“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”
“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”
“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”
“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”
“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”
“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”
Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”
“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”
“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”
“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”
“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”
Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”
Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”
“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”
All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.
Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.
“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”
Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”
“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.
“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”
“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”
“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.
“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.
“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”
“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”
“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”
“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”
“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”
“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”
“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”
“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.
“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.
“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.
“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”
“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.
Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”
“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”
Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.
The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.
“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”
“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.
“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”
“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.
“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”
“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.
“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”
“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”
“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.
“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”
Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.
“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”
She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”
“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”
Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”
Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”
“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”
“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”
Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.
“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”
“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”
“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.
“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”
“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”
“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.
“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”
“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”
“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”
“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.
“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”
“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”
“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”
“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”
The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”
“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”
“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.
“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”
“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.
“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”
Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.
“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.
“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”
“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.
“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”
“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”
“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”
“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”
“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”
“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”
“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”
“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”
“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.
“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”
McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.
Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.
“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.
“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”
“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”
“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”
“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”
“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”
The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.