“And how’s the wide world above?” Walker asked as Milanda stepped off the platform.
“Humming along,” she said wearily. “It took the lads a few hours to find Lord Vex and get him to the safehouse. Which makes perfect sense, considering they’re supposed to be out of sight and he’s the head of an entire Imperial ministry. Still, the communication network they set up seems to be working, and Vex thinks that’s a pretty reasonable turnaround. I’ll take his word for it; I’m not very up on spy stuff, myself.”
“Seems it could be faster if we gave him one of these,” Walker suggested, tapping her earpiece.
Milanda shook her head. “You know exactly why that’s not a good idea. Putting Infinite Order technology in the hands of a man like that is just asking for it to be all over the Empire by the end of the year.”
Walker fell into step beside her, and they walked in silence till they reached the corridor.
“Would that be so terrible?” Walker asked finally. “I mean, on a case by case basis; I’m not proposing to bring the Corps of Enchanters down here to poke around. But weapons aside, there’s a great deal technology can do to improve the lives of people. Convenience, transportation… Agriculture. Medicine.”
“Remind me again how the Order themselves ended up?”
“Dead of their own hubris, which had to do with their ascension rather than the technology which got them there in the first place. And anyway, that’s not really a consideration anymore. Thanks to the Pantheon’s interference, ascension is only even possible at intervals of a few thousand years. I don’t know when the next one is, but I suspect the current gods would prevent anyone from taking advantage.”
“I suspect they’d prevent anyone from doing anything too dramatic with these machines; putting them into wide circulation seems like asking for trouble.” She sighed. “Honestly, Walker, I don’t really think you’re wrong. And I don’t think you’re the only person who’s had this idea; the Avatar has been dropping hints about helping humanity. I suspect he’s got plans beyond the Empire and the Hands. But… I can’t help being leery. It seems like a bad idea to abruptly jump a civilization forward several steps. People don’t always do well handling the powers they have responsibly. Giving them things they haven’t built or earned…”
“Well, you may be more right than you know,” Walker acknowledged. “Humanity managed to turn its original home into a charred ruin without getting jumped forward that way; clearly, responsibility in use isn’t an integral part of a new technology’s development. When the Infinite Order left, the world governments were focused on repairing the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Actually, it was contributing to that effort that earned the Order permission to claim this planet in the first place. Then again… Recorded history to that point was only three or four thousand years, and in that time they escalated from stone tools to spaceships. People here started well ahead of that, and in twice the time haven’t made it as far. Clearly the situations aren’t the same.”
“There weren’t gods on Earth, were there?” Milanda asked dryly.
“Oh, there were gods. Just not real ones.”
“Well, anyway… It’s something to consider, but we have more urgent concerns. Vex was overall pleased with the outcome of the…excursion. Some of the intel I gathered has already proved useful; he may be able to get the Conclave to lean on the Church. Of course, it’s too early to tell what the full repercussions are of my…misadventure.”
“In a way,” Walker mused, “that weapon may help us, there. Those things are known on the surface; they’ve been popping up, off and on, for thousands of years. Any bard’s story about a great warrior being undone by wielding a cursed sword? If it was a tale based on real event, it was probably one of those. An Archpope will either know what it was, or someone will be able to tell him, and that will raise the question of just who owns such a thing and was brazen enough to actually swing it at people. In fact, this may help deflect attention from the Empire. I can’t see anyone working for the Tirasian Dynasty authorizing that.”
Milanda had closed her eyes, and opened them again just in time to stumble into a stack of crates. Walker steadied her, and they threaded their way around, and then through the door to the security hub.
“When I was a girl,” she mused, edging away from that painful subject, “I remember one of my mother’s favorite tragedies was about a Hand of Avei called Ryndra, who took up a cursed sword…”
“Rendre,” Walker corrected, nodding. “Yep. My sisters and I got to see the aftermath of that battle firsthand. She did succeed in cutting through waves of undead to kill Narkroth the Summoner, who deserved just for that name, never mind all the murder. Rendre also cut her own party to shreds, trying to fight in close quarters with them, using that damn fool sword. The wounds that killed her were clearly caused by it, as well. No curse, Milanda, just absurd weapon design. What the bard’s story doesn’t tell is that the Black Wreath arranged for it to fall into her hands. I’ve always suspected Elilial herself dug it out of some Order vault for that purpose. The Sisterhood had the sense to lose it in a cellar somewhere after that.”
Milanda sighed heavily. “Lesson learned. In any case… Vex also had good news. It seems there have been no new outbursts from Hands of the Emperor in the last couple of days, and indications are their general pattern of aggressiveness is leveling off. Walker…is it possible the problem the Church’s agent caused could be self-correcting?”
“Possible,” Walker said immediately, “but I can’t recommend strongly enough that we not count on that. Remember, this system is made at least partially of fae magic. It’s an organic structure, and one thing organic systems have in common is they heal if you damage them. Not all wounds are alike, though. Sometimes leaving them alone is the best thing you can do. With things like cancer, though—or just a broken bone, for that matter—the worst possible thing is to leave it to carry on in its wrong configuration. No, I wouldn’t expect this to go back the way it was. In the best case scenario, it’ll stabilize into something its designers didn’t intend. Do you really want to gamble the Emperor will be better off that way?”
“No, of course not,” Milanda replied, rubbing at her eye with the heel of her hand, as if she could wipe away the fatigue. “Fixing it is still a priority, then… I don’t know how we’re going to find someone who can help. The Empress has this elf shaman who’s been working with her, but…”
“Milanda, I’ve—” Walker broke off abruptly, and Milanda turned to look at her in surprise, finding the fairy wearing a clearly uncomfortable expression. “Ah, never mind. An elder shaman is at least a starting point, as long as it’s someone the Empress trusts.”
“Right,” Milanda said slowly, staring at her. Something nagged at the back of her mind about this, some sense that she ought to pursue it…but she couldn’t quite catch the idea to pin it down. She was so tired… After last night, she hadn’t dared try to sleep, and the gifts the Avatar and the dryads had bestowed on her didn’t seem to be helping as much as last time. “Well. Anything to report from down here?”
Walker made an annoyed face. “Nothing significant. No more attempted incursions from without. I have been finding recent access to various things by someone who’s not me. Security cameras, mostly, records, inventory lists… No real pattern. I begin to wonder if showing Hawthorn how to use the computers was a good idea. Actually, I’m glad you brought it up, Milanda. The nature of your anti-Walker security program is that I can’t even query the program to see what’s allowed and what’s not, but I can already tell it isn’t intended to block dryads, since she can use the teleporter and I can’t. There’s nobody more childish than someone who has lived for centuries without any encouragement to grow up. Hawthorn herself could unleash who knows what havoc by blundering around in this facility, never mind if the other two start feeling exploratory. I’d suggest you talk with the Avatar about this. Locking them out might be safest… At the very least, someone should talk with them about what not to poke around it.”
“Great,” Milanda groaned, already picturing how that conversation would go. “Has she been into anything dangerous?”
“Not that I can tell. The only thing that looked like a real attempt to get around security was a rather persistent access of the lifesign readings on those humanoids in suspension down by the hangar. She hasn’t tried to open up any sealed chambers, at least so far.”
“Where is Hawthorn?”
Walker shrugged, glancing around the room. “I guess she went home. I’ve not seen her in a few hours. But…you see my point. I don’t know where she is, and one of the things I’m blocked from doing is setting up security alerts to let me know where people are in the facility.”
“Right, point taken,” Milanda said with a sigh. “All right, I’ll have a word with…her. And with the Avatar. And… I think I need a nap after…”
“First,” Walker said firmly. “Milanda, you are swaying. Go try to sleep.”
Milanda stared blearily at her for a moment. “I’m…a little afraid to.”
“You need to,” Walker said gently. “Humans function poorly without rest. You have plenty of reason to be upset, Milanda, but please don’t torture yourself on top of it.”
“Vex wants me to see a mental healer…” She hadn’t even intended to say that. Gods, if she was tired enough to just blurt such things out…
“That is excellent advice,” Walker agreed. “If you don’t trust anyone he suggests with the secrets you have to keep, which is reasonable…again, talk to the Avatar. He wasn’t programmed for therapy specifically, but he was designed for sapient interaction, and has access to the entire database of psychological science accumulated by the human race. And he’s been shepherding three dryads for decades.”
“That’s a point,” Milanda acknowledged. She hadn’t even thought of that. It would protect the spaceport’s secrecy… But how much could she trust the Avatar? He was definitely working his own angle. She’d already put herself repeatedly at his mercy… But not with the contents of her mind.
“Later, though,” Walker insisted. “Go sleep, Milanda. At least for a few hours.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” she muttered, turning and heading in the direction of the barracks. Luxurious as the Infinite Order’s accommodations could be, she was already feeling lonely for her bed in the Palace, the company of Sharidan and the other concubines. They were the closest friends she’d ever had; cultivating deep relationships within the harem was the only way they prevented anybody from exploding in jealousy. This was the longest she’d been alone in…
“I’ll be right out here if you need anything,” Walker promised, and Milanda paused, turning to smile at her.
No, not alone. Not quite.
At least she didn’t dream.
Milanda had more than expected to. If anything, she would have been surprised not to hear the screams and the humming of that damnable weapon, smell the ozone and seared flesh… But there was nothing. It was probably fatigue. She had no clear memory even of getting to her chosen bunk; Hawaiian Night was still playing, and the soothing sounds and breeze fell on her like a hammer. It had been all she could do to reach the bed before losing consciousness.
That lasted until the unspeakable noise roared through the room.
Milanda catapulted herself out of the bunk, landing in a combat stance with the preternatural grace of her new reflexes even before being fully awake. It took about two seconds for consciousness to reassert itself, and the situation to become clear.
One of the screens, across from her bunk at an angle, was displaying a flashing sequence of abstract images. And the noise…was music. Nothing she was familiar with, but that had clearly been a brass fanfare which had awakened her.
While she stared at the screen in disbelief, a male voice began speaking in a low monotone over the tune.
“I think it’s time to blow this scene, get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two—”
“Computer, pause playback!” she exclaimed. Instantly the sounds stopped, and the screen stilled.
“Heeeeey. I was watching that!”
Milanda whirled to find Hawthorn sitting on the bottom bunk, the next row over from hers, looking put out.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” she roared.
The dryad had been scowling and in the process of opening her mouth to deliver one of her characteristic acid comments; at Milanda’s bellow, she froze, eyes widening in alarm, and actually scooted backward against the wall.
“I—I was… It’s really good, Walker suggested it. I’ve only seen three episodes—”
“Hawthorn,” Milanda snapped in a somewhat milder tone, “what are you doing in here?”
“…am I not allowed in here or something? Cos you can’t tell me where—”
Milanda took one step toward her.
“I was sleeping!” the dryad squawked, skittering toward the other side of the bunk. “You get to, so why can’t I?”
“You were—Hawthorn, you have a bed. You have a home you can go back to, with your sisters. You’ve got your own personal world. Why are you not sleeping there?”
“Oh, those two,” she said crossly, folding her arms. “I went back and I was so excited to tell them about everything I’ve seen and they were all ‘where were you’ and ‘we had to do everything’ and just nothing but complaints and criticisms and I was not in the mood. So I came up here to sleep. There was a bunch of junk on all the beds, but you’d cleared one off so I did too. Walker said it would be fine as long as I didn’t bother you or wake you up and ohhhh. Oh. That was kinda loud, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, Milanda, that’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking.”
Milanda rubbed her eyes and turned blearily to examine the room. The tropical night scene was still playing in the wall screens (except the one), but the lights were on now. Also, while she had neatly stacked the room’s stored contents on the beds, the crates which had been on the bunk Hawthorn now occupied had been unceremoniously swept off and piled in the aisle, where they made a neat roadblock preventing access to the kitchen and bathroom.
The dryad at least had the grace to look properly abashed. Under Milanda’s silent stare, she hunched her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to. Um. I can watch it later. Let’s just go back to sleep.”
Milanda dragged a hand over her face. How long had she been out? Not enough to be much less exhausted, now that the adrenaline spike of her rude awakening was starting to abate.
“I think we need to have a talk about you messing around with the computers,” she said.
“I was just watching my show,” Hawthorn said defensively. “Walker said that was fine. It’s part of our cultural heritage! You should watch some more films. There’s great stuff in there! But, just…not while you’re sleeping. I am sorry, that was inconsiderate.”
“Inconsiderate, thoughtless, and dumb,” Milanda snapped. “And if that’s how you’re going to act, you cannot go messing around with the systems or going into sealed off rooms, Hawthorn. Not even opening up boxes. The Infinite Order were evil and completely crazy. There is dangerous stuff hidden in this place!”
“I didn’t do any of that,” the dryad protested, frowning now. “Look, I’m sorry for the noise, okay? But just cos I messed up doesn’t mean you get to accuse me of whatever passes through your head.”
She rubbed her eyes again. This, even more than most conversations with the dryads, was one she should probably have when she was more alert.
“Hawthorn, look,” she said, deliberately calming her tone. “Talk with Walker about that, would you? I am really too tired for this. But you could get hurt in here. Yes, even you. And if that happens, your mother will have a fit. Gods, that’s Tiraas right above us—the absolute last thing anybody needs is a dryad in distress anywhere on the property.”
“Talk to her,” Milanda insisted. “Will you please? Promise me.”
“Sounds boring,” Hawthorn said sullenly. She sighed heavily under Milanda’s stare. “…oh, all right, fine, I’ll talk to her. But maybe…after we get some sleep.”
“With regard to that,” Milanda continued, allowing her voice to sharpen again, “go home, Hawthorn.”
“But they’re being mean to me,” she whined.
“Deal with it,” Milanda said without sympathy. “If the interactions I saw down there were typical, you’re plenty mean to them. Also, they have some reason. They had to help me with these gifts, and apparently it would have been a lot easier with you there. Look, they’re your sisters, right? They love you, and you love them. Don’t you?”
“I guess so,” Hawthorn muttered.
“Then go talk to them, and work it out. If you care about someone, you have to address these things, not just run away. All right?”
The dryad sighed dramatically, but scooted forward and swung her feet off the bed. “Fine, fine, I’m going. You lecture even worse than the Avatar.”
Milanda folded her arms. “Mm hm. But am I wrong?”
Hawthorn paused in the act of standing up to give her a look, then actually cracked a smile. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I bet you’ll be a really good mother, Milanda. You should have kids.”
Most of the time, she could have brushed that off—and had, more than once. Right now, though, she was sleep deprived, her emotions already stretched nearly to a breaking point, and the offhand comment fixed her in place as if she’d been nailed down.
“See you later, Milanda,” Hawthorn said at the barracks door, yawning and waving absently.
Milanda stood frozen in place even after it had hissed shut behind her.
“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to,” she finally whispered at the empty air. Only the sound of jungle birds answered her.
Finally, she made herself move, settling back onto the edge of her bed. The room was still obnoxiously bright. And whatever Hawthorn had been watching was still on that one screen.
“Computer,” she said with more venom than it deserved, “turn that damn thing off.”
Immediately, the whole room plunged into blackness and silence.
Milanda rubbed at her face again. “No, not… Ugh, just the—put Hawaiian Night back on. Only that part!”
The walls obligingly lit up again, showing the tropical scene, and restoring the warm breeze and scent of flowers through the room. Amazing how relaxing that could be; someday, she would have to see if modern enchanting could replicate illusions like that. Sharidan probably wouldn’t like it very much, though. He was such a realist, always determined to stay grounded, even if he did love adding a little touch of whimsy to so many aspects of his personal life. Carefully grounded whimsy.
He would be a good father. She’d always thought so.
This time, it took her much longer to fall asleep again.
When she did finally dream, she knew that it was a dream, which was unusual for her. Still, she wasn’t about to complain. There was no reliving of the horrors she’d seen—and done—under Dawnchapel, just a tranquil forest scene.
Milanda turned slowly, gazing around her. She had never been to an elven grove, but this was more or less what she’d imagined one would be like. The floor was carpeted in lush moss, peppered with tiny flowers and the odd bush. Towering trees rose at wide intervals, their canopies spreading widely to permit only the occasional sunbeam, but the trunks bare and smooth, reddish in the green-tinted dimness. The air was redolent of loam and moss, and not far distant was the soft murmur of a stream.
Perhaps her poor mind had made something to give her a break from the stress of the last days. Perhaps that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Perhaps Vex and Walker were right; she ought to talk to someone about all this…
Experimentally, she tried to will herself upward. She could often fly in dreams, though usually she didn’t realize that they were dreams, or that there was anything unusual about it. This time, though, nothing. The whole scene had an ethereal quality that was dreamlike, the sense that physical boundaries were not what they should be, but she remained firmly on the ground. Well, even still, it was a beautiful respite.
“Ah, welcome. We meet again.”
Milanda whirled and froze. The man before her was one she’d seen only once, and dream or no, did not want to be alone with. He wore a small smile—an apparently genuine one, which turned up not only his lips, but the corners of his eyes.
His solid emerald eyes.
She turned and bolted.
Milanda tore through the trees as lightly as a gazelle. It wasn’t flight, but she was definitely moving faster than normal. Perhaps—
He hadn’t been there a moment before, but suddenly she skidded to a stop, digging a rent in the moss with her feet, as the enormous, sinuous shape of the green dragon appeared directly in front of her. He swiveled his long neck to peer down at her.
“A moment of your time, if you please.”
The voice was exactly the same in this form as in the other. Not that that mattered to her; Milanda took off in a different direction.
Sometimes, in dreams, she could will herself awake. She tried it now. If it was as hopeless as her attempt to fly…
But for whatever reason, it was not. The world seemed to fray around her as she directed her will at it, and she felt an odd lifting sensation, despite not rising upward from the forest floor. It was as if everything around her, though unchanging, were growing thinner, insubstantial enough that she might burst right through…
Suddenly the world seemed to collapse, and she wasn’t awake, but somewhere…different.
Milanda tried to propel herself through a medium that was not empty space, and yet was—space as thick as syrup. She was entangled in strands of gossamer silk, one node in a vast spider web which stretched in all directions. She knew, despite not being able to see them, that every threat which branched out from her led to another person, each of them their own nexus in the vast pattern, all of them being pulled, suspended, shaped.
And she had the oddest sensation that the tension in the webs connecting to her was not trying to drag her down, but to pull her up.
Then something did drag her down, however. In the blur of the transition, she thought she saw a few strands of silk snap, and then she was back in the forest, her feet firmly on the moss.
Again, the dragon was in front of her.
“Enough,” he stated, leaning forward so that his wedge-shaped head hung only a yard from her own. The sheer force of his personality hung in the air like the sunlight itself, pinning her in place. “This power you carry… You did not gather it yourself. Granted, perhaps…or stolen.”
Horrifyingly, the dragon smiled, baring the most nightmarish collection of teeth she had ever imagined.
“Good. That makes this next part much easier.”