If he was a little put out, it was because he was striding through the halls of the Imperial Palace in the slightly ragged, poorly color-coordinated suit of Sweet the thief, rather than the tailored ensemble or ecclesiastical robes that fit the role he played here. Not that Darling’s superiors didn’t know who he was in any aspect of his life, of course, but it was the principle of the thing. He liked to keep strict walls up between the aspects of his life, if only to help keep his mind organized.
Of course, when a Hand of the Emperor informed you that you were summoned to the Throne, you didn’t ask to stop and change clothes first.
This particular fellow was a Westerner, with dark skin and a shaved head, which made no real difference. The Hands had no names and firmly discouraged people from inquiring after their personal details.
“So, come here often?” Darling asked cheerfully.
The Hand gave him a sidelong glance.
“It’s a joke,” Darling explained. “Because obviously you do. It’s ironic. You know, juxtaposing the common phrase with a completely inappropriate context.”
The Hand simply continued leading the way. They appeared to be heading toward the throne room itself, having entered from one of the Palace’s side doors.
“Okay, it wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny,” Darling mused. “More of a grunt-of-acknowledgment kind of joke. They can’t all be side-splitters or we’d never get anything done.”
“I don’t get many people trying to joke around with me,” the Hand commented. “Being that legally, it’s the same as doing so with the Emperor.”
“Well, his Majesty and I don’t really hang out socially. Which I’ve always thought is a shame. He looks like a chap who knows how to have fun.”
The Hand glanced at him again.
“I mean, have you noticed how calm he always is? With the weight of responsibility on that poor man, he has to be an absolute master of relaxation.”
The Hand ignored him after that, and Darling decided to stop pushing his luck. His discomfort might technically be the fellow’s fault, but the both of them were just little wheels in a much larger machine. Also, a Hand of the Emperor could legally punch him quiet if he deemed it necessary.
Imperial Guards, men and women in Tiraan Army uniforms which were black instead of blue, were posted in the halls nearing the throne room, and around the towering double doors leading into it. Upon Darling and the Hand’s approach, two pulled open one of the silver-plated doors (it took two; the thing was three stories tall and thick enough to withstand a ballista bolt), saluting. The Hand stepped to the side, nodding Darling in, then followed once he was through. He pulled the door closed himself, without apparent difficulty.
The throne room, the ceremonial and cultural center of the Imperial government, was every bit as grand as its role demanded, without being excessively grandiose. Rather than the florid style of decoration that was currently in vogue among the aristocracy and the newer wealthy class, its ornamentations were all geometric patterns, mostly quite simple, except for the stunningly elaborate mathematical designs in mirrored glass that sprawled across the vaulted ceiling. The squared pillars were plated in mirror-bright silver and engraved with angular designs, the stained glass windows showing similar designs in pale colors—and, incidentally, were enchanted to stand up to mag artillery fire. It was the floor that was truly eye-catching, seemingly all of one colossal piece of opal, a translucent surface showing immense depth, with organic swirls of shimmering substance beneath.
Darling didn’t exactly loiter around here, as a rule, but he’d been in the throne room several times, and on this visit was less concerned with the décor and a lot more interested in who was present, and who was not. It seemed cavernously empty, the chamber designed to hold audiences in the hundreds now containing a bare handful of individuals. Usually there would be courtiers and functionaries by the dozen, but none were in evidence. There weren’t even any of the Imperial Guard, which was how he knew something very serious was up. A score of Hands of the Emperor were positioned around the room, looking ominous in their long black coats, which meant this was still likely the most secured place in the Empire; each of these men was a force capable of facing down demons, wizards and whatever else, though the nature and source of their powers remained a mystery to all but themselves and their Emperor.
His Majesty occupied the Silver Throne, of course, gazing down the long chamber at Darling’s entrance. To his left, Empress Eleanora perched on the edge of the Swan Throne, her eyes narrowed to slits. To the right of the royal couple, Lord Quentin Vex stood at one edge of the dais, alongside the balding, craggy-faced Hand of the Emperor who sat with him and Darling on the security council.
Most interestingly of all, Archpope Justinian stood, serene and beatific as ever, at the base of the steps to the Imperial dais.
His escort having melted into the shadowed arcade along the side of the throne room, Darling set off toward the dais as fast as his long legs would carry him without breaking into an unseemly trot. Arriving at the foot of the steps, he sank to one knee, bowing his head.
“Rise, your Grace,” said Sharidan, his voice empty of inflection.
Darling obeyed, only then half-turning to bow to the Archpope, who nodded in acknowledgment.
“This room has been cleared and fully secured, as we have called you here to discuss a matter of the utmost security,” the Emperor said without further preamble. “A little past noon today, a new hellgate was opened above the mountain at Last Rock.”
Darling stiffened in surprise. “A…new one, your Majesty? Above the mountain?”
“Hellgates, like any dimensional portal, require operatives at both ends to open,” the Empress said coldly. “And the University’s campus has, in addition to the best of modern arcane security, a fairy geas of colossal power warding it against outside interference. Only an initiate of the University itself could have done such a thing. Thus it is proved that Tellwyrn has utterly lost control of her students.”
Sharidan moved his left hand slightly, laying the first two fingers upon Eleanora’s wrist on the arm of her own throne. She scowled, but subsided.
“Disturbances of various kinds are common at Last Rock, as is inevitable, considering the people gathered there,” Lord Vex said, looking owlishly somnolent as always. “We’ve always known it was just a matter of time until something of this magnitude occurred; Professor Tellwyrn by and large does well in keeping order, and has proven amenable to working with us. It seems her first reaction in this case was to notify the Empire and begin evacuation procedures.”
“Can the hellgate be closed?” Darling asked, frowning. “Surely if anyone can handle such a task, she can.”
“Within forty-eight hours or so of opening, yes, a dimensional rift can be sealed with little effect,” Vex replied. “The longer it’s open, the more stable it becomes, until it can be considered more or less permanent. Tellwyrn can and has closed hellgates, as have the Imperial Strike Corps, but the problem is that this must be done from both sides, just as they must be opened. Even she can’t be in two places at once, especially considering what happens to teleportation in proximity to an active dimensional rift. Tellwyrn has rightly prioritized the safety of her students and the citizens of Last Rock.”
“In that order, no doubt,” the Empress said.
“We’ve stranded strike teams in Hell?” Darling asked in horrified fascination.
“The Empire isn’t quite so profligate with the lives of its most valuable agents,” Vex said dryly. “Done right, there’s a window after activating the necessary spells in which the gate can still be traversed. This particular gate is anomalous in that it’s located some hundred yards above the peak of the mountain. It presents a logistical challenge, but not one which would stymie the Strike Corps. However…”
He turned to bow in the Archpope’s direction. Justinian nodded to him, then turned to direct his words at Darling, who was clearly the only person present who had yet to be briefed.
“I was visited in my meditations this afternoon by avatars of all three of the Trinity,” the Archpope stated solemnly. “It was the first I had heard of the events at Last Rock, but the gods have rendered a command with regard to them. The Pantheon is seeing to the matter directly, and they forbid any interference by mortal powers. The events at the University must play out according to their design.”
There was a moment of silence while Darling groped for something to say.
“Huh,” was all he managed to come up with.
“The gods ask a great deal,” the Emperor said quietly. “If the situation is not contained, then we are effectively ceding Last Rock to the forces of Hell. Demonic armies could spill from there into the Golden Sea and emerge at any point around its perimeter. It would make the days of Heshenaad’s rampage seem a Sunday picnic in comparison. The Empire simply does not have enough standing forces to maintain an active battlefront around the entire frontier, which is what would be required. Even mobilizing for war, instituting a draft if necessary, would take time in which demons could overrun entire provinces.”
“Not to mention the unknowns,” the Empress added. “There can be simply no guessing what would result from Elilial having access to the Crawl. Or the shape of Tellwyrn’s reaction to the loss of her precious University. Her expressions of disappointment tend to be cataclysmic.”
“In such an eventuality, we would not fight alone,” said Vex. “Silver Legions from across the world would be called in. The elves would help; the Narisians would have to, as per our treaty. Even the dwarves would likely contribute forces against a full-scale demonic invasion.”
“Tar’naris has less entire population than we have soldiers,” Eleanora said sharply. “The last elven tribe that tried to keep a standing army were the Cobalt Dawn, whom we destroyed. And the dwarven kingdoms cannot afford to equip or even feed an army. They are barely supporting their own citizenry at this point.”
“Your Majesties are correct,” Justinian said solemnly. “Those are the stakes. They are, indeed, chilling.”
“You’re about to counsel that we have faith in the gods,” Eleanora said, transferring her sharp stare to him.
The Archpope nodded slowly. “It is a hard thing to do, when so much is on the line. The fate of the world itself, starting with our Empire. I would remind your Majesties that the fate of the world is always in the gods’ hands, at every moment, and we cannot imagine the catastrophes that do not materialize because they have sheltered us from them. Ultimately… In my own moments of darkest doubt, I maintain my trust in the gods because if they cannot be trusted…all is lost anyway.” He spread his hands in a gesture that was just a shade too beatifically patriarchal to be a shrug. “As all is clearly not lost, we can know that they watch over us.”
“There is also the fact that this was a command from Omnu, Avei, and Vidius in person,” Lord Vex added. “Defying them outright is likely to add to our troubles, not alleviate them.”
“I will not be sanguine about this until that hellgate is closed and my people are safe,” the Emperor said darkly. “However, I agree. The gods must be trusted, even if only because they will not allow any other outcome.” He shifted his gaze to Darling. “Evacuation proceedings are underway. I have declared a state of emergency; the Rail network is frozen, and all available caravans have been re-routed to participate in the evacuation of Last Rock. Three military zeppelins have been dispatched from Calderaas under full thrust to retrieve the citizens too infirm to travel via Rail. They should arrive within the hour.”
“The gate itself has yet to produce any demons,” Vex added, “no doubt due to its altitude. That gains us a breather, but has a downside: just as on the mortal plane, whatever comes through will have to heavily organize in order to reach it. The cost of the hours we are granted to prepare is that it will be an invasion, not a trickle of lost demons with no agenda except escape. Professor Tellwyrn has insisted upon the citizens of the town going first; her students and faculty will be the last to evacuate. As I’m sure you can imagine, they represent a force that can at least slow anything that comes out of that portal, and possibly convince it not to try again.”
Eleanora turned to give him a narrow look. Apparently this was the first she had heard of that. The Emperor only frowned pensively.
Darling, by this point, was barely managing to contain his expression. Seizing upon the momentary lull in the conversation, he turned to the Archpope.
“Your Holiness, who else knows about the gods’ command?”
“And now we come to it,” Eleanora said bitterly.
“No one outside this room has been informed,” Justinian replied, nodding significantly. “I saw immediately what you have just seen.”
“Indeed,” said the Emperor, lacing his fingers together. “And that is why you were summoned here, Bishop Darling. This presents a golden opportunity to implement the strategy you proposed following the recent Wreath attacks.”
“Let it be known,” Eleanora growled, “I despise this plan.”
“It is not something that gives me any pleasure to contemplate, your Majesty,” Darling replied respectfully. “However… It would work. It is only left to decide whether it is worth it.”
“What you propose,” Sharidan said, still in a soft tone, “involves literally unleashing Hell in the streets of this city. Widespread damage and civilian casualties would be certainties, not risks.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Darling replied simply.
“I support the Bishop’s idea, for whatever that may be worth,” said the Archpope. “And I have since he brought it forth. All it needed was a suitable crisis. I do not foresee any other such opportunity that involves so little direct risk; we cannot ask more than a divine assurance that the problem in Last Rock is under control.”
“We can’t stop word of the situation in Last Rock spreading anyway,” Vex mused. “The Rail freeze is a dead giveaway. The people need to be told something or there will be dangerous levels of unrest. As long as no one else knows of the gods’ command, the hellgate crisis provides a pretext to move troops out of the city.”
Eleanora stared at him directly. “What is your opinion of the Bishop’s plan, Lord Quentin?”
“Under ordinary circumstances,” he replied, bowing to her, “I would not consider it worth the inevitable cost. However…we are dangerously past ordinary circumstances. Elilial and her Wreath are more active than at any point in recent history, and we do not know their plans. What little we do know of her intentions with regard to the Throne is terrifying. Playing the intelligence game with the Wreath as we have been is, effectively, a stalemate, which is a situation that favors them. Something must give.” He sighed. “In my professional opinion, your Majesties, these are the desperate times that necessitate this desperate measure. I support the plan.”
“There will be a heavy price to be paid for this,” Darling said into the quiet which followed Vex’s response. “What we stand to gain, however, is the effective destruction of the Black Wreath in Tiraas. I leave it to your Majesties to decide whether the benefit is worth the cost.”
“This presupposes that the Wreath will behave as you predict,” Sharidan noted. “It defies credulity to expect them to heroically step up in the face of a full-scale demonic incursion in the city.”
“That actually is one of the more reasonable expectations in this,” said Vex. “Whatever else they may be, the Wreath are notably sincere in their claims to be defenders of the mortal realm against infernal forces. Imperial policy with regard to demonic incursions is always to let the Wreath work without interference if they happen to beat our agents to an attack site. They clean up demons faster, more thoroughly and with less collateral damage than we have ever managed.” He nodded to the Imperial couple. “If they find Tiraas suddenly swamped with infernal summons and the bulk of Imperial forces moved to the frontier, they will intervene. Their religion demands it.”
“The history of political maneuvering between the Church and the Throne creates an opportunity to establish a believable narrative,” said the Archpope. “I have expanded the holy summoner program in response to increasing demonic activity of late. I will simply take advantage of the situation to call up demons in the city, in order to undermine the Throne’s authority.” He nodded to Darling. “Assuming, as we must, that the Church, the Empire and all cults have Wreath infiltrators, selling the story will be a simple matter of making this plan known to my summoner corps.”
“How fascinating that you trust them so,” Eleanora said icily.
“In fact, your Majesty,” the Archpope replied, “that does present a wrinkle. Such an action on my part would be treasonous, not to mention highly irresponsible. I expect many of my people to refuse outright to participate. Possibly most. I am not certain that I will be able to field enough reliable summoners to enact this part of the plan.”
“If you provide the Church livery, I can provide you summoners,” said Vex.
“With every additional person brought into this,” Darling cautioned, “the risk of a Wreath spy getting word of it goes up.”
“I’ve enough trustworthy people to get it done,” Vex said mildly. “I know who the Wreath agents infiltrating Imperial Intelligence are. I can work around them.”
“You what?” Sharidan asked sharply.
Vex bowed to the Emperor. “It is not worth the effort of purging them, your Majesty. That would just leave me having to figure out anew who the replacement spies are. As it is, I can exert a measure of control over what they learn. It’s a stable arrangement.”
“Hm,” the Emperor mused. Eleanora placed a hand on his arm; they exchanged a silent look, and he relaxed slightly.
“How many trustworthy spellcasters do you have available, Vex?” Darling asked.
“Depends on what you need them for.”
“Mages. Teleporters, specifically. Later stages of the plan will require me to bring in some personnel who, presently, are scattered all across the Empire. With the Rails locked down, portal mages will be the only discreet method of bringing them into the city.”
“Anyone who can shadow-jump will be needed for the Archpope’s part,” Vex mused, rubbing his chin. “Arcane teleportation is trickier across large distances, especially if you’re adding passengers. Hm… On hand in the city, I can provide four who I trust and who have the necessary magical reserves.”
“Four… That will mean a lot of return trips. I’m going to have to ask them to exhaust themselves, Vex.”
“These are servants of the Throne,” Vex said calmly. “They will do whatever duty requires. If,” he added, turning to the Emperor, “we are indeed going to do this.”
Sharidan stared silently into space above their heads. Eleanora watched him, her face an impassive mask. Behind Vex, the Hand of the Emperor attended the conversation mutely. Hands spoke with the Emperor’s voice; there was no need for them to talk in his presence.
“I might normally ask the gods to forgive us for this,” the Emperor said at last, “but at this moment, I find myself with less regard than usual for their input.” He sighed, turning to meet Eleanora’s eyes. She frowned slightly, but then nodded once to him. Sharidan nodded back, then turned his head to the others and squared his shoulders. “We will have to see who is left to offer forgiveness when it is done. Gentlemen, you may proceed. May someone watch over us all.”