Tag Archives: Walker

12 – 20

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“Computer! Map!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milanda sighed. “Well, end the—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

“Very advanced indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you?”

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

“What’s it doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s that simple?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else can you tell?”

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

“You mean, Scyllith did this personally?”

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

“What?” Milanda demanded when Walker fell silent.

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

“What did it do?” Milanda exclaimed.

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

“You said it was from a recognized facility?”

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

“That’s Puna Dara,” Milanda breathed.

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

“This is horrifying,” Milanda mumbled.

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

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

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

“That seems cruel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can identify Avatars?”

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

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

“You would. The idea is laughable.”

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

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

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

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

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12 – 19

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

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

She felt fantastic, however, and fully in control.

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

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

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

But there was nothing to be gained by standing here.

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

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

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

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

“Felicitations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t make her a whit less dangerous.

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

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

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

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

“Who has done this?” Milanda demanded.

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

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

“You mean… An Elder God did this?”

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

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

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

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

“So…it’s an inexperienced user.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone like you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well, then. Terms.”

“Terms,” the Walker agreed.

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

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

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

“Very true. All right, I accept.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Once again, the dryads—”

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

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

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

“I see,” the prisoner said tonelessly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Help me decide.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 15

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“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lakshmi cleared her throat.

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

“So it is a job.”

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

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

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

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

“Ah. My humble apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“More than fair,” Sweet agreed.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The less said about that, the better.

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

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

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

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

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

She retrieved her apple and continued down.

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

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

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

In fact…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny, empty rooms.

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

The cell opposite it was occupied.

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

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

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

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

The creature shrugged. “A prisoner.”

“Why are you imprisoned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman shrugged. “It’s what I do.”

Milanda could find no answer for that.

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

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

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

“Don’t you want to get out?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Except kill me,” she said sarcastically.

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

“Are you insane?”

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

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

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

“Who are they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

It vanished into the blue surface without a ripple.

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

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

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12 – 9

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“Afternoon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know nothing of that!” she barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You believe me? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome back, my lord,” she murmured.

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

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

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

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

“The matter of—”

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

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

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

Silence and total shock descended.

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

Hands did not speak to their Emperor that way.

They simply did not.

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

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

Rest would have to wait.


Afternoon was fading into dusk as they neared the town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Trouble?” she asked mildly.

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

Her chance was coming, she could feel it.

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12 – 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That seems significant,” Ravana said.

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

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

A glum silence fell over the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all did look around, most frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He suddenly dropped two feet before stabilizing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so you come to suck up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I assure you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She snorted, and vanished.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 7

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“So, yeah, maybe asking Melaxyna for a perspective wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done,” Toby admitted. “It’s just that… My whole life, the perspectives around me have been kind of uniform. Even here, for all that this place is crazy and full of differing opinions. Some things people just consider universal. So when I’m questioning a universal truth…” He trailed off, shrugged, and took another bite of his pastry.

They were munching as they meandered back to their dorm from the cafeteria. Mrs. Oak did not generally take (or appreciate) special requests, but she had by happenstance reproduced quite closely the apple-raspberry tarts Toby and Gabriel remembered from the neighborhood bakery of their youth, and they’d made a point of stopping by for seconds after meals whenever those were on offer. Once in a while, as today, fresh ones found their way to their plates at dinner, when the cafeteria happened not to be too busy. Despite the cook’s taciturn and standoffish nature, it seemed Juniper was right to insist she wasn’t a bad sort at heart.

“I dunno, man,” Gabriel mused after swallowing the last bite of his. “I definitely follow your logic; she sounds like a great source of outside opinion. Just, you know, don’t take anything she says too closely to heart. Remember what Trissiny warned us about children of Vanislaas.”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding. “Actually… I made time to research some demonology after her big rant in the Crawl, and she was pretty much spot on. You have to be extremely careful with Vanislaads. Them and djinn—they use words to sow chaos, twist people’s minds. Melaxyna is the only one I’d even consider approaching, with her being stuck in the Grim Visage and out of touch with everything.”

“Funny thing,” Gabriel said with a grin. “Demons, feminism, or whatever else, I notice Trissiny’s rants are usually correct. Y’know, factually. If she ever figures out that ranting at people does not make them want to listen to her, she’ll be very persuasive.”

Toby had to laugh at that.

“I actually kinda miss her,” Gabriel said more soberly. “Well, personally, too, I actually really like Triss once she got the stick out. But right now, more importantly, I feel like we could use another paladin perspective.”

“Yeah,” Toby agreed, sighing heavily. “Though… I’m not sure how much I could lean on her for this. I don’t think Trissiny’s ever had the slightest problem with anything Avei said or did. Me having questions about my god would probably leave her… I dunno. Nonplussed, in the best-case scenario.”

He finished off his pastry while they strolled along in silence. At last, Toby glanced over at Gabriel.

“What?”

Gabe looked back at him, blinking. “What, what?”

“You’re making that face,” Toby accused. “The one where you’re debating whether to say what you’re thinking.”

“Excuse you,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I never question saying what I think. It’s my whole thing. I have a thought, out it comes.”

“For nearly the entirety of your life, yes, but in the last year you’ve been working hard to correct that, and it shows. Which is why I recognize that look; I’ve noticed it, and you’re not yet contained enough to hide your facial expressions.”

“Duly noted,” Gabriel said, grimacing deeply. “…also a case in point, huh.”

“So what’s on your mind?”

He sighed. “Well…don’t take this the wrong way.”

“Gabe, when have I ever?” Toby asked in some exasperation, earning a weak grin in response.

“All right, fine. It’s just… I can’t find it in me to have an inherent problem with you questioning Omnu. Have you ever considered that maybe the gods need to be questioned?”

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “That’s a big question, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“I don’t mean in the cosmic sense, though it is that, too. I mean from you, Gabe. You spent basically your whole life being despised for what you are, not for anything you did, and all because of the Pantheon’s rules. But I almost never heard you complain about it, or about them… Until you started getting directly mixed up with a god and being pretty firmly on his side.”

A silence ensued, in which they continued aimlessly strolling and Gabriel kept his frowning gaze fixed on empty space ahead.

“Anything you want to get off your chest?” Toby finally prompted. “In case I’m not the only one having paladin issues? And if you don’t, that’s completely fine. But you can. You know that, right?”

“The thing is,” Gabriel said slowly, “Vidius has been hinting at this from the very start. Pretty much the first things he said to me were all about how the gods might have made a mistake in dismissing demonbloods. And it’s been…more of the same. His phrasing is always very careful. Often so much so that I don’t notice the implication until I’m thinking about the conversation long afterward. But I keep getting these hints. My first authorized paladin-specific action was basically terrorizing the Vidians in Last Rock into behaving. He approved of that, strongly. Approved of me having valkyries spy on a priestess of his cult. Toby… I think Vidius believes the gods need to be questioned…maybe even challenged. I am pretty sure that’s a big part of the reason he called me.”

“So,” Toby said after another pause. “An even bigger question than I thought.”

“Yeah.”

“…man, suddenly I really miss having Trissiny to talk to.”

“Yeah.”

“Do, uh, you have any ideas? I mean, what to do about all this?”

“For either or both of us?” Gabriel shrugged. “I don’t think this is the point for having ideas, as such. I mean, if you think about it, we’re noticing odd trends and having questions. This seems like a time to be paying close attention and thinking carefully. Going off and doing anything drastic at this juncture seems pretty damn premature. I suspect any plan we came up with would be half-baked at best.”

“Well, you really do have a good head for planning, when you use it.” Toby grinned and jostled him with a shoulder. “I think you’re right, though. This is kind of a reversal for us, Gabe, but I’m gonna be watching you for cues on this. Wondering what my god is up to and whether I should approve is pretty new for me. I’m way out of my element.”

“Right, so, no pressure at all,” Gabriel said airily. “You know, if we’re going to end up chatting about all this while walking through the campus anyway, you could’ve just brought it up when I asked in the first place.”

“Yeah, well, I think we were just discussing how I’m apparently not the planner, here,” Toby retorted. “Anyway, that wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The very next thing that happened was the Rafe/Ekoi showdown.”

Gabriel’s expression grew somewhat morose. “Yeah. And after that… Chase is up and about again, but whatever they gave him, they don’t seem to have more of. Natchua is still out. And have you heard about that freshman girl?”

“Addiwyn.” Toby nodded soberly. “Raolo told me. I don’t know if Tellwyrn knows yet, she apparently went to Tiraas for something this afternoon. But that’s three people who’ve been hit, and it seems after the first one, Miss Sunrunner can’t cure it anymore. This is…” He trailed off, shaking his head wordlessly.

“It feels asinine to say this campus was supposed to be safe,” Gabriel murmured. “Half of Tellwyrn’s educational plans seem to involve dropping us in shit that should kills us and seeing what happens.”

“No, I get what you mean,” Toby agreed. “The thing is, she doesn’t do the same stuff to everybody. We’re all paladins and demigods and archdemons in our class, and just from comparing notes with others I know we always end up in more dangerous situations than most. That’s the difference. She’s in control, or at least she makes an effort to be. Now…”

Gabriel sighed. “Well, I mean, hell. We’re the paladins here, right? Guess it’s time we step up.”

“Yeah. How?”

He had no answer.


Despite the protests of her professors, roommates, and everyone else, November was accustomed to burning the candle at both ends. It wasn’t that she was a night owl, particularly, she just liked quiet and privacy. The campus had rooms designed to meet those needs, and she could certainly have used them, but she also liked the outdoors. That combination had led to her discovery of her favorite study spot, and her tendency to lurk there well past dark, even on nights when she had early classes the following morning.

In the shadow of the natural sciences building, a small ledge extended from the mountain at an odd angle near its peak, covered with soft grasses. When the campus had been built, it had ended up close to the spot where a path terminated against the exterior wall, and for whatever reason Tellwyrn had chosen to have a door open onto a short bridge leading to it. The ledge had been augmented with a park bench and an overhanging fairy lamp which kept it brightly lit even in the middle of the night, plus a shoulder-high wrought iron fence to prevent people from tumbling off the edge. It wasn’t a friendly place for anyone with a fear of heights, but then, that could be said of most of the campus. It also hadn’t come into favor as a make-out spot, between the omnipresent light and the fact that it was in open and in full view of both Clarke Tower and the open colonnade skirting the side of Helion Hall. Clearly, it had been meant for exactly the purpose to which November put it: studying, enjoying the view over the vast prairie, and just being alone.

Of course, she had twice caught pairs of her classmates being generally shameless there. Despite being a college student herself, she had developed a rather low opinion of them.

Tonight, though, she gave up on studying only an hour or so after dark. With a heavy sigh, November wedged the sheet of paper on which she was taking notes into her book, finished off the last of the bottle of tea she had brought, and stood. She just wasn’t feeling the concentration. Well, it wasn’t as if she had an upcoming test this early in the semester, anyway, just her general habit of staying as up to speed as possible in all her classes. Turning to trudge back to the door, she tried her best not to cast a glance at Clarke Tower. Just in case someone in it happened to be looking out a window.

For far from the first time, she roundly cursed her own stupidity. Trissiny wasn’t even there this time. Wasn’t here, on campus, at all. Maybe that would afford November enough time to quit being the bloody idiot about it she knew she was.

Slouching moodily along the path back toward her dorm, lost in her thoughts, she suddenly missed a step. The most profound feeling of lethargy swept over her; before she knew it, she was stumbling forward toward the ground, her eyes already drifting shut…

Purely by reflex, she seized the well of energy always just out of sight within her. November staggered and caught herself, her aura bursting alight. An instant later, a hard golden sphere slammed into place around her.

Wild-eyed with alarm, she turned rapidly, peering this way and that. No one was nearby… Only belatedly did she realize how peculiar that was. It was before midnight, and most of the population of this mountaintop were college students. This was one of the upper terraces of the campus, highly trafficked at most hours of the day. Someone aside from herself ought to be up and about.

“Hello?” she asked, scowling.

No answer.

Even unusually quiet, the familiar paths were well-lit as always; she couldn’t quite find it spooky. She turned slowly back in the other direction, still seeing no one.

After a long moment, she let the shield drop, but still kept her mental grip on the power coursing through her. Golden light radiated outward, brightening the cooler glow cast by the fairy lamps in the immediate vicinity. November bent to pick up the book and bottle she had dropped, mind churning.

Chase and Natchua… That sudden sleepiness had not been natural, she was sure of it. What would have happened if she hadn’t had divine light to call upon?

Even as she straightened, she felt her connection to the light ripple, as if something was interfering with it. Another surge of weariness washed through her.

It faded immediately when she snapped her shield back into place.

“I know you’re there!” November barked, glaring into the darkness and clutching her book to her chest. As far as her eyes could tell, she was still alone. Slowly, she edged down the path toward her dorm, one step at a time, still peering warily about.

Silence. Where was everyone?

She started moving again, this time at barely short of a run.

No sooner had she rounded the next corner than she skidded to a halt, gasping. There was a shadow on the path ahead.

There just wasn’t any other way to describe it. The thing had no substance or depth; it was not a physical object. Just a patch where the light was obstructed, exactly like a person’s shadow on the ground. This one, though, was not on the ground, but standing upright. Its two-dimensional shape was cast in a fleshed-out, person-sized space. Looking at it made both her eyes and her head hurt.

November poured another torrent of energy in her shield and lashed out with her free hand—she didn’t even know when she’d dropped the bottle again—emitting a blaze of unfocused divine energy right at the shadow.

It flickered and vanished.

She stood, glaring at the spot where it had been and panting in near panic.

A moment later, the disruption flashed through her aura again. This time her shield flickered and fizzled; only a sudden act of concentration kept it from collapsing. She could feel it burning as some counter-force weighed down on it.

November spun, hurling another wash of light behind her, and the pressure immediately abated.

This time, she flew into an outright run.

When the disruption came again, both her aura and shield wavered, enough to let some of the attack through. Exhaustion suddenly fell heavily on her; she staggered to a halt, barely keeping her knees from buckling, and focused on maintaining the energy. It was like trying to lift a chair over her head while someone kept trying to sit in it. If not for Professor Harklund’s class, she would have buckled in the first instant; as it was, she could barely keep up under the pressure.

The shadow drifted back into her field of view, just silently watching her struggle.

November let out a roar and forced herself into a run again—right at it.

It vanished at her charge, as did the attack on her shield. It hardened up, the divine light coursed uninhibited through her aura again, and the unnatural sleep fled from her consciousness. She came to a stop after a few more steps, spinning in a complete circle.

No sign of the shadow. No sign of anyone. She was a whole terrace away from her dorm. Was anyplace safer closer? Ronald Hall was nearby, but it was kept locked at night due to people’s tendency to filch alchemical reagents otherwise. She could reach the quad just past an ornamental hedge in the other direction. Maybe there’d be people there? She couldn’t hear anyone… Apparently no one was close enough to hear her, that or they didn’t think her wordless shout had been anything out of the ordinary. On this campus, that wasn’t impossible.

The attack came again, but milder this time, causing her shield to flicker but not penetrating enough to affect her directly. November bolted in the direction she happened to be facing at that moment, right toward the quad.

A few dashed steps later, she apparently got herself out of range of the enemy, emerging onto the lawn near the gazebo and finding it totally deserted. It only occurred to her belatedly that she had just let herself be deftly herded.

Sure enough, no sooner was she past the hedge than the pressure slammed down again. Her shield faltered entirely once, just for a split second, but it was enough for the attacker to get a grip. Gritting her teeth against the fatigue clawing at the backs of her eyes, November kept herself upright by force of will, pouring her concentration into her aura and fighting against the burning sensation. It was as if the air around her was combusting against her own glow.

Again, she saw the shadow, off to her right. November forced herself toward it, too tired to yell again or run, but managing a weak flash of light in its direction as she approached.

It vanished. Instantly it appeared to the left of her across the lawn, but that tiny moment of its distraction had been enough for its own concentration to waver; her shield firmed up and the sleepiness retreated, driven back by her own renewed surge of energy.

Baring her teeth, November turned toward it again and charged forward, a leaf-bladed sword of golden light appearing in her hand.

The shadow stood its ground until she drew close enough for her aura to encroach on it physically, then vanished again. As before, she had a split-second’s breather in which to regain her equilibrium before the attack resumed.

This time, though, it hit the hardest yet. Also, she realized, it had coaxed her into charging even further from the relative safety of her dorm. She stumbled, and under the renewed assault, her divine shield suddenly shattered entirely.

November fell, barely catching herself on one knee and wrenching her body around to face the shadow, which was now behind her. She poured every ounce of focus she could manage into the glow of her aura, but without the shield, it was like trying to blow out an approaching torch as opposed to having a wall between her and it. Exhaustion clawed at her, whatever magic caused it forcing her down even as the shadow drifted closer.

“You’re going to pay for this,” she snarled, even as she listed to the side, barely catching herself on one hand. “Tellwyrn will finish you. Trissiny will make you pay!”

Moving languidly, as if it hadn’t a care in the world, the shadow drifted toward her. Darkness crept up on her vision from the sides. She was so tired…

“She’ll…make…”

A thunderous equine bellow split the night, and suddenly a huge, white shape blocked her view. Instantly the attack ceased.

He reared and slammed his enormous hooves down on the lawn, neighing another challenge, even as November straightened up, the exhaustion again vanishing from her. It was a true reprieve, giving her space to restore her concentration; her aura blazed back to full strength, and the shield flashed into being within it.

Almost immediately the now-familiar assault resumed, and she spun to behold the shadow across the quad in yet another direction.

Once again, the great white horse bellowed and surged around her, his hooves thundering as he placed himself between her and the attacker. As if his mere presence were a better shield than her own, the pressure faded the moment he did.

It resumed seconds later from another side, and this time Arjen galloped past her, charging bodily at the enemy.

November, by that point, had a sense of how this thing fought, and immediately spun to direct a wash of golden light in the opposite direction behind her. The shadow struck from the flank, however, hitting harder still, so hard her knees buckled and her shield flickered even as she and Arjen both turned to face it.

“NO. YOU. DON’T.”

A cube of translucent blue panels materialized around the shadow—somehow, it looked even more painfully impossible when suspended inside a cage of light. The cage didn’t hold it, however. The shadow vanished, and this time, it stayed gone.

Professor Tellwyrn, teeth bared in a savage growl, stalked forward, planting herself on November’s right, while Arjen approached from the left, tossing his mane and pawing the ground angrily.

November only belatedly realized she was still on the ground, on her knees, panting in fear and weariness. Tellwyrn’s expression shifted to one of concern as she turned to her, and the elf knelt to offer her a hand.

“November, are you all right?”

“I…I…” She swallowed heavily. “Not very. I’m not hurt, though.”

Tellwyrn nodded; clasping her student’s proffered hand, she gently pulled her upright, showing surprising physical strength for someone so seemingly delicate. The professor’s personality sometimes made it easy to forget she was as slender and physically unimposing as any elf.

Something nudged her from the other side, and November turned, regarding the horse with awe. Arjen whickered and bumped her with his nose again. With a trembling hand, she reached up to pat him there, just below the face plate of his silver armor. His nose was impossibly soft.

“I…I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Does this mean…I mean, am I…”

“No, you are not the new Hand of Avei,” Tellwyrn said, her tone now amused, though she still hovered protectively close, keeping a hand on November’s shoulder. “Believe me, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be wondering. Avei doesn’t do subtlety. You’re still very blessed, though. I have seen this before, but very rarely. For Arjen to come to your aid like this, you must have shown both loyalty to his current partner and the kind of valor she would admire.”

Unable to speak around the lump suddenly in her throat, November leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the horse’s enormous neck and pressing her face against his warm hide. He snorted softly, tucking his chin over her shoulder in an equine hug.

Tellwyrn patted her back, and he snorted again, this time much less softly.

“For heaven’s sake, Arjen, she’s been gone for a century, and the whole argument was overblown in the first place,” the elf said in annoyance. “Let it go.”

November raised her head, releasing her grip on the horse; he was regarding Tellwyrn with his ears laid flat back.

“Please,” she whispered, stroking his nose again.

He let out a sigh, his breath hot on her palm, then shook his mane again and turned his head away from Tellwyrn.

“Are you sure you’re okay, November?” the Professor asked again, frowning at her.

November nodded. “Yeah. I’m not… It didn’t hurt me, it was using some kind of magic to erode my shield. I could feel it trying to put me to sleep.” She drew a shaky breath. “I’m not… Um, I was terrified.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “That is an appropriate reaction. But you kept moving even despite it, which is exactly what courage is. I would like nothing more than to let you rest right now, November, but you are the first person to have seen this thing and remained awake and with your memories intact. We’re going to get some hot chocolate in you before attempting anything else, but I’m afraid I need you to tell me everything you remember before I can let you turn in.”

Arjen snorted disapprovingly at her, which she ignored.

“Professor,” November said quietly, “this thing… Is this what attacked Chase and Natchua?”

Tellwyrn’s expression lengthened further, impossible as that seemed. “And, as I discovered upon my return tonight, Addiwyn. This is officially a crisis, and you’re the only lead I’ve got.”

November straightened up and squared her shoulders. This she understood: this was war, and she wasn’t about to start retreating now. “All right. Let’s go, then.”


She had kept up her pacing non-stop since resuming it the last time. Now, however many hours or days later it was, she paused again, turning to face the transparent panel as the indicators appeared.

Frowning, she watched in silence. The tampering with the facility’s systems had continued for over an hour last time, mainly of a harmless, surface-level variety. Lights and climate controls, mostly. It had clearly been too much to hope that the fumbling interloper would stumble across the door to her cell. That hadn’t happened, nor had much of anything else. In the interim, no one had come through, either; the Emperor and his Hands did not choose to spend time down here unless they were on specific business.

She was still debating with herself whether she was going to tell them about the tampering next time they came through. Now, though, it looked like that might not even be necessary.

According to the indicators in the screen, someone was probing at deeper systems this time, more central functions. For a moment, the screen itself flickered, its user-friendly display altering to show lines of code before it restored itself.

Still no door. Of course, it was a cell door; it wasn’t designed to open if someone just screwed around with it. Its default position was closed. Only very specific commands would make the aperture appear. The wrong fumbling could very easily deprive her of air, however. She didn’t actually know whether that would do her any harm, but it certainly wouldn’t be comfortable. She had not enjoyed some of the more extreme swings of temperature it had caused previously.

Now, according to the readout, it had moved beyond her cell to another system. The vast majority of the facility was dormant, so it made sense that someone scanning active systems would find one of the only other ones currently running.

Indeed, a dialog opened, showing the running processes that sustained the chamber down the hall, where the dryads were kept.

“Ohhh, no,” she said aloud. “You do not want to mess around with that.”

Obviously, no one was listening. Odds were that if anyone had been, they would not have cared.

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12 – 3

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Out of nowhere, beneath the clear dawn sky, a circular patch of tallgrass vanished from existence, taking with it the top layer of soil and leaving behind a round patch of dirt and exposed roots which might as well have been carved off with a razor. It only stayed smooth for moments, however, before two figures materialized upon it with a similar lack of fanfare.

The vegetation made for problems when it came to teleportation; a person who materialized with their body phased through dozens of large stalks of grass had an excruciating death to look forward to. These preparatory measures were necessary, though they raised problems of their own.

Both men turned in half-circles facing the opposite directions, looking around. The prairie was empty and quiet, lit golden red by the rising sun, and stretching featurelessly away in all directions but one. To the west, the thin line of the Rail marked the horizon, and in the near distance due northwest of their position rose the mountain, with the town of Last Rock huddling against its base.

The man in the Army uniform with the Azure Corps insignia turned to his companion and bowed. “Will you require us to remain alert for extraction, sir?”

“No,” mused the Hand of the Emperor, studying Last Rock. He was middle-aged in appearance, balding and with sharp dark eyes set deep in his craggy features. The Hands were, in theory, all one voice, that of the Emperor, but in practice they did tend to specialize. This man habitually sat on the security council, but they would have to accustom themselves to his replacement for a while. “No, don’t focus any scrying on the area. She’s very likely to detect it, and I don’t wish to introduce myself until I am ready.”

“Yes, sir,” the battlemage replied, saluting. “Will you require any further aid in case she detected the teleportation?”

“I’m employing my own countermeasures against that. In any case, no. Tellwyrn is not classified as hostile, and I can deal with her.”

“Understood, sir. By your leave, then.”

The Hand gave him a nod, then strode off toward the town without another word. He walked only far enough to be out of the cleared circle, pushing his way into the surviving tallgrass, then turned to face the mage.

At that signal, a shrill buzzing rose from the air around them, accompanied a second later by a cerulean shimmering in the air, and then the battlemage vanished with a sharp pop of displaced atmosphere.

The Hand waited attentively for nearly another minute until the buzzing returned, and seconds later the displaced tallgrass reappeared.

It started to fall immediately, of course, but as if drifting down through syrup, its velocity slowed to roughly one hundredth of normal. Instantly, the Hand gestured with both arms, and it slowed further. Earth congealed together, roots re-attached, a few stalks which had been shorn off above ground level merged back into place, with the exceptions of a few which were too displaced by the time the healing took effect, and continued to tumble downward.

The slowing effect decayed rapidly, and had vanished in less than another minute. The replaced tallgrass listed drunkenly this way and that, most of it again attached but still feeling the effects of the trauma it had just undergone. The Hand studied this thoughtfully, then closed his eyes in concentration.

Stalks shifted, righted, regained some of their vitality. It wasn’t a huge difference, but when he was done, most of them stood more or less upright.

Opening his eyes, the Hand surveyed his work critically. Obviously, it was plain something strange had happened here—and to anyone who knew what to look for, a close inspection would reveal exactly what. This should be enough, though. Given how the students (and occasionally townspeople) ranged, a mirror-smooth patch of dirt in the middle of the prairie ran the serious risk of attracting attention; this would have to be noticed before anyone inspected it closely, and in its present state was unlikely to be. Most of those who vanished into the tallgrass from the town or University did so in pairs, and were more interested in privacy than botany. The next rain would set it more or less right, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

Of course, it still might be noted, but the risk was minor, as was the cost if he were exposed. He did not intend to conceal his presence long, anyway. This was standard procedure, though, and it was a procedure which existed for excellent reason. He approved of thoroughness. The Emperor approved of thoroughness.

Nodding once in satisfaction, the Hand of the Emperor straightened his black coat, turned, and strode away through the tallgrass toward the town.


“Something’s amiss.” Gabriel squinted suspiciously, peering around the classroom. “Something…is different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but maybe if I study closely…”

“Arquin, quit bein’ a dickhead,” Ruda ordered, plopping down in her seat and taking a jug of moonshine from inside her coat.

“Aw, c’mon,” he said, grinning, “if I did that, how would you know it was me?”

“Cos out of the only two present who dress in men’s casual, Teal actually dresses in it, as opposed to accidentally falling most of the way into whatever was lying on the floor in the morning. And she combs her hair.”

“Nice to have my efforts acknowledged,” Teal said with a smile.

The classroom was devoid of the decorations which had appeared at the beginning of the last semester—no silk screens, no potted plants, no blossoming cherry tree. Every sign of Professor Ekoi’s unique presence had abruptly vanished. Though this left the room in more or less the state to which they had become accustomed over their first year, it suddenly looked empty.

“It’s actually kinda sad,” Juniper whispered, gazing around with wide eyes. “The walls look lonely, now. Do you think Professor Ekoi’s okay?”

“Based on what I’ve been reading about kitsune,” Fross chimed, “I would be absolutely astonished if anything was able to actually harm her.”

“Really?” Gabriel looked up at her. “I tried to read up on kitsune after it became clear I was gonna be her favorite punching bag, and I couldn’t find much in the library.”

“Well, there’s not much in Tanglish,” Fross explained. “I had to order some things from a Nemitite temple, and before I could read them I had to learn to read Sifanese. That slowed down my research by a good six weeks, but that was still quicker than having to look up every single thing with a bilingual dictionary and grammar codex as I went.”

Teal dropped her book; fortunately she was already at her desk. Staring at Fross, she didn’t seem to notice that it had fallen. “You taught yourself Sifanese in six weeks? When?!”

“Well, I had some spare time. I don’t sleep; it gives me an extra few hours a day to pursue personal research projects. And I don’t need a lamp, which is very handy for reading at night!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gabriel said grandly, “I give you our future overlord, Fross the pixie.”

“That’s a damn difficult language,” Ruda added. “Seriously impressive shit, glitterbug.”

“Arigatou gozaimashita,” Fross said modestly.

“What I wonder,” said Toby with a frown, “is if this has something to do with what happened yesterday.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty suggestive,” Gabriel agreed in a more serious tone. “I mean, just the timing alone.”

“The way you described it,” said Ruda, “she was just pissed off, not hurt.”

“Wait, what happened?” Juniper demanded. “I didn’t hear about this.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a sigh, “apparently, yesterday Rafe slipped Professor Ekoi one of his anti-magic potions.”

“He did WHAT?” Fross shot upward until she bounced off the ceiling, chiming in agitation. “Professor Ekoi is a fairy! She’s made of magic! That’s like making someone drink poison, or strong acid!”

“She’s made of a lot of magic,” Toby said soothingly. “Ruda’s right, she didn’t seem hurt. Just angry, and…um, interfered with.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, “apparently she doesn’t actually speak Tanglish and was using her magic to translate. We couldn’t puzzle out a word until Tellwyrn showed up. And she actually walked away instead of doing that melodramatic non-teleport thing she loves so much.”

“That’s still a nasty prank!” Fross exclaimed, now buzzing about in figure eights above their heads. “I am extremely disappointed in Professor Rafe!”

“Why?” Ruda asked lazily. “You’ve met the fucker, haven’t you?”

“Questions of Professor Ekoi’s welfare aside,” Shaeine said quietly, “kitsune are rather notorious pranksters, and she is somewhat unpredictable herself. I have greatly enjoyed her class, but I fear if Professor Rafe has instigated some kind of practical joke war, the collateral damage is likely to be considerable.”

“Oh, dear gods in fancy hats,” Ruda groaned, tugging her own hat down over her eyes.

“Good morning, students!”

The classroom’s lower door had opened, and they all turned to regard Professor Yornhaldt, who strolled in wearing a smile.

“Take your seats, please, it is time for class to begin. Ah, I confess this is rather satisfying,” he said, stepping up behind the lectern and beaming at them. “I have quite missed teaching. And all of you, of course! Now, then! Fortunately this has befallen us no more than a week into the semester, so we should be able to proceed with only minimal disruption to the curriculum. First of all, I must announce, as you have undoubtedly intuited already, that Professor Ekoi has rather suddenly departed the campus. Until further notice, I am resuming duties as your primary magic teacher for the remainder of the semester.”

“Is she…okay?” Juniper asked somewhat tremulously.

The dwarf sighed. “Well. To the best of my knowledge, yes, she is well. Beyond that, anything I could say as to the reasons for this would be mere speculation. Or rather, it would be gossip, which is a most inappropriate use of my classroom time.”

“What about your office hours?” Ruda asked, grinning.

Yornhaldt gave her a wry look. “Miss Punaji, have you ever known me to gossip? Professor Ekoi’s personal business is just that. And I should perhaps take a further moment to mention,” he added more severely, “that Professor Tellwyrn shares my feelings on the subject of discussing faculty business with nosy students. And, in addition to being her usual charming self, she is already rather piqued about this entire affair. Anyone considering asking her for more details should be forewarned. And, ideally, refrain.”

“Well, there ya go,” Ruda said cheerfully. “We have now known you to gossip!”

“I find,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “that warning my students against terrible errors in judgment is usually worth the relaxation of certain other standards. Not that they necessarily listen, but the effort is still worthwhile. Now, then! I shall have to ask you, students, what you have already covered in the last week. I’m afraid my predecessor was not one for leaving detailed notes.”


“Okay,” Iris said, nodding earnestly and clutching her books to her chest. “Okay. It’s gonna be this semester, girls. I’m gonna do it.”

“That leaves you a great deal of time,” Szith noted.

Iris nodded again, her eyes fixed with determination on the path ahead of them, but not seeing anything. “Yes. Right. Exactly. I have time to psych myself up. I can do this.”

“I meant rather the opposite,” the drow said gently. “The whole semester gives you plenty of time to back away and find excuses. Perhaps setting yourself a shorter timetable would be wiser.”

Iris’s eyes widened in near panic. “I…I… Shorter? I don’t know if…”

“Aye, that right there’s the look of a lass just rarin’ to charge off after ‘er ‘eart’s desire,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Iris gave her a sour look. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“Iris, hon, y’know I love ye, right?” The gnome stepped closer to affectionately jostle Iris’s leg as they walked. “That’s why I make fun. I mean, wantin’ the boy by itself ain’t doin’ you any good in the ‘get out there an’ get ‘im’ department. I figure, maybe a little friendly joshin’ from yer roomies’ll help? Cos between you, me, an’ the tree, you’re bein’ ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Iris said sullenly.

“Wanting him is not ridiculous,” Szith replied in her usual placid tone. “All this melodrama about it, however…”

“It’s just not that easy,” Iris whined.

“Perhaps my own cultural background sabotages my sympathy,” Szith mused. “In Tar’naris, the only obstacle in your way would be his rank. He is lowborn, however, which mitigates that; those of granted rank have little prerogative to look down their noses at being approached by others beneath their station. He is, after all, a man. It’s your right and obligation to reach out a seize him, if you desire him.”

“Szith,” Iris said in exasperation, “for the last time, that’s not how we do things here!”

“Indeed,” the drow said solemnly. “Bad enough you have to suffer under such a backward system without perpetuating it yourself.”

“And I don’t want to seize anyone,” Iris added, scowling now. “I want Gabriel to like me! I just…I don’t know how to make him. Ravana’s really helpful to me in learning social skills, but…um…”

“Aye, now ye bring it up, it’s a mite hard to imagine Ravana gettin’ a boy to chase after ‘er,” Maureen mused. “I bet she’d reckon any lad she couldn’t just order to report to ‘er chambers an’ perform was beneath ‘er. An’ not in th’fun sense.”

“Now that is the proper attitude for a noblewoman to have,” Szith said approvingly.

“Is there such a thing as a Hand o’ Izara?” Maureen asked. “Cos this campus could sure as flip use one. I mean, we’ve got all the other paladins, aye?”

“You two are a tremendous help,” Iris growled.

“Iris,” Szith said with one of her rare smiles. “Friend. You only hurt yourself, doing this. Just ask the boy. It does not have to be perfect, and it does not have to be impressive. We do not live in a bard’s tale, and quite frankly, the male upon whom you’ve set your sights is the local champion of well-meaning awkwardness, himself. Just ask him, honestly. I quite think the results will go in your favor.”

Iris closed her eyes. “But what if he says no?” she whispered.

“Then,” Szith replied, “you will know, and can stop torturing yourself. But honestly, why would he?”

“He likes th’ladies, that one,” Maureen said cheerfully. “Ask me, you’d do him a world o’ good in addition to gettin’ over yer own hurdle, here. That’s a lad who needs a lass to settle ‘im down.”

“Even more than most,” Szith agreed.

Maureen suddenly stopped, turning to her right, and the other two halted as well. They had just passed a low retaining wall atop which was a raised flower bed; suddenly revealed sitting in the shadow of it was one of their classmates.

“All right, there, Chase?” Maureen asked, frowning.

He was slumped against the brickwork, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes closed and mouth open. At Maureen’s prompting, he made no reply.

“Oh, my gods,” Iris said, her eyes widening. “He’s not dead, is he?!”

“He breathes,” Szith reported, “and his heart beats. Both at about the speed that is normal for a sleeping human, if you and Ravana are average examples.”

“’ere, now, this ain’t the best place to take a nap,” Maureen said severely. “C’mon, just cos you’re the leadin’ source o’ tomfoolery on the campus don’t make all yer classmates harmless. Chase? Oi, I’m talkin’ to—”

She reached out to jostle his shoulder, then broke off, going pale, as he slumped over on his side.

“Okay, very funny, Chase,” Iris said nervously. “That’s kind of cheap by your standards, isn’t it?”

Chase lay there, inert.

“Chase?” Maureen whispered, looking up at the others. “Um…”

Szith stepped over and knelt by his head. “Chase!” she said sharply, shaking his shoulder, to no effect. She pried open one eyelid, lightly slapped his cheeks, then as a last resort plucked a hair from his eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with him?” Iris demanded shrilly. “Are you sure he’s breathing?”

“Yes,” Szith said tersely. “He is asleep. This close, I could tell if he were faking; neither his breath nor heart rate change in response to pain. Do you sense any magic on him?”

“Nothing like that,” Iris said, shaking her head rapidly, “but I’d only be able to pick up on fae magic, anyway…”

“Keep an eye on ‘im,” Maureen ordered. “I’ll fetch Miss Sunrunner.”


She often paced, as much as the space in the cell allowed. For days, even weeks on end, she kept moving, back and forth and in circles, long enough that in any normal cell her feet would have worn grooves in the floor. Not this cell, of course. She had naturally tried her strength over every inch of it, which yielded nothing. Its floor, ceiling, and three walls were all one piece without joints, made of the pale alloy known in this era as mithril. Its fourth wall was transparent, but not glass; the material dampened her inherent magic just as well, and was just as impervious to her physical strength. She’d never bothered to learn what they called the stuff, back in the old days. It had just been…there.

Not that she’d ever had much in the way of physical strength, which just added to the irony. In this cell, of all places, physical strength was the only kind that mattered—and was even more irrelevant, as in addition to its magic-dampening properties, mithril was hard enough once cast to survive passage through the corona of the sun.

That was neither exaggeration nor a random example. She had had the good fortune to observe that particular test. Or at least its aftermath.

The “glass” wall would surely be the weak point, anyway. Mithril just had to be impervious; that wall had features. It was in it that the doorway formed when the command phrase was spoken, though she had not seen that done since the Hands of the Emperor had first put her in here. That panel emitted the light, illuminating both her cell and the corridor outside—a neat trick, since it did not seem like a light source when looked at directly. It was also in that transparent wall that the signs and sigils appeared, little notations in a language which had not been used on this planet in millenia. They came and went rarely; there was very seldom anything for them to report. The facility itself ran silently along, only rarely registering any data on significant events, which were never anything but minor seismic activity. Occasionally there would be a solar flare, which was of no import to this facility, but she had instructed it to report on anything its sensors could detect.

No, the only significant data registered on the transparent panel was the arrival of visitors. It very obligingly informed her when the facility was accessed. Not that it did her much practical good to know when the Emperor or one of his Hands was about to pass through, but there was a small satisfaction in knowing. Especially since they did not know that she knew, much less how.

They didn’t know how any of this worked. They’d just found it down here, deep below the city. She was mildly curious whether it had been located by accident, or some of the original passages had survived and the Imperial Palace been built deliberately above them for that reason. They certainly did not know how the panels worked. That it wouldn’t acknowledge the command to open if spoken from inside was none of their doing, that was just how the Order had programmed their holding cells. After all these years, she knew how the local humans thought and what they thought of her. They didn’t know she could get information from the panel; they’d have instructed it to deny her if they knew that, and if they knew how. She had never even heard them speak in the language to which the Order’s systems defaulted. Of course, the sub-OS recognized even their bastard English, so why would they need to?

They knew nothing. Silly children playing with the tools of a true civilization which they mistook for toys, distracted by their glossy surfaces and blinking lights. Such a pity nothing down here was likely to harm them if mishandled.

Well, except herself, of course. If she ever got out. She had to acknowledge that in this cell she was basically helpless; the stripped-down state of the facility worked against her, there. Had there been an Avatar running, by this point she could surely have manipulated it into giving her some concessions, if not actually releasing her.

At the moment, she was not pacing. Sometimes she didn’t; such little changes in her routine were the only distractions she could arrange for herself. The panels certainly were not programmed to provide any entertainment. Being cooped up in here would have long since driven her mad, had that ship not well and truly sailed long before she had been imprisoned. So she sat, idly, in the corner, just staring out through the panel at the empty cell across the corridor.

They could at least imprison someone else down here. She couldn’t possibly have been the only anomalous being to be caught in a vulnerable position. They were increasingly clever, these Tiraan, and becoming rather sophisticated for primitives. And they were certainly fascinated by Naiya’s experiments, to judge by the presence of those dryads down the hall. Eventually they would surely poke at something with which they couldn’t contend; she’d just have to hope they managed to stick it in one of these cells, first. Hopefully something that could help her get out. But no, there she sat, alone, as always. For now.

Indicators appeared.

She stood, not moving like a creature made of bone and muscle, but simply straightening upright as if lifted by a string attached to the top of her head, staring at the text which now flashed in the upper corner of the transparent panel.

System activation.

Interesting.

“System,” she said in Esperanto, “status of aperture?”

The facility doors were sealed, no sapients in range. So the humans were not visiting.

“Identify current user.”

The panel calmly informed her that she did not have clearance to access that data.

“Display user activity.”

Still no clearance.

Then the light level shifted, dimming slightly before resuming its customary brightness. A moment later, it changed, becoming magenta, then blue, then returning to normal.

After that the temperature altered. It grew several degrees warmer, then plunged to near freezing, then normalized again.

Condensation appeared on the panel as the humidity was tampered with. Seconds later it was gone.

“Report system damage.”

No damage, everything was functioning normally.

So someone was doing this. Someone who knew how to activate an Infinite Order sub-OS.

Someone, she reflected as the lights flickered again, who could activate the computers but didn’t know what they did. They were apparently poking at the system blindly, trying to puzzle out their functions. Someone who either had physical access to the Imperial Palace in Tiraas, or had managed to patch the transcension field linking the Order’s facilities and was operating from another one.

She smiled.

“Well, well, well. And who might you be?”

No one answered, of course. They might be able to tell she was in here, if they figured out how to access the internal sensors. Whether they would care was another question; what they might do about it, another still.

Still smiling, she began once more to pace.

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