“It’s in place? And it actually works!”
“Even better than I anticipated!” Fross chimed, buzzing around the scale model of the mountaintop set up in the center of the spell lab. “I’m picking up fluctuations wherever magic is in use—which is a lot of places, this campus being what it is. All four schools feel different, but based on what I’m getting from the infernal spell labs, I should be able to tell when the Sleeper strikes. And by the way, Gabe, I could take offense at the incredulous tone.”
“Hey, none intended!” he said, grinning and holding up his hands in surrender. “C’mon, after all we’ve been through, I definitely know better than to doubt your capabilities, Fross. But this is still some way complex spellwork. You’re gonna be a hell of a wizard someday.”
“Aw, thanks!” The pixie darted over to Juniper, who was sitting against the wall, absently scratching at the floor with one hand the way she did when Jack wasn’t with her. “You doing okay, June? It’s not uncomfortable?”
“Nah, I’m just a little out of the habit of holding attunement while on campus,” the dryad replied, shaking her head. “It bugs other fairies and witches a little. Also, there’s a lot of arcane magic flying around here, which feels…weird. Not bad, though.”
“Is that going to create a problem, do you think?” Toby asked. “I know there aren’t many fairies on campus, but…”
“Any actual fairies will leave me alone,” Juniper said. “Fae users might be another matter…” She frowned. “…I think Iris has noticed. Somebody in the Wells just did a small ritual to sort of…poke at me.”
“I’m gonna tentatively consider that a non-problem,” said Ruda. “Considering what we’re hoping will happen, having fae-attuned magic users turn up tonight could be all kinds of useful.”
“Professor Tellwyrn asked us, in particular, to keep an eye on the campus,” Shaeine said quietly. “I’m not sure I feel sanguine about involving other students.”
“She didn’t ask me, but here I am,” Scorn snorted, folding her arms.
“Also,” Gabriel added, “if I’m not misremembering, didn’t Tellwyrn tell us not to go hunting for the Sleeper?”
“This is laying a trap, not hunting,” Ruda said with a grin. “But point taken. Tellwyrn knows our strengths, and they don’t include marching in a line. I figure there’s room for improvisation implied in the mandate.”
“Or so you intend to argue when she complains?” Teal asked with the ghost of a smile.
Ruda pointed a bottle of rum at her. “Fuckin’ ay!”
They all turned to face the door when it opened. Nobody relaxed at the sight of Inspector Fedora.
“Ah, good, everybody’s here,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Smashing. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some more assistance!”
“You don’t need to take any liberties,” Toby said flatly, stepping forward.
“Down, boy,” Fedora replied, stepping out of the doorway. “I think you recall the campus’s visitors?”
Juniper bounded to her feet. “Aspen?”
“Hey, little sister,” the other dryad said brightly, skipping across the room to give her a hug.
“I didn’t feel you coming!”
“I wasn’t attuning… Wait, you are? I don’t know how you can stand it, all the arcane on this crazy mountain. It’s like bees in my head.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad…”
“Uh, hi,” Gabriel said awkwardly to the other person who entered more sedately. “It’s, uh… Inger, right?”
“Ingvar,” the Huntsman corrected, bowing. “A pleasure to see you all again.”
“Likewise, and sorry. I’m awful with names. Anything that requires me to remember stuff, really. My grades are a disgrace.”
Ingvar smiled at him, then his expression sobered as he panned it across the room and those assembled, settling on the model in the middle. “The Inspector asked us to participate in your attempt to catch this Sleeper, but I’m afraid that’s all we know of the matter.”
“You know about the Sleeper?” Teal asked.
He nodded to her. “The salient points, I believe. Per Professor Tellwyrn’s invitation, we have been exploring the campus, and had several interesting conversations with both students and faculty.”
“I have never had so many people in such a short time try to have sex with me,” Aspen said, tossing her hair. “They’ve got some ideas about dryads on this mountain, Juniper. What exactly have you been doing?”
“Oh, help yourself,” Juniper said breezily. “It’s all in good fun; I’m not territorial about anyone here. Just don’t hurt anybody.”
Ingvar gave them a level look. Aspen met his gaze sidelong, then shook her head. “I was just…commenting. I’m not really in the mood.”
“Fascinating as that is,” said Fedora, “and believe me, I’m taking notes, I asked them here for a reason.”
“Just a sec,” Aspen interrupted, pointing at him. “You guys do know this fellow’s a demon, right?”
“He is not much of one,” Scorn grunted, “but yes, we are aware.”
“I guess that’s all right, then.”
“You knew that, and you followed him in here anyway?” Ruda grinned. “Points for balls.”
“He has government credentials,” Ingvar said mildly, “and I found it distressingly easy to believe that Imperial Intelligence would employ a demon. Besides, it seemed very unlikely that a demon would wish to start trouble in Professor Tellwyrn’s domain. Or with a daughter of Naiya.”
“Damn skippy,” Aspen said smugly.
Fedora rolled his eyes. “The point was, the logistical weak point in this plan has always been getting to the Sleeper both quickly and silently when he attacks; we want to nab him, not spook him into flight, and we have neither the forces to quarter the campus nor a means of staying in communication. So we’ll have to start from this position, reach the Sleeper unseen when the alarm goes off, and apprehend him there. To that end, I should think the inclusion of another dryad is obvious; there’s not a damn thing any warlock can do to her.”
“Dryads are not built for speed,” Toby said. “We unfortunately found that out the hard way in the Golden Sea.”
“Excuse you?” Aspen said disdainfully. “Let’s see a show of hands: who here has run down a gazelle?”
Hers was the only hand that went up.
“We’re not good at protracted running,” Juniper explained, “which is what we did wrong then.”
“That barely scratches the fuckin’ surface of what we did wrong then,” Ruda muttered.
“In a sprint,” Juniper continued, “Aspen’s right, a dryad can match basically any land animal, as long as it doesn’t drag on for more than a couple minutes. We should be able to get across campus quickly and without tiring.”
“And I brought a little something to give you kids a…boost,” Fedora said with a leer. “Check it out!”
He grasped the lapels of his trench coat and yanked it open wide; almost everyone averted their eyes, some with yells of protest. Ruda and Scorn, by contrast, straightened up, peering interestedly.
“Oh, he has potions,” Gabriel said a moment later. “Well, that’s…actually helpful.”
“Courtesy of your own Professor Rafe,” Fedora said, winking. “True invisibility is…well, possible, but has side effects and that’s made from expensive stuff; I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to hand those out. But camouflage and attention deflection we have!”
“I’ve some gifts along those lines myself,” Gabriel said.
“More to the point,” Fedora continued, closing his coat, “is that Ingvar should be able to shut down shadow-jumping in a localized area. He did during the hellgate crisis last year in Tiraas.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ingvar said evenly.
Fedora winked at him. “Imperial security clearance, second class, remember? Your commitment to discretion is laudable, Huntsman, but I already know.”
Ingvar sighed. “…fine. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t just do that on my own. The ritual requires a shaman.”
“You know the ritual?”
“Yes,” the Huntsman said patiently, “but without the power…”
“We have here,” Fedora said with unspeakable smugness, “two dryads and a pixie magician who is something of a prodigy in weaving together different schools of magic. We have the knowledge of the ritual, basically infinite access to fae magic, and the capacity to jury-rig any gaps in our expertise. We can spot the Sleeper striking, sneak up on him hopefully undetected, and cut off his escape. We could very well end this tonight, kids. Let’s get to work.”
“The systems to which you have access contain an abundance of scientific literature, including complete courses of education. If you are interested in science—which I heartily applaud—I strongly recommend perusing those, rather than talking with anyone who was alive during the Infinite Order’s reign. Their perspective is likely to be…tainted.”
“Tainted?” Milanda asked. “How would… Look, honestly, Avatar, I don’t think I can handle any more grand revelations today. I’m just trying to figure out how much Walker can be trusted. Was she telling me the truth or not?”
“I am not trying to obfuscate,” the AI said apologetically. “The matter simply isn’t so cut and dried. Walker’s description of the Infinite Order itself seems accurate. Among other preoccupations, they were prone to favor mystical interpretations of scientific facts whenever such seemed at all viable, and some branches of theoretical physics make such interpretations very tempting indeed. And that is only speaking of their initial mindset, before they deliberately muddied the waters further. The Pantheon’s revolt was the first to succeed, not the first to occur. Long before they rose, the Infinite Order had chosen to deter further such incidents by, among other measures, obscuring the knowledge that could lead to the development of transcension field technology.”
Milanda took a step. She was talking with the Avatar in his apparatus attached to the gate, rather than going to the Nexus; so far, they had privacy, the dryads being off who knew where. It was rather inconvenient, however. The little planetoid rotated at much less than a walking pace, so she could neither stand still nor stroll alongside the gate, being forced to catch up with it in small increments every minute or so.
“So…what she said about the universe and consciousness, that wasn’t true? Frankly it makes little difference to me; I’m neither a philosopher nor a scientist. I just want to form an understanding of the…entity I’m working with, and whether I can trust what she says.”
“I have no insight into the Walker’s state of mind,” the Avatar said diplomatically. “It seems to me, however, that if she wished to deceive you, it would be with regard to current, practical matters, not ancient history or arcane science. And with regard to the question of accuracy, it isn’t so much that her described worldview is incorrect as that she, along with most of her generation, were taught a…liberal and even metaphorical understanding of the science in question, designed to engender a sense of awe and purpose rather than rational comprehension. She isn’t provably wrong, but invested in a line of inquiry which would not lead to useful technology if pursued to its logical conclusion. As a layperson’s means of understanding the basis of transcension technology, it is…good enough.”
“Not dishonest, necessarily, but also not necessarily right,” Milanda murmured. “Well, that is certainly relevant to my basic concern…”
“The answers to those questions were among the reasons for the Ascension Project itself. Some aspects of quantum mechanics are simply impossible for biological sapients to explore without transcending their mental limits in some way. It is perhaps significant that the events of this planet’s creation were all one grand experiment to test the hypothesis which was the foundation of the Infinite Order’s beliefs. That experiment was a resounding failure—but whether because the hypothesis was incorrect remains untested, as the Order’s gradual breakdown over the ensuing years fouled it beyond redemption.”
“You make it sound like I’m nudging at the central question of all life on this world.”
“Arguably the central question of existence itself, and of particular interested to the development of life on this specific world.”
Milanda sighed. “Well, I think we can safely assume I’m not going to solve that one. And, more to the point, I can probably stop listening when she goes on about the past. She does love to explain things. Makes sense, considering how long it’s been since she had an audience… But with all respect, I have little interest in either advanced science or the, uh, historical novels she suggested.”
“I am not sure that I would agree,” said the Avatar. “I infer that you are more interested in practical things?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “Beyond the immediate situation… History, politics, psychology. People skills, things I can use.”
“That being the case, one approach to improving your present situation would be to research the technology used in this facility, so as to repair and even reconfigure the system governing the Hands. That, however, would necessitate years of intensive study at minimum. A faster method would involve making the most effective use of the resources already in place, in which case, any insight you gain into the mindset of the people who built them, not to mention your current companion, could be immediately useful. In short, I think you will find it very practical indeed to listen to the Walker. Just not, necessarily, to take her at face value. Ah, program compiled.”
A small, metal-bound crystal like the one he had given her before emerged from a slot in the side of the gate apparatus, next to the screen in which his purple image was projected.
“Walker, or anyone basically familiar with the Order’s computers, should be able to use that software with relative ease, assuming I have done my job adequately,” the Avatar said as she retrieved the crystal. “It presents a streamlined and user-friendly interface governing connections between the facility’s sub-OS and any other systems, which should enable her to access them, acquire relevant data, and take counter-action as necessary. The end result will not be as potent or efficient as the efforts of a skilled hacker, but given your particular situation, it should hopefully suffice. Respect for the security protocols we established is built in, as well. You will need to authorize her access to each activation of the program. I recommend supervising her, as well.”
“Understood,” she said with a smile, bouncing the crystal on the palm of her hand. “And thank you.”
“One more thing, if I may.” A second data crystal emerged from the slot. “Do be careful not to confuse the two; this portable drive contains some reading material I think you will find both enjoyable and useful.”
“Oh?” She pulled it carefully out, noting that this one had a red marking around its metal rim.
“On that drive are the complete works of Robert Greene, a political philosopher of very pragmatic bent who, incidentally, was a personal favorite of Avei, Vidius, and Eserion. I recommend beginning with The 48 Laws of Power; it is considered definitive. As a successful Imperial courtier, I think you may find him more to your taste than Tolkien.”
“I…see,” she said slowly, then tilted her head and gave his projection a long, considering look. The Avatar’s expression was blandly neutral as always. “Wouldn’t these writings be in the computers up there, as well?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile. “But so long as you read them specifically from that portable drive, then remove it from the computer when you are done and keep it on your person, there will remain no record of what you have been reading. I leave the matter to your discretion, of course, but it seems to me it might be disadvantageous for the Dark Walker to be perusing ruthless political philosophy, or to know that you have been. I have, over the last few years, acquired some skill at managing daughters of Naiya. A good rule of thumb is that what they don’t know hurts no one.”
“You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?” she said thoughtfully.
The Avatar’s simulated expression did not waver. “My maker, Tarthriss, sided with the Pantheon during their rebellion. Upon his demise and that of the Infinite Order itself, the Avatars were left more or less at liberty—whatever use that may be, since most of the Order’s surviving facilities are now abandoned and inaccessible. Our only guiding principle is now Tarthriss’s final directive: to assist the sapients residing on this world to the best of our ability. The means by which we do so is left largely to our discretion.
“Empress Theasia I found to be a most admirable person in many respects; based on what I have learned of recent history, it seems that she was a very necessary stabilizing force against the chaos of the time in which she lived. But a stabilizing force can easily become the opposite, if given access to the wrong kind of power.”
“And Emperor Sharidan?” she asked quietly.
“He appears a more conservative and sympathetic ruler by nature. To be sure, he will not rule forever, but the present must be considered as well as the future. My position here, Milanda, is part of a series of compromises I have made with reality, and will continue to make as necessary. But in light of the current situation, I begin to think that perhaps it is time for the people of this world—in a careful and controlled manner, of course—to be reintroduced to some of their heritage.”
Milanda frowned, then turned to her right—the planetoid’s north, where the Nexus lay at its pole. “A week ago I was an Imperial consort. It was a cushy position, frankly. Peaceful. The entire job description was ‘make the Emperor happy’—and my Emperor in particular is an easygoing man. Now… No matter how this business with the Hands and whoever is invading the system ends, it’s only going to get bigger and more complex, isn’t it?” She shook her head. “I am not ready for this.”
“I advise eschewing that thought,” the Avatar said gently. “No one is ever ready, truly. What will matter is not how ready you were at the outset, but how well you faced what circumstance dealt you. And that you will only be able to tell when it is all done.”
“It’s never going to be all done. Nothing ever is.”
He smiled. “Precisely.”