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“Impressive, isn’t it?”
It was much more than that, but she was not about to give them the satisfaction of saying so.
Aradidjad folded her arms and did her best to look supercilious rather than sullen; she stared past the open walls of the cage-like elevator as much to avoid the eyes of her captors as to take in the incredible scene.
The citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis hung suspended in a void; all around was an endless vault of stars and eerie splashes of faint color like distant nebulae—a sight she dimly recognized from her undergraduate years, though she was no astronomer. The whole complex was even surrounded by a ring system like Bast’s, tilted at a crazy angle. Like the rings around the distant gas giant, it seemed to be made of dust and chunks of floating debris, being just close enough to the elevator for her to make out its texture.
In the center of the complex hung the vast hourglass. Multi-chambered, filled with sands which glowed in shifting shades of gold and silver, streaming through its many compartments in patterns that made no sense even when they were not interrupted by miniature sandstorms, the glass was an endless tower suspended in space. It actually seemed to terminate far below, but stretched above apparently infinitely. The relatively small segment surrounded by the Scions’ base might as well have been perfectly vertical, but as its vast length extended toward eternity it could be seen to weave and waver in an irregular pattern.
Rings of metal surrounded the hourglass, broad walkways upon which Arididjad could see people coming and going. There were over a dozen layers of them, connected by an erratic network of spiral staircases and rope bridges, all wrought from metal which gleamed like chrome. A faint glow washed outward from the great hourglass, but there were also incongruously mundane-looking street lamps on posts positioned here and there, mostly at the foot of each bridge.
The elevator “shafts” were little more than long metal poles guiding the course of each car, which itself was nothing but an open cage of brass and a glass floor—enough to give a person vertigo, to which she was fortunately not very susceptible. There were dozens of these elevators, all positioned around the edges of the metal platforms, apparently stopping at multiple levels and all rising to the gateways which hung in space several stories above the highest level of the complex.
Extending out past the network of platforms and bridges, but within the planetary ring, were a profusion of buildings covering every conceivable architectural style. Everything from mud brick huts to stone temples, log cabins and graceful palaces, even several towering and improbable-looking structures of glass and steel. They floated in nothing, reached from the platforms by more hanging bridges.
There were no banisters or safety rails anywhere in the place.
“Aw, it’s all right, you can say it,” the gnome prompted with an irritating grin. “It’s no admission of weakness. It is damn impressive, and you know it.”
“No need to prod at her,” the elf said in a mild tone. While the gnome seemed strangely cheerful about this whole contemptible business, the elf had just been standoffish and left her alone. Aradidjad didn’t know the little red-headed gnomish woman from a hole in the wall, but this elf was unmistakable, and her presence here boded ill. Her apparent disinterest was, if anything, encouraging.
“How long am I expected to serve, here?” she demanded.
Tellwyrn had been watching out the front of the elevator with her back to Aradidjad, but now half-turned to look at her sidelong, pushing those gold-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of her nose.
“This is a life sentence, Dr. Aradidjad. Idrie should have explained that to you.”
“Oh, I bloody well did, an’ you know it,” the gnome huffed. “C’mon, Arachne, you know what they’re all like when first picked up. I told ‘er what she needs ta know; it won’t stop the questions.”
“So,” Aradidjad grunted, “I’m here till I die, then? Well, at least I know how to quit.”
The elf’s shift in posture was infinitesimal, and her expression changed not a hair, but suddenly Aradidjad’s nerves jangled with a sense of impending danger.
It didn’t help. Moving with the characteristic fluid speed of her race, Tellwyrn whirled, whipping a gold-hilted saber out of nowhere, and drove the blade straight into her heart.
She gaped, in total shock, at the elf’s faintly sardonic expression…which drifted upward as she slumped to her knees. Blood spurted with each agonizing beat of her heart. The pain… It hurt less than she’d have expected. It felt like pressure more than a cut, she noted with scientific detachment, even as her senses faded into blackness.
And suddenly, everything was running backward. She moved through a haze over which she had no control, watching the last few seconds rewind. Aradidjad was pulled upright as if on strings, Tellwyrn reached out to grab the saber’s hilt and yanked it from her chest. That, oddly, didn’t hurt.
Then time resumed its normal flow, and she stumbled backward. Fortunately her back came against one of the elevator’s upright supports, which spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. Aradidjad scrabbled frantically for the handrails, gasping. She clawed at her chest; no wound. There was no blood. Her shirt wasn’t even rumpled.
“You get to quit,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “when we decide you can.”
Idrie the gnome rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Arachne.”
“You could just have explained that!” Aradidjad snarled.
Tellwyrn shrugged and turned her back again. “I find that experience is the best teacher.”
Aradidjad bared her teeth at the elf’s back, straightening up and raised one hand; energy began to coalesce out of the air in her grip.
Idrie cleared her throat, catching her eye, and then shook her head pointedly.
After a short pause, she let the half-formed spell disperse. What was the use, anyway? Tellwyrn didn’t even bother to acknowledge it, though she of course must have been aware of a spell of arcane destruction being cast directly behind her. Well, of course she didn’t. It was Arachne Tellwyrn. Cyria Aradidjad was a much more than competent mage, but instigating a wizard’s duel with this one would have been nothing but drawn-out, extravagant suicide.
And if she correctly interpreted the point of the very painful lesson she had just been given, even that option was not available to her.
Apparently the time reversal had been highly localized. She couldn’t tell whether Idrie had been affected, but the elevator itself was not; it continued down, its progress not altered by the few seconds which had moved backward for Aradidjad. She was still getting her breath back under control when it reached its destination. The cage came to a stop alongside a level near the middle of the complex, a soft chime sounded from somewhere, and the doors slid open.
“Well, step lively now,” Tellwyrn said lightly, striding out onto the metal platform.
“Are you in a hurry?” Aradidjad snipped, following her. “I would think we have all the time in the world.”
“Sloth is a moral failing regardless of its concrete effect,” Tellwyrn replied without turning around. “Come along, Doctor. You will quickly learn to develop the habit of keeping in motion. The kinds of people recruited to serve here are usually those whose minds go to dark places when they have time to sit and contemplate.”
Aradidjad narrowed her eyes, but followed. That description was so true of herself it was eerie.
With Idrie trundling along behind them, seeming to keep up effortlessly despite her tiny legs, they made their way along the platform. Aradidjad glanced down rope bridges as they passed. Not rope, she saw now, but some kind of steel cable. They still didn’t look terribly sturdy. Each led to a floating building; all had their doors closed. There was no guessing at the contents or purpose of any from what she could see.
“And here we are!” Tellwyrn proclaimed, coming to a stop at one end of the long platform. Off to the side of the space, two bridges extended away to other platforms, next to a spiral staircase leading both up and down to still more. This area, though, was set aside for occupation, with a profusion of mismatched tables, chairs, and a few long sofas. Perched across one end of the seating area, precariously close to the edge of the platform, were two food carts such as Aradidjad often saw on the streets of Tiraas. At least, their purpose was obvious, though one was a primitive wooden affair with a charcoal brazier and the other seemed made of brushed steel and contained an arcane cold box of a design clearly more advanced than she had ever seen, to judge by the compact structure of its enchanting components. “Everyone, meet Dr. Cyria Aradidjad, our newest Scion. Cyria, everyone.”
“This is everyone?” she demanded, sweeping a surprised stare around the group. There were only five of them. But then, with power over time itself, she supposed the Scions did not need to be a numerous group to be everywhere they needed…
“Not hardly, it’s just a figure of speech,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You can meet everyone at your leisure, but this is a good start: these are exactly the folks you’ll be interacting with the most. Behind the carts there is Kaolu, our chef and groundskeeper. Stay on his good side if you wish to eat well. This is Q, short for Quartermaster, and the only thing he wishes to be called. Chao Lu Shen is our librarian and archivist—any mission which requires you to be updated on the details of the period, which will be most of them, begins with him. And these are Rispin and Yalda, who are much less important.”
“Always a pleasure to see you too, Boss,” the blonde dwarf introduced as Yalda replied sardonically. Rispin, a male drow, just looked at Tellwyrn and then at Aradidjad, his expression betraying nothing, and did not pause in chewing whatever was in his mouth.
The three Tellwyrn introduced as important were all humans. Kaolu was a Westerner of towering height, who fixed Aradidjad with a stony stare from the moment of her arrival. Q gave her a curt nod to soften his speculative expression. It was a little hard to read his face, dominated as it was but an enormous handlebar mustache and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. He was actually an inch or two shorter than she, but incredibly burly, with a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair that was beginning to recede. Chao Lu Shen was a diminutive Sheng man wearing frameless spectacles which appeared to be clipped onto the bridge of his nose, without earpieces. He smiled pleasantly at her and bowed at being introduced.
Not one of them looked like mages, though only mages ended up running afoul of—and being forcibly recruited by—the Scions of Vemnesthis. Then again, appearances did not count for much even in the rational world she knew. Here, it might be best to assume nothing meant what it seemed to. What little seemed to mean anything.
“So, a doctor?” Q rumbled. “Would that be of the medical sort?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I am a researcher in the Arcane Sciences Department at Imperial Univeristy in Calderaas.”
“Were,” Idrie corrected her cheerfully. “You’re one of us now!” Her smile was undaunted by Aradidjad’s answering scowl.
“Pity,” Q grunted. “We could use a medic.”
“For what?” Yalda asked in exasperation.
“General principles. Feels wrong, serving in a unit with no medic.”
“So, a theoretical scientist.” Rispin had swallowed, and now addressed her in a low, warm voice that might have been seductive had she been in any mood for it. “I suppose that explains how you came to be here.”
Aradidjad’s attention was diverted by Kaolu, who had continued staring at her flatly with that unreadable expression. At the drow’s open invitation, though, she cut her eyes to him and narrowed them. “I’m not interested in talking about that.”
“Oh, by all means, take all the time ye need,” Idrie said lightly. “Times all we’ve got in ‘ere, aye? Everybody comes ’round eventually. Me, now, I’m an archaeologist!”
“Don’t you mean were an archaeologist?” Yalda retorted, earning a few points in Aradidjad’s book.
“Are, were, all the same,” Idrie replied, waving her off. “Leastwise, fer me it is. I’m in it ta study ancient cultures, an’ hell’s bells ‘ave I got the opportunity of a lifetime fer that! I may never publish another paper, but damn if the work ain’t excitin’!”
“I, too, find cause to appreciate my current position,” Chao Lu Shen said almost diffidently. “I created a stable temporal loop, enabling myself to live the same day over and over.”
Aradidjad had resolved not to get involved with these people and focus on getting out of this predicament, but that story diverted her attention both from her plans and Kaolu’s increasingly unnerving stare. “One day, on endless repeat? Why in the world would you want to do that?”
“I was a librarian even then,” he replied, smiling. “The Library of the Celestial Emperor in Zingyaru is among the greatest in the world. Texts from every land, from every age! A scholar could devote a lifetime and explore only a fraction of one wing. Indeed, it would take a lifetime’s study to learn every language needed to decipher every document in the Library. I could not bear to be among such a wealth of knowledge, and know that my mortality would deprive me of all but the merest sliver.”
“You imprisoned yourself in a time loop,” Aradidjad said slowly, “to read books.”
He bowed to her again, his smile undiminished. “And now, I have access to books and knowledge beyond all mortal apprehension, and eternity itself in which to study them! I am most content with my lot. If Vemnesthis demands my service for this privilege, then I am honored to serve.”
“If you’re thinking that makes you a bad fit around here,” Yalda said dryly, “don’t. Chao Lu Shen is the exception, not the rule. Most people who were ambitious enough to try messing with time don’t particularly care to be pressganged into being wardens of the very prison they tried to bust out of.”
“We all make whatever accommodation we must with our situation, as it is well and truly permanent,” Rispin added. “Trust me. Some of your new colleagues—none of those here—have chosen to embrace madness rather than endure this situation at face value. From watching them, we have learned that the excuse of madness does not relieve us of duty, but merely makes it more difficult to perform. It is worth devoting some attention to keeping yourself sane.”
“What’re you in for, then?” Aradidjad asked him.
“Bad form, that,” Q snorted. “Won’t tell us your story, but you wanna hear everyone else’s?”
“Aw, quit bein’ such a grouch,” Idrie ordered, strolling over to smack him on the knee reprovingly.
“There is no harm in the asking,” Rispin said with a shrug. “If I did not wish to answer, I wouldn’t. Vemnesthis is not widely known in the Underworld; most of the Pantheon are not. I crafted a plan which would have catapulted me to immense power over my fellows, but failed to account for the existence of an entire deity devoted to thwarting ambitions such as mine.”
“Sorry it didn’t work out for you,” Aradidjad said, struggling to withhold the spite from her voice. Typical drow.
He shrugged again. “One tries what one must; sometimes one fails. I may not have power, here, but the accommodations are indescribably luxurious, compared to what I endured before. I have not learned to appreciate being ordered around by a distant god and his sharp-tongued delegate, but who among us gets all we wish from life?”
“I just wanted to see my fiance again,” Yalda said quietly, fixing a cold stare on Tellwyrn. “But to hell with that and with me, I suppose.”
Aradidjad followed her eyes, deliberately ignoring Kaolu, whose stare had neither relented nor shifted from her for a second. The man didn’t even seem to blink. “Yes, I can’t help but notice that our most famous member appears to be out of uniform. What’s her story?”
Tellwyrn was standing off to the side, silently watching the conversation with her arms folded. Indeed, she wore a simple blouse, vest, and trousers in green and brown, while the rest of them were clad in robes of a pale bronze color deliberately reminiscent of the sands in the titanic hourglass which loomed off to the side.
“Oh, ‘aven’t ye guessed?” Idrie chimed merrily. “She’s the boss of us, an’ now of you, too! That there’s the high priestess of Vemnesthis, an’ the one from whom you’ll be gettin’ yer marchin’ orders from now on.”
“She’s out of uniform,” Yalda added with barely-concealed dislike, “because she gets to go home.”
“The Scions have no home but this citadel in time, and no life but our service,” Chao Lu Shen said in his soft voice, “and never see the world of our birth save on missions in the name of Vemnesthis. Except for our leader, who has the privilege of a dual existence. When not directing us, she returns to her own affairs in the mortal realm.”
“In your entire life,” Aradidjad asked Tellwyrn bitterly, “have you ever encountered a rule that actually applied to you? Or do you just apply them to others?”
“Yes, yes, how very put-upon you all are,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone. “You all know exactly what you did to end up here—especially you,” she added, tilting her head to stare over the rims of her spectacles at Aradidjad. “I should think it would be fresh enough in your mind. Complain if it makes you feel better, but I’ll warn you up front that it won’t, in the long term. And the long term is what you’d better start thinking of. There are no short terms, here.”
“You have barely begun to dislike Arachne Tellwyrn,” Rispin said with a sarcastic smile which strongly suggested he wasn’t of Narisian origin. “She is an abrasive, unlovable onion whose many noxious layers you have all the time in the world to open, one by one. But, and this is one of her most annoying traits, she is very seldom wrong. She’s not wrong now. Don’t dwell on your anger, comrade. It will only make you miserable, and gain you nothing.”
Offering him no response, Aradidjad stared at Tellwyrn through narrowed eyes in the ensuing silence. She glanced aside; yep, Kaolo was still glaring at her. That was going to get very old, very quickly.
Then, before her better judgment could kick in and dissuade her, she whirled and dashed for the edge of the platform.
No one tried to stop her; no one even exclaimed in surprise, with the exception of Idrie, whose whoop could only be taken as encouragement. Aradidjad only had to take four long steps to reach the edge of the un-railed platform and hurl herself off into the infinite abyss.
She had, fortunately, plunged into a section of space with no structures under it…or perhaps unfortunately. Involuntarily flailing her limbs, she plummeted past rope bridges and more platforms, and barely missed skinning herself on the long bulk of a floating lighthouse (of all the absurd things), and then she was falling through sheer nothing, toward nothing. Stars drifted all around; in her spinning descent, she caught glimpses of the base of the hourglass, retreating above her along with the citadel of the Scions. It was smooth and rounded on the bottom, filled with sand, and rapidly shrinking behind her…
And then time slowed, and stopped. For a second, she hung there, fixed in place. Then it began to run in reverse, dragging her helplessly along.
Aradidjad rose straight back up, unable to move against the rewind but conscious of it. She shot past hovering structures to the edge of the platform on which Tellwyrn and the other Scions stood, staring at her—not caught in her rewind, she noticed—as she landed on its edge, jogged backward a few steps without the ability to so much as protest, and was finally released, standing in exactly the position from which she’d started.
“Wow,” Yalda drawled, sounding oddly impressed. “Most people have to deal with this place for a few years before trying that.”
“Oh, we’ve got us a live one ‘ere, we ‘ave!” Idrie crowed.
“I was wondering about the lack of safety rails,” Aradidjad commented.
“You’ll be glad to know,” said Tellwyrn dryly, “or perhaps not so glad, that if you land on something solid and crush yourself like an egg on the cobblestones, it works exactly the same. You work for Vemnesthis, now, and nobody’s going to get you out of it. Not even Vidius.”
“We’ll see,” Aradidjad replied, staring her down.
Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well. All right, since you all look so bored, it’s mission time.”
There were a few muted groans, but clearly everyone present knew the futility of protest. Tellwyrn continued barking orders, ignoring them.
“Chao Lu Shen, back to the library and prepare to assist your colleagues. Q, fetch a service pistol for Aradidjad here and meet her by Shaft Six. Kaolu, I’ll have a bowl of kake udon with a slice of tangerine ginger cheesecake for dessert. Rispin, you’re delivering a first warning to an arcanist in Akhvaris; no special accommodations with the culture are necessary this time, I want you to scare the hell out of her. You’ll embark from Shaft Two. Yalda, there’s another tribal group fucking around with that off-kilter hellgate in Arkania, a century and a half after the last batch. Same drill as before. Chao Lu Shen will brief you on their etiquette; we’re assuming at this point that they’ll comply with a divine messenger. If not, we’ll try harsher measures. Shaft Eleven. Ardidjad, you’re doing a recruitment, Shaft Six. The shafts are clearly numbered, just head clockwise around the platforms from here and you’ll get there.”
“Honestly, that mess again?” Yalda whined. “Since you’re the one who can bloody well leave, can’t you straighten that damn thing out? It’s a big, red, glowing button with a ‘poke me’ sign for anyone with a shred of arcane or infernal talent.”
“You’re not wrong,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “but options are few in that period. In my official capacity as Vemnesthis’s representative I have repeatedly asked the local cults to intervene, but the Avenists have their hands full with the other hellgate in that region and the Salyrites aren’t yet organized enough in that century to be much use. It’s long before I came along, or I’d just do it myself. My next gambit will be Vesk; he’s annoying to deal with, but if I can get him to make a quest of it some adventurers will eventually straighten it out. That’s why I want you to be polite to these people. I don’t think this group will help, but try to persuade them to stabilize the gate instead of making use of it. If they won’t, just get them to leave it alone; there’ll be another group along in another eighty years who will be more accommodating.”
“Feh,” Yalda grunted, flouncing off. “Anything to avoid adventurers. All they do is make a mess…”
“Hang on,” Aradidjad protested while the group dispersed, with the exceptions of Rispin and Kaolu, the latter of whom didn’t stop eerily staring at her even while cooking up some kind of noodle soup with ingredients he appeared to have conjured out of thin air. “I just got here! You’re sending me—I mean, isn’t there training or something?”
“We learn by doing,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smile. “Shaft Six, off you go.”
“I don’t even have the uniform!”
Aradidjad paused and looked down on herself. Her avuncular suit was gone; she was inexplicably dressed in a set of those golden-beige robes, apparently tailored to her.
“Already,” she observed, “I really hate you.”
“I suggest you get over that, since it doesn’t harm anyone but you. Need something, Rispin?”
“A request,” said the drow, who had remained behind while the others scattered. “Would you please direct Yalda last this time? You’re always unusually grouchy after dealing with her.”
“And you thought that would help my mood?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be on my cheesecake by then; gods know I’ll need it. Get to your assignment, Rispin.”
“I don’t understand,” Aradidjad said plaintively.
“Through the auspices of our divine benefactor,” Tellwyrn informed her while Rispin strode away, “I will be your eyes and ears while you are on mission; you are the hands and feet. I’ll be feeding you instructions and watching your progress the whole time you’re working.”
“Well, that’s creepy as hell. So… You’re going to direct everyone at once?”
“No, sequentially. I can multi-task, but there’s no reason to, and these things go off much more smoothly when I focus on one person at a time.”
“Then we each have to wait for the one before to finish before we…” She trailed off when Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah. Right. Never mind.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the elf said with mild amusement. “Everything about your brain wants to deal with time as a linear construct. The way things work here takes significant getting used to. If anybody makes fun of you for it, know that they started in exactly the same place, and also you have my blessing to shove them off a platform. Now, off you go. Shaft Six, already. Chop chop.”
Aradidjad sighed and slouched away, aware without looking behind that Kaolu was staring at her back until she was out of sight.
Despite the chaotic appearance of the citadel, there was a logic to it—at least, to the elevator shafts. She found number Six without trouble, and found Q waiting impatiently at its foot.
“Finally,” he grunted at her. “Take the scenic route, did you?”
“I have Tellwyrn’s permission to push you off the platform,” she informed him.
“Yes, and that runs both ways, doctor. This is your service revolver.” He held out the object on both open palms.
Aradidjad stared at the thing for a moment, before gingerly taking it by what was clearly the handle. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to hold it, based on the handle’s position and the obvious clicker mechanism, and it was clearly a weapon, but… “Okay. But what is it?”
“An extrapolation from a design which I gather comes along after your time,” he rumbled. “The originals used controlled explosions to fire shaped metal projectiles at close to the speed of sound—”
“That would absolutely destroy any known energy shield,” Aradidjad breathed in fascination, studying the revolver with a new respect.
“Until shielding charms grew more sophisticated to adapt, yes,” Q said impatiently. “That’s neither here nor there. This one uses arcane power crystals instead of bullets, because you cannot be leaving material evidence anywhere you’re going. Each time you squeeze the trigger—”
“You mean the clicker?”
“…the trigger,” he said deliberately, glaring at her, “it will engage one of the power crystals to fire an energy beam, and the cylinder will rotate to bring the next crystal into alignment—”
“Thus entirely avoiding the overheating problem of conventional lightning wands and enabling a much faster rate of fire!” she exclaimed, delighted. Aradidjad had never been a weapons enthusiast, but always appreciated clever applications of engineering and enchantment.
Q snorted loudly, making his mustache bristle. “I can tell you’re going to be a world of fun, doctor. You are under no circumstances to fire that weapon in the material world while on mission. Any problems you encounter will be handled by Tellwyrn—”
“How? I thought the whole point of her staying here was to provide logistical support while we’re the ones in the field?”
“Dr. Aradidjad,” Q stated calmly, “if you interrupt me one more time, I will take that weapon back from you and shoot you with it. I will then continue to do so each time you rewind until Tellwyrn comes down here and makes me stop. Do we have an understanding?”
“Ah. So that’s how we avoid injury with no medics.”
“Yes, yes,” he sighed. “Go ahead, get it out of your system now.”
So she shot him in the head.
The revolver produced a sharp beam, blue in color and less intense than the enchanter wands with which she was familiar. It also had more of a kinetic element, clearly. The bolt entered cleanly through a small hole it bore into his forehead, but erupted out the back of his skull in a veritable explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments.
The rewind was fascinating to watch when she wasn’t caught in the middle of it. Pieces of Q’s head flew neatly back into place and he staggered back upright.
“There,” he said sourly, “feel better?”
“That really is amazing,” she said admiringly, and shot him through the heart.
“Knock it off, Aradidjad,” Tellwyrn’s voice sounded right in her ears, making her jump. Q lurched back toward her in a reverse of the blow which had flung him bodily away—that revolver had serious punching power, far more than any wand—and the hole in his chest mended itself. “Q, finish your spiel, please, I want to get this one in the field so I can play with her.”
“Gladly,” he snorted. “As I was saying, you are not to fire that weapon on the mortal realm. Most Scions never have an occasion to use their service pistols at all. It is only for emergency use against hazards you may rarely encounter in the place between, which is the medium used to travel to different time periods and locations.”
She frowned. “Where’s that?”
“Where you’re going next,” Tellwyrn said with ominous good cheer. “Thank you, Q, you’re dismissed. Now up the elevator, Aradidjad, your first mission awaits.”
Deliberately not allowing her trepidation to slow her, she stepped into the elevator. “Did you say you’re sending me on a recruitment? Why is that my first mission?”
“Because they’re easy,” Tellwyrn’s disembodied voice informed her as the elevator ascended with no prompting from its passenger. “Place the revolver against your side at a height that’s comfortable for you to draw it from; a holster will automatically appear on your robes and contain it. And don’t worry, Aradidjad, I’ll be guiding you every step of the way.”
“And let me guess,” she said sourly. “You can make that rewind thing happen at will, not just in response to lethal injury.”
“Precisely! You have as many chances as you’ll need to do it right. It’s not dangerous work, doctor; it’s far more likely to be tedious. Nothing ever goes off perfectly on the first try. But with all of time itself at our disposal, perfection is a very attainable standard. Vemnesthis requires nothing less.”
“Lovely,” she grunted.
“Oh, don’t be surly, your face’ll freeze that way. I’ll tell you what, after everyone’s back from assignment, we’ll have a movie night to welcome you aboard.”
“It’s Chao Lu Shen’s turn to pick, which means it’ll be early Madouris talkies, but they’re not bad. You’ll appreciate those when Kaolu’s turn comes, he makes us watch these truly inexplicable Glassian art films.”
“Am I expected to have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about?”
“Not at this juncture, no,” Tellwyrn said with a laugh that made Aradidjad really wish she could shoot her. “Come along, no dallying.”
The elevator chimed pleasantly, coming to a stop at the shimmering gateway at the top of its shaft. Aradidjad drew in a breath, but did not hesitate in stepping through it. Not because she gave a flying damn what her bossy captor thought about anything, but for her own sake she refused to fall into timidity.
On the other side, though, she had to stop, staring.
She did not recognize this town; it apparently empty of life. There was something wavery and indistinct about the air, an effect she could not quite place. The silence was absolute and frighteningly oppressive.
Worst was the sky; there wasn’t one. Instead was a vast mass of eyes, tentacles, claws, bulbous protrusions of pulsating flesh. It was as if the world were completely surrounded by heaving monstrosities, themselves the size of planets.
All of which, suddenly, were looking directly at her.
“Come on, Aradidjad, chop chop,” Tellwyrn prompted her cheerfully. “Off you go! Time waits for no one.”
51 thoughts on “Bonus #24: Scion, part 1”
So this actually isn’t the chapter I was planning; I had in mind something a lot more low-key. But it just wasn’t coming together. There was an idea and just barely an outline, but no plot.
This story is one I honestly never intended to tell during the run of TGAB. The Scions were something I was toying with for a side story or sequel, something to use outside the context of the webserial. But when it came down to it, the idea was there, and it was quite well fleshed-out; I didn’t have to work to get the story right, just write it down.
The fact that I’ve been reading a story about time travel this week may have jogged my mind in this direction, truth be told.
In the end, I feel it works out well. After that last piece, we could use something fun and adventurous. So stay tuned!
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So Spider Priestess Yells at Dragons was a time lady this whole time? “Does that mean this was all some elaborate fanfiction?
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Huh. Initial description of the area reminds me of that facility that Justinian accessed. I wonder how far along Scion Tellwyrn is in her personal timeline before she gets recruited for this position.
Oh, and as fare as your time travel reading material goes, I got into Mother of Learning yesterday due to one of your comments a page or two back. That story is damn addicting.
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>“I have Tellwyrn’s position to push you off the platform,” she informed him.
*permission, I think
The Scions are really interesting. We’ve heard some mentions of the Time God being no-nonsense, but a task force like this is a good way to do it. Wonder how Tellwyrn impressed them enough to get the job, without being press-ganged like the rest of the Scions?
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Thanks, that’s exactly the kind of error that neither OpenOffice’s spellcheck nor my brain’s catch. Fixed.
Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well.
Should be “Will” rather than “Well”
“spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. ”
Should be void
So, first off, unless the great cataclysm really, really messes up the timeline, we know that House Madouri survives in some form, as does the Glassian continent (otherwise they wouldn’t be making movies for the scions to enjoy).
I wonder if the Tellwyrn we are seeing in this story is the same time-wise as the one that just witnessed Jasmine become a full fledged thief, or if perhaps this is the younger version of her that was still working with each of the gods. After all, we know she spent as long as she felt was necessary working with each one, and Vemnesthis could easily arrange it that she works for as long as needed while still seeming to only spend a couple years with him (I strongly doubt she is still/already the high priestess of Vemnesthis during the course of the main story, but I could easily be wrong).
Madouris is a city near Tiraas, not just the name of the House.
Whoops, guess I should amend that to “we know that parts of the Tiraan and Glassian continents survive in some form”. Thank you for the correction 🙂
As an aside, did House Madouri name the city after themselves, or are they named for the city?
Ravana’s constant talk about her House has revealed it has ruled its province for over a thousand years. The city of Madouris was referenced in one of Tellwyrn’s backstory chapters over twice that long ago.
Which is not to say the Madouri family wasn’t around and involved that far back. After this much time it’s a chicken and egg question.
Actually, we know that Tellwyrn is still a Priestess of SOMEBODY because she broke out divine magic when she did the binding. Though that could just be a remaining perk.
TL;DR: There are other ways of gaining access to divine magic. If really Tellwyrn was the high priest of Vemnesthis during the Sleeper incident, her bullheadedness is likely a front, and it also increases the chance that she is connected to Araneid in some fashion.
Likely, but not nescessarily true. We know that she has access to divine magic, and that Chase suspects she is a priestess, but that doesn’t mean she actually is (at that point).
Divine magic doesn’t actually require a connection to a deity – see November and various dwarves – it is called divine magic because it was the pantheon that instituted the current system using the “corpses” of the elder gods and can channel it through their followers. Since Tellwyrn claims to have the corps of Sorash (the elder god she killed), it is possible she has found a way of utilizing it.
Further more, she is a powerful arcanist. She is definitively capable of using the circle of interactions to convert arcane into divine, and is likely good/powerful enough that Chase wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Another point against Tellwyrn being the high priestess of Vemnesthis during the Sleeper incident is that she likely would have prevented Juniper from “interfacing” with Aspen. Since that debacle led to her using powerful time manipulation to put Aspen in stasis, she would likely have gotten incidental knowledge about the event through her job earlier (as the base of the Scions is shown to operate achromatically), and thus woul likely have prevented the incident. When casting the spell, she states that she has an understanding with Vemnesthis. Given this, it seems unlikely that he would disallow her to simply act upon infomation she almost assuredly would have to prevent the nescessity of time magic (and since intervention would be undetectable from an outside perspective). This suggests that Tellwyrn either wasn’t the high priest of Vemnesthis at the time, or purposefully chose that series of events.
Then, if she really was a high prisestess at the time, it raises the question of how deceptive she actually is. Every character in the series goes out of their way to point out how bullheaded she is, but that she has the capability to scheme (taking down Scyllith). If this incident was an act, how much of her character is a facade? From a meta-perspective, given how much time has been spent on telling the reader that cons are about misdirection and not blowing cover, it would make some sense to connect the two threads.
Araneid is another thread that ties into this (pun fully intended, and I’m not apologizing). Name similarity aside, Araneid is supposedly manipulating events through time, something that would likely have drawn the attention of Vemnesthis. This could neatly be explained if there is a connection between Araneid and Tellwyrn that the former is using the latter to mask time manipulation. If this turns out to be true, Tellwyrn’s awareness of it is an open question.
I believe (please correct me if I’m wrong) that Tellwyrn’s appearance coincides with the last known activation of Araneid’s magic. Coincidence aside, this raises the question of wether Tellwyrn is an knowing or unknowing agent of Araneid, or possibly an incarnation. If “professor Shouts-at-Dragons” turns out to be a front, this would be my hypotheses.
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Yes, the last activation of Araneid’s transcension field happened at the same time as Elilial and Arachne ruined Scyllith’s day in the Underworld.
Arachne is the title of Araneid’s high priestess. It’s what she claimed as her name when asked and Kuriwa immediately picked up on that. Of course, as Araneid’s priestess she would wield that magic, not the divine magic that came after.
On the other hand, Araneid’s corpse is guarded by Avei, so who knows how entangled into the current pantheon this all is.
We only have the Archpope’s word that Araneid is subtly manipulating time and that she started well before Vemnesthis came into power, so maybe that is the reason why no one ever caught on. That is, if we believe the ever so trustworthy Archpope.
There’s also the fact that these spiderweb connections can only be seen in dreams. Now, assuming the gods actually created Heaven and Hell as storage devices for the living memories of deceased people (aka souls), which could only work through transcension fields… who is to say they didn’t create a world of dreams as well? It’s still information after all.
At this point my question would be how old Heaven actually is (we know Scyllith created Hell as her personal playground) since I am not sure the Infinite Order was religious or saw a point in creating an afterlife for their specimens and pets.
If the creation of Heaven and the world of dreams happened after the Infinite Order was defeated, then Araneid shouldn’t have access to it previously… unless she helped create it and the new pantheon simply repurposed it. Doesn’t seem likely.
So how can a dead goddess manipulate people and events in dreams unless she set things up in advance of her own demise? And if she knew she’d die… why not go Naiya’s route and cooperate with the rebels to survive? Araneid was said to be one of the better gods after all, the rebels would have worked with her.
It’s like a huge puzzle. We can see only half the pieces, some of them are from another puzzle and some could fit in anywhere while others fit nowhere. Not to mention that the puzzle is three dimensional, has moving parts and is all in the same color. So. Much. Fun. 😉
@Daemion: You are entirely right that some of my musings hinge entirely on the trustworthyness of Justinian, who is notoriously slippery. Good catch. I’m not sure that he is lying, though. He mostly seems content to mislead and withhold information. Also: Why did he have his goons build that aparatus to show the web if he though it was fake? It didn’t seem like he was going to show it to more people, and he had no need to spin (hah) a more elaborate tale for the fanatics in the room.
Also, thanks for the correction on when Araneid’s field was last activated. I thought it coincided with Tellwyrn’s arrival to the material plane, not Scyllith’s defeat. That is still suspicious, but a lot more circumstantial.
Also, the idea of the Dimension of Dreams is interesting, not least because that is a very real thing in Pathfinder, and thus presumably D&D, which appears to be a major inspiration for this story. Since the dimension of dreams is shaped by all the minds that touch it, it would explain why Araneid’s symbols show up where she has meddeled. The dream spider webs also potentially connects Araneid to Tellwyrn again, as they tured out to lead to resolution of the Aspen-situation. As I stated earlier, it is suspicious that the supposed high priestess of the god of time, whose sole purpose is to discover and prevent time meddling was unaware of her own stasis spell in advance (assuming the Scions use some sort of passive detection field rather than manually looking through all of time and space for that sort of thing).
On Avei’s involvement: If Justinian is truthful about Araneid’s manipulations, Araneid has show the ability to avoid or otherwise deal with Vemnesthis, who is a drastically more focused god than Avei. I assume that Avei has many other things to contend with, and would not nescessarily notice Araneid doing things. Further more, if Araneid’s manipulations are “echoing” through time, there is no reason to assume Avei would be able to notice. Does Vemnesthis let the other gods manipulate time? Actually, following that train of thought, what if he had seen Araneid’s manipulations and simply ignored them, since gods are allowed to do that sort of thing?
On Heaven and Hell: I believe some avatar at some point states that the Heaven, Hell and the material plane were designed to be particularly compatible (don’t remember when, might also have been stated in a vaguer manner to include other planes). This suggests that Heaven is indeed older than the pantheon. Also, gaining access after the fact should be very possible (see: Hellgate).
On Araneid’s motives and plans: The only motive I would put any stock in at this point, is that she wanted to use the “great doom” for her own ends, and thus wanted the other gods to consider her a non-issue for as long as possible. “Faking” her death seems like it would accomplish that.
@cc-pVDZ: IIRC Sorash wasn’t an Elder God, he was someone who was dragged into ascension almost by accident (same as Shaath and Nepthene). I think he was described as a mercenary or similar, and was god of battles & the brutality of warfare; pretty much Avei’s evil counterpart as Goddess of Strategic Warfare.
@Shequi: I’m wrong left and right here, it seems. Thanks for the correction.
Still, while we have no confimation that new god “corpses” and old god “corpses” work the same, Tellwyrn does state that the “corpse” is a sorce of energy. It is therefore still a possible explanation for why she has access to divine magic.
I think “enjoy” was too strong a word. xD
The problem is that you’re thinking linearly. This is the version of Tellwyrn that is a Scion. It is neither forward of Tellwyrn’s regular position nor behind it, Tellwyrn just *is*. 😉
Holy crap, I was not expecting that. Like someone else said, I can’t imagine Tellwyrn is still the High Priestess, but it’s still crazy to think that at one point she was an active member of a religious structure.
Funny thing; remember how she blocked Chase? Arcane, Infernal, and Divine… He was curious as to where that came from. I wonder if we have the answer?
interesting catch! that might indeed be the explanation.
To me it seems fairly clear that the scions’ place exists outside of time, so presumably, Arachne is simply always there, but she alone has the privilege of sharing a mind (or at least information) with her in-time self. She definitely gets to mess with time during the story, so presumably she is still high priestess. Might be sort of an eternal appointment, given the nature of this deity.
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Arachne once stated (I think it was in the bonus chapter where she got her glasses) that she had to change her lifestyle and basically everything about her every couple decades to further her quest.
For me that implies that she changed herself each time she approached another god, to get to talk to them and hear their answer. Which also means she had to pay a price more often than not, like working as for the god in some capacity. Being a high priestess is not the worst outcome for her, remember when Sorash put her on a leash?
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Correct that to “tried to put her on a leash”, please. Since he ended up dead afterwards, I doubt he succeeded.
For some strange reason, this chapter felt very similar to an episode of ‘Warehouse 13’.
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My first thought was “Scion? No, didn’t we kill him? How are we supposed to deal with him this time? Taylor’s still in a coma!”
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yeah victoria isn’t quite there yet I think, though she seems to be coming along nicely
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I swear to god if you just spoiled any of Ward we’re going to have to have words.
But good point, I thought of a similar thing.
So remember that about 3000 years ago Arachne showed up in the real world with no memories or even modern knowledge, so maybe this is from before that event occurred…though her already being called Tellwryn makes me think otherwise, since we saw when she gained that moniker.
Time is not linear, which is mentioned in the chapter. That means that while you have a Tellwyrn showing up there, she is also still with the Scions because all times exist at once as it’s the only way for her to know the future (as shown in the chapter). Trust time mechanics make quantum physics simple.
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Ah no, no time travel! This always ends up being a huge mess…
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Hmm, I think this is the firstchapter so far that I actually dislike.
The Scions thing feels overwhelminly unfair. How is this different from the Narisians obtain slaves?
The Scions previously broke a divine edict and tried to mess with time, which could have catastrophic consequences. They usually get a warning first, too… and only if they disregard it, then they are collected and used.
The Narisians entrap innocents and then train them to be pleasing possessions.
There is a difference. 😉
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Usually get a warning first, not always. Exhibit one: One Male Drow Scion of Vemnesthis. And there’s the matter of ‘Where does Vemnesthis’s mandate derive’, and so on.
I think feeling the whole thing is sketchy and questionable is perfectly permissible at this point. I’ve certainly done so since we first heard of them.
@Daemion: Huh. Well, then I guess we will have to wait and see how this actually works. I still think the Scions are telling the truth, and that eternal servitude (or destruction) is a heavy handed solution to a serious problem, but now I’m not sure about why Vemnesthis implemented this solution. Thanks for the correction.
You are entirely right. Especially since, as is pointed out, with infinity at their disposal and infinite retries, this is a one person operation.
Now, Vemnesthis probably decided that time magic was to be discouraged for some legitimate reason, like that it breaks reality if done wrong or something. He needed to instate consequences, hence the whole “death” thing. then he realized that he couldn’t be arsed to do it himself, so he gave his victims a choice: Death or servitude. The problem with this from our moral perspective, is that eternity is inherently ungraspable for finite lifeforms, so the choise is skewed towards servitude. The choice would make just as much sense if it was phrased as “death or harg ah flarg flarg”. You have no concept of one option, but death seems like it’s very bad.
Another point is that our concept of “fair” is connected to propotionality, in the sense that a punishment should be propotional to the crime. Since no finite trangression could be propotional to an infinite punishment, this strikes us as unfair.
Vemnesthis could have made his punishment way more palatable for us (for a value of us that coincides with the argument above) by letting his captives choose death at any point. At least then they wouldn’t be prisoners in their own heads for all eternity.
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We should keep in mind that we can’t rely on an omniscient narrator in this story. Not everything we are told is correct.
Let’s think about it… how many Scions should there be, if there’s a mage stupid enough to try to manipulate time every few years? And the Scions are active all over the world, over the course of at least 8000 years. Shouldn’t there be hundreds, if not thousands of them?
Here we are introduced to six of them. Even assuming there’s a hundred more… it’s not enough. Which means that at some point in their servitude they are given the choice to quit.
Yes, in the beginning there’s a description of many people coming and going on all the many walkways… but who’s to say these are all different people? Maybe these are all the same six Scions, perhaps with their predecessors and successors thrown in? If time isn’t linear, then everything happens at the same time.
I would question the presence of the high priestress if there truly was an entire army of Scions. She wouldn’t hang out with that particular team that much that she joins in their movie nights. When she starts handing out missions, does it seem like there’s anything else she might be doing? Of course, maybe there are a hundred Arachnes running around, each managing a small team…
Vemnesthis doesn’t seem like he’d be cruel enough to prolong captivity and servitude for all eternity, I’m sure at some point people are permitted to die. Maybe you’re kept until you reach the end of your natural lifespan, then placed back in the moment they took you from and you can die in the explosion.
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Firstly, I don’t agree that the narrator isn’t trustworthy, as I don’t see any evidence supporting that (contradictions, inconsistencies, etc.). I do, however, agree that the narrator isn’t omniscient, and does not give us a complete overview over events.
It follows that we have to rely on the characters’ testimony that there are more Scions, and that they serve eternally. The question, therefore, is whether their testimony is trustworthy. While it’s entirely in Tellwyrn’s character to overstate the seriousness of any punishment (see: Stabbing somone through the heart), I’m not sure what the other Scions get from playing along.
Secondly, I totally agree that Vemnesthis did not mean to be cruel. Why would he give a choice at all if that was the case? I do assume, however, that he shared the other elder gods’ detachment from the mortal frame of mind. I think it simply would not occur to him that people don’t quite “get” eternity, or if he did, I’m not sure he would care.
We will probably get more information on all this in the coming chapters, though, so perhaps some of these points will be solved by word from god (heh).
Vemnesthis isn’t an Elder God, he’s part of the new pantheon.
Typos: which spared her a tumble into the impossible *voice*
Holy hells, that’s an insanely magically powerful place they have going there. When I first read the description, before it mentioned Arachne, I thought this might be an infinite order era flashback. Though I guess if it’s the domain of a god different rules may apply.
Arachne being high priestess of the time god doesn’t really fit with the rest of what she does, and her attitude to the gods. But maybe this is a different version of her?
I assume Arachne spent a few decades or centuries doing this job back in the past, then found a successor and now has no official role anymore, she’s still friends with Vemnesthis though.
The problem is (and this is why I dislike time travel) that technically she should have been able to get at least a few glimpses of her future, which means she would have known she wasn’t going to die when she tried to suicide by fairy forest and she would have known she founded an university.
Unless she agreed to have those memories locked away or deleted, but that’s usually a messy affair as well and I can’t see Arachne agreeing to that. Not without squirreling away a few notes to herself.
Or … the version of Arachne we see here is a future version of the one at the university, which would remove all the drama and tension from the upcoming great doom.
The main problem with time travel is that we live in a world that depends on causality to work which in turn requires a linear progression of time. Time travel completely messes that up because cause and effect become vague, blurry concepts that end up in a paradox.
For example, you travel back in time to find the man who killed your mother in front of you and stop him. No matter what happens when you do, it always goes sideways. Maybe you yourself are the murderer, when your arrival in the past kills your mother by accident. Maybe you stop the murderer… but then what was the cause of you wanting to travel back in time?
We can try to explain this with alternative timelines and so on, but in the end it always becomes a huge, illogical mess.
From a subjective point of view, time is always linear, even when you travel through time. Your internal clock isn’t going to reverse itself, for you time goes on.
I can completely understand why a god put a complete ban on any kind of time manipulation and enforces that strictly. I’d do the same, just to avoid the headaches from trying to figure out how it even works.
On a meta level, this can break stories. Once a character has the ability to travel through time… or at least to view time… then they become virtually unstoppable.
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This actually leads to an interesting possibility: That there are to Tellwyrns. One with memories and such of being the high priestess of Vemnesthis, and one that has a life outside the Scion nexus and only has an “agreement” with Vemnesthis. Since one can time travel from the nexus, she doesn’t need to disappear from the material plane at any point to be high priestess for eternity. Thus Tellwyrn in the story has no idea what she learns as high priestess (including time spent), and thus is effectively an entirely different person.
In fact, the nexus itself only needs to exist for an infentesimal amount of time for it to effectively exist forever as seen from the material plane (in a mathematical sense).
I also agree with you that timetravel should be strictly regulated. I’m actually kind of surprised that Vesk isn’t all about stoping time travel as well, as it leaves any story a mangled wreck. perhaps he just trust Vemnesthis to fix it.
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Arachne must certainly still have some connection with Vemnesthis, because she got away with using time manipulation on Aspen.
Sees title: immediately shrieks out loud in horror before remembering Worm has been finished for years now.
That said, I am very interested in this as a bonus arc.
I’m glad that I’m not the only one whose mind flashed there when reading that title.
Man. Arachne Tellwyrn as your operator, and she can jam on the quickload until you get her *all* the achievements.
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And then you get to go through all of it again for the New Game+. *shudders*
Hey, if you’re into being controlled by a sexy elf, then maybe it’s not so bad. 😉
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A thought occurs: The pantheon did not intend to ascend to godhood. Was that a conspiracy as well? Since since it would very much in the spirit of my comments, I’m going to pin that one on Araneid as well. And since I’m apparently doing full tin hat wearing, doomsday preping conspiracy theorist, I might as well assume that Justinian is in league with her somehow. How else would he know to look for her threads through time? How else did he find or get into that moonbase? He is apparently playing a different game than the pantheon anyway. But why would he show the time threads to others?
He must be hiding somthing else. But what could be bigger than that? He must be an ork in disguise. I see through You trickery!
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