“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.
“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”
“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.
“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”
“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”
“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”
Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.
“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”
“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”
Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.
“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”
Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.
Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.
Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.
“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”
Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.
“For starters, pay attention.”
All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.
“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”
Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.
“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”
“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”
“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”
She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”
“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”
Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”
“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”
“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”
“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”
Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”
“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”
Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.
She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.
“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.
“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”
With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.
“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.
“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”
“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”
“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”
“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”
The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.
“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”
“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”
“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”
“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”
Milady muttered a soft curse.
“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.
“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”
“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.
“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”
The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.
“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.
“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”
The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”
“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”
“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”
“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”
“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”
“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”
“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.
“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”
There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.
“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”
“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.
“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”
“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”
“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”
“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”
“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”
“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”
“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”
“There you are.”
Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.
“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”
“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”
“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”
“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.
“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”
“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”
Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”
“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”
She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.
Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.
Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.
With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.
A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.
And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.
Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.
“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”