Darkness receded into dimness, and most of the group shifted physically, both to fall into balanced stances and to peer around at their surroundings. It was a tunnel, that much was no surprise, but after the few seconds it took to make sense of the view they discovered that the walls were curved lengths of glass, or at least something transparent. The murky landscape outside and the relatively faint light they emitted was due to the view being of the bottom of the harbor. There was little to see except mud and the odd strand of kelp, and at that depth there would have been little sunlight even had it not been storming above. The broken wreck of a ship barely visible through the gloom off to their right helped put it all into perspective.
“Ta dah!” Mogul sang, spreading his arms and grinning at them. “Here’s what I can tell you: the Rust themselves stay away from here, and have for years now. They do try to control the access tunnels so you’d have had some issues pushing through, but this place is dangerous as hell and they’ve long since got what they need outta there. So, you’ll have privacy, at least.”
“And you know this because…?” Ruda turned a scowl on him, fingering the hilt of her sword.
“We keep an eye on them,” he said. “I’ve already been over this. I also warned you that I am not going in there, but it bears repeating: this is where we part ways. Nor am I gonna loaf around out here; I don’t mind doing the odd favor but I’m not a taxi service. You’ll have to make your own way back. Try not to let your friend in the cloak get killed and you should be able to find the path. And with that, I will wish you good luck and bid you farewell.”
He stepped back into the dimness, bowing and doffing his hat, and darkness thickened to encompass him, then dissipated to leave nothing behind.
“How thick would this glass have to be to be…um, solid, under this kind of water pressure?” Gabriel asked, touching his fingertips to the curved, transparent wall.
“I am pretty sure that’s not glass,” Fross replied, “if only because the answer to your question is ‘no.’ Really, I don’t get the utility of making the tunnel transparent, anyway. It’s not like there’s anything to see.”
“If this is part of the original construction, then ‘utility’ probably wasn’t a factor,” Milady said, squeezing past the rest of them in the crowded tunnel to approach the door up ahead. “The Infinite Order liked everything grandiose and extravagant. And also, it may not have been underwater, then. It was Naiya who flooded or buried all their facilities, and that was long after the Pantheon’s uprising. Let’s see…”
The tunnel terminated in a metal wall just beyond them, a smooth surface too glossy to be steel and inset with an unfamiliar sigil. It was encircled by an arc of glass—or otherwise transparent—tubing where it met the arched walls of the tunnel, which emitted a weak purple glow. Nearby, a few small screens were attached directly to the transparent walls, flickering faintly.
Milady stepped up to touch the sigil in the center of the door. Nothing happened.
“Surely you didn’t think it would be that easy?” Principia asked, slipping through the press of bodies more adroitly after her.
“Not really,” Milady replied with a sigh, turning to the nearest screen that was still active. “But it was worth trying. It’s awfully embarrassing to try to pick a lock, only to find it wasn’t locked in the first place.”
“Hah! You’re not kidding. I’ve actually had that experience.”
“You, the great thief?”
“We all start somewhere, kid.”
Principia hovered back slightly, watching, but let Milady fiddle with the screen, the pair of them leaving the students to their own devices. Ruda positioned herself at the rear of the group, facing down the empty tunnel with her sword drawn, while Toby pressed himself awkwardly against the arched wall, trying to get a look at what lay ahead. The angle made that fruitless, unfortunately.
“This place is spooky,” Juniper muttered, wrapping arms around herself. “I know I’ve abused the word in the past, but it’s unnatural. I hope my bunny’s okay…”
“I hope my city’s okay,” Ruda said, absently poking the curved wall with the tip of her sword.
“Uh, maybe don’t do that?” Gabriel suggested. “If it’s reinforced by magic, prodding it with mithril…”
“Yeesh.” Ruda whipped the blade away from the walls and stepped to the center of the tunnel.
“Okay, this doesn’t even constitute security,” Milady said, straightening. Even as she spoke, the purple tube encircling the wall ahead began to glow more brightly. “I think the Rust tried to shut this down without really knowing how it works; they turned off the power to the door but didn’t manage to lock it.”
“Probably didn’t have permission,” Principia said, watching the door. “This thing seems to think Scyllith is using it, so it probably wants her credentials before it’ll do anything too—”
She was cut off when, with a flash of the sigil in its center, the metal door abruptly slid straight downward into the floor, opening an archway into the space beyond. Immediately, an ungodly torrent of noise blasted out, a blended cacophony of thumps like distant thunder and the constant roar of rushing water. Before the group could even begin to make sense of this, or the bare glimpse of a large open space beyond, the noise was overwhelmed by an even louder sound: a shrill burst like nails on a blackboard, causing all of them to cringe back and cover their ears and Principia to fall against Milady with a cry of pain.
And then, a scream.
“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” howled an echoing voice from within, and the door slammed shut again. This time, the purple half-ring around it turned a dull red and began pulsing slowly.
For a moment, they just stood there, straightening up and staring. Then Principia laughed weakly.
“Hey, good news!” she said, massaging her long ears with both hands. “We’re in the right place.”
“Hm.” Milady was already back at the panel. “Now it’s locked. Avatar override… Drat, we need a member of the Infinite Order to countermand this.”
“Well, we don’t fucking have one of those,” Ruda growled.
“We might,” Milady said, frowning thoughtfully at the screen. “I’ve previously convinced devices like this that I had Naiya’s permission to use them by getting help from her daughters… But that was with more than one, and with a stable Avatar that was willing to work with me in the first place. I don’t have a better idea, though. Juniper?”
The dryad was already at her side, peering at the screen. “How’s this work?”
“It responds to either touch or speech,” Milady explained. “And the facility should have the ability to sense your connection to Naiya’s transcension field. I mean, magic. Here, I’ve pulled up the door controls. Touch that green rectangle there, please.”
Juniper did so, and received a pleasant chime from the screen in response.
“Access insufficient?” she read from the result. “Rude.”
“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward, drawing his wand, which then extended to its full scythe form. “Give me a little room if you would, ladies. I would really hate to nick somebody with this.”
Everyone backed up while he approached the door. There was no room in the tunnel to swing the long weapon, but he grasped it just below the blade and, carefully holding its haft out of the way as best he could in the confined space, drove it against the metal.
Incredibly, even with his relatively weak swing, the ragged-looking blade sank fully half its length into the glossy door, right in the middle of the Infinite Order sigil.
Reddish tendrils of oxidation began to spread outward from the rent, deepening as they expanded. Right before their eyes, metal darkened and curled away, beginning to fall in flakes to the ground. Rust spread like a colony of lichen, arms reaching all the way to the edges of the door, and the innermost surface rippling and crumbling to emit the chaotic noise from the facility.
“I…don’t know what that alloy is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t rust,” Milady said weakly, staring at the door as the ancient metal rotted away.
“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel said in a soft tone which was almost obliterated by the sounds from within. Enough of the door had dissolved that the scythe had come loose, and he set about scraping it against the edges of the hole he had made, encouraging the oxidation to spread further.
“Holy fuck, Arquin,” Ruda exclaimed above the noise emerging from the gap. “And you’ve just been carrying that fucking thing around for the last year?!”
“Perhaps Vidius entrusted it to him because he’s not the sort of person who would carelessly swing it about,” Toby suggested.
“Hey, June, a little help?” Gabriel turned to her with a grin. “I think the rest of this calls for more muscle than I’ve got.”
“Now that I can do,” she said, stepping up and grabbing one edge of the rusted gap he had made. Her first few handholds simply collapsed in her grip, but finally she managed to seize a relatively solid edge and pull. The weakened metal tore away in her grasp, and with a little more tugging she finally ripped a large chunk entirely free, exposing a gap big enough for them to step through.
By that point, there was nothing between them and the clamor inside the facility; it was almost too loud to converse. Gabriel slipped through first, ducking under the bent exposed edge of the torn door, Juniper right behind him. The two stepped forward into the space beyond, forming an advance guard while the rest of their party came through in single file—with the exception of Fross, who zipped in right behind Juniper.
Fabrication Plant One was a vast open space apparently set deep into the floor of the bay; at any rate, they emerged right under the ceiling. In fact, directly above the metal platform onto which they stepped was a transparent dome supported by an artistic lattice of metal filaments, revealing the murky light of the ocean above. Stairs descended from directly in front of them to a series of walkways which mostly extended around the edges of the huge chamber, though one, supported by apparently nothing, stretched out dead ahead to terminate in a machine-lined emplacement right above the center of the room.
Ladders extended down to the open area below, where enormous machines stood upon the floor, or were attached to the walls. Or so it appeared they should be; it was hard to tell, because the chamber was partially flooded. About three stories down, seawater rippled under the glow of the room’s bright lighting. There was little order in the equipment there, as well, further obscuring the architecture. It was not like the mess of lichen-like machine parts that characterized the Rust’s hideaway; all the devices here were built on a much larger scale and mostly at angles, lacking the sense of organic growth. It was still chaotic, though, with screens, cranes, grasping arms, and other devices of inscrutable purpose protruding randomly from the water and poking this way and that, affixed to each other in peculiar arrangements serving no obvious purpose. Some moved in evidently pointless patterns, others emitting various noises of constant motion—and in some cases, impact, as they crashed against each other and the walls, showing no evidence of any governing intelligence.
There were no less than four visible leaks in the walls, all near spots where pieces of machinery were flailing with particular abandon, one emitting sparks from some kind of energy cutter. Streams of seawater of varying size poured into the chamber. Large networks of pipes had been built, lattices chaotically extending over the other equipment, attached to pumps which were taking the water away…somewhere. A number of them had been broken by other machines and were squirting seawater back into the flood.
Oddly enough, once they were out in the open space and not the confined, echoing tunnel, the noise didn’t seem nearly so oppressive. At least, they had no trouble hearing Ruda’s muttered observation.
“What a fuckin’ mess.”
“Whatever we’re going to do, we’d better get to quickly,” Principia noted. “I don’t know how long this has been going on, but sooner or later it’s gonna flood completely. Or maybe just collapse under the water pressure.”
“WHO DARES!” bellowed the voice from before. One of the huge machines extended an arm to grab at another, and ripped free a large transparent panel, then raised this to hover near their platform at an angle. In the large sheet of what was probably not glass there suddenly appeared the translucent image of a man, seemingly made of purple light. He was bald, clad in a tight suit of some kind, and leering at them with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Who dares intrude upon the sanctum sanctorum of the Infinite Order?!”
Milady stepped forward and raised her voice. “We’re here to—”
“Hah! It was a rhetorical question, fool! NONE SHALL PASS!”
The arm abruptly dropped the panel, which splashed into the flood below, and reached down in a different direction, this time seizing another extending arm which held at its tip a spark-spraying arc of energy clearly designed to cut, judging by the singed and sliced-off state of several nearby chunks of metal. The larger arm grabbed it behind the cutting device and yanked; with an appalling screech, the second arm was torn free, its damaged end emitting a gout of sparks and occasional arcs of electricity. The machine raised this up, rearing back in clear preparation to slash at them.
“No, you don’t,” Gabriel snapped, leveling his scythe. Black light blasted from its tip, impacting the improvised weapon and knocking the cutting arm cleanly from its grip to tumble into the floodwaters below. Where the dark energy struck, the original arm began to seize up, its joints ceasing to function as rust spread along them.
“Well played!” cried the eerie voice again, and another transparent panel popped up from below, this one held aloft unevenly by two hovering machines. It bobbed and wove awkwardly about, the poorly-coordinated flyers apparently trying to tug it in different directions, but it was steady enough to give them a ghastly view of the purple man grinning insanely at them. “But I have many weapons in my arsenal, oh yes! SOON YOUR DOOM SHALL—”
They never did find out what to expect of their doom, as one of the flying machines abruptly won the tug-of-war, jerking away and subsequently losing its grip on the display panel, which sailed off to clatter against the wall and then tumble gracelessly down to the water.
“There is a crazy man living in the walls,” Fross reported. “Is that normal?”
“All major Infinite Order facilities have an Avatar,” Milady explained, “an artificial intelligence installed in the machines who runs the place, keeps it in order. The one I’ve dealt with before was the very soul of self-possession; the state of this poor fellow is probably the reason this place is such a disaster, and also how he lost control of whatever it is the Rust are using. I think we need to get to there.”
She pointed ahead, at the central platform. It was a partially enclosed spot, with transparent walls sloping outward such that whoever stood within would have a good view around the fabrication plant’s floor. It had also clearly suffered a great deal of recent construction, most of which was visibly haphazard. Machines had been grafted on, parts of the transparent walls ripped away and some shattered to let beams, wires, and pipes pass through. The large clusters of technology affixed to it were supported by a mixture of pillars rising from the flooded floor below and beams attached to the ceiling above.
The ceiling was mostly transparent; some of them had been bolted right into the clear surface. Several of those attachment points were emitting tiny sprays of water.
“Of course we fucking do,” Ruda said fatalistically.
“It occurs to me,” said Toby, “that crossing that narrow walkway while the crazed Avatar flings pieces of machines at us is going to be…dicey.”
“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Principia noted.
“Gabriel!” Ariel said suddenly. “Grounding and deflecting charm, applied to the platform, now!”
“What?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just do that without—”
“I can!” Fross chimed, zipping around them in a circle and emitting a blue glow as she did so. A gleaming set of runes appeared on the metal beneath their feet.
Barely a second later, a snake-like protrusion slithered up from one of the nearby banks of machinery, its “head” sparking with unevenly discharged electricity, and jabbed itself against the metal walkway adjacent to them. Immediately, a circular area around them lit up and sparked violently as voltage surged against and around it. Fross’s enchantment held, however, keeping the current being pumped into the metal from reaching them.
“Why, you sneaky bastard,” Gabriel said almost admiringly, taking aim with his scythe again. Another dark blast of energy reduced the metal tentacle to shrapnel and cutting off the voltage.
“Will you stop doing that?!” came the Avatar’s voice from somewhere below them. “Security protocols require that you just DIE already!”
“There’s no way,” said Juniper. “These catwalks are horribly vulnerable. And if we make it there, what then? All he has to do is knock that whole mess down and that’s it.”
“That’s clearly a command center,” said Milady, “and he has obviously augmented it. I think it’s too important to destroy; if we get there…”
“You’re counting on two very uncertain things,” said Ruda. “That you’re right, which we can’t know, and that this guy’s lucid enough not to stab himself in the heart even if that is his heart. Which, from the looks of him, he’s not.”
“Actually,” Principia said thoughtfully, “I suggest we retreat.”
“We can’t fucking leave!” Ruda exclaimed. “We have to fix this shit!”
“I said retreat, not surrender,” the elf replied patiently. “Back up, guys, out into the tunnel. We need to regroup and come up with a plan.”
“Yeah, you’d BETTER run,” the Avatar crowed at them as they clambered backward through the wrecked door. “Flee for your insignificant lives! FLEE MY WRATH!”
“It’s a little disappointing that we can’t slam this,” Juniper said as she climbed through. They went in reverse order, making her the next to last to exit, Gabriel right on her heels with his scythe shortened back to wand form.
“Here’s the thing,” Principia said once they were back outside the immediate range of the mad Avatar’s machinations. “Infinite Order systems are supposed to be decentralized.”
“Of course!” Milady exclaimed. “Some functions may be locked to certain consoles, but there are screens out here. If we can get into them, we can do…something, surely.”
“I thought you said he locked those down,” Ruda snapped.
“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” Fross chimed thoughtfully. “If we can get him to make a mistake…”
“How?” Toby asked.
“Arquin.” Principia turned to him. “I know valkyries are only able to interact with the mortal plane under certain conditions. Can you make those conditions?”
Gabriel frowned, then tilted his head and looked off to the side the way he did when listening to Vestrel.
“…apparently I can,” he replied after a moment. “It’s within the purview of the highest-ranking priests of Vidius, which includes me, and the divine scythe provides a shortcut. What did you have in mind?”
“You said you got the Infinite Order’s computers to recognize you as Naiya by getting her daughters to help,” Principia said to Milady. “We’ve got a dryad, a valkyrie, and a pixie.”
“What does the pixie have to do with it?” Milady asked, frowning.
“Oh!” Juniper straightened up. “Well, she’s sort of a…granddaughter of Naiya. Pixies are created by one of my fallen sisters, Jacaranda.”
Milady blinked. “They are?”
“You think that’ll be enough?” Toby asked.
“Not for anything too complex,” Principia said. “Look, I’m no expert on this technology but I have had brushes with old Elder God machines a handful of times, and I do know one trick that consistently works. If they’re not functioning right, you can reset them.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Ruda demanded.
“Shut them off,” Milady said, her eyes widening, “and then turn them back on. Yes! When these systems boot up, they’ll automatically seek to identify and correct any flaws in their program. If the computer will recognize Juniper, Vestrel and Fross as having Naiya’s credentials, we can trigger an emergency shutdown. That’s an important but simple command, so hopefully they’ll be enough. Then we can deal with the sub-OS and find out what’s wrong with the Avatar!”
“The sub…what?” Gabriel scratched his head.
“Long story,” she said impatiently. “It’s a good idea. What do you need to do to get Vestrel out here?”
He was looking off to the side again. “Okay. Vestrel says a simple invocation will do; apparently these things are connected enough to magic that if she can just brush the mortal plane, it’ll detect her presence. I’ll just need a little space here. Clear a circle, if you would.”
They all backed away while he extended his scythe again and began gesticulating carefully with it, marking a circular area on the floor in front of the door.
“Brace yourself,” Milady said softy to Juniper. “One thing I discovered working with a mix of valkyries and dryads is that for some reason, your older sisters are inherently frightening to your generation.”
“I know a bit about that,” she replied. “Aspen told m—”
Juniper cut herself off, eyes widening, and stumbled backward into Toby. The circle Gabriel had lightly scraped on the floor had begun to glow a faint gold, and a wavering figure appeared in its center. She was translucent and obscured, as if seen through cloudy water, but they could make out the shape of a person garbed in black, with folded wings, carrying a scythe.
“You okay?” Toby asked, bracing Juniper by the shoulders.
“I…yeah,” she whispered, straightening up. “Thanks. That’s just… She’s just…”
“Over here,” Milady said gently, beckoning her. “Fross, you too. I’m hoping Vestrel is close enough to register automatically… I need you to instruct the computer to initiate an emergency shutdown of the Avatar.”
“I…okay.” Juniper edged toward her, eyes never leaving the vague shape of Vestrel within her summoning circle until she reached the screen closest to it. There, finally, she turned away, leaning down toward it. “Um… What was the word? Computer? Computer!” she said more forcefully in response to Milady’s encouraging nod. “I…instruct you to…initiate an emergency…shutdown…of the Avatar!”
“Tell it who you are,” Principia muttered urgently.
The dryad cleared her throat. “My name’s Jun—oh,” she said, breaking off as Milady elbowed her. “Right. I am…Naiya!” Juniper winced, mumbling to herself, “that seems really disrespectful to say…”
Abruptly, all the screens changed to a flat white display with the sigil of the Infinite Order in its center.
Beyond, the noise of the fabrication plant did not let up.
“I don’t think it’s working,” Ruda said sardonically. “What was Plan B?”
“Computer!” Fross chimed, zooming straight up to the nearest screen. “We are avatars of Naiya, here because this is an emergency and she is not able to come in person! Check our inherent magic—uh, transcension field connections to verify this! You will need to compensate for a partial translocation to the chaos dimension in the case of the third avatar present. This is an emergency command, due to the obvious state of disrepair of this facility! You will shut down the Avatar and all connected systems immediately.”
“Acknowledged,” an oddly resonant feminine voice suddenly said from nowhere. “User Naiya identified with seventy percent confidence. Confidence sufficient to initiate reboot in safe mode. Rebooting.”
And then, abruptly, the lights in the fabrication plant went off, the machines shut down, and total silence descended.
“How,” Milady asked incredulously of Fross, who was now the only source of illumination, “did you know how to do that?”
“Well, it’s a machine, right?” the pixie replied. “A thinking machine? It stands to reason that a machine which thinks would do so in the most logical way possible. I can kinda relate. That’s how I would’ve preferred to—”
Something enormous landed right on top of the arched transparent ceiling with a deep thud, making all of them jump and several shout. In the faint glow of Fross’s silver aura, they could make out a patchwork of scales and metal plates pressed right against the tunnel walls, all but blotting out the entire view.
“It’s…the serpent,” Ruda said slowly. “Holy shit. Is it…dead? Does that mean we won?”
“I really hope this stuff is a lot stronger than it looks,” Gabriel muttered, reaching out to touch the transparent barrier.
“If it can stand up to the water pressure for thousands of years I don’t think that is going to hurt it,” Fross chimed. “Also, it may not be dead. Some creatures go dormant in bad weather; I don’t know anything about sea serpent biology but we did arrange for that storm in part to make it retreat from the surface. So, hey, at least we’re making progress!”
Milady drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Don’t celebrate prematurely. Now we have to figure out what damaged the Avatar, fix that, turn him back on, figure out what nanites are and how the Rust got them, put a stop to that…”
“And,” Gabriel added, cracking his knuckles, “it occurs to me that with everything shut off, those machines are no longer pumping out the water coming in through those leaks, so we just put ourselves under a very unforgiving deadline. Let’s get to work, guys.”