The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.
Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.
The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.
Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.
Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill
The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.
He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.
The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.
Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.
Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.
The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.
Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.
“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.
“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”
Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.
They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.
“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”
“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”
“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”
“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”
An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.
“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”
Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”
“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”
“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”
“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”
Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.
Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.
“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.
She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”
“How?” he snarled.
Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”
“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”
“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”
“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”
“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”
“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”
“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”
Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.
“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”
“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”
Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.
Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…
“All right, what happened?” she demanded.
“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”
“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”
“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”
“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”
“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”
“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”
“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”
“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”
He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.
“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”
“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”
“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”
“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”
“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”
“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”
“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”
“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”
“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.
“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”
“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”
As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.
Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”
“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”
“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”
“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”
“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”
“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”
A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.
“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”
Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.
“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”
“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.
“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”
“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”
“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”
“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”
“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”
“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”
“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.
“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”
“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”
“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”
“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”
“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”
“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”
There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.
“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”
“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”
“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”
“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”
“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”
They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.
Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.
“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”
Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.
“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”
The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”
“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”
“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”
That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.
A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.
“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”
He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.
“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”
“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.
“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”
“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.
Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”
“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”