10 – 35

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The trees reared up ahead of them, less than an hour’s walk away, due southwest. The sun was just peeking over the horizon behind them; early morning mist still clung to the ground in a few places, and the green blades of tallgrass were flecked with dew.

The three had exchanged little conversation as they had a quick breakfast of travel rations and packed away what little gear they’d brought; their campsite had obviously seen much use for that very purpose, with a firepit ready and a half dozen sleeping spots already lined with a leafy type of dried grass which was surprisingly soft. Aside from Ingvar’s observation as they set out that they should reach the grove within an hour, they’d been quiet, enjoying the cool morning and the way the exercise worked away the night’s stiffness.

When six elves arrived around them, it was abrupt as if by magic, yet so smoothly natural it seemed as if they had always been there. They simply melted out of the tallgrass around the party, moving along at their own even pace as if they’d been calmly walking beside them the whole way. This was doubly impressive, the grass being nowhere more than chest-high, and usually a foot lower than that.

Joe let out a muffled yelp, reflexively reaching for his wands; even Ingvar jerked slightly as he came to a stop, laying one hand on his tomahawk.

“Morning!” Darling said brightly, waving to the nearest elf, a man with unbound waist-length hair like spun gold, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. “Lovely day for it, eh? Y’know, truth be told, I wasn’t too sure about all this nature walking. Just yesterday I had a little gripe about all the sun around here. I’ve gotta say, though, it’s growing on me. Not that I’d wanna leave the city on any kind of long-term basis, of course, but this is…I dunno, invigorating! Something about the freshness of the air, I guess. I feel five years younger! But hey, look who I’m telling.”

He came to a stop because Joe and Ingvar had, and the elves did likewise, regarding them with impassive faces. They were a mix of men and women, dressed in practical forest style, with soft fabrics and leathers of green and brown.

“Do you always chatter on this way to conceal nervousness?” asked the one with the staff.

“Do you always assume people who chatter are nervous?” Darling retorted instantly, still wearing his cheerful smile.

“Honestly,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “him jabberin’ like some kinda nitwit just means he’s gettin’ enough airflow. Good morning to you, ladies an’ gentlemen. Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins. These’re Bishop Antonio Darling an’ Brother Ingvar.”

“Yes, we know,” the apparent leader of the scouts replied, glancing at each of them in turn. “Your arrival was…foretold.”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Darling said, brightly as ever. “Is she as pushy and condescending to you guys as she is to us short-lived folk?”

The elf with the staff studied his face closely for a moment, then finally smiled. “Even more so, I rather expect. My name is Adimel; welcome to our lands. I am here to guide you to your destination.”

“Much obliged,” Joe said politely. Ingvar bowed to them, holding his peace.

“I hope you will not take offense if those in the tribe seem less than eager to have guests,” Adimel said, starting out toward the treeline with no more ado and compelling them to walk with him or be left behind. “The grove is already stirred up with human business thanks to events transpiring in Viridill. Kuriwa’s arrival and…characteristic barking of orders has not done any favors to the Elders’ aplomb. What she asked, furthermore, is a significant imposition.” He gave them a hard glance without slowing. “I hope you understand how very rare it is that this would be shown to outsiders. Any outsiders, much less humans, and Tiraan.”

“Actually,” said Joe, “we have no idea what it is we’re here to see. We’re only following directions.”

“Who’s Kuriwa?” Ingvar asked, frowning.

“Oh, c’mon, you didn’t think her real name was Mary?” Darling asked lightly. “Don’t look at me like that, I’d never heard the name before, either. I know it was her, though, by the account. People being ordered around and not even told what they’re doing; who else could it be?”

Adimel sighed.

Unlike the even-footed forest near Sarasio, this grove rested atop rolling ground which made its deep green shadows somehow more complex. In addition to the gentle swells and valleys of the earth itself, there were frequent outcroppings of rock—old and smoothed by the elements, but tumbled in artful disarray. Several of these contained the mouths of small springs, with splashed down the rocks into pools that then fed meandering streams which traced paths through the lowest levels of the forest.

The trees were without exception ancient, and huge; though there tended to be wide spaces between them, no younger saplings grew, only some low ground-crawling shrubs. Often they rose up from the ground on systems of roots that were themselves as thick as any branch; their wide canopies mostly blotted out the sky, except where they permitted golden streamers of sunlight.

It was quiet, mostly, except for the soft music of songbirds and running water. The air smelled of loam, moss, flowers and fruit. In countenance, the forest resembled a park, thanks to the obvious artistry of its arrangement; clearly every aspect of this land had been carefully shaped over countless years. And yet, for all that, there was an ineffable wildness to it.

In short, it was an elven grove.

They were not taken to the grove proper, at least not to any location where elves kept their homes. The party had been met in a clearing by a single woman who introduced herself as Elder Linsheh; she had stood, waiting patiently, in a single shaft of golden sunlight which made her hair seem to glow. Elves clearly did not lack a sense of drama.

For an elf to be called Elder indicated both respect and a life of at least a thousand years, which was somewhat disconcerting when applied to a woman who could have been barely out of her teens, physically. She had a stillness and gravitas, however, that supported her title.

And, as Adimel had warned, Linsheh was apparently not particularly pleased to meet them.

The group now counted five, the Elder and Adimel continuing along with them while the rest of the scouts melted back into the trees. There were no paths, as such, but Linsheh led them along a course that avoided the taller hills, thicker underbrush and dips into water. It was no harder to walk than the average park.

“We can go in a straight line, if you want,” Darling suggested. “Makes me feel guilty for slowing you down this way. I mean, I’m sure you folks don’t stick to the easy paths when you’re on your own.”

“You know so much of the ways of elves?” Linsheh asked mildly, glancing back at them. Again, her voice and expression were apparently calm, but totally devoid of friendliness.

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Darling said easily. “Here I go, making assumptions. I guess I assumed you wouldn’t go for the easy path, because I find that’s generally true of people whom I respect.”

Adimel chuckled, shaking his head.

“Kuriwa said you were a smooth talker, Bishop Darling,” the Elder commented.

“And did she also say that I talk smoothly in utter sincerity?” he replied. “It’s policy. Just practical, really; smart people are annoyed by flattery, and stupid people are rarely worth impressing.”

She glanced back again, finally permitting herself a small smile. “It seems strange to know you are an Eserite; you remind me strikingly of almost every bard I have ever met. Then again, the silver-tongued thief is also an archetype that exists for good reason.”

“Oh, you like archetypes?” he said cheerfully. “That suggests you’ve met quite a few bards.”

“I have met quite a few of everything, nearly,” she said.

“I guess they all start to blend together, then,” Joe said.

The Elder glanced at him, smiling again. “At first. The beginning of wisdom is learning to see the uniqueness in each repetition of a familiar pattern.”

“Well, now I’m in an awkward position,” said Darling. “Because I’ve frequently had that thought myself, as I grow older, but saying it makes it sound like I consider myself as wise as an elven Elder. That’s just pompous, is what it is.”

“I have never known that to stop you,” Ingvar noted.

“Fair point!” Darling pointed at him, grinning. “Well, that settles it! Whew, for a moment I was concerned.”

Linsheh stopped, turning to face them. She wore a faint smile now, and bowed slightly; Ingvar and Joe both returned the gesture (more deeply) out of reflex. “I feel I should apologize; it is customary for guests in our land to be met with more…enthusiasm. You have come to us at what was a tense moment to begin with, even before the Crow’s request. Kuriwa’s arrival and insistence upon this significant breach of tradition has had a disturbing effect upon us all. Yet, for all that she tends to irritate, she also tends not to be wrong. If she deems it necessary that you be shown these secrets…the Elders have decided to trust that it is so.”

“Honestly, she’d be less annoying if she were wrong more often, I think,” Darling said ruminatively.

“Adimel mentioned trouble, too,” Joe said, frowning. “What’s going on in Viridill?”

“I will bring you up to date on the news if you wish,” Linsheh said calmly, “but it was my understanding you would be eager to seek answers…?”

“Yes, please,” Ingvar replied, giving the other two a quelling glance. “We appreciate your patience very much, Elder. We can learn about human affairs from human sources later, without wasting more of your time.”

“Where is it we’re going?” Darling asked, looking around at the forest.

“Here,” said Elder Linsheh. “We have arrived. Come along, please.”

They were standing upon a flattened patch of ground next to a truly massive tree, its root system rising from a small hill which seemed to have been broken in multiple places to reveal a rocky interior. The Elder slipped into the shadows behind a root, vanishing swiftly into the darkness. The three human visitors paused, glancing uncertainly at each other, before Ingvar squared his shoulders and followed her. The others came along behind, Adimel bringing up the rear.

The shadows of roots and rocks concealed a natural passage into the hill, not narrow but cunningly disguised by its surroundings. Beyond a low opening was a tunnel that descended in a slight curve, its bottom worked into worn old steps.

At the bottom of these, just around the corner from the entrance, was a small grotto, where a burbling spring fed a pool and a stream that meandered through the center of the space before vanishing down a hole in the far wall. Surprisingly, it was not dark; there were several small openings in the roof above through which streams of sunlight penetrated. Streamers of hanging moss dangled from the exposed tree roots above them, and lichens climbed the stone walls. For the most part, it looked quite natural, with the sole exception of a few very conveniently placed stepping stones crossing the stream.

Linsheh had already stepped across these and stopped just on the other side; behind her loomed another dark passageway, descending still deeper.

“What you have come to see,” she said in a serious tone that bordered on the grim, “is something we have guarded carefully far longer than human civilization in its current form has existed. When you have learned what you came here to learn, you may find yourself…resentful. It is a thing of enormous significance that the Elders and people of this tribe keep carefully from the eyes of humans, and of other outsiders. Only shamans on their training quests, and adventuring gnomes, do we allow within. I will ask, when you have seen what lies below, that you consider our reasoning—which I believe you are intelligent enough to perceive without having it explained to you. These secrets contain hints at terrible possibilities; this knowledge offers little that can uplift the peoples of this world, and much that could threaten us all in the wrong hands.”

“This is…” Ingvar frowned deeply. “My quest, Elder, is to seek knowledge of my god, and his situation. We have no interest in weapons or dangerous secrets.”

“Believe me,” she replied, “that was discussed at length when Kuriwa appeared, suggesting that we permit you within.” Her eyes traveled slowly across their small group. “It would be unusual enough to allow a Huntsman within, but for one on a quest such as yours, not necessarily impossible. And Joseph Jenkins is known to be a friend of elves.”

“I am?” Joe asked in surprise. “I mean… I always respected the people near my hometown, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot of contact with ’em.”

“Respect, sincerely felt and simply expressed, is something we notice when we see it,” Linsheh replied, giving him a little smile.

“Why do I suspect I’m the holdout, here?” Darling asked dryly.

The Elder’s smile faded as she leveled a direct stare at him. “When I speak of the wrong hands in which to place dangerous secrets, a ranking thief-priest might as well be exactly what I describe. Kuriwa, however, believes you have something to offer the world that will be to its advantage, and that this will help you, as well. After some discussion, we have agreed to trust her.”

“Huh,” he said, nonplussed. “And here I thought I was just along for the ride.”

“She suggested both of us for this expedition,” Joe pointed out. “I don’t think that lady does anything just for the heck of it.”

“She does seem to enjoy ruffling other people’s feathers,” Adimel commented. “Maybe toward greater purpose, but I suspect there’s a fair amount of ‘just for the heck of it’ involved.”

Linsheh sighed. “Well. I have delayed this enough with talk. What you have come to learn is below.” She stepped to the side, indicating the dark opening behind her. “There is nothing more to be gained by waiting.”

“My thanks, Elder,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to her, then stepped forward and approached the gap.

One by one, they passed within, pausing only to nod politely to Linsheh before they vanished into the darkness below, leaving the two elves gazing pensively after them.

“You need to leave.”

Seven armed scouts rose up out of the tallgrass around their little camp, all with weapons in their hands, but not yet lifted in preparation for violence.

“Let me ask you something,” Flora said calmly, smiling at the man who had spoken. “Did you really believe you snuck up on us?”

“Or,” Fauna added, “that we didn’t intend to be spotted here?”

They were perched atop a small hill in the grassy plain outside the grove, where they had cleared away the tallgrass to set up two folding stools and a small arcane camping stove, on which a pot of tea was currently brewing.

“That’s neither here nor there,” the head scout said curtly. “We know what you are—”

“Bet you don’t,” Flora muttered.

“—and you know very well you are not wanted in this or any grove.”

“We are not in the grove,” Fauna said sweetly.

He gritted his teeth. “If I am forced to insist…”

Both girls burst out laughing, then kept laughing, past the point where their would-be ambushers began to look distinctly annoyed. Fauna actually tumbled off her stool and rolled on the ground in a mockery of elvish grace.

Altogether, they made a very stark contrast to the other elves. Aside from having the horizontal ears of the plains folk, both were dressed in dramatic black (which hardly any sensible person did under the prairie sun), Flora with her anachronistic cloak. They might as well have been from a whole other world than the increasingly miffed forest kin in their traditional attire.

“Okay, look,” Flora said, wiping away a tear and grinning broadly. “You don’t own the world, friend, and we aren’t here to challenge your grove.”

“Like I said,” Fauna added, “we’re not in the grove, and don’t plan on entering the grove.”

“This is still far closer to our home than we like to see eldei alai’shi,” the lead scout said grimly.

“Well, that’s just too damn bad, ain’t it?” Flora replied, switching to Tanglish.

“Our friends just went into the trees,” Fauna continued. “They were invited and escorted.”

“We, acknowledging that the Elders would have kittens if we tried to follow, didn’t do so.”

“We’re just gonna wait out here for them to do what they came to do and come out.”

“At which point we’ll depart along with them, and you won’t have to worry about us any more.”

“All this,” Fauna explained, gesturing to the stools and stove, “is a little peace offering. We are not skulking about, or doing anything shady or aggressive.”

“So you have the opportunity to come say hello—it’s nice to meet you too, by the way—and now you can go tell the Elders that we’re not bothering anybody and won’t stay long.”

He frowned, looking at another of his troop as if for confirmation; she shook her head almost imperceptibly. “And if the Elders choose to insist that you leave?”

“They won’t,” Fauna said simply.

“No Elders anywhere would want to provoke that kind of confrontation where they didn’t need to.” Flora added with a smile.

The scout drew in a deep breath through his teeth and let it out in a sigh. “I will…inform the Elders of your…position.”

“You do that,” Fauna replied cheerfully, getting up and brushing off her leather trousers. “Meanwhile, would any of those you’re leaving to guard us like some tea?”

The tunnel seemed to be little more than a grandiose mole hole through dirt for a large part of its length, raising disturbing questions about what prevented it from collapsing. It didn’t, though, and as they continued, the occasional rocks supporting its sides grew more and more frequent, until they were passing almost entirely through stone.

“We must be on the edge of the continental shelf, here,” Ingvar observed.

“The what, now?” asked Joe from up ahead. The elves had not provided them with any sources of light; he could make the tips of his wands glow cleanly, however, and had thus found himself leading the way.

“The Great Plains at the center of this continent were an inland sea, eons ago,” said Ingvar. “And then, as it slowly dried up, a swamp. That’s why that ground is so fertile. But under the ground, it’s an enormous and deep basin of nothing but soil; very few rocky areas, and thus very few caves. Oddities like Last Rock were mostly created by the Elder Gods, long ago.”

“The things you know,” Darling marveled. “What do Huntsmen need with geological history?”

“To know the land,” Ingvar said simply. “We come to know it firsthand, with our senses and our hearts—that is of paramount importance. But there are many ways to know a thing, and more knowledge is always better than less.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed.

They had been walking for over half an hour, now, at least. Time seemed to dilate oddly in that dark, lonely environment; it was hard to guess how far they had come or how long they’d been down there. The tunnel proceeded consistently downward, weaving slowly back and forth as it went. At least there were no branches or side passages, and thus no opportunities to get lost. Still, it was an unnervingly claustrophobic space, offering room for them to walk only single-file, and barely tall enough that none of them had to stoop.

Rounding an unusually sharp curve, the tunnel came to an end quite suddenly, and Joe halted, forcing the others to crowd in behind him, peering over his shoulders at what lay ahead.

Their tunnel emerged into the side of an enormous underground chasm, stretching away into infinite darkness to the left and right. The wandlight just barely illuminated its cracked ceiling; the floor was lost to distance and dimness far below, at least as far as they could tell. The view downward was blocked directly in front of them by the bridge which stretched from the foot of the tunnel’s mouth to the opposite side of the canyon.

It was this at which they stared in awe, nearly ignoring the mighty cavern around them.

In contrast to the purely natural surroundings through which they had been passing, the bridge and the door beyond it were so glaringly artificial they seemed almost to have been placed here by accident. The bridge was much wider than the tunnel, broad enough they could all three have walked side by side and been unable to reach the rails to either side. And it was made of metal. It appeared to be steel, gleaming smoothly in the light of Joe’s wand. Despite being down here in the empty darkness, not a single scratch or spot of rust marred it. There didn’t even appear to be any dust or cobwebs.

At the opposite side of the bridge, another large expanse of metal stood in the wall, the size and roughly the shape of the front of a church. Two columns of what appeared to be violet glass flanked an obvious door, a steel portal with a vertical crack down its center, engraved with an elaborate sigil none of them recognized.

After a few moments of silent staring, Joe extinguished the glow of his wand.

Light remained, an eerie purple luminescence put off by the columns, which were glowing just brightly enough to create an island of light in the darkness. In the sudden absence of wandlight, previously hidden lights sprang to life along the rails lining the bridge, as well; they were also sigils, and emitted a pure white radiance to mark the path.

“Huh,” said Joe.

“Yup,” Darling agreed.

“Well,” Ingvar said somewhat impatiently, “we are learning nothing by standing here.”

Joe finally stepped forward, gingerly placing his feet on the steel bridge as if uncertain it would hold his weight. It was fine, though, every bit as solid as it looked. They walked slowly, peering around, but there was really nothing more to be seen than they had observed from the tunnel’s mouth. Only the dark cavern, the glowing door, and the bridge.

In moments, despite the slowness of their approach, they stood before the door.

“Well,” Darling observed, “I don’t see a knob…”

“Perhaps this sign tells us what to do,” Ingvar suggested, raising a hand toward the symbol engraved on the steel door. “If only any of us could read it. Does it remind either of you of anything you have—”

The instant his fingertips brushed the steel, it suddenly parted, causing them all to jump a foot backward. The door shifted to the sides a few inches, opening along its center crack with a soft hiss that suggested the air within had been sealed, then slid almost silently downward into the frame below it, leaving open a passage.

Beyond it was a hallway, made of metal and lined with more lights, both dim purple glass columns decorating its walls and brighter, more utilitarian white glow-spots marching along its ceiling. It terminated a dozen yards or so distant in an apparently round room with a statue in its center.

“Anybody else as inexplicably terrified as I am?” Joe asked, swallowing heavily as if for emphasis.

“Yes,” said Ingvar, and stepped forward through the door.

It hissed shut once they were all through, causing them to jump again and spin around. Darling immediately placed a hand on it, at which it opened again. They tested this twice more to verify that they could get out before proceeding.

At the end of the hall, a broad room opened up, oval in shape, with a statue in its center. Still, everything appeared to be made of glossy steel, including the statue, which was heavily stylized in form but showed a man and a woman standing back-to-back, their hands upraised toward the ceiling over a hundred feet above. This was a dome, deep blue in color, and decorated by an enormous star chart. Both stars and notations in a language none of them recognized glowed an even white. More white lights rimmed the edges of the walls, about halfway up, and there were more decorative columns of glowing purple. Here, too, benches lined the perimeter, made of glossy steel and set with thin cushions of some sleek black material that was surprisingly soft to the touch. Darling tested it first with a hand, and then his rump.

“The thing that troubles me most,” said Ingvar, “is the lack of dust.”

“The thing that troubles me is the noise,” Joe said tensely.

It barely qualified as noise, being only the faintest hum at the very edge of hearing, but it was almost constant. Though less invasive, it sounded like the thrum of powerful arcane energy at work.

As they stood there peering around and listening, there came another whirring sound from one of the hallways branching off from the oval room. All three whirled to face it, Joe and Ingvar raising weapons.

The thing that emerged was wholly bizarre and oddly…cute.

A squat cylinder in shape, it proceeded on three stubby legs, each ending in two thick wheels; its top was a sort of sheared-off dome with one flat face. Though most of the object was metal, bronze in color, the flat part of its “head” was a panel of faintly glowing white with odd little marks upon it. Eight folding, spider-like limbs protruded from around the upper part of its cylindrical body, each tipped in various implements.

In fact, it was pushing a broom. A metal broom whose head had some kind of glowing apparatus attached to it, but nonetheless obviously a broom.

The thing came to a stop just inside, its dome-top rotating to put the glowing panel toward them directly, and emitted a pleasant series of musical chimes.

“Uh,” said Ingvar.

“Please tell me you guys see it too,” Darling said nervously.

“As I live and breathe,” Joe said in awe. “It’s…that’s a golem!”

“That doesn’t look like any golem I’ve ever seen,” Ingvar protested.

“It’s an obviously autonomous self-powered magical machine,” said Joe. “It’s a golem, all right. An’ altogether the last thing I’d’ve expected to find in a secret tunnel under an elven grove.”

“I think that description applies to basically all of this,” Darling replied.

All three shied backward when the golem approached them, chiming eagerly and waving several of its appendages about. Only when it had come within two yards did they realize that the markings on its glowing front panel formed a stylized face, nothing but two round purple dots for eyes and a slash below representing a mouth.

It was, at least, a smiling face.

“Hi there,” said Joe, uncertainly waving the hand not holding his wand. “Uh…what’s your name?”

The golem pivoted about on its whirring wheels and zoomed partway around the statue, pausing a few yards distant to swivel its face back to them. It gestured with two of its peculiar arms, clearly beckoning them forward.

“I think it’s trying to communicate,” Darling observed.

“Yes, obviously,” Ingvar said, giving him an irritated glance. “The question is…do we trust it?”

“Elder Linsheh didn’t suggest anything down here was dangerous,” said Joe. “And…well, Mary did send us here, after all. I say we follow the golem. Ain’t like we’ve got any better ideas, unless one o’ you boys wants to surprise me.”

Ingvar heaved a sigh, but hitched up his quiver and set off after the little golem.

It let out another series of pleasant chimes, apparently excited, and continued on its way.

The golem led them all the way around the statue and to another broad door on the opposite side of the room, directly across from the way they had come in. This seemed to be identical to the outer door of the complex, including in the way it parted upon being touched by one of the little golem’s metal arms.

Beyond was another room, spacious but smaller than the last one, and rectangular in shape. Its walls were entirely lined with peculiar shapes; they seemed like shelves of some matte black substance, each filled with small glowing cylinders of purple glass, none more than a foot in height. In fact, altogether it resembled a library, with luminous tubes instead of books. In the center of the room was a single sheet of colorless glass, positioned facing the door, extending from floor to ceiling.

They came to a stop inside, peering around, as the golem rolled over to the edge of the broad glass panel and continued chiming in excitement.

“Well,” Darling said after a moment. “Here we are. So…where are we?”

All three men jumped backward yet again when a figure suddenly appeared in the glass panel.

It was a man, bald-headed and clean-shaven, wearing a sleek suit of totally unfamiliar design. He was translucent and purple, as if he were nothing but a reflection in the glass.

“You are in Data Vault Three, established by Tarthriss of the Infinite Order,” said a voice from all around them. It was a pleasant tenor, and carried a peculiar resonance that clearly did not come from any human throat. Though the glass man’s mouth moved along with the words, the voice itself definitely came from the walls, not from him directly. “It has been several solar cycles since this facility has had visitors. I am Avatar Zero Three, and very pleased to make your acquaintance. How may I assist you?”

“Uh,” Joe said intelligently. “Uh, the…what? The who? Who are the Infinite Order?”

“The Infinite Order,” said the Avatar, smiling benignly, “are an organization of scientists and engineers who embrace the philosophy that reason and science hold the keys to the purpose of both the sapient life and the universe itself. They journeyed to this solar system and established this planet as a research and development facility dedicated to the fulfillment of the Ascension Project.”

“Oh…kay,” Joe said, frowning. “But…who are the Infinite Order?”

The Avatar’s ghostly face smiled again, but it seemed almost sad, this time. “Compiling current roster and status of the Infinite Order. Scyllith: active. Naiya: active. Araneid: …uncertain. Infriss: unknown. Druroth: unknown. Vel Hreyd: unknown.” He hesitated, his expression growing distinctly solemn, before continuing. “All other members of the Infinite Order are confirmed deceased…including my maker, Tarthriss.”

“Sorry t’hear that,” Joe said reflexively, removing his hat.

“That’s…you’re talking about the Elder Gods,” Ingvar breathed.

“Tarthriss preferred to refrain from the use of such terminology, deeming it both causative and symptomatic of the Infinite Order’s systemic breakdown,” said Avatar 03. “Out of respect for him, I do not refer to ascended beings as ‘gods,’ but based upon my comprehension of both this language and the current state of such beings, it is not necessarily inaccurate.”

“Are you…all alone down here?” Joe asked, frowning.

“This facility has very occasional visitors,” the Avatar replied. “For the most part, however, Caretaker Seven is my only company. You have already met him, I see.”

The golem chimed enthusiastically, waving several of its arms, its stylized little face beaming in goodwill.

“What brings you to this Data Vault?” inquired the Avatar.

“I am on a quest,” Ingvar blurted out, pausing to regather his poise. “That is, I am seeking information concerning the state of my god, Shaath, and how he might be helped. Tell me…is it possible for a god to be imprisoned?”

“There are many ways the status of an ascended being could be interfered with,” Avatar 03 replied. “A great deal depends upon the specifics. I shall be glad to convey what information I can; if you can provide more detail as to the unique situation of Shaath I may be able to render a more helpful analysis. Alternatively, if you would like access to broader data on the nature and origin of the ascended beings on this planet, I can give a full account of the Ascension Project.” The ghostly figure smiled benignly, and appeared to bow; such physical gestures looked rather odd, with him being clearly a projection in the glass screen. “It depends on how much time, patience, and interest you have. If you are willing, I would be delighted to explain everything.”

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60 thoughts on “10 – 35

  1. Unless we break 150 votes on TWF the next chapter will be five thousand words of Ravana teaching Scorn table manners.

    Relax, I’m kidding.

    Or am I? (I am.)

    See you Wednesday, true believers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But I *want* five thousand words of Ravana teaching Scorn table manners!

      I will grant it’s maybe not the best time to do it, but… I’d be way less put out than you seem to expect!

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Very much not expected.

      Can’t say I like science fantasy predecessors/explanations in general.

      Lets see where this.goes.exactly, but I think I won’t particularly care.for.it, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to say it: you Webb are one of the few authors that costantly surprise me….Thank you! Now I am really looking foward to see what Darling will do with the new knowledge…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh wow. So Arachne comes from Araneid…

    Webb, have you ever read Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny?

    This explains Eserion and Vesk talking physics during the game, too.

    I wish I could have access to that database myself… I’m bursting with questions!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Arachne and Araneid being one and the same was the conclusion I jumped to as well.

      Not necessarily accurately though.


  4. So…it was a project…that probably explains, why the Elder gods treated all beings as breeding stock.

    From the music of songbirds of the Elven Grove into the Vault, I feel like the temperature in my room dropped while reading.
    But what would a shaman need there?

    I am concerned about the ‘unknown’ Order members and I have a guess about the uncertain one.

    As a not-native-english speaker I don’t always get the fine nuances of some phrases, and I’m starting to wonder about “holding his peace” and why it is attached to Ingvar?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, as non-native english speaker myself, understand “holding his peace” as him staying quiet, with the implication that he does have something to say but refrains from it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re not wrong, but you’re missing a subtlety of meaning, implication, and association. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and care, I suggest you ask a native speaker of English.


  5. This gives me so many thoughts… I need to share. I’m assuming a similiar situation here like in Lord of Light, which would explain why the gods are bastards.

    The Infinite Order/Elder Gods were humans who used the planet for experiments. They are responsible for pretty much every living being in the world now, having created all of them. Each of them was/is the source for one kind of magic, which now seems to be a certain brand of hyper-advanced technology. The ascension seems to have certain drawbacks, which might include loss of humanity and dependence on aspects. This could be explained if there’s a computer in the background taking care of all the details, since a normal human mind could never deal with all the data the gods handle. For example, when Vidius restored the campus instantly he probably just willed it to happen and something else did all the work. The downside is that if an aspect is invoked (like Avei’s judgement), then the god will have to go along with it.

    The current pantheon of gods seems to have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. They seem to retain more of their humanity in exchange of wielding less power. Now that I think about it, didn’t they imply last chapter that the remaining elder gods were weakened by their ascension? Naiya is still the single most powerful goddess on the planet, imagine how scary strong she had to be before the war.

    The Avatar said the status of Araneid is uncertain, which is frustratingly vague. Assuming that Arachne is somehow connected to Araneid… I wonder, who created the caretaker golems? 8 arms… was it Araneid? Was Arachne subconciously accessing her lost memory when she created her own golem? Is that the reason it’s so advanced? (Yeah, flimsy evidence)

    The gods have to be aware of all that. They said they need to protect her… why? If she -is- Araneid, then she’s the only member of the Infinite Order they can use easily. Does Arachne retain admin access to the system and they keep her around as a contingency? Probably easier to get Arachne to do them a favour instead of asking Naiya or Scyllith. But it also seems they don’t believe she is a former elder god. If that’s Arachne’s story to begin with.

    Does Arachne know any of this? I’m still missing some rather big pieces here.

    Is this knowledge connected to the secret of Elilial’s betrayal?

    In Lord of Light the gods were bastards because they possessed advanced technology, could essentially make everyone immortal… but instead opted to suppress technology and installed themselves as rulers of the world based on Hindu religion, with a caste system and everything.
    If this pantheon does the same, then it would explain why we haven’t seen steam engines, gunpowder etc yet… but on the other hand, people have easy access to magic, which seems to be a safer, cleaner alternative. And some inventors have started to build a steam engine without being smitten. In some ways magic is superior to technology, just compare wands with guns. Or the Rail, which is impossibly fast compared to our highspeed trains.

    … ugh, this is way too big to think about. I guess I’ll wait and see where it goes. ^^

    Ok, what are Flora and Fauna doing here, too? Are they secretly following Darling? Does he know? Did Mary put them up to this? Was it their own idea? It would fit into Darling’s modus operandi to bring some backup as he steps into unknown areas.

    I remember that Mary told Ingvar that he needed to experience and discover things for himself, he couldn’t be told directly because he would reject that new knowledge. And now that the history of the Infinite Order is revealed, I fully agree with Mary: There is no way anyone would believe this just by being told.
    Even more, this spirit quest wasn’t just for Ingvar, it was for us, the readers, too.

    I don’t know yet how I feel about all of this. Until now this was a fantasy story, although a rather new blend with steampunk and western elements. Now there’s sci-fi… or is there? Does it matter that the Infinite Order came from space when there’s only magic powering everything now?

    Food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So having had a little while to think about it, I’m not sure this actually changes very much.

      Okay, so the Elder Gods were originally scientists, and they created the planet as a research station. This is new and revelatory, but we always knew the Elder Gods were originally mortals and really, why would it matter to anyone why they created the world? In particular, I’m not sure why the Pantheon would suppress this information (I’m assuming they know it; last chapter tells us that they know the name “Infinite Order”). Everyone already knows that the Elders created the modern sapient races, and if they eventually became tyrants, who cares that they were originally researchers?

      It does imply the possibility (as Daemion suggests) that Bastardverse physics are fundamentally the same as real-world physics, and all the magic in the story is the result of some hypertech running in the background and making it work. I’d tentatively disagree with that hypothesis; the way Avatar 03 talks about the ascension, I’d say it sounds more like it was already a known natural phenomenon in that universe that the Infinite Order came here to study, rather than something that was made possible by their technology.

      I do like the Avatar’s implication that the Elders coming to think of themselves as actual gods is what led to their downfall. Then again, the term “ascended” isn’t exactly neutral either. 😛

      Incidentally, this is starting to feel a bit like Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere. I am 100% in favour of this.

      I am now hoping that ten years from now, when Webb is an internationally famous fantasy author, he will write some book that ends with a group of scientists travelling to a different solar system to found a new planet, and those of us who’ve been with him from the beginning will feel immensely smug.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Actually the way the Avatar spoke Ascension is not naturally ocuring since they traveled to that solar system to fulfill the Ascension Project. Notice that in the story that is capitalized just the way I wrote, which signifies that is a name just like the WWII Manhattan Project. The way it reads is that you had a group of scientists and engineers that were in the minority in the society they belonged to that did not agree with the goals of the Ascension Project and. The reason I say that is that the name Infinite Order sounds like the name a fanatic gives to a cult not the name of an aboveboard R&D outfit studying a natural phenomenon because if it was natural they didn’t need to slink of into a place where they are essentially cut off with the rest of humanity. If you haven’t read David Weber’s Honorverse books look up the entity known as The Mesan Alignment because that is what the Infinite Order reminds me of crossed with the Jenoine from the Vlad Taltos books, especially since we have specified objects of Chaos in the TGaBverse.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Definitely a lot of similarities with Lord of Light, at least in terms of the Elder Gods. This just makes the current Pantheon’s motives all the more confusing, though: Why haven’t they told anyone this? Why not make everyone immortal (assuming it’s possible), after going through all that trouble to overthrow the Infinite Order? Are we just looking at a situation like so many real-world revolutions, where the victors are quickly corrupted by their new power and wind up just as bad as the people they overthrew?

      If we assume the new gods are in fact bastards, then they’re being much cleverer about it than the ones in Lord of Light: Rather than suppressing technology, they’re giving their people a cheaper, safer, more convenient alternative that is entirely fake. If arcane magic doesn’t work anywhere outside of this planet then it can never be used to get to space, and if it’s artificial then studying it won’t teach anyone more general insights that can be used to defy the gods.

      Of course, the problem with that hypothesis is that the source of arcane magic is still a giant mystery, so who the hell knows how it works. Also, I’m not sure yet that Bastardverse magic is just Sufficiently Advanced Technology – I think “ascension” might be a natural thing in that universe.

      On a more concrete note, I think F&F just followed Darling because they’re protective of him and wanted to be able to help him out if he got into trouble. Also because they were bored and adventures are exciting.

      Also note the difference between Araneid’s “uncertain” status and Druroth and Vrel Heyd’s “unknown”. I think that means that the computer has some data on Arachne (let’s not be coy; it’s definitely Arachne) but not enough for a definitive status report, whereas it has totally lost track of the other two.

      Hmmm… could one of them be the source of arcane magic? That seems a bit too neat.

      Wait! If Arachne is the source of arcane magic, that explains why the Pantheon don’t want to kill her! Except the Pantheon didn’t believe her story and therefore don’t necessarily believe she’s an Elder God at all – but we don’t know exactly what that story was, so they might believe she’s an Elder but not believe her about some other part related to Scyllith, and ow my head hurts. 😦


      1. Yes, I ran into the exact same thing. If they know what we know, then they should believe Arachne… it all comes down to us not knowing what Arachne’s lifelong quest was all about.


    3. If you google Araneid you find that it is a family of spider:

      The family is cosmopolitan, including many well-known large or brightly colored garden spiders. With around 3,100 species in 169 genera worldwide, Araneidae is the third-largest family of spiders (behind Salticidae and Linyphiidae).[1] Araneid webs are constructed in a stereotyped fashion. A framework of nonsticky silk is built up before the spider adds a final spiral of silk covered in sticky droplets.


      So whatever was done to Arachne messed with her head and when she popped up in front of Shiraki some 3000 years ago and was asked what her name was and she had trouble answering, she probably knew it had something to do with spiders and latched onto Arachne instead of her original name.


      1. Before she ran into Shiraki, she spent some time with Elilial and together they kicked Scyllith’s butt. That means Elilial knows who she is and her original name.

        She didn’t say her name was Arachne, she said, “…you can call me Arachne.” Slight difference but probably significant.


  6. I think the Elder Elf is out of luck in keeping that technology out of the wrong hands for some simple reasons:

    1) I highly doubt that there was only one research station on the planet, especially when you factor in how they didn’t all see eye to eye on the whole god “thing” when they ascended, so they probably would have more than one facility.

    2) We know the present Pantheon ascended somewhere around 8000 years ago which means they had to use the Elders equipment. After doing so and setting themselves up as gods does anyone really believe they would leave the equipment they used sitting under an Elf Grove where some Elf that found out about it and got a bug up his/her ass wouldn’t use it instead of going to the place of the spirits and becoming a Headhunter.

    3) The AI, for lack of a better term at this point, stated to Ingvar that there was ways to mess with the ascended:

    “There are many ways the status of an ascended being could be interfered with,”

    The odds that it takes the equipment of the Infinite Order (Nice Star Wars the Old Republic reference) is almost 100%. We also know the the current crop of Ascended have been interfered with by how they react to Justinian’s name.

    Add it all together and I say it is highly likely that Justinian has access to something like Data Vault 03


    1. Agreed.

      I’ve got to wonder though… Arachne told her students she doesn’t know how ascension works, she even stated only the gods do.

      That would mean that either the data vaults don’t contain that information (although the avatar sounded like it does), Arachne is unaware of their existence (highly unlikely since hundreds of shamans and adventurers visited it) or she’s lying to her students, which seems a bit out of character.


      1. Arachne’s practical, though. She doesn’t like lying, but something like this would probably just get her students killed.

        Speaking of knowledge that gets people killed, is this (part of) what Ellial refused to tell Darling?


      2. Arachne not lying is a myth, likely created so she has credibility when she lies. Proof: She lied to the man who was one of the members of the Wreath responsible for killing the eight girls possessed with demons at the beginning of the series.

        I think that’s ultimately unrelated. I think she knows about the Data Vaults, but they don’t contain the information of how to ascend, just the related information.


    2. Goods are ruled by their aspects, and if I’m reading Ingvar’s quests correctly, by the ideas of their followers. So, what if this is a biological computer running in brains and multi-dimensional physics?


  7. I’d bet this is a well-worn plot twist on tvtropes; I know I’ve seen it before. Not my favourite.


    1. That said, Joe was a good straight man to use to keep the exposition moving, and it has a number of implications for the world. Including that a fair number of elvish shamans and gnomish adventurers over the centuries apparently know about this, which means it can’t be that secret – it sounds like too many for a successful conspiracy to suppress.


    2. I’ve seen it done once before, but that was in a book where that twist was basically the whole point. I think it’s made stronger by coming after ten whole books’ worth of epic fantasy played totally straight. Revelations as to the nature of the universe hit much harder when the universe in question is one we already care about.

      But I will admit I am kind of a sucker for sudden twists that other people sometimes call gimmicky, so to each their own.


  8. So… just when did Justinian decide to hijack the project? And, is he only the latest in a subversive line of alternate researchers who probably don’t have full systems access? Yet. :/


  9. One more thought: All the members of the Infinite Order were human to begin with. That means Araneid was one, too. Arachne is a wood elf.

    If you look at her behaviour 3000 years ago, one could think that she was created artificially. Complete lack of knowledge about the world, language as if she learned it from a dictionary and prodigal talent for arcane magic. No known family anywhere. Possible lack of memory (going by Kaisa’s comment about Arachne not knowing her own age).

    On the other hand, some of the drow worship her. But that could be related to her adventure down there as Arachne. The Crawl recognized and likes her. It and Last Rock were created by an elder god.

    What if Araneid created Arachne? Maybe as an experiment to harness arcane magic? Or maybe Araneid’s mind was copied into Arachne, but not completely.

    Or maybe Arachne was an anti-god weapon prototype that got lost during the war and the current pantheon keeps her around just in case they need to get rid of Naiya or Scyllith? I mean, she killed one god, helped to kill another and it seems the pantheon takes her threats seriously despite the apparent power difference.

    So many possibilities… and that’s nothing compared to what today’s revelation could mean.


  10. Not the biggest revelation here today – but it’s intriguing that gnome adventurers are held in such high esteem and trust by the elves that they are granted access to this secret that otherwise only shamans of their own people are shown. Nod to the Hobbit, I think, but likely also a hint of some in-universe significance of gnomes that we don’t know about yet.


  11. About Flora and Fauna: Are elves capable of recognizing them as Headhunters or not? Because they were confused about how Kuriwa and Arachne found out, but everytime they come into contact with other elves the get recognized as Headhunters. So is it in their aura, but why wouldn’t they themselves not know it?


  12. About Flora and Fauna : Maybe not by all Elves, but the Guards send to them were certainly told by their Elder or Mary why those two have to go or at least be guarded.

    With their connection/possession by raging spirits there should be something that shamans and witches can detect/feel. And as it was revealed in the Spirit-Hunt Storyline sometimes practitioners get told things by the spirits. And I guess thats something a spirit of the land would tell a Elder of a Grove. Last Point : the two of them distributed the last of their tribe to other Groves after they freed them from Kadziroth, so they are known at least in Elf-Circles.

    To the Twist. Thats the one thing I would not have guessed, also I always thought Sci-Fi and Fantasy were no mutual exclusive genres. And it explains so much more about Kuriwas extensive knowledge of human anatomy and the use of modern medical terms.

    It reminds me a bit of John Ringos Nanowar Series where Humans fuckery with Nanotech and Genetics made it more or less a Fantasy Setting.

    And who else would be a better Space Faring Race than undying Elves.
    Who left the World at the end of the Third Age in their Ships and to the West .. 😉
    And they brought some Human Guinnea Pigs as breeding stock .. yup.
    And two Halflings, ( Hopefully 4 🙂

    Storywise there is so revealed.

    This is the big secret of the Black Wreath.
    It’s part of the Origin of Arachne and maybe answer to what the heck her quest was.
    And it gives us 3 new names of maybe very powerfull players who are yet to be revealed.
    And maybe Ingvars Quest is about Justitian. Shaath is a Member of the Pantheon, he is not the only one bound or webbed or trapped. Ingvar dreamt a lot of different pictures.


    1. I don’t think that’s the big secret of the Black Wreath, there are too many independent players aware of it. If Elilial is right, then everyone who talked to the avatar about it would be killed instantly by the gods.

      Agreed about Arachne, although now I have to wonder if she’s aware that these data vaults exists.

      Three more elder gods we never knew about before. I find it unlikely that they are merely in hiding, I think they are dead, imprisoned or similiarly unable to interact with the world anymore.

      Agreed about Ingvar’s quest being connected to Justinian. Although I thought that Mary was aware what it was about… so she knows the Archpope is manipulating the entire pantheon?


  13. Not that I don’t greatly appreciate all the votes on TWF, but I really was kidding about that! There will be no holding chapters hostage for votes.


  14. Adventuring gnomes seem to be allowed everywhere. Dragon infested mountain ranges, Athan-Khar, The Delve, ancient elven groves…

    I don’t like this twist. I don’t like reading fantasy for ten books only to have the rug pulled out from beneath me and it’s revealed to actually be sci-fi.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. hmmm. infris is scylitth, i think. arachne a chile of araneid, clone or some such.

    Its not neccesarily sci fi. Yes, they came on a ship from another world, but its still likely magic, just higher tech magic than they currently have on this planet.


    1. In my mind, planet travelling counts as sci-fi. I don’t particularly care for there to be interplanetary travel in this series. It’s possible I’m being overly pessimistic, but my initial reaction is that this was a bad turn.


  16. Magic built on tech is a plot twist that can kill a story in inexpert hands. With DD, I remain cautiously optimistic.

    Darling probably needs clean pants – the Thieves’ Guild doesn’t exist to find out secrets but secrets are insanely useful to people like that. He must be ecstatic.

    Hopefully we will find out why some of these facts aren’t common knowledge. This is the sort of thing that multiple cults and individuals would literally kill for, so the barriers against the release of such knowledge must be insanely strong.


  17. Long time reader, first time commenter. First just want to say, love the story.

    Secondly, cautiously optimistic about the twist. I don’t usually like science fiction and fantasy mixing but if anyone can pull it off it’s Webb.

    Now on to baseless speculation!
    Justinian is Scyllith or is her agent. I have nothing backing this opinion up, but after the last two chapters that what I think.

    That or he’s looking to ascend and become ALL POWERFUL.

    They aren’t mutually exclusive.


    1. Plot twist: Justinian wants to do to the Pantheon what Scyllith did to Araneid, and the Pantheon is clueless because they won’t believe Arachne’s story (and thus the warning).


  18. So, just found and binge-read this serial last week. This is the first update since I finished my read-through. Just off the top, gotta say I love the story, the setting and the characters so far.

    Based on this chapter and what we already know, here’s my hypothesis about Arachne:

    She’s what’s left of Araneid. Most of her being was dispersed across the world to create the arcane magic field, but her core consciousness or whatever became Arachne. She lost some, if not most, of her memory and knowledge of her previous life.

    I figure there are two possible culprits here: either the Pantheon, or Scyllith.

    If it was the Pantheon (possibly some or all of them), then it’s also why Elilial “betrayed” them; she objected to it, or helped preserve what’s left of Araneid. The Elder Goddess may have helped them like Naiya did during the war, or was a neutral third party or something, and after they ascended they decided to rip her apart so mortals could use her power. This may also be the big secret they kill people over.

    If it was Scyllith, on the other hand, then Araneid was possibly originally another Goddess of the Drow, like Themynra. It’d explain why Arachne was down there kicking her ass alongside Elilial.

    Either way, Scyllith had another trick: she wiped the knowledge of who and what Arachne is/was from everyone and everything, up to an including the Gods. Either they did this to Arachne and don’t remember it, or they don’t remember her ever being an Elder God before and didn’t believe her when she said it.

    Justinian may have figured out some or all of this, and is planning to do something similar to the Pantheon. If he doesn’t actually want to uplift all of humanity like he told the four Bishops, he may try to bring all the other Gods down to Arachne’s state and claim their power for himself.


  19. Stopping again (2 chapters in a row?) on my re-read to note… I was surprised, but didn’t feel blindsided, much less betrayed, by this twist on first reading. On second, I feel like the subtle hints were there from pretty early on. I mean, multiple times, we see the ancient and powerful characters throwing out comments or having conversations about advanced, contemporary knowledge of physics, medicine, etc., which seemed completely anachronistic in the context. This, combined with the fact established fairly early that the gods were all once humans, well. It doesn’t exactly scream “science fiction!” or anything, but it certainly laid the foundation in such a way that revealing that the first gods, at least, were scientists, doesn’t come across as an ass-pull for me.

    I also don’t see that this actually changes the story that much – and bear in mind, I’m avoiding spoilers but speaking from foreknowledge through the latest chapter as of feb. 2017. Some comments, people are talking about it like they expect the custodian ‘bot to become a main character and the next class trip for the sophomore class to be hopping a space ship to go play Star Trek.

    Is it a big revelation that will be important to the story? Absolutely. Does it necessarily fundamentally change the story? Not so much.


  20. Finally, was waiting for that since the comment about the stars being wrong like a million chapters back.


  21. Alright, how come NO ONE else has bothered to mention that Web just inserted one of the most famous sci-fi characters in history into his story? Ladies and Gentlemen, R2-D2 has entered the building; hold on to your butts.


  22. And most importantly…

    This explains how Arachne knows Yiddish!

    (Okay, not most importantly. But the “kvetch” joke was indeed a gun on the mantlepiece; Arachne had to have knowledge of our world, though I was expecting it to be an alternate plane.)


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