The apparent leader of the Rust was a more visibly impressive specimen than most. Fully half his face was covered by a coppery mask, accented by wires which appeared to be brass; his left eye was a blue glass orb which gleamed from within. Though he had no beard, the half-mask did not extend over his scalp, and he sported a full head of luxurious hair trailing down his back, once black and beginning to shift toward gray. He wore only a kilt, serving to accentuate both his lean physique and especially the reddish metal which covered him. His entire right arm was of machinery, except, somehow, the flesh-and-blood hand attached beneath some kind of cloth wrapping which obscured the junction. It was a more elaborate arm than the rest of his followers sported, physically bulkier as if housing additional machinery, and attached to a shoulder mount which extended partway across his chest. A green glass disc was situated above his heart, emitting dull flickers of what looked like contained lightning. Below the kilt, his left calf and foot were machine, the right human but with odd patches of metalwork and protruding wires, as if he had machinery implanted beneath the skin.
The supreme confidence of his smile was somehow more unnerving than his collection of unnatural attachments.
Gabriel finally broke the silence. “Yeah, well, if you’re expecting to do anything about us, mister, you may be taking too many things for granted.”
“So I may,” the cultist replied, then suddenly hopped across the gap between his giant mechanical mount and the door platform, causing the lot of them to reflexively shift backward. Seeming not to notice their reaction, the man swept a deep bow. “I am called Ayuvesh, speaker for the Infinite Order. And already, it seems I have spoken out of turn. After all, it is protocol in many places to attend to old business before raising new, is it not? Mandip!” This last was spoken in a sharper tone, the cultist turning his head to direct himself back at the throng of his followers below.
A man stepped forward from the group, and Toby drew in a deep breath. The cultist stared up at them through narrowed eyes, and made an abortive move as if to fold his arms, which did not work as he had only one. The other was metal from the shoulder to the elbow, where it ended in a small profusion of tiny coppery struts and wires, almost like a miniature scaffold. At that distance, whatever was inside it was hidden from them.
Mandip continued forward; as he stepped upon a growth of lichen-like machine parts which had crawled across the stone floor, a column pistoned up out of the ground beside him, bringing a small panel of buttons to chest height. On the wrong side, forcing him to twist awkwardly to push three keys. That done, he continued on with incredible aplomb as a series of hinged struts and pulleys manifested from various pieces of the surrounding machine overgrowth. They swung swiftly and precisely into place for each of his footsteps, forming an impromptu staircase whose every step withdrew behind him, some re-positioning themselves to assist him upward. In moments, he stood upon the platform with them and Ayuvesh.
Then, to their surprise, Mandip bowed deeply.
“I owe an apology,” he said in a stiff tone. “It is not the way of the Infinite Order to push, provoke, or defy. I should have departed the Omnist compound once asked to by the monk. For that, I am sorry.”
An incredulous silence hung for a moment before Toby cleared his throat. “Well. On behalf of the faith of Omnu, apology accepted. And perhaps one is owed to you, as well?” He turned a pointed look on Juniper.
She frowned back at him. When Toby did not back down, the dryad sighed softly and shrugged. “Yes, well…you were right. You had no business inserting yourself there when they told you to go, but…yeah, I guess I may have reacted a little more harshly than was…necessary.”
Mandip had straightened, and now stared at her through slitted eyes which belied his polite tone. “Perhaps a little.”
“Well, then, I’m sorry, too,” Juniper said, folding her arms. Mandip’s nostrils flared once.
“There!” Ayuvesh proclaimed grandly with a broad gesture of his metal arm. “All friends again! And perhaps, if you are so inclined, honored guests, the return of Mandip’s arm would be a conciliatory gesture.”
Toby glanced at the others, receiving shrugs from Gabriel and Teal; Juniper was still watching Mandip as though expecting him to spring, a gaze he returned in equal measure.
“I can’t exactly promise that, at this point,” Toby finally answered. “It’s in the possession of the Crown. But we have a little pull with the King and Queen, and I can’t think of any use they’d have for it. Yes, that’s fair. You have my word I will attempt to secure its return for you.”
“Mm.” Ayuvesh folded his arms, lightly drumming his flesh fingers against a metal forearm. “Yes, I suppose by now you’ll have learned all you can from it.”
“Nobody’s ever learned all they can,” Fross opined.
“How very wise!” Ayuvesh said, grinning broadly.
Ermon cleared his throat. “There is other old business to attend.”
He was gazing down below, where another figure had appeared from a side passage, this one familiar and accompanied by a female Rust cultist who strode on two mechanical legs with digitigrade feet like a dog’s.
“Ah, yes!” Ayuvesh said, turning to follow Ermon’s look. “Brother Arlund, thank you for joining us. I believe your friends would like to be reassured as to your status!”
“I am well,” Arlund said curtly, his voice projecting easily through the cavern. “I cannot say whether I am a prisoner, as I have not yet tried to leave. My invitation to come inside was polite, but…insistent.”
Ermon’s eyes flicked to the Rust’s leader, then back to his fellow Huntsman. “You are unharmed, though?”
Arlund’s mustache shifted enough that his sneer was evident even from a distance. “These machines are an unholy abomination, and the dogma I’ve been forced to listen to is the most asinine drivel I have ever imagined. But I cannot fault their hospitality,” he added in an openly grudging tone.
The cultist with him cracked a sly smile at that, and bowed; Arlund just gave her a sidelong look and set off for the stairs which followed the wall up to the door platform. Nobody volunteered to trigger a moving mechanical staircase for him, which was probably for the best.
“So!” Ayuvesh turned back to the students, now wearing a patrician smile, and folded his hands behind his back. “That is the past, attended to. Let us now discuss the present.”
Due to Walker’s probing of the whole region via magic—transcension field, as she irritably corrected Milanda when thanked—they had a complete three-dimensional map of the mining tunnels. It was the work of only minutes for Milanda, following Walker’s guidance, to slip through a series of turns to a dark little dead end, where she planted herself on the ground with her back to the wall, the detached viewscreen laid across her lap. Its dimensions made this slightly awkward; the thing seemed not to have been designed for human use, unlike the highly ergonomic Infinite Order computers with which she was familiar.
“Only one risk I can think of,” Walker buzzed in her ear. “Gabriel Arquin is a Hand of Vidius, and while there is no precedent for what that means I’d be astonished if he doesn’t have at least one of my sisters hanging around him at all times. Probably Yngrid, she was always a little boy-crazy. I also don’t have a basis for comparison between a valkyrie’s extradimensional senses and the modern enchanting that keeps you invisible. So it’s not impossible that you’re being watched.”
Despite herself, Milanda raised her eyes to glance around the tunnel. It wasn’t quite pitch-black, there being a faint glow from the piece of technology she held, but even so it took all of her dryad-augmented senses plus the enchantments on her hood to give her a clear view of the apparently empty corridor. A normal human would be all but blind down here.
“As long as none of the physical ones followed me,” she replied. “Valkyries can’t touch anything on this plane, right?”
“Only on Vidian holy ground or where dimensional barriers are abraded for other reasons. Again, though, there are unknowns. It was Infininte Order technology that cast us to the dimensional insulation layer in the first place, and it does not appear that these Rust people understand what they’re fooling with. I can’t say what might have resulted from all their button-pushing.”
“Mm. I’m going to consider that a remote possibility, all the same.”
“Probably for the best. Just don’t get complacent.”
“What, me? Complacent? You jest.”
“You sure didn’t go out of your way to befriend those adventurers.”
Milanda ignored that, studying the screen again. She had selected this one for the indicators that it had its own attached power source and transcension field connection, icons which Walker had coached her on how to recognize. Unfortunately, it was also the largest of the screens which had been attached to the walls by the gate; between that and its peculiar shape, it was awkward to hold the thing with one hand while navigating the touch screen with the other. Still, at least it was working.
“These menus are all different from the ones in the spaceport,” she muttered, flicking and tapping with one fingertip. “I mean, it’s clearly the product of the same intelligence. Same…what did you call it? Operating system. But it doesn’t do any of the same stuff. Everything’s set up differently.”
“Hm. Touch screens are a fallback for when holographic interfaces are turned off; if it’s set to some kind of minimal settings, you can try closing every active window. If there’s a base desktop below them, it may have labeled icons to identify any installed programs.”
Milanda paused, raising her eyes to frown into empty space. “What are holographic interfaces, and why don’t we have them back home?”
“It’s a long story, and because the Avatar apparently disabled them when setting up his system with Theasia. I couldn’t say why, except that voice commands and touch screens are simpler for novice users. Anything?”
“Yes, actually.” She hadn’t been able to close the active programs running, but had managed to move them into a neat stack onto one side, exposing the screen’s base layer. There were, indeed, icons. “I can’t read them, though.”
“Oh…it’s probably set to Esperanto. That makes me wonder how the Rust are interfacing with the computers if they’re not set in a language they recognize. Tap the background twice on a spot that’s away from any icons. A menu will appear; you want to touch the line that says ‘Settings.’”
Milanda did this, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “None of them say that. None of them are in Tanglish.”
“…oh. Right. Try ‘Agordoj.’”
“That’s the goofiest word I ever heard,” she muttered, touching the appropriate line. At least Esperanto apparently used the same alphabet, more or less.
With Milanda guiding and translating, she managed to switch the machine to Tanglish—or English, as it was labeled.
“There we go,” she said in satisfaction as the labels beneath the icons changed. “Now, these are more sensible. Network, hardware… What is Silverfox?”
“Silverfox? That’s Druroth’s personal web browser. What a weird thing to find on… I mean, it can’t possibly still work, Naiya disabled the transcension field the Order’s systems used to communicate with each other. Unless they’ve piggybacked it on one of the others, like we did…”
“It just says there’s no connection when I pull it up.”
“Well, that tells us a bit. The Rust clearly don’t have much control; they may not even be using the software themselves. Which, of course, just raises more questions. If has to be connecting to something if it’s working, otherwise it would be a mass of error messages. Maybe tachyon or radio transmission…”
“Nanite control,” Milanda muttered. “Walker, what does ‘nanite’ mean?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never heard the word. You’re sure it’s in the right language?”
“Yes, I’m sure!”
“English and Tanglish are maybe ninety percent identical, there are bound to be some words that don’t translate exactly. Hang on, let me call the Avatar and ask him.”
Milanda nodded absentmindedly, forgetting that Walker couldn’t see her, and touched the icon.
“And we’re back to us getting dealt with,” Gabriel said bluntly.
“I wonder,” Ayuvesh mused, “how aware you are of the circumstances into which you have stepped?”
“You’re effectively holding Puna Dara hostage,” said Teal. “Behaving barely enough to avoid provoking the King to clamp down, while trying to undercut his authority.”
“Oh?” He grinned. “Tell me, what have I done to undercut his authority?”
“Attacking and disabling a Silver Legion is an inherently hostile act,” Fross charmed. “The ruling monarch of the country in which you did it can’t help but interpret that as a threat!”
“Just so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “Let us follow that line of thought, then. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Infinite Order are behind the fate of the Fourth Legion, clearly we would have the power to overthrow the government in Puna Dara. And yet, we have not. If we are not behind it, this whole subject is moot.” He spread his hands disarmingly. “By your logic, my actions would seem to make no sense!”
“Perhaps you could elucidate for us?” Toby suggested. “Your perspective on these events is one thing we do not have. I was very much hoping we could learn more about it.”
“Ah, so you are here to learn.” Ayuvesh’s smile broadened slightly. “And so naturally, you chose as your delegation two paladins, a Huntsman of Shaath, and an unstoppable archdemon in the thrall of the Universal Church.”
“Excuse me?” Teal exclaimed. “I am in no one’s thrall.”
“The Narisian robes are an interesting touch,” Ayuvesh acknowledged, pointing at her chest. “You clearly have complex allegiances. I am mostly interested in that fascinating pin you wear.”
She raised her hand to touch her Talisman of Absolution, the icon bearing the holy sigils of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius, and marking her an ally of the gods despite Vadrieny’s nature.
“Interesting,” Gabriel said, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “That sounded like a threat assessment, but no mention of Juniper, who you already know can physically tear your machine men apart.”
Ayuvesh again folded his hands behind himself, and this time turned to stare at the walking contraption he’d ridden up to the platform. “We are heirs to a truly ancient legacy. The Infinite Order, as we call ourselves, were first a group of scientists and philosophers from another world, who came here to pursue the greatest of all possible goals: the unlocking of humanity’s full potential, and the ascension of the universe itself to its next higher state.”
“They have gone on and on about this,” Arlund grunted, folding his arms. “The prattle about empowerment and being beyond limits isn’t just for personal appeal. Apparently, they think the universe is trying to evolve and consciousness is one of its means of doing so.”
“I thought the Infinite Order meant the Elder Gods,” Fross chimed. “That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing.”
Ayuvesh’s long hair shifted as he nodded slowly. “Indeed. The Order…lost their way. Their means of seeking that most noble of goals was to attain godhood for themselves, which ended every bit as badly as history tells us. Absolute power is extremely unhealthy for mortals. They descended into vile selfishness and cruelty, and were rightly brought down by rebellion from within.” He glanced back at them, his faint smile visible in profile. “Naiya, of course, aided the Pantheon’s revolt. Scyllith helped passively by refusing to take sides—a grave loss for the Order, as she commanded their greatest destructive powers. Tarthriss, however, was the one who truly planted the seeds for the salvation of the Order’s vision.”
Toby frowned. “Who?”
“He is sadly forgotten by this world,” Ayuvesh said softly, again staring out over the cavern. “The greatest of them; the greatest god, in fact, who ever lived. He aided the Pantheon in bringing down his comrades, even sacrificing himself in the process. More importantly, he left all this behind.” He held his arms wide, as if to embrace the chaos of crawling machinery which had overgrown the huge chamber. “And the records of the Order’s original purpose. So you see why we may have a problem with agents of the Pantheon today.”
The cultist suddenly turned to face them again, grinning, and executed a mocking little bow. “While we seek only peace in which to practice our faith and pursue our vision, the Infinite Order and the Pantheon are still in a state of declared war, eight thousand years in abeyance only because the Order was thought crushed and its survivors weakened or contained. And worse, we have been brought into modern politics not of our choosing. You see, children and Huntsmen, we are not the only souls to have unearthed fragments of the Elder Gods’ power. Both the Tiraan Empire and the Universal Church possess such artifacts. Possess…and use.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Perhaps you, as Hands of two of the greatest gods, know something of this?”
Gabriel and Toby exchanged a puzzled glance.
“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Juniper said bluntly.
“Don’t you?” Ayuvesh raised his only eyebrow. “Well, whether you do or not, I shall give the benefit of the doubt and explain. Both activated and used their respective systems against one another in a shadow war which, inevitably, exploded into real violence. And this, students, upset the delicate political balance in Tiraas. The Throne and the Church cannot be openly in conflict; the Enchanter Wars are too recent and vivid a memory for that to be a palatable option. So they sought out a scapegoat. A patsy.” His grin took on a distinctly hostile cast. “Someone possessing and using the machines left behind by the Elders, who could be falsely blamed for having intervened and caused the infraction.”
“I realize you have no reason to trust us,” Toby said slowly, “but upon my word, I know nothing about any of that. I can do my best to find out, but…if it was the Church and the Throne, even my cult may not know. It will take time to make those inquiries, however.”
“While you are taking time,” Ayurvesh said, folding his arms, “consider our position. Unjustly condemned by Sharidan and Justinian for their misdeeds, we are forced to be wary of Pantheon or Imperial agents. And the sudden arrival of an entire Silver Legion, with backing of Salyrite casters from all four Colleges… Well. That demands more than simple wariness, does it not?”
“I can see,” Teal said slowly, “how the arrival of paladins and Huntsmen and maybe even me would look to you in that case…”
“The particular means of your arrival, I have to say, do not assuage my concerns,” he replied.
Toby drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right… Let me ask you this, then. Whatever you did to the Fourth Legion has kept them incapacitated. Can you lift that…curse, or whatever it is?”
Ayuvesh raised his eyebrow again. “I? When have I acknowledged responsibility for such a thing? A convenient event for us, to be sure, but still tragic. I wish no ill upon anyone who wishes none upon me and mine.”
“Oh, you smug little—”
“Juniper,” Toby snapped, cutting her off with a warning look.
“We, if left alone, are a threat to none,” Ayuvesh said. “Not the Empire, not the Church, or their gods, and certainly not the Crown of Puna Dara. Rajakhan is a good King, and I do not desire the chaos that will erupt in my city if his government is overthrown.”
“You have to understand that it’s no longer that simple,” Toby replied. “After what befell the Legion.”
“Of course,” Ayuvesh said, nodding deeply. “But so it is with all the great powers of the world; they respect one another out of fear that war between them will be more destructive than profitable. Those with no claws to bare are snapped up or crushed. All we desire is to be left in peace, and sadly, that requires that we demonstrate the means to insist upon it.”
“Then maybe we have grounds to begin reaching a compromise,” said Toby. “If your story is true, than you are victims in this. We have little pull with the Empire, but Gabriel and I can command at least some action within the Church. The Archpope has no obligation to listen to us, but we have influence to wield.”
“And you will do this for me, out of the goodness of your divine hearts?” he replied pleasantly. “How noble.”
“Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, man,” Gabriel retorted. “If it comes down to claws, as you put it, you might not survive the night.”
“Gabriel!” Toby exclaimed.
“But!” Gabriel held up a hand. “We’re in the same position as you, basically. It would be for the best if everybody backs off and no one further gets hurt. So, what we want is for you to release whatever hold you’ve got on the Fourth Legion and provide some assurances that you aren’t going to upend Puna Dara. What you want is assurance that the Empire, the Church, and the Punaji aren’t going to land on you. Yes?”
“Succinctly stated,” Ayuvesh agreed, nodding again.
“It strikes me,” said Ermon, “that those are a very difficult set of goals for anyone here to attain.”
“Yes, they are,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Ayuvesh. “But not inconceivable… And even in them, I see potential for common ground. After all, it best serves us if the Church and the Throne are both prevented from underhanded shenanigans. We can start with small gestures. For instance, Mandip’s and Juniper’s apologies, and Arlund’s safe return. We can procure and return Mandip’s arm to complete the cycle. Little things, in the grand scheme, but they at least show good faith. It’s something on which to build.”
“And in the meantime,” Teal added, “perhaps we can all work on…deescalating. The Punaji are just about up in arms; I believe we can persuade the King to show further restraint, if he’s provided with a reason.”
“You have something in mind?” Ayuvesh asked mildly.
“Several of the Legionnaires have already died,” Toby said. “I understand the curse on them seems designed not to kill, but anyone that weak is vulnerable to other maladies. If there were a way to lessen—”
Abruptly the light in the huge chamber changed to a deep red, and a cacophonous series of whistles and sirens began shrilling from dozens of points among the machines crawling across the walls.
“What is that?” Juniper exclaimed.
“That,” Ayurvesh replied, bracing his feet in a wide stance and baring teeth, “is the sound of saboteurs being caught.”
“He wouldn’t say!” Walker’s voice when she abruptly returned to the line was excited. “The Avatar refused to answer questions about nanites, which means they’re a classified Order technology. That has to be the Rust’s weapon!”
“I know!” Milanda replied in the same tone, fingers working furiously at the screen. “This thing is showing me a map of nanite distribution on its front page—they’re all over Puna Dara, but concentrated here in the mines, in a spot out under the harbor, and in a big knot up in Rodvenheim! This is what we’re looking for!”
“I’m searching the sub-OS for information,” Walker said. “It won’t tell me anything directly but there may be mentions of them among other literature. Anything might help me extrapolate in general what we’re dealing with…”
“I bet this thing’ll tell me a lot more,” Milanda said, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Hum… There’s a list of processes. What does that mean?”
“Assuming it means the same as in computer terms, those are tasks the nanites are performing.”
“There’s a red warning, here…insufficient resources. There are more processes pending than being executed. Walker, does that mean what I think it means?”
“It means these things are a finite resource, and they’re being stretched way beyond what the Rust want to do. Which means we officially know their first weakness.”
“Finally, some good news,” Milanda said with a vindictive grin. “I wonder if I can make their problems even bigger…”
“Step very carefully,” Walker cautioned. “We still have no idea what these things are. Why are they invisible and undetectable? Learn details before trying to make changes.”
“Right, you’re right. Let’s see if it’ll tell me more.” She touched one of the pending processes, choosing it for the only term she immediately recognized: Fabrication Plant One. The line of text indicated maintenance and repair. That line immediately shifted forward at her tap and grew to cover the middle of the screen, but changed color from pale blue to yellow, and additional text appeared above it. “Huh. Walker, what does ‘retinal scan’ mean?”
“That’s a secur—Milanda! Don’t look at the screen!”
Too late; the whole display flashed, and a new line of bright red script informed Milanda that this access was unauthorized.
“Um,” she said warily, “now it’s telling me that this activity has been logged and reported…”
Her entire screen turned red, and began emitting a shrill tone. Not shrill enough that she couldn’t also detect similar noises echoing through the tunnels from a much louder source deeper in.
Milanda cringed behind her mask. “That…is not good, is it.”
Gabriel clapped a hand to his forehead. “The woman in black. I told you.”
“Aw, nuts, she took one of those shiny thingies,” Fross fretted, darting back and forth. “The one that controlled the door and who knows what else…”
“A woman in black,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “How mysterious.”
“She’s the one who opened the gate,” Toby said quickly. “She wouldn’t speak to us and as soon as she’d got it open, ripped off a piece of your machinery and fled. We don’t know who she is or what she was doing there, but she knows something about these machines of yours, obviously.”
“Oh, obviously,” he said flatly. “And somehow, has gone undetected. We perceived you approaching before you even entered the mine, but not this enigmatic woman in black.”
“I realize how this sounds,” Toby began.
“Oh, please,” Arlund scoffed. “That is not believable enough to be a lie. A woman?”
“You should not talk anymore,” Juniper informed him.
“Please listen to me,” Toby said urgently, but Ayuvesh held up his hand to forestall him.
“I will indeed listen, Hand of Omnu. And in fact, I am still willing to negotiate. But we must have parity, don’t you think?”
Before they could react, he whirled and bounded back to the top of his machine, his agility astonishing considering how much he had to weigh with all that metal in his body. Ayuvesh whirled lightly into the seat, placing his hands on control panels affixed to its arms.
“You have aided your negotiating position with a show of force,” the Rust’s leader said with a broad grin. “Well done! I salute your brinkmanship. Now, allow me to reply in kind!”