Tag Archives: Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Walker demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halt!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda’s reflexes obviously did not give a damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please…

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

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

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

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

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

And only then regained control.

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

A smell appallingly like fried pork hung in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He reached the aftermath of her slaughter, and stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Milanda,” Walker said.

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

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

“She,” Milanda whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence thundered around them.

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

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

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

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

“I killed them all.”

Walker stroked her hair.

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

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

“I can’t sleep. Not…not for…”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Silly children.”

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12 – 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The succubus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for stealth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

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

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

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

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

With that, he vanished from view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. Not a dryad, then.

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

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

“Agreed! Walker!”

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

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

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

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

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

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

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

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

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

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

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

“The weapon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no such luck.

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

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

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

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

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

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12 – 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

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

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

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

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

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

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

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

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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12 – 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For you being friends with evil?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda sighed.

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

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

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

Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

Walker nodded mutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not your fault.”

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

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

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

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

At last.

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12 – 33

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The lights were on when they entered. It was just like opening up the security hub for the first time; after Milanda instructed that the lockdown be ended in this room, it had remained sealed for a few minutes while the sub-OS did some housekeeping tasks, and when the door finally opened, the space was bright and clear of dust and any decay. It was also full of junk. Unlike the more chaotic assortment of things strewn about the security hub, though, this was mostly large crates and canisters, and several upright racks which held neat rows of devices she couldn’t identify behind glass. Well, probably not glass, but something transparent. More to the point, this was organized. There was fairly little space left to maneuver, but what remained were neat aisles between boxes that led to the room’s various necessary functions. The crates and racks themselves were stacked neatly, clearly according to a plan.

“If we’re going to keep opening things up,” Walker observed, following Milanda into the teleport array, “we may want to re-activate that Caretaker unit. He can clean and organize things more efficiently than we. Not to mention more safely. They’re programmed to handle just about anything the Order would have used.”

Milanda paused, turning to look back at her with an upraised eyebrow. “He?”

Walker shrugged, still peering around the room. “They’re sexless, obviously, but it was conventional to call them ‘he.’ Sort of like how ships are considered feminine. You could call it anything you want, I suppose.”

The chamber itself was smaller and laid out differently than the security hub. Square in shape, it had walls of a dark material rather than the mithril and steel of which the hub was constructed, though it was supported by angled struts of some gray metal with a matte finish. A square space opened off the door itself, most of it obscured by orderly stacks of crates, with a row of consoles along the left. To the front and right, short flights of stairs rose to small balconies flanking the room on those sides. Directly ahead of the door were a series of doors just like the one which led to the dryads’ little planet—the gravitical isolation chamber, according to Walker—and on the right stood a large, flat pad, as Milanda discovered upon ascending to that level. These doors, unlike the one to the GIC, were inert.

“Milanda.”

At Walker’s tone, she turned. The fairy had lifted the lid of a crate, and was staring into it. After a moment, she set the lid aside and turned to one of the vertical racks, studying it for a few seconds before touching its control panel. One of the transparent walls immediately slid upward with a soft hiss, granting her access to the objects within.

“What is it?” Milanda asked, stepping back down to join her.

“These are weapons,” Walker said, pulling one of the things out of the rack. Except for its angled grip of black material, attached to an obvious trigger mechanism, it was made of a glossy white material, with details of black and chrome. About as long as her own forearm, it had a padded butt meant to rest against the user’s shoulder and a small nozzle on the other end. “The crate has extra power packs and replacement components. I think…these are all weapons, and accouterments for them. The crates all match, and this room was organized.”

“Ah…” Milanda watched warily as Walker hefted the alleged weapon to her shoulder, sighting along it at the teleport pad above. Not sense letting the creature out of her cell had she been so keenly aware that she was dealing with something ancient, which had no reason to think well of her and the government she represented. “How likely is all this to explode, do you think?”

“Not very,” Walker said with a shrug, carefully hanging the weapon back on the rack with its fellows. Milanda relaxed, feeling tension she hadn’t noticed dissipate. “I’ve mentioned this before, but the Infinite Order were utterly paranoid. All firearms were gene-locked; only authorized servants would be able to fire them. In anyone else’s hands, they are totally inert. There are no authorized servants left alive, and nobody who can add authorizations, so these…all of these…are so much dead weight. As for exploding, they don’t really do that unless maliciously mishandled. For instance, if someone tried to tamper with them to get around the gene-lock.”

Milanda breathed a sigh of relief. “Small favors. Oh, but… What about the people asleep, down by the hangar bay?”

Walker gave her a sardonic look. “I guess we can add something to our list of reasons not to wake them up.”

“Yes, quite.”

“Random junk thrown in the security hub, armaments stacked in the teleport array.” Walker absently rubbed her palms together, peering around. “What the hell happened in this place?”

“I need to fetch a clock, next time I’m up above,” Milanda muttered. “I don’t even know how long I slept. What with one thing and another, my rhythms are completely thrown off.”

Walker gave her an amused look, then turned to the nearby console. “Computer, display clock. Local time.”

Obligingly, the screen lit up with numbers. Apparently, it was just shy of noon.

“Oh. Well, that’s nifty. Also explains why I’m hungry…”

“The fabricators in the barracks kitchen can take care of that,” Walker said, grinning faintly. “Try not to get too lost in the menu choices. Oh, and don’t order sushi. Those things cannot do it right.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Milanda murmured, turning to pull the lid off another crate and peer within. None of the objects it contained were meaningful to her.

“As an amusing footnote, this planet’s day length and orbital period are just slightly longer than Earth’s. They established a local calendar for years, but as far as hours and seconds went, they simply adjusted the measurements to match the planet, rather than try to compute days that were twenty four and about a third of an hour long. Naturally, that meant they had to reconfigure all their technology, but apparently that was the easier option.”

“Increasingly, they just sound…insane.”

“They were pretty idiosyncratic right from the star, even before going power-mad.” She paused in the middle of examining one of the consoles, then turned to Milanda, who was gently rummaging through the crate now that she’d been assured nothing in it was actively dangerous. “And on the subject of power-madness, I have been thinking.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very amusing. In seriousness… What do you plan to do about all this? The technology around you would have an incalculable impact on your civilization if you began disseminating it.”

“I am very grateful not to be the one making such decisions,” Milanda said fervently.

“Aren’t you?” Walker kept talking while she climbed to the upper level, inspecting the teleporters. “After all…here you are. You came down here to learn what had gone wrong with the Hands and fix it. Now, in the middle of that, you’ve apparently stopped and changed course to exacting revenge on the Archpope.”

“That analysis is wrong twice,” Milanda said with a sigh. “This is an unavoidable delay, not a change of goals. We are still going to repair or replace the system; the Hands in their current state are a constant hazard. I’ll need to go see the Avatar about that, because it will apparently require the dryads’ help. But also, this is not about revenge. Justinian has adapted to circumstances; he hasn’t abandoned his goals, either. Shutting his…hacker…out of the system slowed him down, but it hasn’t ended the threat. We can’t fix the system and make sure it stays fixed unless his capacity to interfere is permanently disabled.”

“You’re talking about war on the Church, you know. That won’t be permanently disabled until everyone who knew about it, save the Archpope himself, is dead or in your custody.”

“And that is why I wanted you to destroy their equipment, not block the connection,” Milanda said with no small relish, slowly turning an inscrutable silver object from the crate over in her hands. “The next move is ours, despite what he thinks, and I intend to head his efforts off before his new plan can materialize. Obviously, that will require—”

“Freeze!”

She did so, shifting only her eyes. Walker was standing at the rail of the balcony, staring down at her with obvious alarm. Moving slowly, she began descending the steps, hands held out as if afraid Milanda would bolt.

“Do. Not. Move. Not a finger.”

Milanda parted her lips to ask what was wrong, but thought better of it. Walker approached her and slowly, with extreme care, reached for the silvery cylinder in her hands. She first lifted Milanda’s finger from the switch positioned near its middle, then carefully took the thing from her. Only when she had stepped back did she let out a sigh of relief.

That was somewhat startling to see, and highlighted the fact that she didn’t usually breathe at all.

“Okay,” she said weakly. “We’re all right.”

“What happened?” Milanda asked in a squeak. “What is that?”

“This,” Walker said distastefully, holding up the cylinder in one hand, “is not gene-locked. These were only carried by ceremonial guards. It’s rigged to explode if found to be in the wrong hands, because the melodramatic idiots who issued these damned things to their servants had no sense of restraint or perspective.”

“It’s a bomb?” Milanda asked shrilly.

Walker shook her head. “Only a member of the Order could issue that command. Unless Scyllith or Naiya greatly surprise me with a sudden display of attentiveness, that’s not about to happen. No, Milanda, at issue was that it isn’t gene-locked, and you were pointing it at your face, with your finger on the activator.”

Milanda gulped heavily. “Oh. Well, um, thank you, then.”

“You are welcome.”

“What does it do?”

Walker sighed again, gave the device an oddly contemptuous look, and pressed the switch with her thumb.

A loud hiss sounded, and a shaft of blue light about a yard long sprang from the tip of the cylinder, then remained rather than shooting further. Once activated, it put off a deep, powerful hum, the noise suggesting an enormous amount of energy coursing through the thing. Walker carefully waved it back and forth, and the pitch of its humming shifted as it moved through the air.

Milanda frowned, belatedly making sense of the arrangement. The cylinder was a handle, and the light…

“It’s a sword?”

“It’s a sword,” Walker confirmed, still staring at it. She took two steps to the side, and casually swept it against the heavy lid currently lying ajar atop the nearest crate.

Its corner was sliced off as if it were paper. Where the energy blade passed through it, a rim of angrily glowing metal remained, melting further even as it cooled.

Milanda gulped again. “Oh. I didn’t realize the Order’s servants fought with swords.”

“They didn’t,” Walker said acerbically. “These will cut virtually any solid matter save mithril, but were useless against either energy shields or directed energy weapons, which made them…useless. They were, as I said, ceremonial. And the ceremonial guards who carried them suffered an alarming rate of attrition from self-inflicted dismemberment. Mostly due to the fencing bouts their masters demanded they perform. I am proud to say Naiya never wasted time or resources on such idiocy.”

“Idiocy indeed,” Milanda said disbelievingly. “Of all the… They wanted their guards to play around with them? I can hear how dangerous that thing is from way over here!”

“Actually, funny story,” Walker said with a smile. “The technology that produces energy blades is highly efficient. No excess glowing or buzzing. This has extra machinery in the hilt to produce the light and sound effects.” She pressed the switch again, and the blade deactivated with an apparently gratuitous hiss.

Milanda actually clapped a hand to her head. “I don’t understand the mentality of these people. Why, why would they do something so destructive and completely pointless?!”

Walker shrugged, carefully laying the sword back in its crate. “They were the Infinite Order. You ask why? For the first hundred years, the answer was ‘for science,’ and thereafter, ‘who’s going to stop us?’” She shook her head and paced back over to the terminals. “Anyway. The facility seems active; these would be displaying a warning if the teleporters were broken, instead of being in normal standby mode.”

“All right, then,” Milanda said, following her, then cleared her throat. “Computer! Activate facility exterior sensors! Was that right?” she added in a lower tone.

Walker gave her a little smile. “Just fine.”

Further conversation was forestalled by the computer’s chime of acknowledgment. “Facility physical sensors offline.”

Walker frowned. “What? Why?”

Nothing happened. Walker rolled her eyes, then looked expectantly at Milanda, who grinned.

“Computer, diagnose the problem with the sensors.”

“All physical sensor apparatus were manually disconnected by order of REDACTED. Manual reconnection required to resume operation.”

Walker shook her head slowly. “The mystery deepens. I’m growing curious enough about what happened to this place I may just summon a god and ask them.”

“You can summon a god of the Pantheon?” Milanda asked, fascinated.

The fairy gave her a wry half-smile. “Well…not directly. But if you make enough of a ruckus and survive long enough, one will eventually show up. They’re fairly reliable in that regard.”

“Right. Let’s consider that Plan B. For now, what are our options? Computer, how can we manually reconnect the sensors?”

“Physical repair is necessary at maintenance access points.”

Walker was already shaking her head again. “No good. We really will have to fire up the Caretaker now; he’s the only one who can do that kind of engineering. I’m not skilled in such detailed work, and you certainly aren’t. In the meantime…” She frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. See if it will connect to transcension fields. Naiya deliberately disabled the one linking the Order’s facilities, but this should be able to link to others directly. And we know there are at least four still in operation.”

“Right. Computer! See if you can connect to any active transcension fields.”

“Working.” After a short pause, it chimed again. “Four transcension fields active at sufficient power to form a connection. Personal fields of User Scyllith and User Naiya. Unidentified transcension field. Unidentified transcension field.”

“So the arcane was made after the Order fell,” Walker mused. “Otherwise, it’d recognize it…”

Milanda glanced at her, but continued speaking to the computer. “Can you gather sensor data directly through the transcension fields?”

“Exactly,” Walker said with a smile.

“Working. Affirmative. Both authorized fields enable direct data acquisition.”

“Hmm…” Walker gave Milanda a thoughtful look. “It might be best to use one of the others. I prefer not to accidentally draw the attention of a surviving Elder God.”

Milanda noted that this was the first time Walker had referred to members of the Infinite Order that way. “People use their magic all the time without calling them down.”

“Not from a designated Infinite Order facility, they don’t. Either of them would know exactly what that connection was and what it meant. Their consciousness may be too diffuse at this point for it to matter, but…that’s a risk.”

“Fair enough. Computer! Try to connect to one of the other active fields.”

“Authorization required. Please see the system administrator for clearance.”

Walker sighed. “Apparently there’s a limit to how much monkeying around it will tolerate without getting actual Order permission.”

“Seems like an arbitrary limit.”

“Yes,” she said irritably, “as is most of what they did. Very well… If we must, try Naiya’s. I can’t say she’s less erratic than Scyllith at this point, but she’s not cruel or gratuitously destructive.”

“Well, that’s encouraging,” Milanda muttered. “Nothing else for it, I guess. Computer! Connect directly to Naiya’s transcension field.”

“Attempting connection. Working.”

Walker and Milanda looked nervously at each other.

“Working.”

“Should it take this long?”

Walker shrugged. “I’ve never seen this done, Milanda. Last time I used computers like these, they had their own dedicated transcension field. This isn’t normal operation.”

“Connection established. Warning: Transcension field eighty-two percent deviant from recorded values. Connection unstable. Would you like to optimize the connection?”

“What would that entail, exactly?”

She had been asking Walker, but the computer answered.

“Narrowing the accessible energy spectrum and activating additional security protocols will result in a stable and secure connection at the cost of transmission and reception speed loss. Conversely, broadening the accessible spectrum and disabling security will restore full connection speed, but cause increased risk of disconnection and adverse reactions within the facility’s systems.”

“Rule of thumb, when connecting computers to anything else,” Walker stated. “Never disable security.”

“How likely and how severe would these…interruptions…be?” Milanda asked.

“At present deviation from recorded values, full security is strongly recommended. Disconnection from the transcension field is considered ninety percent probable, at a projected rate of two events per minute. Possible side effects are variable, potentially including catastrophic damage to the system.”

Walker shook her head emphatically. Milanda sighed.

“I guess the safe way is the slow way, then. Computer, optimize the connection.”

“Working. Connection optimized. Connection within acceptable safety and stability parameters. Data transmission and reception speed: five percent of optimal. Capacity to achieve physical effects: Point zero five percent of optimal.”

“So we can get information through it, but not do witchcraft,” Walker said. “Well, fine, that’s more or less what we wanted anyway.”

“Don’t we need to do witchcraft to fix the Hands?”

“Not outside the facility; everything needed to affect that system we already have. It’s done via the dryads, remember, not the machines here.”

“Alert: one pending message.”

Both of them turned to the screen before them in surprise; it had lit up with an icon Milanda recognized as an envelope.

“A message from who?” Walker demanded.

“A message from whom?” Milanda repeated after a moment, earning an annoyed look.

“Status report from extraplanetary monitors,” the computer reported. “Since last connection, this solar system has been approached by confirmed intelligences seven times. Two were confirmed human in origin. One confirmed nonhuman in origin. Two additional events may have signified intelligent contact. Do you wish a detailed report?”

“Um, no, thank you,” Milanda said. Frowning, she turned to Walker. “Gods, I never even thought about that. Other people came here? From Earth?”

“Earth, perhaps another colony, apparently at least one place totally unrelated.” Walker shrugged. “The dimensional folding around this solar system renders it completely impenetrable. It would also tend to draw attention from any species with the capability to detect it. That kind of thing can’t possibly occur naturally, and is a truly vast engineering achievement. Fortunately, or perhaps not, it also has the effect of making the emphatic point that visitors are not welcome. We are alone here.”

“Seven, though,” she said thoughtfully. “In eight thousand years.”

“Space is big,” Walker murmured. “Like, really, really big. That’s downright bustling.”

“Well, anyway. Computer! I want you to use the transcension field access to form a physical map of the city—I mean, the landing pad area above. It needs to be precise enough to make teleporter jumps from here to…wherever in the area on this mountain we decide.”

“Working. Map estimated completion in point five hours.”

Milanda frowned. “Arcane teleportation is almost instantaneous…”

“We’re not using that,” Walker pointed out. “You can’t ordinarily teleport through Mother’s transcension field, and apparently the computer can barely access it. This is pretty reasonable, all things considered. Well! Since we apparently have some time, let’s go back and see about waking up the CT unit, shall we? After all, somebody needs to start straightening this place up, and better him than us.”


The path back to the security hub involved a short elevator ride, then a walk down two hallways, which was more interesting than it needed to be due to the boxes cluttering them. It took about five minutes to reach the hub, but they returned through one of its other entrances, not the one which led to the prison wing and the door to the dryads’ chamber, so their comings and goings should be secure from any Hands who might visit the facility.

“No, any colonies would almost have to be on their own,” Walker was saying as they reentered the round room. “A true galactic civilization isn’t feasible due to relativistic effects. Even disregarding the travel distances involved, time itself doesn’t move the same way in every part of the universe. Without—”

She broke off suddenly at the head of the steps down to the lower level, Milanda crowding behind her.

They weren’t alone in the security hub.

“Oh,” Milanda said with a wince, peering over Walker’s shoulder. “Um, hello, Hawthorn.”

The dryad was staring, wide-eyed, at Walker. At Milanda’s voice, she began screaming.

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12 – 31

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Milanda emerged from the barracks again, which was still like stepping indoors. It had taken a little doing to figure out how the Infinite Order’s toilet facilities worked; the basics were familiar, but the controls were totally alien. In the end, she had had to ask the computer for instructions, which was humiliating, even though she knew the talking machine wasn’t capable of passing judgment or finding humor at her expense.

Strange and awkward, yes, but also luxurious. The facilities allotted for security personnel compared favorably to any luxury she had enjoyed in the Palace. Once she figured out how to work them, at least.

After that, navigating the kitchen had been relatively simple. All she wanted was a cup of strong tea. The exact blend which had been produced by the fabricator was unfamiliar; the computer had identified it as Earl Grey. After one sip, Milanda decided she was going to have to come back for more of this when there was time.

Regardless, she had taken only enough time to refresh herself with a quick wash and an invigorating drink before heading back to the security hub. The barracks was still displaying Hawaiian Night, and while she didn’t know what Hawaiian meant, the warm tropical darkness was enough to make her want to stretch out on one of the bunks and let the birdsong and night breeze carry her off to sleep. She had no time for that, though. Feeling somewhat re-invigorated despite the long time she’d been awake, she stepped out.

Walker was still hunched over her screen; for a being whose very name implied movement and who had spent years in a cell, she seemed remarkably devoted to that machine.

“Feeling better?” the fairy asked without looking up.

“Much, thank you. I’ll be back shortly; we have a lot more to do, and I won’t feel comfortable loafing in my own bed until it’s done. But these events do need to be reported as quickly as possible.”

“Just a moment, please,” Walker said as Milanda made her way through the maze of crates toward the door. “I’ve uncovered something you might find relevant—or at least, worth carrying to the Emperor.”

“Oh?” She turned to face her. Ever since the Avatar’s ritual, she felt stronger and more vigorous, but it had been a long day. Another cup of that tea would’ve been heavenly…

“With our intrusive friend thoroughly offline for the time being, I’ve been examining his pattern of incursions, most of which are every bit as fumbling and incompetent as I told you. I wouldn’t absolutely swear his tampering with the Hands program was deliberate or malicious.”

“Considering where he was working from, I rather think it was,” Milanda said impatiently. “You said this was important…”

“So,” Walker continued, “I looked farther back, to that other incident ten years ago. The one where this system was accessed under Scyllith’s credentials from Fabrication Plant One.”

“Puna Dara, yes. I remember.”

“I’ve identified the changes made,” Walker said, fingers gliding across the screen and bringing up boxes on it. Streams of numbers and text, mostly, but she also displayed a picture of a plant for some reason, shifting so Milanda could see it and turning to look at her. “That one didn’t alter the existing functions of the Hand system, but added something to it. Another signal piggybacked on it, disseminated through what I think was a specific wing of the Palace.”

“Oh?” Despite her fatigue, Milanda’s attention sharpened.

“You see,” Walker said, folding her hands in her lap and regarding Milanda with an expression that was becoming familiar, “all the Infinite Order’s biological projects can be broadly sorted into two categories: those which do and do not require transcension field energy to survive. There are, unfortunately, several sapient strains in the first group, notably elves. But as is the case with any life form created with and from transcension fields, the ongoing interaction—”

“Walker,” Milanda interrupted, “is this going to be another ten-minute speech, filled with flowery language and dramatic pauses and sweeping revelations I’ll find out later from the Avatar were just your opinion?”

The fairy stared at her in silence, mouth slightly open.

Milanda raised an eyebrow. “Can you summarize it?”

After another moment of silence, Walker snapped her mouth shut, her nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation which served to accent the uncanny daintiness of her nose.

“The system powering the Hands of the Emperor has been modified, in this event ten years ago, to disseminate the essence of a magical plant called silphium through part of the Palace. The Emperor’s residence, I think. The essence of this would render any female mammals in the radius of influence infertile while within it, and probably for a few years thereafter.”

Now, it was Milanda’s turn to silently stare. Shock hit her first, followed by comprehension and the uncomfortable familiarity of realizations which made all too much sense. And then, rage.

She clamped down on all of them to be dealt with later.

“I see,” she said aloud. “Thank you very much. You were right; that is important, and well worth telling the Empress. I’m glad you stopped me.”

“Are you,” Walker said tonelessly.

Milanda nodded, and turned to go. “All right, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t cause trouble.”

“Thanks to your security protocols, there’s a stark limit to what trouble I can cause.”

“Well, don’t test them, please.” At the door, she paused, one hand on the frame, then turned and smiled at the ex-valkyrie, who was still staring at her. “When I come back, you can give me that speech. It sounded like it would’ve been interesting.”

“Just go,” Walker snorted, finally turning back to her computer.

The door hissed shut behind Milanda, and she stared at the screen, for the moment not touching it. After a few seconds, a smile began to stretch across her features. Shaking her head, she chuckled, and then got back to work.


“If this is anything less than disastrously urgent, I am going to have one of them flogged,” Eleanora announced as she emerged from her chambers.

Lord Vex awaited her in the hall, looking just as composed and well-rested as she, which meant he was probably every bit as weary and disgruntled at being rousted at one in the morning. They had both taken time to groom and compose themselves, as it would not do to appear before someone like the Archpope in any state which so much as hinted at weakness.

“May I suggest Bishop Darling in that case, your Majesty,” Vex said diffidently. “Assaulting a sitting Archpope would create…complications.”

She gave him a flat glance, at which he smiled blandly, then turned to stride up the hall without bothering to point out the havoc the Thieves’ Guild would unleash if she actually had their Bishop and former Boss whipped. His comment had been as facetious as hers, and she didn’t keep Vex around for his skill as a humorist.

They were intercepted at the next intersection of hallways by, if not the last person Eleanora had expected to meet at this hour, someone who placed high on the list.

“Oh, your Majesty, perfect,” Milanda Darnassy said in a tone of obvious relief, curtsying deeply. “I’m so glad I found you so quickly. I have a great deal to report.”

“Yes, so I would imagine,” Eleanora replied. “I’m very glad to see that you’re safe, Milanda. Right now, however, we are on the way to deal with an urgent matter of state, as you might surmise from Lord Vex’s presence in the harem wing at this hour. Please make yourself comfortable and we shall be back with you soon.”

“Urgent matter?”

“Yes,” the Empress said somewhat impatiently. “Not to downplay the significance of your own tasks, but I have to prioritize. Things have become increasingly hectic in your absence. Now, if you will excuse me…”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Milanda said quickly, curtsying again, but continued as Eleanora swept past her. “Does this happen to involve the Universal Church?”

The Empress slammed to a halt, turning to give the concubine a piercing look. Vex regarded her thoughtfully, as well.

“Now why,” Eleanora asked quietly, “would you ask that?”

“I suspected the Archpope might do something, which is why I came up to find you in the middle of the night,” Milanda replied. “You should know, your Majesty, that I have not yet repaired the damage done to the Hands of the Emperor, but for the moment insured no further changes will be made, and ascertained that the source of the problem came from within the Grand Cathedral.”

The Empress and her spymaster gazed at Milanda in silence.

“Also, I’ve just learned that there’s a related problem which has been causing infertility in every woman in this wing of the Palace.”

Eleanora, despite all her training and experience, felt a furious expression descend on her features. She drew in a long, deep breath through her nose.

“You are busy, of course,” Milanda said smoothly, unperturbed. “If you need to address something urgently, I can of course wait; the situation below appears stable, for the moment.”

Eleanora turned a flat look on Vex. “Upon consideration, Quentin, I think we had better hear Ms. Darnassy’s detailed report first. His Holiness can await my convenience a while longer.”

“His Holiness is likely to take that as a hostile gesture,” Vex pointed out.

The Empress drew back her upper lip in an expression that was not a smile. “I have never cared less about Justinian’s feelings than at this moment.”


The solarium was a downright eerie place at night; even with the fairy lamps ignited, the ferns and flowers didn’t look quite right. The entire room was laid out to be beautiful in the sunlight, which its towering glass walls were enchanted to magnify appropriately, Tiraas’s climate being what it was. In Theasia’s day, this had been a private refuge, but Sharidan had installed suitable arrangements of furniture to use it as a private and informal place to receive petitioners.

It was after three in the morning by the time Justinian and Darling had finally left. Eleanora had remained quiet through most of their presentation, watching them. Neither man had shown surprise at Vex’s presence, though both had given Milanda speculative looks. It was impossible to say how far outside the harem wing Eleanora’s lack of personal warmth toward the Emperor’s favorite concubine was known; they had no shortage of servants, and servants did gossip. If anybody in Tiraas bothered to keep up with such seemingly irrelevant social minutia, it would be those two. Regardless, Eleanora could not help noticing that Milanda and Darling seemed to take mirrored roles in the discussion: quiet, a step behind their respective leaders, not overtly involved, but listening. Even in the presence of Empresses and Archpope, Antonio Darling was not a man to step back and shut up, which suggested that he was as much in the dark and being led along as Milanda. This both amused and intrigued her.

Vex had led the way in the discussion, asking questions and with occasional prompts from Eleanora. Justinian would not fail to find some significance in that, which was fine with her. Let him chase his tail. She had likewise deflected his inquiries about the Emperor’s absence, which could potentially lead him to discovering actually worthwhile facts, but there was nothing to be done about that.

The whole time, Milanda’s revelations had laid firmly in the forefront of her mind while she listened to Justinian spin a web of artifacts of the Elder Gods and Punaji cults.

“It’s all so very…plausible,” she mused after their guests had been absent for nearly a full minute. “His account is reflected in Milanda’s. It perfectly matches hers if he is telling the complete truth… And just as perfectly if he was behind all our recent troubles and now urgently covering his derriere.”

“He cannot know how much we know,” Vex observed. “Vagueness and scrupulous adherence to all possibly known facts would be vital in constructing a suitable story. Of course, if he is telling the truth, we cannot afford to risk worsening the situation by acting rashly.”

“How much do you know about this…Rust?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said immediately. “If it is a matter occurring in Punaji territory, I can assure your Majesty of two things: my people will have observed it, and if it has not been brought to my attention, they did not deem it significant. He described it as a cult, which fits. The lack of organized religion among the Punaji leaves fertile ground for those to crop up. They either implode on their own or are cleaned out by Rajakhan.”

Milanda cleared her throat diffidently. “Excuse me, your Majesty, but…he was not telling the truth. I have access to a great deal more information down there than the Archpope can possibly know, and my source strongly indicated his own efforts to use the Elders’ machines have been halting and clumsy in comparison to Theasia’s, and now Walker’s.”

“Yes, and we should discuss that, now that no one is waiting on us,” Eleanora said sharply, turning to her. “I believe I heard Sharidan specifically tell you not to let that creature out.”

“Not specifically,” Milanda replied, gazing right back at her in complete calm. “Specificity was impossible, given the geas he was under. I’m fortunate to have escaped that; it must be tied into the Hand system. Regardless, yes, releasing the Dark Walker was a risk. It was a calculated one, however, taken with ample precautions, and has paid off. If any harm comes of it, I will of course take full responsibility.”

Eleanora stared at her, firmly concealing her surprise.

Milanda has always been downright submissive around her, which was the lion’s share of the reason Eleanora had never liked her. Some women legitimately did enjoy being told what to do, and the lack of responsibility that came from being kept. Milanda, though, had a spine and plenty of personality; she was just selective about where she displayed them. Knowing that, having seen it at a distance, made Eleanora both mistrust and personally dislike her for the constant diffidence she showed. The woman before her now was totally self-possessed, unintimidated, and seemingly constitutionally incapable of bowing her neck, despite her complete courtesy. If only she’d been like this for the last few years, Eleanora suspected they would be friends by now. As it was, the sudden change was deeply alarming, especially in this situation.

She leaned back in the throne-like chair positioned with its back dramatically to the view over the city, and drummed her fingers on the armrests. “Very well; for now, I will have to be content with that. Frankly I cannot say anyone could have done better under the circumstances. Your efforts are greatly appreciated, Milanda.”

Milanda simply nodded in acknowledgment.

“I will, of course, get all available information on the Rust immediately from my department,” said Vex, “and instruct my agents in the field to get more. If we are to follow Ms. Darnassy’s suggestion and consider this a red herring, however, that cannot be our primary focus. Counter-action against Justinian is obviously necessary, but we are constrained.”

“Yes,” Eleanora said, thinking aloud. Gods, it was late; she was so damned tired. “The Throne cannot act directly against the Church without overwhelming evidence of malfeasance. Our evidence, though solid, might not be compelling enough, and anyway the need to protect Imperial secrets means we can’t even present it. Going for Justinian directly would create massive pushback from the cults, as well as the population in general. In the worst case, it could be the Enchanter Wars all over again.”

“It is, of course, never my policy to do anything directly, your Majesty,” Vex said with a thin smile.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Our actions against the Church’s computer was designed to leave the connection open while destroying his ability to use it, at least temporarily. It may be possible to act through that.”

“Rather than acting,” said Vex, “I suggest you see if you can gather more information through it. This matter with sylphreed is a great deal less sensitive than the systems which maintain the Hands. Using forbidden artifacts of the Elder Gods to terminate the Tirasian line of succession is a story that holds together—sensational, but plausible. If we can obtain evidence, we can quite possibly have Justinian deposed. The Sisterhood, the Guild, and the Veskers would back us, and those are the three who matter.” They were, he did not need to add, the three cults which had effectively overthrown the previous dynasty after it had used the Enchanter’s Bane on Athan’Khar.

“That’s another thing,” said Eleanora, “and the thing which disturbs me. You said this change which added sylphreed to the system was done from Puna Dara. Ten years ago, and by someone more skilled in the system’s use than Justinian’s lackey. Now, he points to Punaji lands as the source of this new problem. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“If the Rust is something Justinian has been monitoring,” said Vex, “or possibly even something he created, the matter still hangs together neatly.”

“But then why would their attack have been so much neater and more successful than what he has done now?” She shook her head. “Too many questions, not enough answers… Quentin, I am considering how much we can trust Elder Mylion. He was unsurprised to learn of Tellwyrn’s involvement, and from the moment she mentioned dryads, I have been thinking we might find elven representatives useful if we could find one trustworthy.”

“I vetted Mylion as thoroughly as possible on short notice,” said Vex. “I am still in the process of investigating him comprehensively. I urge your Majesty to wait for the outcome of that before involving him in something this sensitive. At the least, that will give him more time to demonstrate his trustworthiness, or lack thereof.”

“Sensible,” she agreed, nodding. “Which leaves us with the question of what to do about Justinian in the meantime.”

“Indirect action of the sort that seems to be needed is normally my department,” he said with a grimace, “but matters are complicated by the current situation with the Hands. They will unavoidably learn of it if I enact a major campaign against the Church’s assets; then, inevitably, they will learn why. In their current state of instability, I shudder to think what they might do. If the Hands attack the Church…”

“Yes, we’ve been over that,” she said wearily.

“The Avatar arranged for me to have some of the Hands’ advantages,” Milanda reminded her. She was now staring at Eleanora with an intensity that made her uneasy. “Walker is doing most of the actual work through the computers; I may see what I can find down there that will enable me to come and go from the facility without having to go through the Palace. I know they have methods of teleportation; I’ve had to use one to get around.”

“She is totally off the books,” Vex mused, “unknown to the Hands… Or at least, not known outside the context of his Majesty’s personal life. Which also creates the advantage of deniability if she is caught.”

“Milanda has far too much on her plate already to wage a shadow war on Justinian,” Eleanora exclaimed.

“Alone, certainly. But with some assets to leverage… She can investigate and possibly impair his operations in the city, perhaps even breach some of his facilities. In fact, I have just the thing: Panissar recently dumped three men in my lap who have ample experience keeping Imperial secrets, are not officially connected with the government, and are in fact in hiding at the moment.”

“What?” Eleanora demanded. “Who?”

The spymaster gave her a little smile. “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, most recently stationed at Last Rock. If your Majesty has not been briefed, the short version is that the Hand currently out there threatened their safety to get at Tellwyrn, and they fled here, found a good lawyer, and got themselves discharged from the Army on the grounds of malfeasance by superior officers.”

“Where would those three idiots get the money for a lawyer who could pull that off?”

“That is officially a secret, which I have not deemed important enough to investigate directly, but given where they’ve been, I’d say either from Tellwyrn herself, Duchess Madouri, or Teal Falconer. Would you like me to find out?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “And I cannot believe you are suggesting involving those characters in this, Quentin.”

“They aren’t known to be especially competent,” he admitted. “Panissar had some godawful idea about involving them in my watch program over his Majesty, perish the thought. This is another matter, however. What’s most necessary here is their ability to keep a secret, and that much at least is proven. As for the rest… Ms. Darnassy will be the brains and heart of this operation, she simply needs more pairs of hands. And there is something to be said for cultivating expendable assets.”

“Very well,” she said wearily. “Given the corner we’re in, it’s the least terrible idea we are likely to find. Proceed.”

“Dryads,” Milanda said softly.

Eleanora turned to her, frowning. “I beg your pardon?”

“You mentioned Tellwyrn and dryads,” Milanda continued, still giving her that unnerving stare. “Implying that she mentioned them when she was here before.”

The Empress frowned. “Yes?”

“And it did not occur to you to mention the involvement of dryads to me before sending me down to where you knew they were?”

Vex, face impassive, subtly shifted to face Milanda, idly tucking a hand into his coat pocket.

“You’re right,” Eleanora said after a moment of tense silence. “That was a grave oversight. I apologize, Milanda. I’m very grateful no harm came to you because of it.”

Milanda nodded curtly. “Fine. I will return below and investigate the possibilities of getting in and out of the facility directly, avoiding the Palace. I’ll return when I know something; that should give Lord Vex time to make arrangements of his own. And I devoutly hope that any further oversights will be due to the confusion of these trying times, and not because you personally don’t care for me, Eleanora. Considering what is at stake. Excuse me.”

She turned and strode out of the room without waiting to be dismissed, shutting the door gently behind her.

Eleanora stared at the doors for a long time after she was gone. “Quentin… When are things ever going to start becoming less complicated instead of more?”

“Rest easy, your Majesty,” he said, smiling. “We’ll all be dead eventually.”

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12 – 26

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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…”

“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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