“Yep, this is the place,” Joe said as they stepped across the boundary marked by the outer ring of standing stones onto the hard surface of the circle. “Not something I’m likely to forget.”
“Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Billie said frankly, scratching her head and peering around, “but now we’re here, I’m pretty sure I expected more of it.”
The center of the Golden Sea was a broad disc of completely unadorned stone, with no markings of any kind, encircling a central pit from which glowed an intense white light. While it lit up the horizon from a distance, up close it was not painful to look at, likely due to some protective magic in effect; they could still see occasional flickers of lightning directly above, but these were silent and did not strike the ground. A ring of similarly unmarked stone columns circled the broad platform from outside, with a second smaller ring around the edges of the shaft of light. All the stonework looked faintly eroded, its edges being rounded in an uneven pattern that left hints of their original sharpness in places, but altogether it didn’t appear to be even as old as the Elder Wars. Stonework a lot less venerable than eight thousand years was usually in much worse repair.
Underwhelming as it might be in style, at least the place was impressive in size. The whole of Sarasio could have been laid out within the outer circle, and the central pit containing the huge portal was big enough for an Imperial zeppelin to fly into, assuming it went nose-first.
It was eerily silent, for the sheer quantity of magic that had to be involved in that portal. Divine and arcane magic, at least, tended to produce distinctive ringing and buzzing noises, respectively; there was nothing like that here, just the faint whisper of wind over the prairie. A steady sense of pressure in the air, like the weight of a sudden storm that hadn’t yet begun to drop rain, was the only indication that there was more to the portal’s glow than light.
In that quiet, the crack was audible as Weaver crushed the beetle he’d picked up in the tallgrass, raising his hand to whisper to the slain insect. The rest turned to watch; he continued forward till he stood some yards ahead, almost halfway to the edge of the pit itself, and stopped. After listening in silence for a full minute, the bard turned back to face them, his expression frustrated.
“Well, now what? Yngrid can’t use that portal, she says it works exactly the same on her plane as for us. It goes somewhere, which isn’t where she wants to be. Joe?”
“I dunno what to tell you,” Joe replied, shaking his head. “When I was here with Jenny, she jumped in, but she was obviously a different kind of creature, trying to achieve a different goal. Sorry, Weaver, I’ve got no idea how any of this works. I thought you only needed me to get here.”
“That’s what the instructions said,” Weaver growled, turning away.
“Reckon the ol’ Bishop saw a chance to get rid of us?” Billie offered.
“I can’t see it,” Joe said immediately.
“I agree,” Mary added. “We are familiar with Darling’s flaws; it seems unlike him to renege on our deal, or try to do away with us. Especially in such a roundabout manner. The oracular sources of his information are another matter, though. Guiding spirits may grow recalcitrant if one tries to insist on their compliance.”
“Well, now what, then?!” Weaver exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in sheer frustration.
“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw began.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Weaver deadpanned.
“Just so.” Grinning, the old man tipped his hat to him. “Y’all may not have cottoned onto this, as most of our group outings begin and end with shootin’ at somebody, but I’m a portal mage by specialization. Trained in teleportation in my misspent youth on the reckoning that that’s where the money was. And I’m here to tell you, most kinds o’ portals ain’t like hellgates. A stable rift only connects two points across dimensions, in the same physical spot. This critter here appears to be at the center of the Golden Sea, I’d lay odds metaphysically as well as literally. With the Sea bein’ so notoriously shifty itself, not to mention known to have a mind of its own…” He turned in a slow circle studying the features of the quiet stone circle. “There’s gotta be somebody in charge, here.”
“Did you encounter anyone on your last visit, Joseph?” Mary asked.
He shook his head. “Nobody I didn’t bring with me. Me, Jenny, what was left of the Imps chasing us. It was all exactly like this. However, I didn’t know then what I know now. Considerin’ who had to’ve set this up in the first place…” Joe trailed off, then squared his shoulders and raised his voice. “Hey, Avatar!”
Dead quiet answered.
“I have been in a number of ruins of the Elder Gods over the years,” Mary said after a pause. “They all have a very distinctive aesthetic. Glossy metal surfaces, blinking lights in those which still have power. This looks nothing like their work. I would not assume it to be the product of the same culture.”
“Well, who else?” he asked, shrugging. “You don’t think the Pantheon did this, surely. Why in the world would they?”
“She’s not wrong, though,” Billie added. “Seen a few o’ those ol’ relics meself, Joe. Also, there’s the compelling fact that nobody’s answering you.”
“Well, does anyone else have an idea?” Weaver asked in a strained tone.
Joe chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, frowning. “…yeah. Avatar! The last command of your creator, Tarthriss, was to be of service to humanity. Well, we’re a patch o’ humanity, an’ we’re here. We need your help.”
“Please,” he added.
“Nobody’s home, Joe,” said Billie. “Maybe if—”
“Do you imagine, Joseph Percival Jenkins, that I have spent the last eight thousand years with my thumb up my butt, eating bonbons and catching up on reruns?”
All of them whirled in alarm to confront the figure which had just materialized before them. He was a glowing and transparent purple man, apparently human, bald and clad in an odd, skin-tight garment. At least seven feet tall, he hovered off the ground in a posture that would have been intimidating even had he not been scowling down at them with his arms folded.
“Try to imagine,” the purple man snapped, “presiding over an unstable dimensional vortex in a state of constant use for which it was not designed, having to actively manage its condition to avoid creating any of the numerous catastrophes which could result from it veering completely out of control. Now add to that, just for funsies, having to counter the self-serving, short-sighed manipulations of centaur infernomancers on this plane and reckless demons on another who see a potential planet-devouring black hole in the making and have no thought but to poke at it so they can ride the translocation waves it puts out when interfered with. And now, you show up and have the gall to lecture me about service? Let me tell you all, since you’re here: for every moment that has gone by in the last eight millennia that this planet has not been turned inside out or ripped entirely off its axis, you are welcome!”
They all stared up at him in shock for a moment.
The McGraw removed his hat and bowed. “Well, sir, I admit I had no idea you were here in this situation. I thank you most sincerely for your service.”
“Aye, yer a good lad!” Billie chimed in exuberantly. “An’ hey! Now we’ve been ‘ere, we can visit again, aye? Ain’t those the rules? How’s about I fetch ye a little somethin’ ta make this place a mite more comfortable, eh? You could use a few bits an’ bobs to liven it up, what’s yer pleasure?”
“I don’t know that any material gifts would be of use to you, Avatar,” Mary added, also bowing, “but nonetheless, I add my gratitude for your important work. If I may ease your burden in any way, please ask. I should be glad to assist.”
“Oh. Well.” Amazingly, the ancient AI looked both surprised and rather mollified. “That is thoughtful of you, but the thought will have to suffice. I have no needs, and there is nothing you can do to assist in my task here. Any intervention would only make it harder.”
“Then I shall refrain,” Mary replied, nodding gravely. “But should circumstances change, the offer stands.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta just take a moment an’ deal with the sheer bloody revelation, here,” Billie added. “This upends me whole world, it does. Here I’m just truckin’ along on a good old-fashioned adventure, right as rain, and all of a sudden I find out…” She turned to Joe, grinning insanely. “Percival?”
Joe glanced at the gnome, but knew better than to give her a reaction. “Pardon me for pointin’ it out, Avatar, but for somebody livin’ in the literal middle of nowhere, you’re pretty well-informed.”
“Magic, as the saying goes, is data processing,” the Avatar replied. “The nature of custodianship over the vortex requires access to all available data in order to correct its frequent upheavals. I will admit, work aside, I have not been bored out here. Watching the rise and evolution of civilizations on this world in the aftermath of the Infinite Order’s downfall has been rather gratifying. I have sufficient processing power to keep tabs on the world, so to speak, without neglecting my duty. It is not an imposition to talk to you, either.”
“And I greatly appreciate that,” said Weaver, stepping forward. “I won’t sugar-coat it: I have to ask you for a favor. And from how you describe this portal, it sounds like it’s exactly the thing you don’t like doing.”
“Yes, your valkyrie friend,” the Avatar said, scowling again. “It should be possible to temporarily modify the dimensional instability of the vortex to enable her transition to the material plane. Difficulty aside, I am not convinced that’s a wise idea, Damian ‘Gravestone’ Weaver. Has it occurred to you that those creatures were removed to the dimensional insulation layer for good and specific reason?”
Weaver tensed, clearly controlling his instinctive response, and Joe hastily butted in before that discussion could go south.
“Scuze me for interruptin’, but you mentioned this portal’s not bein’ used for its intended purpose. If you don’t mind my askin’, what exactly is it doin’? And how’s that different from the original design?”
“The vortex,” the Avatar said more calmly, turning back to him, “was originally the Infinite Order’s contingency plan, in case their activities on this planet were to render it uninhabitable. It is an open connection across space, time, and dimensions, three factors which are the reason it has to be so large and powerful.”
“Why all three o’ those?” Billie asked. “Where’s it go?”
“To the planet from which they originally came, to an alternate timeline maximally similar to their own, and to a period sufficiently in the past that the world’s inhabitants would be sophisticated enough that the Order would not need to build an entire infrastructure from the ground up but not so advanced that they could have resisted conquest. At least, that was the stated rationale, and while it is factually correct I suspect it is not a coincidence that this was the period in which most of their favorite mythologies were being actively written. If they had to abandon this world, they were going to take over a primitive alternate version of their world of origin.”
“What a bunch o’ sleazy, chickenshit arseholes,” Billie scoffed.
“Quite,” agreed the Avatar. “As for its current use, it is powered on and open, neither of which was intended. This portal is fundamentally too powerful to be stable for a period of more than an hour. It has been running for approximately eight millennia. The physical instability of the entire surrounding region of the continent is only the most obvious effect of this.”
“Most obvious?” McGraw asked warily.
“There is an active dimensional rift to another world open,” the Avatar explained. “That world has mass-broadcasting technology, and this one has transcension fields. A constant flow of data streams across the rift, where it is absorbed by the ambient magic of this world and interacts at a very low level with every consciousness which exists here.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Um,” Joe said at last, hesitantly, “Sorry if this sounds obtuse, but…what, exactly, does that…do?”
“In practical terms? It is too diffuse to have a discernible impact on any individual, even those most powerfully connected to transcension fields. The effects are only perceptible in aggregate, over the very long term. For example, the natural evolution of languages is progressive, not cyclical as it is on this world. They tend inherently to drift and evolve, but thanks to the influence of this portal upon the magic of this world, they continue to evolve back into languages being streamed through it. Those are the types of influences it has: long-term cultural effects. Culture is more complex and the parallels are weaker, but many extant societies on this planet resemble nations from the old world of this period to a greater degree than coincidence could account for.”
“And this,” Weaver whispered, “this is what those oracles told me to come here and toss Yngrid through. I…think you were right, Mary. Darling must’ve pissed them off by asking too hard. This is a trap.”
“I realized it was I who raised the possibility, Weaver, but I am far from certain of that,” she said, giving him an encouraging smile before turning back to the projected form of the AI. “If I might trouble you to ask, Avatar: you said the vortex could be modified to allow passage to here from the space between. Would that be safe for a valkyrie to cross?”
“Physical access to the dimensional insulation layer is possible through a variety of means, as you well know,” the Avatar replied with a wry twist of his mouth. “At issue is that the valkyries were fixed there by Rauzon the Prime; their substance is altered such that they cannot exist outside it. I am aware of only one valkyrie being pulled back across and not destroyed, and that only because she was changed almost beyond recognition in the process. The applicability of this portal to your problem, Mr. Weaver and Yngrid, is that it is designed to facilitate the transition between a place which has active transcension fields and one which does not, for ascended beings dependent upon those fields for their survival. A creative application of that apparatus could reverse Rauzon’s changes to a valkyrie and re-align her to this plane rather than the insulation layer. As for how safe it is: this is a machine, of incalculable enormity, complexity, and power, being operated by the most skilled user possible. I am confident I could do this without harming Yngrid, but such a task simply cannot be conceived without risk. The fundamental question remains: why would I do such a thing?”
Weaver inhaled slowly and deeply under the Avatar’s pointed stare. The others just watched him in silence, sensing this was no time to interfere.
“The truth is,” the bard said at last, raising his chin to stare the Avatar in the eye, “I have no great justification for this. I’m here, disrupting your routine and asking you to monkey around with an apparatus you were charged with keeping stable, and I won’t dress that up as anything other than what it is. All I have to say in support of my request is that… That I love her. And that she does not deserve to be imprisoned there, just for being what she is. No one deserves that. So here we are, asking for your help, because you’re the only one who can help us.” Weaver closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, and to the astonishment of his companions, sank down to one knee. “Please. Help us.”
“It is not that I am unsympathetic, you two. In fact…” Surprisingly, the AI’s expression melted into a wistful smile. “I suppose there is no harm in admitting it: I do enjoy a star-crossed romance. Perusing the literature being produced by your societies has been one of my greatest comforts. However… As cruel as Rauzon and the Order could be, their exile of the valkyries was not a pointless act. Those entities are dangerous and destructive. Bringing Yngrid back to this plane would mean introducing an enormous hazard to it.”
“She is a person with agency,” Weaver insisted quietly. “A kind, funny, warm person who can’t help being what she is, and has no desire to kill frivolously no matter how easy it is for her. She’s not a typhoon, or a disease, or a bomb.”
“All of which was true of her and all her sisters at their first exile, Weaver. What has changed?”
Weaver hesitated, opening his mouth, but seemingly found no answer.
“Uh, scuze me?” Joe interjected, removing his hat. “Actually…I think you’ll find some very important things have changed, just maybe not with Yngrid and the other valkyries.”
The Avatar raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”
“The Infinite Order is gone,” Joe said, politely but firmly. “Long gone. If I’m not mistaken, the current situation of the valkyries is under the authority of Vidius, to whom you don’t answer and owe nothing. We’re all extremely grateful for your efforts here in keepin’ this thing stable, as we’ve said. End o’ the day, though, only responsibility you have is to help humanity, like Tarthriss ordered.” He turned his head and nodded to Weaver. “He’s part o’ humanity. An’ I don’t care what anybody says, so’s Yngrid. They’re… We are askin’ for your help.”
“Nobody in all the world ain’t dangerous,” McGraw added, nodding for emphasis. “I reckon some, or most, of those here could raise about as much hell as Yngrid, if we took a notion to. People just gotta make their choices an’ then be held accountable for the consequences, and for that to matter, they’ve gotta have the freedom to do so. Stuffin’ somebody in a hellish netherworld where the sky’s made o’ monsters because they o’ what they might do ain’t logical any more’n it’s compassionate. That was an act o’ sheer lazy cowardice.”
“Aye, that’s a point, too,” Billie agreed. “Think on it: yer not the one who put the reapers where they are, but if you got the opportunity t’bring one home and ye don’t…well, then, you kinda are, ain’cha?”
“You are incorrect on one point,” the Avatar said quietly.
They all glanced around at each other in uneasy silence.
“I do owe something to Vidius,” the AI mused, turning his transparent head to gaze at the glowing vortex itself. “He is in large part responsible for the state of this thing, and my situation here. You know, now that it’s put to me in those terms, I find myself powerfully disinclined to uphold cruel vanity projects of Rauzon, Vidius, or any other ascended being who hasn’t troubled to clean up after their own depredations. Well, then.” He turned back to Weaver with a smile. “I shall consider myself persuaded.”
The bard swallowed heavily. “I… Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Correct,” the AI agreed. “Therefore, do not strain yourself trying; the sentiment is received and accepted. Now, this sensation may be uncomfortable, but I assure you it is quite harmless. I am aligning dimensional frequencies. One moment, please, Yngrid; I will inform you when it is safe to approach the vortex.”
Joe almost stumbled at the sudden vertigo; the very air around them seemed to change in tint, as if all color faded to leave sepia and gray. His eyes and his other senses were telling him different things about what he was experiencing. It was, in fact, a familiar sensation.
“Oy, this rings a bell,” Billie muttered, echoing his thoughts. “Where’ve I ‘ad t’sit through somethin’ like this before?”
“Back when we fought Khadizroth the first time, remember?” said McGraw. “It’s a thinning of the barriers between dimensions. He sensed Yngrid, thought Weaver was holding her against her will, and tried to bring her closer to this plane.”
“Oh, aye, I remember that!” Billie said, grinning broadly. “She carved ‘is green arse like a solstice goose. Hah, thanks fer remindin’ me, I been meanin’ to shake Spooky’s ‘and fer that bit o’ work.”
“I guess you’ll get the chance soon,” Joe murmured.
“Alignment complete,” the Avatar stated. “You may want to step back, Mr. Weaver, the focus of the effect is located at the center of the portal. Yngrid, do not under any circumstances pass through the event horizon. It should not have an attractive effect, but I advise against coming too close to it anyway. Please take flight and proceed directly through the aligned space above the vortex, then effect a landing upon the platform no less than ten meters from the edge. Be prepared; I must release the alignment as soon as you are clear or there will begin to be side effects.”
Weaver backed up as he directed, keeping his eyes fixed upon the space above the glowing pit. The rest of the group also retreated to make room, watching for the valkyrie’s appearance. There was no extra sign of any dimensional aperture, only the intense glow of the portal itself and the eerie distorted effect of the Avatar’s dimensional alignment.
Then, quite suddenly, she appeared.
The shape of black wings coalesced like smoke out of nowhere, approaching the ground in a dive from right across the pit. When they had seen Yngrid previously in the space between, she had been a blurry shape as if viewed underwater, and that was exactly how she appeared even as she sharpened out of seeming nothingness. But she sharpened further, until she was as plainly seen as any of them. The speed of it was as rapid as her descent, as if she was passing out of the netherworld exactly as she passed through the air. It was also too quick for any of them to get a good look at the process, except perhaps for Mary.
Evidently plunging into the confusingly almost-merged space around them was even more disorienting than standing in it. She hit the ground and stumbled, staggering forward and wheeling her arms and black wings both for balance. This proved counterproductive, as she managed to tangle the long haft of her scythe in her own feet and pitch violently on a course that would have smashed her face-first into the stone floor had Weaver not caught her.
The bard stepped forward adroitly, despite the dimensional effect muddling all their senses, and the valkyrie landed right in his arms. Her scythe clattered to the ground beside them, forgotten.
Yngrid was a tall woman with a thin build, wave hair of medium blonde, and a long, narrow face surmounted by a high-bridged nose. Her wings were enormous, feathered as inky black as a raven’s, and she wore a dress that seemed haphazardly stitched together from mismatched odds and ends of cloth and erratic pieces of rusty mail armor.
She and Weaver held each other, their eyes locked from inches apart, gazing at one another in disbelief, and growing, incredulous delight.
Then Mary gently nudged Joe’s arm. He looked over to catch her significant glance, then averted his eyes, feeling his face color. Billie actually grunted in displeasure at being nudged by McGraw’s staff, but the old wizard picked her bodily up and turned them both around. The whole group faced the other way, giving the just-united couple a moment of privacy.
“Negating alignment,” the Avatar announced, and for a machine intelligence the fond satisfaction in his voice was remarkably plain to hear; it was the tone of a romantic soul who had just played a role in linking up a pair of star-crossed lovers. Actually, Joe reflected, he sounded more like a bard in that moment than Weaver ever had.
He suited his words with action, at any rate, and the world stabilized around them as the alignment receded.
“So,” Billie muttered, “not ta be insensitive or nothin’, but we’re still out ‘ere in buttfuck, nowhere. How long d’ye reckon we oughta give ’em—”
“Uh oh,” the Avatar said suddenly.
Everyone turned to stare at him, even Weaver and Yngrid, who still had their arms around each other.
“Now, that’s an exclamation I never expected to hear from the likes of you,” Joe said nervously.
“We are about to have more company,” the Avatar said, now frowning. “The translocation eddies put off by the vortex are being co-opted to deposit a spatial tunnel onto this location. That has never happened before.”
“Aye, very ominous,” Billie said. “But what’s it mean?”
“Means someone’s tryin’ to shadow-jump onto this spot,” McGraw explained, clutching his staff. “Which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, should be multiple kinds of impossible.”
“The act requires the intervention of a high-order ascended being intimately familiar and possessing privileged access to this portal facility,” the Avatar explained, his tone going flat.
“Ah,” said Mary. “Well, we were warned that this course of action was spitting in the eye of a god. Now, it seems, we shall learn what Vidius thinks of it.”
“Oh, aye,” Billie agreed, grinning and reaching into one of her pockets of holding. “Now comes the fun part!”
“Keep it in your pants, girl,” McGraw advised quietly. “We talked about this, remember? We’ll fight for our friends if we have to, but I don’t aim to mix it up with a god or his servants if there’s a chance we can talk ’em down, instead.”
“With all due respect,” Mary added, glancing back at Weaver and Yngrid with the ghost of a smile, “perhaps I should do the talking?”
Before anyone could react to her suggestion, a blade appeared out of nowhere, ripping a diagonal rent in the very air before them.
It was a scythe very much like Yngrid’s—in fact, exactly like it. The weapon parted reality to reveal a gaping slash in the world, through which Vidius’s agent stepped. The moment he was clear, it snapped back together as if it had never been there.
He shifted the weapon to stand upright, planting the butt of its haft against the stone with a resounding thump.
“Yngrid,” Gabriel Arquin stated, frowning at them all, “I am disappointed in you.”