“Ah ah! Don’t do that,” Tellwyrn’s voice ordered when Aradidjad instinctively raised her revolver to aim at the sky. “Keep it in your pants, cowgirl. Rule number one of the place between: ignore the sky monsters.”
“Ignore them?” Aradidjad exclaimed shrilly.
“Vital survival skill. You’re in a space created by the Elder Gods to keep the dimensional planes separate; it has qualities that make time travel possible if you move through it in the right way. But they didn’t want people messing around in there, so it also has security features. The sky monsters do not exist except in the context of someone there to observe them. The more attention you pay them, the more aware of you they become. As it’s not possible to completely ignore them, your time in there is limited, and it grows shorter the more you think about them. So don’t.”
“Don’t think,” she growled, lowering her eyes to stare fixedly at the ground. “Easy as that, huh.”
“It’s an acquired ability, takes practice.”
“What…exactly…happens when they become sufficiently aware of me?”
“Of you? I have to rewind your entire trip and you get to spend even longer stumbling around in there. Other people use the place between to travel, but not wise people. Only Scions and valkyries pass through with impunity. Now, follow the marker.”
Before she could ask what marker, it appeared: a translucent golden arrow extending out from her toward the distant mountains. It wobbled slightly for a second before steadying, like the needle of a compass.
“Invisible to anyone but yourself, before you ask. Always move quickly in there, doctor, but carefully. Watch that first step.”
Grimacing and repressing the urge to look up again, Aradidjad peered around. She was in the central street of a small village—near the middle, with no visible obstructions. Watch that step for what?
She stepped forward and the world blurred around her, leaving her suddenly standing in the middle of a wheat field with a forest rising up ahead and the mountain range beyond that. Also, her compass needle had shifted by a few degrees; evidently steps were not accurate units of direction at that distance.
“And this is why others travel through here,” Tellwyrn explained while Aradidjad stumbled and struggled for balance, nearly toppling over from sheer confusion. “If you know the trick of it, you can shave off most of any journey—on the same continent, that is, unless you can walk on water. Not as quick as teleportation or shadow-jumping, but it helps. And of course, a woman of your education is obviously aware that space and time are closely linked; a little help from our patron makes the same dilation effect usable for our purposes.”
And locked the ability to time travel to Scions on sanctioned missions with Tellwyrn’s oversight, Aradidjad noted silently. Aloud, she snapped, “At any point are you going to explain something before making me stumble headlong into it?”
“This may be your first rodeo, doctor, but it’s not mine. I’ve been guiding baby birds since literally time immemorial; trust me, I know the fastest way to teach you to fly. Now, step carefully but keep moving. Given the first impression you made on the watchers, you’re on a tight schedule.”
Something told her that rewinds or no, she didn’t want to experience whatever those things would do to her before Tellwyrn had to undo it. Grumbling to herself, Aradidjad shifted her face to follow the needle and stepped again.
This time she was in the foothills of the mountains, and it was the middle of the night. There was a dim, sourceless light all around, an effect made all the more eerie by the lack of moon or stars. She adjusted to match her compass again and stepped. One blurring footstep at a time, covering an unknown stretch of miles each, she paced across the continent, only the shifting time of day betraying that she was moving through time as well as space. The whole thing was so surreal it was almost banal, as if her brain were protecting itself from undue stress by refusing to dwell on the implications.
“Valkyries, huh,” she asked while walk-jumping across the land. “Are they what I’m supposed to shoot, if not the horrible sky monsters?”
“Don’t do that; the valkyries have been instructed not to interfere with Scions. They are fellow Pantheon servants and I don’t need the stress of cleaning up after that. Even after rewinding, Vidius always knows when one of my lackeys has taken a shot at one of his. No, there are occasionally…other things in there. That is where chaos comes from, after all.”
“Bloody brilliant,” Aradidjad muttered. “Who got attacked by a valkyrie? I assume if they had to be instructed…”
“I said interfere with, not attack.” Tellwyrn’s voice was amused. “They’ve been trapped in there for eons with nobody to talk to but their god, each other, and the recently dead. They kept cornering my Scions and jabbering their ears off until the monsters intervened. I had to ask Vidius to lay down the law.”
“No fun allowed. Got it.”
“You’re being punished, Aradidjad, it isn’t supposed to be fun. Go on, you’re almost there.”
Though her on-the-ground perspective made it difficult, Aradidjad possessed a basic knowledge of geography and figured out where she was by the time she got there; her path had taken her south around an impassable mountain range, then back north. The intervening landscapes were quite distinctive: the tall but rounded hills of Viridill, the pine forests of northern Athan’Khar, the canyons and rivers of N’Jendo and finally the steppes of Thakar.
“Why go all the way around the Wyrnrange? You can’t tell me this is efficient.”
“This method requires you to travel through space as well as time,” the voice of the elf replied. “The distance was necessary. It is efficient; I’ve plotted the optimal course, I assure you. And now you’ve arrived! Exit through the aperture, please.”
She kept her thoughts to herself, but took note: if she had to travel through time in order to reach a specific period, the Scions’ citadel existed at some point on the timeline, not outside it. At least, in theory. Temporal mechanics were her own particular field of study, in the last few years, and the one thing of which she was truly certain was that mortal minds weren’t configured properly to fully grasp them.
It looked very much like the gate through which she passed to and from the nexus: a vertical hole in reality right in front of her which grew wider in an uneven pattern, as if it were being tugged open by invisible hands. Light was distorted around its edges and through the middle was nothing but a dim golden glow reminiscent of the sands in the great hourglass, revealing no hint of what was on the other side. Assuming this place corresponded to the material world, probably the same northern jungle in which she now stood.
After the merest hesitation, Aradidjad stepped through the portal, which as before had no sensation; it was less disorienting than her time-shifting steps out there in the place between.
On this side, though, there was a village… Or had been, recently. Aradidjad stopped, clapping a hand over her mouth and staring around in shock while Tellwyrn nattered on in her ear.
“You’re near what would be the Onkawa/Thakar border in your time, though neither of those exists yet. It is roughly four thousand years after the Elder War, in a period which left little archaeological evidence for our era, thanks to the Hellwars which are slated to kick off in just a few centuries. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with any of that as your focus here is extremely specific. Your target is up ahead; follow the path leading into the jungle. He has already been warned not to do what he’s trying to do. You are to inform him of the terms of the deal, the same ones you got. Join, or perish.”
Someone had clearly been through here after…whatever had happened. The village itself was still a wreck—huts badly damaged, evidence of recent fires in multiple places, rubble and dried bloodstains strewing the ground. The bodies, though, had been carefully dressed, all of them. They lay scattered all over, probably near where they had fallen, but were neatly positioned wrapped in blankets and adorned with flowers.
Aradidjad stepped forward, following the wide path between the small cluster of mud-and-straw huts toward the jungle at its other end, having to step around corpses. Her mind seemed to snap back into focus; spatial and temporal dilation it could numbly brush off, but in the face of this, she fell back into cold analysis to escape the horror of it. Nothing could disguise the gut-turning smell—all the flowers only complicated it—but the lack of scavengers, even insects, strongly indicated magic. She sensed none, so not arcane. Infernal could scare away pests, but warlocks in this era were little more than walking firebombs, lacking that kind of sophistication. Very likely fae; the shamanic traditions of Onkawa had persisted into the Imperial era, only gradually fading as the Pantheon cults strengthened their presence. But could a shaman work out a way to time travel? That really required arcane magic…
“How often do they choose to perish?” Aradidjad asked quietly when she had passed the final corpse and reached the treeline. “I didn’t agree to become an executioner…”
“In all your missions, you’ll get as many tries as you need to get it right. With recruitments, getting it right means working out a path through the conversation which leads to them accepting terms. We always recruit, never kill.”
“I have my suspicions, Dr. Ardidjad, but the truth is I don’t know. Those are the orders from Vemnesthis, with which I am as obligated as you to comply. Right down to the empty threat of murder if they won’t come along quietly. And there’s our boy.”
The thick foliage hid even the impressive monument ahead; she came upon it quite suddenly through an opening in the dense underbrush. It was a ziggurat similar to the traditional pattern of Omnist temples, though this one was basically just an angular pile of stone displaying no iconography. It was small, too, not more than twelve feet high. Though steep, it had a long stone ramp extending from its top to virtually the foot of the path. She had to push aside huge ferns to reach it, and might not have known she was close to anything had she not felt the distinctive prickle of arcane magic at work.
Not enough to power a time travel spell, though, which was partly why she was taken by surprise. Totems of wood and stone, decorated with crystal and feathers, lined the clearing around the ziggurat and dominated the four corners of its flat top. Concentrating, she could sense the flows of magic—oddly thin and stretched, and moving in patterns shaped by something invisible. Forced into them, in fact, like a magnet suspended by a precisely configured field of opposing magnets. He was, she realized, using a huge quantity of fae magic to construct an arcane working from whatever tiny dregs of power he could summon up. It was…brilliant. She could never have conceived of such a thing on her own. Oh, what she would have given to be able to study it…
But the shaman standing atop the ziggurat turned his back on his altar to glare down at her, and she audibly gasped.
It was the Scions’ chef and groundskeeper, Kaolu.
“Oh, you twisted little asshole,” she said aloud.
“I assume that was directed at me,” Tellwyrn replied with audible mirth.
Kaolu, naturally, assumed otherwise, and scowled. “Leave this place!” he thundered down at her.
It occurred incongruously to Aradidjad that she hadn’t known any of the languages being spoken at her in the Scions’ citadel, either; she certainly didn’t understand pre-Hellwar Western dialects. Except, she clearly did, evidently thanks to the auspices of her new god.
Clearing her throat, she straightened up, giving him her best undergrad-withering stare—which was difficult as it hinged on peering down her nose and he was standing on a platform twice her height.
“You were warned, Kaolu!” she called across the clearing. “You—”
He spat and gestured, and a spear levitated on currents of air at his side. Aradidjad immediately shut up and conjured a disc of force; it didn’t provide the same coverage as a standard spherical shield but was far sturdier, and that was a factor if he was going to be hurling spears at her. Shields bore up well against spells and energy weapons, but contact with solid matter degraded them quickly.
Her instincts were good, which was small comfort as she was proceeding upon false data. That wind spell he used to hurl the spear did not pitch it forward on a ballistic course, but whipped it at her as if it were tied to the end of a chain. It did move a lot faster than if it had been thrown by human hands. Unfortunately, it also arced around to the side, and she wasn’t able to move her shield in time.
The broad stone head hit her in the side right below the ribs, with enough force to hurl her bodily across the clearing. Given its size, that was enough force to very nearly tear her in half. Which was a delightful thing upon which to reflect while she was reliving that experience in reverse over the next few seconds.
Standing at the end of the jungle path, Aradidjad glared daggers at the screen of ferns separating her from the clearing. “That son of a bitch.”
“Nobody ever gets it in one try,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Well, you know his opening move, anyway! Or one of them.”
“One of them?!”
“People are complex, and so are situations; timelines aren’t mechanistic or completely predictable. I’m afraid you cannot just memorize a sequence of events and perform a dance. Your target will be quite predictable in the short term, but not to the point of reacting precisely the same way every time. You have to get to know him, the situation, and learn to adapt on the fly.”
“How bloody long does that take, on average?”
“Oh, the upper range is a couple of years, locally, of constant restarts. But don’t worry, that’s exceedingly rare. And this isn’t nearly so complex a situation. I started you out on a soft one, doctor; I’m fully confident you’ll be out of there in a few hours. A day or two, tops.”
Snarling savagely, Aradidjad stomped through the ferns. “Hey, jackass!”
Kaolu whirled. This time, probably due to her far more aggressive posture, he didn’t bother speaking to her. He did use the wind-spear again, though, rather than surprising her with a new trick.
Aradidjad conjured her localized shield, this time right in front of the spear instead of near herself, smacking it out of the air at the very start of its arc. While he was gaping at that, she hurled a pure arcane bolt at him.
As it turned out, his incredibly complex working of fae magic controlling a very precise array of arcane energy to pierce the fabric of the space/time continuum did not like being abruptly pumped full of unfocused arcane destruction. The resulting explosion scoured away the top half of the ziggurat, along with everything else within twenty yards, including herself.
“Well, what did you think was going to happen?” Tellwyrn snorted moments later when Aradidjad was once more standing on the path before the ferns.
“That, pretty much.”
“I suppose it’s good that you’re not deterred by the prospect of painful death. Just don’t take it too far, doctor. Also, do keep in mind the mission. You’re here to recruit him, not incinerate him.”
“Well, if nothing else, I guess I understand why he was giving me the stink-eye back at headquarters. This was a particularly cheesy move, Tellwyrn.”
“Heh. If I really wanted to mess with your head, I’d have sent you to recruit Idrie.”
Shaking her head, she shoved past the ferns again, and stopped at the foot of the stairs, glaring up at Kaolu.
Once more, he turned upon her arrival, and scowled down at her. “Leave this place!”
Aradidjad drew her revolver and shot him right through the chest. The force of the beam sent his body toppling over his altar and down the other side of the ziggurat.
And then, of course, Tellwyrn rewound her.
“Feel better?” the elf asked dryly.
“A little,” Aradidjad mused, placing a hand on her revolver, which was now holstered again in its magic sheath. “This thing is remarkably accurate for having such stopping power. Usually there’s a trade-off, there.”
“That was a very good shot. I didn’t realize you were a weapons enthusiast.”
“I don’t care for them, in truth, but I put myself through grad school making wands. In Calderaas, they’re the easiest money for an enchanter who doesn’t have the right mindset for factory work. You probably saw a couple of my pieces pass through Last Rock in the hands of one wannabe adventurer or another… Oh, I’m sorry, do you know about Last Rock yet?”
“Yes,” Tellwyrn said with a chuckle. “But we can trade backstories when you’re not on the clock…so to speak. Keep in mind your ground rules, please: do not fire your service weapon on the mortal plane, and refrain from murdering your recruitment prospect.”
“Oh, right! I had a feeling I was forgetting something, thanks.” She stepped forward through the ferns again.
This time, she shot Kaolu before he was finished turning around.
“Are you just about done?” Tellwyrn demanded once she was reversed back to the path before the clearing again.
“Hmm…yes, I believe it’s out of my system now,” Aradidjad said solemnly. “Okay, for real this time.”
She strode purposefully through the ferns, right up to the base of the stairs. “Kaolu!” she called out in her most imperious tone. “I bring you a message from the gods!”
He turned more slowly this time, seeming to respond to the inherent gravitas of this claim, and stared down at her through narrowed eyes. Aradidjad knew she must be an impressive figure; those robes were very faintly luminous, and doubtless totally outside his experience. Actually, for a man in this region in this era, a human of Tiraan blood probably looked as exotic as an elf.
“Speak it, then,” Kaolu said, folding his arms across his bare chest.
“The gods have sent me to bring you this warning,” she intoned.
Then drew her revolver and nailed him right through the head.
This time, the rewind was longer, dragging her all the way back up the jungle path and through the slaughtered village, leaving her standing right where she had first arrived on the material plane in this era.
“Oh, that was just petty,” Aradidjad complained.
“Takes two to tango, sweetheart. You can play the comedian if you really want, Cyria; we quite literally have all the time in the world to get this right. If you’re thinking of testing your patience against that of an immortal, it’s probably best that we disabuse you of that idea early on in your career.”
“This isn’t my career,” she grunted, starting back through the village toward the jungle again. “And by the way. Would I be correct in extrapolating from this scene that Kaolu has just lost everyone in the world he ever cared about and is desperately trying to restore them? And this is the ‘offense’ for which I’m to rip him out of reality into an eternity of indentured servitude?”
“That’s the long and the short of it, yes. I should think you of all people would have a little more sympathy for him.”
“You’ll find I’m not a very warm or cuddly person, Arachne.”
“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.”
The path terminated in a familiar tangle of ferns, with glints of daylight beyond, and now Aradidjad slowed, narrowing her eyes in sudden contemplation.
“All right…wait. Before I go charging in there unprepared, again, can you tell me anything about this situation? Something I can use?”
“Ahh.” Tellwyrn sounded so much like the dean of her University department smugly inflicting one of his “teachable moments” on some poor kid that Aradidjad resolved on the spot to shoot the archmage at some point, just to see what would happen. “So it seems you do learn! All right, here’s the situation, roughly…”
She didn’t get hungry, thirsty, or tired. Tellwyrn just directed her to pay attention to the mission when Aradidjad tried to pause and ask about this, so she put it aside for another time when the elf wouldn’t have that excuse not to explain things. In fact, Tellwyrn’s general lack of explanation was rapidly becoming an extremely sore point. It seemed her entire teaching philosophy was to hurl her subject into the thick of whatever task she had and see how well—and indeed, whether at all—they fared. By the end of this, Aradidjad was seriously wondering about those kids who matriculated from Last Rock, and how so many of them survived without having time regularly reversed. It seemed likely that those in particular would tend to run afoul of the Scions, if they picked up any of their teacher’s general attitude.
As her operator had warned, Kaolu didn’t react precisely the same way every time; this wasn’t a problem that could be solved through rote memorization. He did behave in predictable patterns, though, and through trial and error, she learned to adapt to them. The recruitment was like an elaborate dance, composed of steps but held together by elements of improvisation.
Lacking any frame of reference, she had no way of knowing how long the whole process took. It didn’t even occur to her to count the rewinds until quite a few had passed, though by the end they surely had to number in the hundreds. In retrospect, it seemed less ironic that as an enforcer of the timeline she had been issued a weapon and not a watch. Knowing would probably just have enraged her further.
In the end, she first had to impress Kaolu by engaging him in a magical battle and making a show of effortlessly neutralizing every spell he threw at her without losing composure or retaliating. This, of course, required a lot of trial and error, until she could dispatch every trick in his repertory by sheer muscle memory no matter the order in which he played them.
That laid the groundwork for the second phase, persuasion. Aradidjad did, indeed, know something of the pressures under which he was operating. That helped, but what truly tipped the balance was remembering what had worked on her. Threats, pleas, and reasoning had no effect on someone caught in the grip of life-altering grief. What made him finally agree to stop, to accept terms, was relentless, inexorable implacability.
She had a counterspell for everything he attempted, an answer for everything he said; she constantly, slowly, pressed forward physically, one step at a time, until she finally reached the top of the ziggurat.
Until she had finally worn him down into true, hopeless despair.
Shooting the man was one thing; Aradidjad had never considered herself a violent person, but she’d done it dozens of times now, in her frustration, and it never left a mark. Time travel quickly took the sting out of brutality. This, though, her final victory, made her feel truly filthy.
By the end of it, the reliance on repetition and reflex, as hard as it was to develop, was a blessing. Aradidjad was so numb and so disgusted with what she was doing that divorcing her consciousness from the process even a little was all that kept her from putting that revolver to her own head. Well, that and the fact that it obviously wouldn’t achieve anything except to give Tellwyrn the bloody satisfaction.
At least recalling Scions to the citadel was easier than sending them to another place and period. Tellwyrn was able to open a portal right where they stood, rather than forcing Aradidjad to backtrack through the village and then chaos space. By that point she was too relieved at avoiding the prospect of accompanying Kaolu past the bodies of the loved ones she had prevented him from restoring even to wonder about the temporal implications of the recall.
She stepped through the portal with him, her mind as far away as she could send it and still function. The relief at finding herself back in an elevator in the nexus alone was so intense it completely blotted out her momentary confusion.
“Welcome back, and congratulations on your first successful mission!” Tellwyrn buzzed in her ear. “Don’t worry about your target; we don’t have multiple iterations of the same person in the nexus, so he’s doing what he’d been doing for years by the time you got here. And don’t stress yourself unduly about non-linear events like that. You’ll be much happier in the long run just glossing over them. Now go relax a bit, you’ve earned it.”
Aradidjad said nothing in reply. Somewhat to her surprise, Tellwyrn didn’t push at her any further.
She found a seat on a random platform; some of the citadel’s spaces were obviously purposeful, but just as many seemed strewn with aimlessly scattered, anachronistic furniture. Aradidjad ensconced herself in an overstuffed armchair in a distant corner with a view past two buildings at the grand sweep of the cosmos beyond. The structures floating around the periphery of the nexus remained in place, linked as they were by bridges, but she now observed that the ring system slowly orbited. Was that purely a decorative touch, or did it serve some purpose? At that point, she didn’t care enough to ask anyone.
In truth, she didn’t really want to talk to anybody at all. Aradidjad had passed several people while wandering through the platforms, bridges, and staircases in search of an out-of-the-way place to hide. Some greeted her, some ignored her; none except Idrie were familiar. She didn’t react to anyone, and none of them seemed put off by that. Undoubtedly they had all been in her position. Even Tellwyrn, thankfully, left her alone.
The chair had a lever on the side, below its arm rests. This, it turned out, caused its back to lean backward and footrest to extend, reclining to a sort of improvised bed. What a marvelous innovation. Aradidjad lounged back, staring up at the ascent of the great hourglass into infinity above.
She was just absently wondering what that smell was when a big, dark hand holding a steaming bowl appeared in her field of vision.
Aradidjad reflexively grabbed the lever; fortunately the chair didn’t seem to go upright as quickly as it reclined, which spared her from rearing up straight into the bowl of soup.
Kaolu still took a judicious step back, watching her with a faint smile totally unlike his previous stony glare.
“We never grow hungry,” he explained. “Food is to nourish the spirit, here. You’ll quickly find this is important and well worth doing; we are all staving off one kind of madness or another. Here, it is a Sifanese noodle soup Tellwyrn likes. I don’t know your comfort foods yet, but one good thing about this place is the plentiful opportunity to discover new things.”
She got the chair back upright, and found herself clutching its armrests with both hands, staring at him with an embarrassingly fish-like expression.
Kaolu’s smile widened slightly. “An apology is owed.”
“Oh,” Aradidjad said weakly. “I…”
“No, no!” He actually laughed, waving at her with his free hand. “No, from me. I must have been very unfriendly when you first arrived. Truly, I am sorry for my rudeness. You see, I recall so vividly the mysterious Scion who appeared in the aftermath of my greatest anguish, and so calmly outmaneuvered everything I did to coerce me into this place. Yet, when I arrived here, she was nowhere to be found! I have grown accustomed to the service of Vemnesthis without the chance to grow accustomed to that person.”
Aradidjad blinked, and nodded. In fact, the cheerful Idrie who accompanied her on that first elevator ride had borne little resemblance to the unstoppable little force of nature which had…
“And so,” Kaolu continued, “there you suddenly were, and memory struck me like a mighty blow. I let myself forget what I now know, of how it feels to be suddenly…here. To be doing these things, with no choice.” Smiling, he bent forward again, offering her the bowl. “We are all prisoners together. We wear the same chains. It does not do to hold grudges between us. Here: soup cures nothing, but treats everything. Please have some.”
“Thank you,” she said finally, reaching to take the hot bowl from him. “I…appreciate it. And… I’m sorry, too, Kaolu. If it helps, you gave me quite a lot of trouble.”
His smile broadened into a wide grin, but just as quickly diminished again. “We are of two kinds, I find. Some are here because they grasped for power. Some, because they tried to undo a cruel loss. Often you can tell which, by what they do after their first mission. That you retreat like this—”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said abruptly, then stopped and deliberately moderated her tone. “I’m sorry.”
“Be not sorry,” he replied, bowing to her. “I only meant that I understand. You need not hurry to speak of anything. Here, we have nothing but time. If you ever do wish to speak, though, I will hear.”
He smiled broadly, and gave her a deep nod. “For now, enjoy your soup. She will have more tasks for us all soon enough. Welcome, Cyria Aradidjad. We shall try to make this a home for you, as we do for each other.”
Kaolu left her alone after that. She gazed pensively after him for a long moment, until he disappeared into the distance, before turning her attention to the slowly cooling bowl in her hands. Frowning, she carefully picked up the utensils provided with the noodles and broth.
“…in all of time and space, what sort of maniac uses two sticks to eat soup?”