Tag Archives: Walker

13 – 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama!”

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

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

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

“I heard the—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

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

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Plastic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Till next time, friend.”

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

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

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

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

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


Setbacks.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, your Holiness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Apparently!”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“A-hem!” Hawthorne barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” the Emperor said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 48

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

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

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

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

“You are a big jerk!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cheers.”

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

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

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12 – 46

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“First things first.”

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

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

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

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Computer, display the time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

About anything relevant, damn it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Apology accepted.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

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

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

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

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

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

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

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

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

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

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

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

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

“Yrsa?”

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Hawthorn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

No, not alone. Not quite.


At least she didn’t dream.

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

That lasted until the unspeakable noise roared through the room.

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

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

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

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

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

“Heeeeey. I was watching that!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda took one step toward her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so,” Hawthorn muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately, the whole room plunged into blackness and silence.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Ah, welcome. We meet again.”

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

His solid emerald eyes.

She turned and bolted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the dragon was in front of her.

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

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

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

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12 – 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Walker demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halt!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda’s reflexes obviously did not give a damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please…

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

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

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

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

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

And only then regained control.

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

A smell appallingly like fried pork hung in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He reached the aftermath of her slaughter, and stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Milanda,” Walker said.

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

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

“She,” Milanda whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence thundered around them.

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

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

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

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

“I killed them all.”

Walker stroked her hair.

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

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

“I can’t sleep. Not…not for…”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Silly children.”

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