“You verified the presence of this demon?” Ashaele asked in apparent calm.
“We heard it, in addition to the gnome’s warning,” the House guard replied. “We have not come close enough to see. The creature is at a crippling disadvantage in the sunlight, but for that very reason will surely become aggressive if approached. It is probably trying to hide.”
“Where is my other daughter?”
“Nahil has remained at the picnic, and is giving no sign that there is trouble. She deemed it best not to incite a panic among the Imperials.”
The Matriarch nodded once, then turned her gaze on the Mayor. “Mr. Cleese?”
“Right approach,” the balding man said seriously, nodding in reply. “Demons on the loose are enough to scare anybody, but I’m confident in my people. Us prairie folk make do, and don’t spook easy. Sam, gather up a posse, quick an’ quiet as you can. Get enough wands to blow that thing back to hell before it sees anybody comin’. Bout how tough are these critters, ma’am?” he asked Ashaele respectfully. For all the initial wariness he’d shown at all the drow in his town, Cleese had grown downright diffident toward the Matriarch over the course of their conversations.
“They are naturally armored,” she said, “but not magically defended. A few wandshots should suffice to put it down. I will send two guards with you, Sheriff; we are familiar with rozzk’shnid. They are much better adapted to caves than prairies, and a favorite tool of the Scyllithenes. I cannot help but think this was at least partially targeted at us. Are the two students safe? Wait a moment, please, Sheriff.”
Sanders had tugged the brim of his hat and turned to go, but halted at her request.
“They were retreating when we left,” the House guard reported. “The gnome expressed the opinion that the apparently random presence of such a minor demon meant a trap.”
“She’s right,” Teal said tersely. “Iris and Maureen could handle a rozzk’shnid themselves, but the Sleeper’s another matter. We know he likes to fake people out to get at what he really wants.”
“That’s a good point,” said Cleese, frowning heavily. “Our boys can shoot one demon wanderin’ around the outskirts, but if the summoner who called it is still nearby, lookin’ for trouble…”
“I am inclined to agree with Maureen’s assessment,” Ashaele said gravely. “A demon of that type is very nearly the worst possible choice to attack on the surface, in daylight. It is too easy to be believable. For now…” She turned back to her House guard. “Have the creature monitored. Sheriff, I suggest you continue to gather volunteers with wands, and stand ready. I doubt, however, that this is the real attack.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sanders agreed. “We’ll let it alone ‘less it wanders too close to people. I can’t help thinkin’ the obvious reason for this is to draw our defenses to one spot…”
“Which suggests the real attack will come elsewhere,” Ashaele finished, nodding. “Well spotted.”
“Miss, what’s this Sleeper want?” the Mayor asked Teal.
“As far as we can tell,” she said with barely suppressed anger, “just to cause trouble. We don’t know who the Sleeper is yet and obviously haven’t interrogated them, but their pattern so far just suggests they want to hurt people and see what they can get away with.”
“Worst kinda person,” Sanders grunted. “Only a couple of those kids I’ve met I’d even think could do such a thing…”
“We have our share of troublemakers, just like any group,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have thought any of my classmates capable of this pointless malice. I guess you learn who somebody really is when they get power.”
“A very apt observation,” Ashaele said, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder.
All the drow present suddenly whirled to face the town, leaving Sanders, the Mayor, and Teal watching in confusion from the steps of the church. The Themynrite priestess attending the Matriarch threw up a bubble of silver light over the group.
“Uh, what?” the Sheriff managed, before the rest of them heard the loud hiss.
A sinuous black shape arced over the roof of the general store, twisting this way and that in midair and intermittently hissing. It paused, turning its eel-like head to face them, and then seemed to find the sight of the divine shield enraging. The katzil dived right at them, opening its jaws to emit a blast of green fire, which splashed harmlessly over the shield. It diverted at the last second to avoid plowing right into the sphere of light, twisting away and shooting skyward with a hiss of impotent fury.
The moment the priestess let the shield down, Sanders took aim with his wand, unleashing two bolts of lightning after the demon.
“Save your weapon’s charge, Sheriff,” Ashaele advised, her eyes tracking the katzil as it spiraled over the rooftops. “Electricity won’t harm something that’s not grounded, and those creatures are not bothered by heat. We need to either bring it down or apply stronger magic.”
“I can get it,” Teal said grimly, taking a step to the side.
Ashaele stepped with her, keeping the hand on her shoulder. “Wait, daughter—this is the same thing again. One katzil is not much of a threat, but it can serve to divide our forces.”
They all froze as a single black line sprang into being, connecting the flying katzil with a point on the street in front of them. The distant demon let out a screech of dismay, and then was suddenly dragged downward, like a fish being reeled in. The line, upon closer inspection, was actually an inky black chain limned by a thin haze of sickly purple. It existed barely long enough to study, however, as it took only a couple of seconds for the katzil to be hauled all the way down, where it hit the cobbles hard enough to momentarily stun it.
That moment was enough. A glowing spell circle appeared, actually hovering off the ground where its lines wouldn’t be muddled by the irregular shape of the stones. It pulsed once, then faded, and with it, the kazil demon vanished, letting out one last, weak hiss before vanishing into thin air.
Right in the middle of the group, the figure in the gray hooded robe who had shadow-jumped into their midst turned slowly, seeming not terribly perturbed by the four sabers held at her neck, or the Sheriff’s wand pointing at her from barely a yard away.
“Oh, stop, I’m blushing,” she said in a distinct Punaji accent. “Really, no thanks are necessary. I’m just glad to help.”
“Lady,” Sanders said grimly, “you are under arrest.”
“If you like,” the warlock replied with a shrug. “But perhaps that can wait until we finish cleaning up the demons being summoned into this town? Because I assure you, that was but the tip of the iceberg.”
“You don’t seriously expect us to believe you just intend to help?” Mayor Cleese snapped.
“In point of fact,” said the warlock, “this is what we do. Some fool is summoning demons into a populated area; cleaning up nonsense of this kind is exactly the Black Wreath’s mandate. Usually I would not show myself so brazenly, but in this case we are also instructed to be of assistance to Lady Vadrieny and her counterpart.”
She turned and bowed in Teal’s direction. Even with her expression hidden by the gray hood, the gesture managed to seem mocking.
“Fine,” Teal said icily. “Here are your orders: you will submit to arrest and give the Sheriff no trouble, and tell us where the rest of your kind are.”
“Ah, excuse me,” the warlock said, amusement clear in her tone. “I was instructed to assist you, not obey. The distinction was emphasized.”
“I remember very well the last time I let the Wreath help,” Teal snapped. “Veilgrad burned because of your nonsense. That will not happen to Last Rock!”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she replied with a shrug, “but I doubt anybody higher up on the chain wants to antagonize Professor Tellwyrn that way. Look: you have demons being called up around the town. Rozzk’shnids on the periphery, where they’re too blind and confused to do much more than scare people, but other summoning nexi are forming at intersections. The plan is pretty obviously to forment maximum chaos and confusion rather than cause bloodshed, considering the relatively minor demons being summoned, but there will be bloodshed, not to mention considerable destruction of property, if this carries on. More to the point, what’s being used is an automated summoning grid.”
“I did not realize one could automate demon summoning,” Ashaele said quietly.
“I can’t, it’s fiendishly hard. For someone with no apparent plans beyond aimless trouble-making, this Sleeper is serious business. Specifically, the automated summoning means all this is a distraction, and the actual summoner’s focus is elsewhere. Regardless, we can intercept each summons before it fully forms, and with enough direct access to these nexi, take down the whole grid. Or,” she added with an exaggerated shrug, “if you are absolutely committed to running around in a blind panic while confused demons tear the town apart, by all means, bend your energies to arresting the Wreath. Alternatively, you can let us help. Your call.”
Waking up was the most peaceful she had felt in the longest time. The sun was warm on her cheeks—gently warm, not burning. She had never felt grass so luxuriously soft as what cushioned her; even her admittedly idealized memories of playing in the hills back home in Viridill paled in comparison. For a moment, Milanda simply basked, indulging in a languid stretch even as her consciousness slowly reassembled itself from pieces of whatever dream she’d been having…
It didn’t last long.
With memory came awareness, and she bolted upright, emitting a strangled noise that had attempted to be a gasp and a curse all at once.
“Ah, what fortuitous timing,” Akane the kitsune intoned, gliding toward her across the meadow. “I was just about to wake you.”
Milanda was on her feet now and didn’t remember getting there, but at least she felt fully awake again. “How long was I asleep?! I told them to wake me up before anything happened!”
“Several hours, and they tried,” Akane said with an aloof little smile, coming to a halt close to her. She tilted her head briefly to the side, indicating a direction; looking that way, Milanda found all three dryads sitting on the ground, their focus intently on a metallic structure rising from the grass which she was certain had not been there before.
All of them were wearing kimonos.
“I judged you needed the rest rather desperately, after hearing the account of your last several days,” Akane continued blithely. “There was some protest, of course. You have managed to accrue some significant loyalty among those girls—quite impressive, considering what dryads usually think of mortals. And in only a few days! I think they will all be quite distraught when you perish. Kindly refrain in the future from playing with imbecilic beam weapons; I have plans for their education over the next several years, which will proceed much more smoothly if they are not grieving a friend.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Milanda retorted, too irate to bother restraining the bite in her tone, never mind what this creature could do to her if she so took a notion. “What are they doing? We need to discuss what you and the Avatar decided, and what to do about restoring the Hands of the Emperor.”
“Oh, you needn’t worry about that any longer,” Akane replied with a masterful smile which clearly expressed condescension without being overt enough to be called out upon. “That is what they are doing. We have begun; the process should only take a few hours. The Avatar has admirably complete records of the original procedure, so I shall have much less trouble reproducing the system than its original architects did in creating it.”
For a moment, Milanda could only gape at her. When she finally managed to speak, her voice was a good bit more shrill than she liked. “You what? You weren’t supposed to—we needed to discuss— What do you think you’re—”
“After speaking at some length with Avatar 01,” the kitsune continued calmly, “I have decided to restore the system as it was originally constructed. I had thought to make only a slight modification to enable further alteration in the future, but upon analyzing the specs, it appears it was designed to accommodate such efforts in the first place. He did not say so explicitly, but I have inferred that further dealings with Empress Theasia somewhat soured the Avatar’s trust in her, and he failed to mention to her or her successor that the Hands can be further augmented. Regardless, as you expressed interest in doing so, this seemed best to me. It is a show of good faith on my part to grant what you asked without demanding concession in return. But my aid will be required for any future changes, and at that time, we can discuss…” Her tail waved once, to the left and then the right. “…specifics.”
“Your idea of a show of good faith is to shut me out and unilaterally make decisions that affect the fate of the Empire?”
“Yes,” Akane said with a serene little smile. “I suggest you accustom yourself to it, as it seems we will be working together in the future. I quite like you, Darnassy-san. You have admirable manners for a Tiraan, when you are not discomfited, and the spine you display even when frazzled is also to be commended. For now, though, I have awakened you during this brief reprieve which did not require my direct supervision, but I must return to guide the process very shortly. I wished to inform you that this procedure will temporarily take the current Hands of the Emperor offline—excepting yourself, of course, as you are not tied to the system. Ordinarily this process would be traumatic for them, possibly to a lethal degree, but I will correct that. This is what requires my immediate oversight, in fact. However, it will render them powerless and likely comatose for the duration. You should perhaps notify your government what to expect.”
Milanda held her placid gaze for two beats of silence.
“This conversation,” she finally said, “is not over.”
“Oh, how lovely,” Akane replied pleasantly. “Something to look forward to.”
Milanda turned her back on her and bolted along the equator.
It probably wasn’t all the way on the other side of the planet, though it was hard to gauge distance on this disorienting little ball, but the gateway was a good sprint away from her starting point. The kitsune and dryads were well over the horizon by the time she came to it.
“Avatar!” she called, skidding to a stop in the grass next to it.
The panel next to the floating door lit up with a simple message.
PROCESSORS FULLY OCCUPIED
PLEASE STAND BY
“Naturally,” she growled, and without further ado hopped into the door, and right into the arms of her next unpleasant surprise.
“There you are!” Walker exclaimed.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Never mind that,” the fairy snapped, and Milanda only belatedly realized how frazzled and worried she looked. “You’ve been in there most of the day! There’s important news from up top: the Emperor’s lost his safe house and is being moved.”
“Not long ago, fortunately; I’ve been waiting out here to intercept you. Vex contacted me by earpiece as soon as it happened.”
“Vex—wait, why does he have an earpiece?”
“He took it from one of your…agents. Obviously.”
Milanda dragged a hand over her face. Of course. Of course Vex would want one once he’d seen them; of course those three idiots wouldn’t have hesitated to hand it over. Well…she wasn’t sure what damage this could do, after all. It didn’t run on arcane magic and Walker had said Tiraas would need a lot more development before the could begin to figure out the technology, but she didn’t doubt Intelligence’s ability to reverse-enchant it if they really tried. Which they would. She didn’t even have a specific reason to prevent them, aside from her general feeling that Infinite Order tech did not need to be floating around one bit more than necessary.
“All right,” she said aloud, “the better question is why did he contact you? I mean, us, since he presumably expected me to answer the call.”
“That’s a bit more interesting,” Walker said grimly. “The Emperor, it seems, is currently unprotected. He is being left in the open as bait for whatever antagonist started this—the Church, as we now know—”
“HE WHAT? Whose bloody idea was that?!”
“The Emperor’s, which is the problem,” Walker continued, unfazed by Milanda’s outburst. “Lord Vex, being apparently the most sensible person in that Palace now that you’re down here, made the mistake of asking the Empress to countermand the order, which she wouldn’t. And with her knowing he wanted that done, his hands are tied; other watchers are making sure the plan is being—”
Suddenly, everything went dark. The faint but omnipresent hum of the machinery in the walls was silenced; even the glowing door behind Milanda flickered out of being, the lights on its adjacent control panel vanishing.
Barely an instant later it all came up again, everything working just as before with no sign there had been a problem.
Milanda and Walker stared at each other for a second longer, then in unison dashed up the hall toward the security hub.
The door opened for them with no trouble; Walker threw herself into a wheeled chair, rolling across the room and colliding with the chair in front of her normal terminal, sending it crashing away; she was hunched over the panels, tapping furiously, before it had stopped moving.
“Is it the attacker?” Milanda demanded tersely, looming over her shoulder. “I thought we blew up his equipment!”
“I’m looking… No. No external access of any kind. That…that was a simple power fluctuation.”
“It’s absurd!” Walker exclaimed. “The generator in this facility could power the sun for almost a tenth of a second!”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“The Infinite Order loved their overkill. Any of the power sources in their major facilities could shoot the planet out of orbit if attached to a big enough thruster. There is nothing anybody could possibly be doing that would draw enough energy to make the lights flicker! What the hell is Akane up to down there?”
Milanda jerked upright. “…the Hands. She’s rebuilding the system. She said she’d have to take them offline in the process…”
“Oh no.” Walker’s complexion was already like paper, but somehow she managed to turn a shade paler. “Oh no. Milanda, the Emperor’s entire plan was to place himself in danger so when anyone approached him, the Hands would react, and in their present state, destroy them! If they’re offline…”
Milanda punched the terminal, which had no effect on it, but the pain in her hand was strangely refreshing. “I’m going to the teleport array. Put me in his location as soon as I get there; you can run it from here, right?”
“Not with all this going on,” Walker snapped, fingers flying over the panels. “Raw power consumption aside, do you have any idea how much processing power it takes to convert matter to energy and then back?”
“Of course I don’t!”
“Well, I wouldn’t put good odds on it working with all this going on. I didn’t realize how closely the Hands were tied up in the entire system down here! Localized power outages all over the place, she’s taking things offline to reboot them… I’m going to have to put together a scheduled map of the system effects and run a full teleporter diagnostic to make sure it’s not—”
“I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THAT!” Milanda roared. “Just zap me out there!”
“Milanda, I was a soul harvester during the age of adventuring mages,” Walker practically snarled, without looking up from her screen. “I’ve seen the aftermath of battlefields, massacres, natural disasters, fires, any possible way people could find to die. Very little was more horrific than teleportation accidents! So no, I am not going to put you in a fritzy teleporter until I am certain it’s working properly. Subject closed.”
Milanda grabbed her shoulder, squeezing hard enough to injure someone of mere flesh and blood.
“Walker,” she pleaded, “he’s alone, unprotected. I don’t care what happens to me. I need to go to him!”
Walker reached up to squeeze her hand, but didn’t stop her work. “I care what happens to you, Milanda. And so does Sharidan. If you are his best remaining protector, all the more reason we can’t afford to take risks with your safety.”
“Anyway,” she continued, finally looking up, “he’s not alone or unprotected. When Vex called and then stopped answering, I sent our other resources to the Emperor before I went looking for you.”
“What? Why wouldn’t Vex answer? Is the earpiece broken?”
“He’s an Imperial functionary of the highest level, Milanda, he can hardly be seen walking around muttering to himself. I guarantee he’s still got the earpiece on his person, and will use it as soon as he has something to report. We can bring him up to speed then. In the meantime, no news is good news.”
“…wait,” Milanda said, widening her eyes. “You said… What other resources?”
Walker glanced at her again, and smiled wryly. “The only other ones we have.”
“…oh, no. Work faster, dammit!”