then heaved a deep sigh. “It isn’t her. It’s me. I… She was right, Ingvar. Juniper was right about all the stuff I called her crazy over. I just don’t know how to face her.”

He moved closer and draped an arm over her shoulders. She leaned against him, not slowing their pace.

“Then don’t think of it as facing her,” he advised. “I bet the first thing she’ll do is hug you. Everything will seem simpler after that.”

“I guess.” He felt her nod against his shoulder. “Not just that, though. We’re going to see the Arachne. Nothing about that is gonna be comfortable. Never is.”

He chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you’re right on that point.”

He wasn’t in a position to see her smile, but he knew she did, and it lightened his own mood.

She saw him coming, of course. Approaching visitors were high on the list of things she instructed the system to inform her of. Naturally, she had to order the panel to go dark in preparation for his arrival. For the first time she regretted it; there had never before been anything ongoing which was worth paying attention to. Obviously, though, letting him observe her using the system was out of the question. If they ever found out she could, her only source of diversion would dry up. They didn’t have a lot of control over the sub-OS, but they could probably influence it enough to lock her out.

The hiss of the facility’s inner door was just audible from her cell, as were his gradually approaching footsteps. Moments after entering, Sharidan Tirasian passed into her view from the approach corridor. It had been beyond her just what the practical effects of the ongoing tweaks to the jury-rigged dryad/Hand system would be, but to judge by the Emperor’s expression, they had begun. It wasn’t often that he visited without one of his pets actually with him.

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

He stopped, turning his head just enough to study her. She never usually spoke to him. This was risky, hinting that she had access to information in here, but it was worth it for the sudden, clear discomfiture she inflicted. She didn’t even care to play mind games with people as a rule. That was what they got for locking her up with nothing to keep herself entertained.

A politician born and raised, he was impressively impassive; she could not at all follow his train of thought based on his expression, and she’d observed enough people over the millennia to have a pretty good read on human emotions.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked suddenly, and she had to admit she was impressed. The clever boy had actually managed to surprise her.

“No,” she said with a shrug. “You could give me things to make me comfortable. You’d have to open the cell, though.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Hmm.” Languidly, she blinked. “You actually are, aren’t you? Such a sweet boy. Not at all like your predecessor.”

His unreadable eyes remained on her for a bare moment longer, then he turned without a word, proceeding down the hall toward the dryads.

She began pacing as soon as he was gone. The panel, of course, she left dark, and would until he was safely out of the facility and in the elevator back to his palace. Still… This was only beginning. Something really interesting was bound to come of all this, sooner or later.

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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12 – 8

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“I’m not certain how worried we ought to be,” said Sekandar. “Three cases don’t constitute a pattern, even among a population as small as the University’s.”

Aerin set down her teacup. “That’s why I raised the topic, Sekandar. November was attacked last night.”

“She was?” Teal asked, straightening in alarm. “Miss Sunrunner’s going to run out of beds…”

“That’s the thing,” Aerin continued seriously. She was almost always serious; a junior, she was a half-elf and the younger daughter of an Imperial House from Ninkabi, where her pale complexion and blonde hair made her stand out starkly from the rest of her family. “November’s fine. She actually survived the thing, held it off long enough for Professor Tellwyrn to intervene. She said something chased her, that she could feel it trying to put her to sleep, but her divine magic counteracted it to an extent.”

“Well, that’s excellent news!” Sekandar exclaimed. “And here I was thinking it was some kind of disease going around; if it’s a person or monster attacking people, it can be defended against! And besides, if November’s magic countered it, that narrows down the things it could be.”

“Not necessarily,” Iris said quietly. She was holding her own teacup and had been for the last ten minutes, but still did not take a sip. “Arcane or infernal magic would disrupt her shields, yes. But so could fae, if it was substantially more powerful than November. And let’s face it, she doesn’t even have a god backing her up. I doubt November actually has the same kind of firepower as a real cleric.”

“Yeah, this is a lot of interesting theory,” Ruda drawled, tipping more rum into her tea, “but trust me, we’re in no position to begin unraveling this puzzle. We don’t know what happened, or how.”

“Perhaps we would, if we allowed Aerin to speak,” Ravana suggested mildly.

Aerin’s lips twitched in momentary amusement before her face resumed its customary blank mask. “I certainly did not interrogate her; she was at once keyed up and exhausted. Hildred and I had to practically wrestle her into bed, but once there she fell asleep so fast I wondered if the thing had got her anyway until she woke up this morning. All she really described was the attacker.”

“That seems significant,” Ravana said.

“Perhaps,” Aerin replied with a shrug. “She described it as a shadow. In her own words, it didn’t look like anything so much as the effect of something trying to deflect her attention from a particular spot. Which,” she added, shifting to nod at Iris, “does sound like fae magic.”

“Or Vidian,” said Shaeine, “or Wreath.”

A glum silence fell over the table.

Their table was set up in one of the campus’s secluded spots, a little courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls which provided heavy shade. It was lined by leafy shrubs, and home to three small trees, one of which had been oddly twisted early last semester and now looked vaguely humanoid in shape. Iris kept sneaking glances at it. The table itself was a simple folding card table, but had been disguised by a brocaded silk cloth in red and gray with thread-of-silver trim. Even the crockery was fine porcelain.

None of this, of course, was University issued. Ravana enjoyed hosting little tea parties, to which she invited various friends. The roster varied from one week to the next, but this time leaned heavily toward girls from the freshman and sophomore classes. Sekandar was the only male present, and Aerin the only upperclassman.

“Well, then!” Ravana said more briskly. “That is a start. It gives us something to go on. We shall, of course, have to ask November to describe in more detail what she saw—but needless to say, that should be done as gently and respectfully as possible. It cannot have been a pleasant experience for her. Meanwhile—”

“Meanwhile,” Ruda interrupted, “let me give you the benefit of my experience on the subject of taking campus safety concerns into your own hands when Tellwyrn is clearly already handling it: fucking don’t. She’s got even less of a sense of humor than usual about that.”

Ravana gave her a little smile which was more than half smirk. “Well, I am hardly proposing to defy an evacuation order, or leave the campus without permission to tattle to someone’s parents. Much as I enjoy the tales of your class’s exploits, Ruda, I rather think you would be more successful overall with a touch of moderation. No, clearly, students ought not interfere with the running of the University—but just as clearly, we cannot sit around waiting idly for this thing to strike again.”

“Ruda isn’t wrong,” Aerin stated. “This is not our job or our place, Ravana.”

“Not sure I agree,” said Sekandar. “At any rate, I don’t see how we can make it worse.”

“Oh, ye of little imagination,” Ruda muttered.

“I am inclined to concur with Ravana,” said Shaeine. “Presuming that we proceed with all due respect for everyone’s privacy, the rules of the campus and Professor Tellwyrn’s own prerogatives, I see no harm in acquainting ourselves with the situation in as much detail as possible. Besides, Tellwyrn not only doesn’t expect us to sit on our hands while there’s trouble afoot, I don’t believe she would approve of that.”

“Exactly,” Ravana said with a smile, lifting her cup in Shaeine’s direction in a little toast. “It’s all about the proper ways and means. Ultimately, whoever is to blame for this, are we not all responsible for looking after ourselves, each other, and our home?”

“Hey, I’m all for not taking shit like this lying down,” Ruda retorted. “And I didn’t say I intend to, either. Somebody thinks they can run around the campus hexing people, they deserve whatever they get, and I would honestly love for that to be my sword in their ribs. I’m just saying, Tellwyrn runs this campus, and not only does she not appreciate people getting into her business, if there’s anybody on the damn planet who can handle this, it’s her.”

“View it as…a class exercise, then,” Ravana said, still smiling. “Look around at who is present, Ruda. At the expense of appearing a dreadful snob, I exhibit a clear preference for nobility in those I invite to my little get-togethers.”

They all did look around, most frowning.

“I’m not so sure I can see it,” said Teal. “I mean, I’m not noble.”

“Most of the campus’s aristocrats have never been asked to attend,” Aerin added.

Iris cleared her throat loudly and pointed to her face, giving Ravana a sardonic look.

“Yes, yes, valid objections, all,” Ravana said lightly, “but I can refute each. Teal, I hardly think you can claim not to be an aristocrat simply because you lack a title. The Houses, despite their pretensions, were not designated by the gods. They are descendants of individuals who rose up in troubled times to seize power through their own ingenuity and labor. And then, as if to refute the entire point of what they had done, they fossilized the system such that their descendants would be assured the fruits of their success without having to produce any of their own. In the nobility who sneer at families like the Falconers for lifting themselves up by their own strength, I see nothing but insecurity.” She smiled broadly at Teal, but with something sly in the set of her eyes. “You have a better claim to nobility than most, Teal. You are not as far removed as the older Houses from that which makes such claims worthwhile.”

“I’ve often had the same thought,” Ruda noted.

“Indeed.” Ravana turned to her and nodded. “The Punaji have prospered, in part, by ensuring their rulers deserve to rule. Whoever holds the throne and the name had done something to prove they deserve it. A very wise system, in my opinion.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Ruda said with a grin.

“The converse is also true,” Ravana added. “I do not choose to socialize with much of the nobility present among the student body because I find many of them to be generally useless individuals. There are none so laudable as those who lift themselves up despite starting from a disadvantaged position, and none so contemptible as those who begin life with every asset the world can give them, yet never produce anything in return. Much is expected of those to whom much is given.”

“Is this why Szith hasn’t come at all this semester?” Iris said suddenly, frowning.

Ravana sighed. “I’m afraid so. Once she discerned that I am, in effect, building connections among persons of a certain social class, she concluded that it is not her place to be here, and I have yet to convince her otherwise.”

“Matters are different in Tar’naris,” Shaeine said quietly. “Social class is not easily transcended. Nor wisely, nor safely.”

“And that works very well in Tar’naris,” Ravana agreed, “where, it seems, you actually raise the nobility to be useful to society to an extent which justifies the resources that go into their upbringing. Far too many Imperial aristocrats feel entitled to all the privileges of their position and none of the responsibility. Honestly, I have a far higher opinion of my roommates than most of my peers.” She gave Iris a smile.

“Huh,” Ruda said, staring at her. “An’ this whole time, I had no idea you were bringing me along for a noble’s club.”

“Of course,” Ravana said sweetly. “If you had, you wouldn’t have come.”

“Why, you duplicitous little monstrosity,” Ruda said admiringly.

“Aren’t you sweet to notice,” Ravana replied with a sunny smile. “In any case, yes, I haven’t yet convinced Szith she has a place here, and Maureen wanted to work on her project. Building things calms her when she’s unsettled. How is it coming along, by the way?” she asked Teal.

“Well, I’m mostly just contributing the enchanting work,” Teal said modestly. “The actual structure itself is all Maureen. She’s a lot better than I at mechanical engineering. Right now there’s not much for us to apply charms to, until she gets more of the actual thing built.”

“So let me see if I follow you,” Aerin said slowly. “You want to step into a campus problem because you feel that as aristocrats, specifically, it’s our responsibility?”

“I think my mother would actually approve of that,” Sekandar said thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure how useful the designation of ‘aristocrat’ is in this context,” Ravana replied. “Those of you here are here because you have been raised to be actual leaders, trained to do the work, and possess the will and the intellect—and the sense of personal responsibility—to get it done. Or, even more admirably, you are building those traits yourselves. People like us should be involved with one another, simply for practical purposes, if nothing else. As an added bonus I find that I quite like all of you,” she added, beaming.

“People like us,” Shaeine repeated. “I am not sure what is meant by that.”

“People,” Ravana explained, “who grasp that the rational exercise of their own self-interest mandates building a just and functional society which works for the benefit of all. It’s interesting how both the thoughtlessly altruistic and the mindlessly selfish reliably commit the same catalog of errors. All of you, either consciously or not, know what it means to succeed. It does not work unless we bring with us to success all those who look to us for leadership. All lesser forms of power are fleeting, and prone to turning on their masters.”

“I don’t know how they do things in Madouris,” Aerin said dryly, “but where I am from, bastard half-blood daughters are not put in charge of anything.”

“I foresee you being in charge of a great many things over the course of your life, Aerin,” Ravana said quietly, “and not one because anyone put you there.”

“Well spoken!” a new voice announced cheerily. They all turned to behold a short human man in need of a shave, wearing a battered trench coat and a rakishly tilted felt hat, arriving at the foot of their table. “Good afternoon, kids, glad to see everybody enjoying the fine weather. If I’m not mistaken, I think I heard something about this sleeping problem the campus is having? Perhaps I could pick your brains about that for a bit.”

“Excuse me,” Ravana said evenly, “but I do not believe you’ve been introduced.”

“Oh, of course, sure, where are my manners?” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a silver gryphon badge. “Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence. Relax, nobody’s in trouble! I’m just asking questions, is all.”

“Uh huh,” Ruda said skeptically. “And does Professor Tellwyrn know you’re asking questions?”

Fedora grinned broadly at her and winked. “What, you think I have a death wish?”

He strolled casually down the hall, pausing in front of her door, and rapped sharply.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn’s voice said instantly. Her tone was oddly neutral. He couldn’t help but wonder if his visit was expected… Not that he could see any way how, but then, nothing this woman pulled out of her hat would surprise him.

“Good afternoon!” Mogul said, stepping into her office and doffing his hat, not missing the exceptionally flat stare she was giving him. “I realize we’re not personally acquainted, Professor, but it seemed to me this was a good time to get that out of the way before things got even more awkward. As you may recall, my name is—”

The world vanished, and yep, he really wasn’t surprised.

A peninsular outcropping of rock had been carved into an ascending staircase to nowhere, terminating in midair above a vast drop. Tellwyrn stood on the top step, one hand outstretched toward him.

Mogul hovered above the abyss just beyond the range at which he could have grabbed the ledge if he were suddenly to fall. They appeared to be inside a hollowed-out mountain; at least, the colossal space was roughly conical. It was lit by a sullen, reddish glow, emanating from someplace far below them. The source was not clear, as the bottom of the enormous chamber was hidden by a roiling fog which was either sulfurous yellow or just looked that way due to whatever was burning underneath it.

“…so this is awkward,” Mogul said. “Even more so, now. I had a whole speech ready, you know: it started with ‘this is awkward,’ but now it seems as if I’d be referring to this death trap right here instead of the ongoing kerfuffle on your campus. Now I have to revise my speech on the fly, or risk sounding all self-absorbed.”

He suddenly dropped two feet before stabilizing again.

“You do know I can shadow-jump right out of this, don’t you?”

“Oh, you think so?” She raised one eyebrow. “I’ll give you credit for sheer balls, Mogul: I would not have expected you to come swaggering openly onto my campus like that.”

“I feel I should stop you before you give me too much credit,” he demurred, raising one long finger. “I only swaggered openly to your door. Believe me, I skulked cravenly through the rest of it. Some of your students are a mite trigger-happy and I really don’t want to deal with the fallout of me having to defend myself against them.”

“Which brings us to the subject of your visit, doesn’t it.”

“Wouldja mind awfully setting me down in a relatively gentle manner on the step, there?” he asked. “It’s just that this is all so classic. The posing, the environment, even the light! I feel like I can’t properly take it all in from this position. How come we aren’t being cooked alive, by the way? I mean, if we’re in a volcano, the convection alone…”

“That’s not lava down there,” she said cryptically. After studying him in silence for a long moment, though, she stepped aside, and he drifted forward to land lightly on the top step near her.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” Mogul said respectfully, tipping his hat again.

“I think my point is made,” she stated, folding her arms. “Yours too, to be fair, though I really didn’t expect you’d be easy to bully. Well, here we are. Spit it out, and I’ll warn you, it had better be good.”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, then! As I was going to say to begin with: this is awkward. Basically any action I take at this juncture makes me look guilty. If I stay hiding in the shadows as is my wont, well, that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? But if I come forward to offer my help with your little problem, that’s even worse. You’re far too intelligent a lady not to observe how I could benefit from being in a position to help you, and that raises ugly questions about what role I may have played in causing these issues in the first place.”

“And what role,” she asked in deadly calm, “would that be?”

“None,” Embras said instantly, meeting her eyes. “None whatsoever. I won’t lie, Professor, I do keep an eye on your campus, to the extent that I can without running afoul of your excellent security. I noticed the very esteemed Professor Ekoi had suddenly absented herself from the school, and quite frankly I’ve been operating under the assumption that it was a trick aimed at making me do something rash.”

“If it was, she did not deign to inform me,” Tellwyrn said. “Kaisa has, in fact, left my employ.”

“Mm. With the greatest possible respect, Professor, I believe I’m going to carry on assuming the thing that keeps me out of the most trouble. In any case, yes, I have noticed you’ve got students suddenly being struck down with a sleeping curse. I’ve noticed that you took the step of appealing to the Empire for help, which is what made me think this matter may be more serious than your usual run of campus hijinks. The details of exactly what’s going on I don’t have, and can’t really get without treading upon your privacy in a way I am far too intelligent to do. But no—what it comes down to is that I have nothing to do with this. I swear it upon Elilial’s name and my own soul. I am also completely confident that no one in my cult is to blame. The very few who even might have the capability answer to me directly and would not be out doing such a horse’s ass of an idiotic thing.”

“And you came all the way to see me, yourself in the flesh, just to say that?” she demanded, skepticism written plainly on her face.

Mogul spread his arms disarmingly. “Why, that, yes, but also, to offer you my help. I can’t promise that my people will be able to contribute anything useful, but I’ve caught whispers from my attempts to eavesdrop that some of your faculty think this curse may be infernal in nature. We know a thing or two about that.”

“And this is purely out of the goodness of your heart.” She curled her lip.

“This is out of bare-ass naked self-interest,” he said frankly. “Look, Professor, in a less volatile situation I’d love the opportunity to ingratiate myself a bit. This is something else, though. I know what happens to people who harm your students. It should go without saying that I wouldn’t do such a thing, that’s just the bare minimum of common sense. I also don’t particularly want to be anywhere in the vicinity when it happens. I am simply trying to make the point that we didn’t do this, and that landing on my cult over it will not only not help, it’ll be a distraction you probably can’t afford right now.”

“And so you come to suck up.”

“Exactly!” He grinned. “I am willing to pucker up and plant my lips on whatever doesn’t get me atomized. Or any of my people, preferably.”

Tellwyrn stared at him in silence, her eyes narrowed to slits. Mogul just gazed back, his expression patient and expectant. He had learned not to look too open and honest; it was an expression he could produce at will, but it tended to rouse suspicion.

Finally, she turned away, pacing a few feet to the very edge of the stairs, and gazed off into space.

“What do you know about Elilial’s gambit on my campus?”

“I wasn’t aware she had one,” he said slowly. “The Lady doesn’t bother to inform the likes of me of every project she has running, and I certainly don’t ask.”

Tellwyrn turned to give him a skeptical look, and he shrugged.

“Whatever it is, I can only conclude none of my activities in the vicinity of Last Rock would have impacted it, or she’d have told me so.”

“She claims,” Tellwyrn said, “to have granted some of my students powers and knowledge to use the infernal at a level far beyond what even the most accomplished warlocks ordinarily can. Simply as something to distract me and keep me out of her business.”

Another silence passed, in which a slow frown fell across Embras’s face. “Hm. Hmmmm. I could see that. It’s rather bold, but… Well, the situation in the world is altogether tense at the moment, and this wouldn’t be the first time lately I’ve seen the Lady risk causing more collateral damage than she prefers to. I guess it would suffice to keep you good and tied up, wouldn’t it? Which reminds me,” he added hastily when she turned an irate glare on him, “we have never figured out who opened that damned hellgate last year, but it had to have been an initiate of your University, thanks to the geas you have over that mountain. I don’t suppose…?”

“The immediate aftermath of that was when she told me this,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “With an apology. Apparently opening new hellgates was not what she had in mind.”

“That’s for damn sure,” he said fervently. “That’s a nightmare nobody needs, especially the Wreath. Well. Startling as this is to learn, I don’t believe it changes anything. It sounds like she didn’t have a specific plan for those beyond causing trouble, and in any case, we end up having to clean up the splash effects of her schemes fairly often, anyway. If the Lady instructs me otherwise I’ll have to bow out, but for now, the offer stands.” He bowed, once again tipping his hat. “If I can help you address this problem, I will. It sounds like my assistance might be more relevant than I had suspected.”

“I’ll tell you what, Mogul,” she said. “You may consider the original purpose of your visit a success. I am, for the time being, not considering you or your Wreath a suspect in this. What that means, among other things, is that I shall take it very much amiss if I later learn that faith was misplaced.”

“I assure you—”

“I am still talking, shut up,” she snapped. “With that said, matters are not yet so dire that I’m willing to turn to you for help.”

“You’ve never turned to the Empire before, either,” he observed.

“Are you just trying to piss me off, now?”

He blinked. “…I don’t think anyone’s ever so directly questioned my intelligence right to my face before. Good show.”

“Your offer has been noted,” she said curtly, “and declined. You stay the hell off my campus, and keep all your warlocks and demons off with you.”

“As you wish,” he replied, nodding. “If I may—”

She snorted, and vanished.

“Well,” he said to the empty air, “that’s fine, then. I’ll just find my own way back.” Mogul paused, turning in a slow circle to peer around the cavernous space. “Now, just where in the hell am I?”

She had been watching almost the whole day. The interloper didn’t work constantly, of course. It was probably human, and needed food, sleep, and other biological functions. Besides, it had become more cautious since discovering the dryads.

It was an open question, of course, whether the intruder knew what they were. They weren’t labeled as such, but the Tiraan had jury-rigged this whole system to let them use the Order’s facility by installing those dryads in such a way as to gain access to the sub-OS under Naiya’s credentials. That much the intruder had surely deduced by now, and someone intelligent (which he or she had to be) and in possession of the right historical knowledge could connect the dots.

Their progress was slow and careful. She watched the panel on her cell as it showed the systems being called up, but no more functions were triggered. Someone was just studying the code. She had to wonder whether they had any idea what they were seeing; the last she’d heard of these humans and their “enchantment” before being locked up, they had progressed to simple logic gates. It was doubtful any of them were coding software by now. Still, code was language, and language could be interpreted by its function. This system had enough of their junk in it already to give the intruder a mental handhold. The Tiraan didn’t even understand all the changes they’d wrought to the system; they would not have been pleased by her having access to the facility’s functions from her cell, however inhibited, and the Infinite Order had certainly not designed it this way. In their bumbling they had left all kinds of backdoors open to exactly this kind of invasion.

It was thus even more alarming than it might otherwise have been when the intruder began tweaking variables in the code linking the dryads to what they were doing with Naiya’s administrative access. Those functions were integral to what made Hands of the Emperor work.

“This,” she said aloud, watching the numbers change, “is going to be terribly interesting.”

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