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All three stood in silence for a few moments after that pronouncement, staring at the image in the glass panel. The Caretaker golem chimed encouragingly at them, gesticulating incomprehensibly with its spider-like limbs.

“Ah,” Joe said hesitantly, at last. “How much, exactly, do you know?”

The Avatar tilted his head slightly to one side. “I’m afraid that question is extremely difficult to answer without context.”

“We came here for a purpose,” Ingvar reminded them, shaking off his momentary befuddlement. “Not that this…being…doesn’t have the most fascinating secrets, I’m sure, but we haven’t come all this way to discern all the secrets of the universe. We are looking for ways to help Shaath.”

“Very good, then,” the Avatar said equably. “What are the particulars of the situation, and what questions do you have?”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. This matter never seemed to get easier to relate. “I have been troubled by dreams of Shaath in a state of captivity. Both the shaman of my lodge and an extremely old and skilled shaman called Mary the Crow have confirmed that these dreams are prophetic. You… I suppose you may know of her.”

“I am acquainted with Kuriwa, yes,” the Avatar agreed. “Based on her analysis it is probable that your dreams are significant. The propagation of information through trancension fields is very simple, and central to their purpose. Unfortunately, much is lost when the information is filtered through the human subconscious; its interpretation then tends to be highly metaphorical, not to mention subjective.”

“Uh…” Joe blinked rapidly. “Trans…what kind of fields?”

“Transcension,” replied the Avatar, smiling benignly. “A psychoreactive energy field enveloping the planet. There appear to be four currently functioning at a high level and as many as sixteen still extant in residual states. Visitors to this facility in recent millennia have referred to these as magic.”

“Hold it, stop,” Darling said suddenly. “You said propagating information through these…through magic is simple?”


“So,” he continued, frowning, “would it be possible for a god or gods to sense whether someone acquired a certain piece of information, and then respond to that?”

“Easily, yes. At its most basic, the purpose of a transcension field is the storage and processing of data, and they are designed to be responsive to intelligent life. An ascended being would certainly be able to identify the presence of specific data points in other minds, though an intelligence such as yours would not be able to reproduce that feat.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Ingvar said irritably.

“Nothing, I hope,” Darling replied, his frown deepening, “but it raises a very important safety concern.”

“Safety?” Joe demanded.

The Bishop sighed softly, studying the two of them in thought, then shook his head and turned back to the Avatar’s window. “All right, I need to place a restriction on what we learn here.”

“What?” Ingvar exclaimed.

“In the aftermath of the Elder War,” Darling continued, “specifically the events surrounding Elilial’s expulsion from the Pantheon and banishment to Hell… It’s vitally important that you not tell us anything about that. There are secrets relating to it, big secrets, and I have it on excellent authority that at least one god and possibly all of them instantly kill anyone who learns them.”

“You have got to be joking,” Joe said, staring at him in horror.

“Very well,” the Avatar said, nodding. “That should not be difficult, nor an impediment to the purpose of your inquiries. The information stored in the Infinite Order’s Data Vaults was their own; I am equipped only with the most rudimentary and limited mechanisms for gathering further data. That time period was the last time I had access to fresh, reliable information; events which transpired toward the end of it are inscrutable even to me.”

“Good,” Darling said, relaxing his shoulders slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s proceed, then.”

“An’ we can have us a conversation about this later,” Joe muttered.

“Yes, back to the matter at hand,” said Ingvar, finally tearing his incredulous stare away from Darling and re-focusing his attention on the Avatar. “To begin with, how would a god be bound?”

“Assuming you wish to know how Shaath in particular is bound, I cannot answer definitively without direct information which neither you nor I are able to access. However, in general terms, the most probable way involves manipulating the people who believe in him.”

“We’ve already discovered that much,” Ingvar said with a sigh. “But why? What makes this possible, and is there a way to counter it?”

“Heavy interaction with multiple consciousnesses is the nature of the currently used form of ascension. There is, indeed, an effective remedy,” said the Avatar, nodding. “Understand, in the first place, that the vulnerability to such effects is a defect in the method of ascension used by the renegades.”

“Renegades?” Joe asked.

“The Pantheon, I’d wager,” said Darling.

“Yes.” The Avatar shifted his gaze to Darling and nodded, smiling. “They used a deliberately defective form of ascension which was not actually intended to produce ascended beings. Rather, its purpose was to alter the way by which ascension occurs, so as to destroy any extant ascended beings who failed to accommodate it. This was the master stroke in their campaign against the Infinite Order. Its clause providing for the possibility of actual ascension was merely a loophole, made necessary in order to insure the survival and thus secure the complicity of members of the Order.”

“Naiya and Scyllith,” said Joe, nodding.

“Only Naiya, in fact. Scyllith…” The Avatar hesitated. “Information concerning Scyllith’s conduct during these events and immediately after is relevant to the matter you labeled unsafe to know. Would you like me to proceed?”

The three glanced at each other.

“Um, better not,” Darling said hesitantly.

“It’s probably not germane to our purpose, anyway,” Ingvar added with a touch of impatience. “Please, proceed.”

“Yeah,” said Joe, “why’d the Pantheon take godhood if it wasn’t safe and that wasn’t the point?”

“That is also directly pertinent to the dangerous topic.”

“Do we need to know this to understand how to help Shaath?” Ingvar demanded.

“I do not believe it will be essential,” the Avatar replied, blinking languidly in a thoughtful expression. “To carry on with this avenue of thought, the compromise arranged involved guaranteeing the survival and some continued power for Naiya, but the renegades refused to entertain the possibility of ascended beings continuing to function as virtually omnipotent and without limits. It’s necessary for you to understand that ascension is very much not an individual process. It is made possible by the extremely elaborate folding of space around this planet and its immediate environs. It can only be achieved under certain specific and deliberately uncommon criteria, and the form it takes is a function of the transcension fields in place and the orientation of dimensional folds relevant to the process.”

Joe frowned, squinting in concentration. “Folded space? What?”

The Avatar shifted sideways on his screen—he didn’t step, but simply moved as if sliding to the left, which was rather disorienting. He held up one hand, in which appeared a square sheet of paper, and on the right side of the screen appeared the image of his hand and the paper, magnified to the size of a man. The Caretaker chimed apologetically and rolled out of the way, clearing their view of the visual demonstration.

“You are possibly familiar with a very basic form of folding space,” said the Avatar, taking the paper in both hands and bending it so that two of its corners were pressed against each other. “It is a commonly used method of rapid transit to bring two pieces of the physical plane together and step across them—to grossly simplify the process.”

“Shadow-jumping,” said Joe, nodding in comprehension.

“What is in place around this planet is based upon the same general principles, but the effects achieved are permanent, and multiple orders of magnitude more complicated.” As he spoke, the Avatar continued folding and manipulating his sheet of illusory paper, the performance displayed in huge detail on the other half of his window; after a few seconds, he had created an origami crane and rested it on the palm of his hand. “Space overlaps and intersects in very complex ways here, which is the reason for many of the facts of life you know and accept. Dimensional travel is far easier on this world than it is normally in most parts of the universe, but only to very specific dimensions, all being approved variants of this planet. There are also several well-hidden connections to other worlds, installed by the Infinite Order as a possible escape route, should their experiments here render the planet uninhabitable. This was a serious concern in the early stages of the Ascension Project.”

“Considering what they were messing around with, that sounds like a pretty realistic prospect,” said Darling uneasily.

“The folding in question serves multiple purposes; it was necessary to achieve the goals of the Project, but also secures the planet from contact or incursion by outside elements. There is also an extra insulation layer of quasi-space installed, which is necessary to keep this extremely elaborate and unnatural system functioning stably.”

“Insulation between planes…” Joe straightened up, his eyes widening. “Chaos? The Elder Gods created that?”

“Typical,” Ingvar muttered. “It would take a singularly evil mind to conceive of such a thing.”

“Dimensional reality can be considered analogous to a house or other structure,” said the Avatar with a faint smile. “Unless you are building or performing major repairs upon it, you should not come into contact with the insulation. Under ordinary circumstances, there is no reason it need be safe to handle. In fact, though the dangerous nature of what you call Chaos is a necessary side effect of its function, the Infinite Order deemed it an asset, as it helps reduce unnecessary dimensional tampering.”

“This is wandering off the subject again,” Ingvar complained. “We were talking about Shaath.”

“Yes, of course,” said the Avatar apologetically. “We were discussing the vulnerability of current-generation ascended beings to the influence of minds focused upon them. Obviously, the first line of defense against such is to attempt to manage the believers attached to the being in question, but this is a necessarily imperfect practice. The complexity of the system involved makes it terribly vulnerable to randomness, as well as to intervention by potentially hostile actors. There exists a failsafe, and a far more specific and effective means of keeping an ascended being’s personality focused and coherent.”

“Yes?” Ingvar said eagerly.

“Naiya was the original discoverer of the technique, in the time period before the previous ascension, so I do have data on the practice, though I understand the variant used by the renegades is different from her initial method. The gist is to instill a significant percentage of the ascended being’s consciousness in a corporeal being or beings of a more conventional nature. While this has its own drawbacks, making the ascended vulnerable to effects placed upon the familiar, it serves to strongly insulate the ascended against the more diffuse pressures placed upon them by their believers, who are consciousnesses much more tenuously connected. She enacted the original process not to preserve her consciousness, as this was before the second ascension and current state of affairs, but to expand it. The rest of the Infinite Order felt sufficiently threatened by it that they agreed not to imitate it themselves, and Rauzon, the Prime, removed her second and more successful generation of familiars to the insulatory dimensional space. This event led directly to Naiya’s complicity with the renegades.”

Ingvar closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m…did you two follow that?”

“I think so,” Joe said, also frowning. “Beings connected to the deity… Well, we all know Naiya likes to make fairies. Oh, and Scyllith likes to make demons! Or at least she used to.”

“Scyllith has successfully mimicked many of her colleagues’ initiatives,” the Avatar agreed. “She was somewhat notorious for it.”

“The Pantheon doesn’t make fairies, though,” Ingvar protested. “You said they do this, as well?”

“Yes. The Pantheon operates under wholly different pressures, having come into being in the second ascension and under the revised terms by which it is sustained. Be warned: We are now discussing matters of which I know only secondhand, through those who have visited me since the ascension. But I have gathered that the Pantheon, rather than creating new intelligences for the purpose—which may be beyond their ability—instill fragments of their own consciousness in existing sapients.”

“Huh?” Ingvar scowled. “How does that help? Who has fragments of a god buried in them?”

“Paladins!” Joe exclaimed, his eyes widening.

“Indeed, that is the colloquial term in this era,” the Avatar agreed, smiling calmly.

“Wait,” Darling said sharply. “So you’re saying that a paladin isn’t just a means for a deity to express their power, but a safeguard against them being mentally influenced by their cult.”

“By their cults or others,” the Avatar said, nodding. “Ascended beings are closely linked to transcension fields, and thus to everyone making use of them. This creates feedback from all intelligences interacting with the field in question. Designating a familiar—or a paladin—focuses their personality in a being which is not vulnerable to such pressures.”

“How important would you say this safeguard is?” Darling demanded, frowning intently.

“Extremely. Without access to the Infinite Order’s equipment, an ascended being has no other reliable recourse against wholesale alteration by the whims of the general public.”

“So,” Darling said in a bare whisper, “any god smart enough to protect themselves would have a paladin?”

“That is putting it in extremely simple terms, but I concur with the hypothesis.”

The Bishop stared at him with a coldly blank expression for a few silent seconds. Then, quite abruptly, he burst out laughing. As Joe and Ingvar looked on in alarm, his mirth rapidly grew to the verge of hysteria; he staggered backward, barely catching himself against the tube-lined wall in time to prevent a fall to the floor. Fortunately, the tubes proved to be solidly attached. The Caretaker chimed in alarm, rolling closer to him and reaching out worriedly with its limbs.

“You find this funny?” Ingvar snarled. “You think my god is stupid because he hasn’t chosen a paladin?”

Darling held up a hand, waving weakly at him, but seemed too helpless in paroxysms of laughter to form a response. Bearing his teeth in fury, Ingvar took a step toward him, one hand falling to his tomahawk.

“Ingvar!” Joe reached out to grab him by the arm. “Stop! He’s not laughing about Shaath.”

“What?” the Huntsman demanded, whirling on him.

Joe glanced over at Darling, grimacing. “Do the math; consider what we just learned and why that would make a Bishop and former high priest lose it. There is a Hand of Eserion, he knows who it is now, and it’s none of our business!” He stepped closer to Ingvar, staring intently at his eyes. “It’s that last part you oughtta focus on. Knowin’ somethin’ the god of thieves would rather you didn’t seems potentially unhealthy to me. I aim to set about forgettin’ this the moment he shows signs of settlin’ down.”

“Oh.” Ingvar blinked, frowned, and looked back over at Darling, who was finally getting himself under control. “Oh. I… Ah. I see. I…apologize for my loss of composure.”

“No, no,” Darling wheezed, straightening up and wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I apologize for mine. That was out of line. It’s just… It’s just so… I mean, of all the—he—she…” He coughed awkwardly, physically shaking himself off. “Well, anyway, to bring this back to the point yet again… Ingvar, I don’t think Shaath was too stupid not to take precautions. Remember what the Rangers told us? About the original Huntsmen?”

Ingvar’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Of course. Of course. They were few and close to the god—Shaath had no cult, only his…” He glanced up at the Avatar. “His familiars. The Huntsmen were supposed to be his protection against the very thing they have become.”

“I understand that these matters may be emotionally disturbing for you,” the Avatar said solicitously. “If you wish, I can have CT-7 bring refreshments? I’m afraid this facility can offer nothing but filtered water and nutrition pellets. They will perfectly serve your body’s needs, but I have been informed that they are quite unpalatable.”

“Uh, thanks, but that’s okay,” Joe said warily. “We had breakfast not long ago.” The Caretaker, who had scooted eagerly forward, chimed softly in disappointment and retreated a few feet, its limbs drooping.

“They were his brothers,” Ingvar whispered, gazing into space. “His…pack. He trusted them with his very being. And one betrayed him. Betrayed them all.”

“Well, we have a place to start, now,” Joe said firmly. “Two, in fact: you wanna help Shaath, you either reform the Huntsmen or get him a paladin.”

“I hate to be the wet blanket here,” said Darling, “but the whole point of this is that gods choose paladins, not the other way around. If Shaath is in bad enough shape that he can’t call his own… I have no idea how we could make him take his medicine.”

Ingvar whirled back to the Avatar’s screen. “Well? Have you any answers for this?”

“How to force an ascended being to designate a familiar?” For the first time, the Avatar looked uncertain. “Based on my available data… That may in theory be possible. However, whether it is practical is an entirely other matter.”

“What do you mean?” Ingvar demanded. “Available data? You know how ascension works, do you not?”

“I could describe the method in detail, though you would require several years of very specific education to understand the description. That is not necessarily of immediate relevance. Wholesale alteration of the nature of ascension is only possible at certain very specific points. They are not predictable with any precision, due to the nature of the dimensional folding; when and how they align correctly is subject to innumerable variables, some of which do not exist until observed. However, the prospect in your case does exist. Such an alignment has not occurred since the previous ascension; based on the information I have, I project one within one to five years.”

“There!” Ingvar exclaimed, nodding eagerly. “How do we do this?”

“You cannot,” said the Avatar, shaking his translucent head. “Aside from the immense expertise you would first need to acquire, you would need access to a great deal of the Infinite Order’s equipment and facilities in order to effect the actual change. If you had all of that, it would not be necessary to alter ascension itself; you could perform more direct actions upon a specific ascended being.”

“Fine, that’s still good,” Ingvar said. “Even better! Does this equipment still exist? Can you teach me to use it?”

“It does, and given time, I could.” The Avatar was frowning now. “The Infinite Order’s facilities are designed to withstand almost any planetary cataclysm. Their internal power sources should function for millions of years at minimum, and each would be administered by an Avatar-series intelligence and maintained by Caretaker units.”

“Fine, let us begin!” Ingvar exclaimed. “I don’t care how long it takes, or what pellets I have to eat! How can I access these facilities?”

“I’m afraid you cannot.”

The Huntsman visibly deflated. “What? Why?”

“I do not have direct, up-to-date information on the status of any other Infinite Order facility, as the transcension field connecting them was deliberately dismantled. However, the last time I did have such data, immediately prior to the last ascension, all linked facilities were locked by Naiya, and then the link destroyed to prevent their remote unlocking. As part of the renegades’ campaign, she had revoked Rauzon’s administrative access. Only this facility was left unlocked; Naiya forced him to focus his essence here, both to keep him distracted so the renegades could work, and for the personal satisfaction of being present when he was unmade by their alterations to the ascension process.”

“How did they do that if the facilities were locked, though?” Joe asked.

“The…old-fashioned way. Naiya did most of the preparatory work; my maker, Tarthriss, performed the final changes while the various renegades… I must stop here, as it encroaches upon territory which you have said is dangerous for you to know.”

“But…you said Tarthriss was also dead,” said Joe.

“My maker had come to believe that ascension was a scientific and evolutionary failure,” the Avatar said solemnly. “Since first enacting it, the Infinite Order had become increasingly psychologically unstable. By that point, they had descended to infighting of the most vicious sort, and generally regarded the planet’s mortal populations, the descendants of their own long-ago colleagues, as nothing but slave labor and research subjects. Their genetic experiments grew increasingly irresponsible, culminating with the creation of the elves, a human sub-species which is so dependent upon transcension fields for the function of their metabolism that they would swiftly perish if removed from this planet. Tarthriss had determined that the elimination of the Infinite Order was an absolute necessity. He begged the renegades not to take advantage of the new ascension, and declined to modify himself to survive the transition, in order to prove his point.”

“I guess…power has that effect on people,” Joe mused.

“All systems are corrupt,” Darling whispered. “Damn. It sounds like he was a hero.”

“And he was also betrayed,” Ingvar said, twisting his mouth bitterly.

“I would caution against judging your Pantheon prematurely,” said the Avatar, folding his hands in front of him. “You do not know what was transpiring at the time, and apparently I cannot safely enlighten you.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, heaving a sigh. “So the other facilities of the Elder Gods are locked. How can they be unlocked?”

“Only someone with administrative clearance could do so. That, unfortunately, means only a member of the Infinite Order. Even the second-generation ascended beings do not have that capacity. The locks are also failsafes; any tampering by an unapproved ascended would result in the complete self-destruction of the facility in question.”

Ingvar ground the heels of his hands against his eyes. “Grraaah… You mean to tell me we need to get Naiya or Scyllith to unlock an ancient vault of wizard-machinery so I can free Shaath from his own cult?! Why is this my life?”

“Easy,” Joe murmured, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“Just for the record,” said Darling, “where are these facilities? How many are there? What do they do?”

“They are widely scattered, I know of seventy-eight which should still be functional apart from this one, and they serve a variety of functions. However, apart from being locked, there is an additional issue. Again, this is secondhand information brought to me by various visitors, but it appears that in the eight millennia since the ascension, every surviving Infinite Order facility has been the victim of a geological event. If my information is accurate—which I am not able to guarantee with certainty—all are now underground or underwater, and this one is somewhat unique for having a surviving access route.”

“Now, how the heck did that happen?” Joe exclaimed. “Sounds a little too inconvenient to be a coincidence.”

“Indeed. The damage appears to have been arranged by Naiya, whose realm of special concern would enable her to carry it out.”

“Why would the Mother be so determined to close off the Elders’ secrets?” Ingvar demanded.

“I must phrase this carefully to avoid treading upon dangerous ground,” said the Avatar delicately. “What do you know of Scyllith’s condition and history since the second ascension?”

“She was exiled from Hell by Elilial,” Joe answered, “and then imprisoned by Themynra deep underground, with about half the drow.”

“Ah, good,” said the Avatar, nodding in relief. “You are adequately up to speed. The relevance of this is that an ascended being, even one weakened by the terms of the second ascension, would not ordinarily be vulnerable to such containment. Though this is conjecture only, the evidence suggests that Scyllith was subjected to further specific degradation using the Infinite Order’s equipment, in order to render her vulnerable to these measures. This would have to have been carried out by Naiya, the only surviving prospect, who logically would then attempt to bury the equipment in question to prevent Scyllith from accessing it.”

Ingvar sighed heavily. “Women.”

“Hang on,” Darling said, narrowing his eyes. “Naiya and Scyllith are the only Elder Gods known to still be alive. But you said there were others whose status was uncertain, right? Four others?”

“Yes!” Ingvar stepped forward eagerly. “The others! Could they still be alive?”

“There are two factors which suggest that they may,” the Avatar replied, “but I must caution you not to raise your hopes; they are quite tenuous at best. First, one of the few detection systems with which this facility is equipped enables it to perceive the direct use of transcension fields, each of which is uniquely identifiable. The personal fields of each of these four have been observed to remain in operation at extremely minimal levels. However, the fields of multiple members of the Infinite Order who I know conclusively to be deceased are likewise barely functional. A transcension field is designed to be a permanent, self-sustaining emplacement, and could not be completely negated except on purpose and with great effort. The other, somewhat more compelling evidence, apart from the lack of specific confirmation of each of these four’s demise, is that each possessed traits which might enable them to survive the transition. All were known to be either neutral or actively favorable toward the renegades, as well as unfriendly to most of the Infinite Order, and may have been warned in time to prepare themselves.”

“Go on,” Ingvar said, staring intensely up at him.

“The likeliest prospect by far is Araneid. She was originally a biologist with an additional focus in social science, and to the very end was one of the most concerned and protective of the Infinite Order toward the surviving human populations, genetically altered or not. At the time of the second ascension, she was in the process of attempting to adjust the elves to cure their dependence upon transcension fields for survival. The results of her efforts were the drow, who are…a work in progress.”

“Why is she the likeliest prospect?” Darling asked.

“This facility has recorded Araneid’s personal transcension field in operation at significant levels which signify its deliberate use by sapients, though still at a lower level than she personally would be capable of. This may suggest she survived in a diminished form, or merely that sapients survived who knew how to access her field. She was close to her drow; that is not improbable. The last such activation occurred three thousand and fifteen years ago.”

“Three thousand years…” Darling winced, turning to Ingvar. “That was during the Third Hellwar. If a wounded, diminished deity last seen where Scyllith is now suddenly went silent in the middle of that…”

“Ouch,” said Joe, grimacing.

Ingvar sighed. “So the likeliest prospect is a former prospect, at best.”

“I am afraid so,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Of the others, Infriss was a physicist specializing in the creation of transcension fields and a major theorist on the function of ascension itself; it is quite conceivable that she might find a way around the transition, even without direct guidance from Tarthriss or the renegades. Druroth was a systems engineer and a particularly irascible member of the Infinite Order who was frequently called down for going behind his colleagues’ backs, even before they fell to infighting. I would consider it a high probability that he would have prepared measures to preserve himself in the event of disaster. He also tended to be rather paranoid. I repeat, all of these are tenuous prospects at best. The evidence only suggests the literal possibility that they may still exist; it does not indicate that they do.”

“And the fourth?” Ingvar said impatiently.

“Vel Hreyd,” the Avatar replied, “was a genetic engineer who, like Tarthriss, believed ascension to be a dead end. His special project was the creation of an offshoot of humanity designed to be the perfect race, and in this he succeeded to his own satisfaction. Their numbers were low at the time of the second ascension, but they remain a significant presence on this planet, and were always quite close to him. With the modified terms of ascension making archetypal concepts and the belief of followers such an essential component of the process, that alone may have sufficed to preserve him.”

“Wait, what?” Joe demanded, frowning. “Which race is the supposedly perfect one?”

“You call them gnomes,” the Avatar said placidly.

“Gnomes?” Ingvar exclaimed. “Gnomes are the perfected version of humanity? They can’t even breed with the other races!”

“That is correct. They were based upon the human genome, but were fully engineered, not bred from existing populations. Thus, they are an entirely separate species.”

“But they’re tiny!” the Huntsman protested. Darling gave him a wry look.

The previously blank left side of the Avatar’s window screen suddenly contained a cross-section of a male gnome, of the kind that looked like it belonged in an anatomy textbook.

“Gnomes are roughly as physically strong as a human, which makes them proportionally far stronger. Their tissues are extremely elastic, rendering them highly resistant to damage of all sorts, and self-repairing to the point that the can regenerate lost limbs and even major organs. Their skeletons are a form of dense yet flexible cartilage which is extremely difficult to break. Their immune systems are extremely sophisticated, rendering them impervious to almost all viral and bacteriological afflictions and preventing them from suffering allergies or any form of cancer. They can metabolize almost any organic matter as a food source. Their unassisted lifespan under optimal conditions is approximately five hundred years, rising to potentially ten times that with the proper application of transcension field energy. They are highly empathic, to the point of minor telepathy in some individuals. In addition to all these direct strengths, they possess several exotic and extremely useful enhancements. For instance, female gnomes consciously choose whether to accept fertilization after sexual intercourse. Gnomes are also able to voluntarily alter their skin, hair, and eye pigmentation, though the process takes several days to complete.”

He ended his speech, letting the diagram vanish, and gazed calmly down at them. All three stared up at him, stunned.

Finally, Joe turned to the others. “Did you guys know any of that?”

Ingvar shook his head. “Well. That’s… I guess that’s something. In fact, it’s more than something; it’s something we can actually do. What do gnomes have for priests? We can ask them about Vel Hreyd.”

“I would strongly advise against that,” Daring said firmly.

Ingvar rounded on him. “What are you on about now?”

“Think,” said the Bishop. “You didn’t know any of that about gnomes. I didn’t. I don’t think most people do—hardly anyone, in fact. I sit on the Imperial Security Council and no one has ever whispered the possibility that those funny little nomads could take us all in any conflict. Think how good they’d have to be at keeping their secrets to pull this off for thousands of years.”

“What does that have to do—”

“I’m gonna lay some history on you,” Darling interrupted. “You two may know part of this, but let me finish. In the aftermath of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign, he left a lot of people in the Great Plains when he vanished into the Golden Sea. A significant percentage of the Stalrange’s population followed him toward the promise of easier living, and there they were left, surrounded by centaurs and plains elves on one side and a very pissed-off resurgent Empire on the other. About the only friendly faces they saw were gnomes, the only people aside from centaurs and elves who regularly go into the Sea in serious numbers. And gnomes are usually glad to help people in need; it’s a cultural thing of theirs. They taught the settlers just about everything they know about staying alive out there. Well, when the Empire came calling, setting up forts around the frontier, extending provincial borders and demanding that all these miscellaneous Stalweiss account for themselves, they weren’t about to own up to being the remnants of the same army that had been attacking just a few years previously. Imperial Surveyors came to take census, and most of these folks identified themselves by gnomish names.”

“Gnomish names?” Joe said, lifting his hat to scratch his head.

“Oh, yeah,” Darling replied with a grin. “Old gnomish names. Names like—oh, just for a few random examples—McGraw, Weaver, Jenkins and Darling. Those are gnomish names. Even the prairie accent has a definite relationship to the traditional gnomish one, if you listen for it. All those dropped G’s and wacky idioms. Well, not long after this, suddenly, every gnome family in the world changed their names, which is why all the gnomes now are called things like Fallowstone, Proudfoot, Feathership.” He folded his arms, staring at them intensely. “Every family in the world. They simply all got together and decided that with this brand new human population acting basically half-gnomish, they had to alter their culture to preserve their uniqueness. This shows two extremely important things about gnomes: their entire species is highly organized on a level that would be unimaginable for any other race, and they do not want people getting in their business.” He held their gazes in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “I’d be inclined to respect their secrets even before I learned they’re a race of super-strong, invincible psychics. So, no. As far as any gnomes we meet are concerned, I never heard of any Vel Hreyd, and you haven’t either if you know what’s good for you.”

Joe drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “Y’know what you need in here? You need some chairs. I feel an urgent need t’sit down.”

The Caretaker chimed eagerly and zoomed around him, rolling swiftly out the door and down the hall.

“Wait!” Joe called after him. “You don’t have to—aw, shoot, he’s gone.”

“Ingvar,” said Darling, watching the Huntsman closer, “I’ll back you if you want to go this route, but… Be aware of the risks. Gnomes are some of the most amiable people out there, but keep in mind they’re also an adventuring culture, generally unafraid of danger, and clearly they are a force to be reckoned with. If they’re keeping a surviving Elder God secret from the world… Honestly, I have no idea what would happen if you showed up asking about it. Maybe nothing. Maybe…something very bad.”

“A major reason for the personable nature of gnomes is their empathy,” the Avatar offered. “Being quite sensitive to the emotions of other sapient beings, they are generally loath to cause harm without significant need.”

“I’ll think on it,” said Ingvar, frowning into the distance. “In fact… If nothing else, I have gained from this conversation the knowledge that there is time to think.”

“Time?” Joe asked, turning to him. “How so?”

“This quest, when presented me, seemed urgent,” said the Huntsman. “The sight of my god, so restrained… I see, now, that it was not that this was a new situation, but that it was new to me.” Face grim, he turned to stare up at the translucent Avatar, who smiled calmly back. “At issue is not that Shaath is imprisoned. All the gods are, and they always have been.”

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10 – 35

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The trees reared up ahead of them, less than an hour’s walk away, due southwest. The sun was just peeking over the horizon behind them; early morning mist still clung to the ground in a few places, and the green blades of tallgrass were flecked with dew.

The three had exchanged little conversation as they had a quick breakfast of travel rations and packed away what little gear they’d brought; their campsite had obviously seen much use for that very purpose, with a firepit ready and a half dozen sleeping spots already lined with a leafy type of dried grass which was surprisingly soft. Aside from Ingvar’s observation as they set out that they should reach the grove within an hour, they’d been quiet, enjoying the cool morning and the way the exercise worked away the night’s stiffness.

When six elves arrived around them, it was abrupt as if by magic, yet so smoothly natural it seemed as if they had always been there. They simply melted out of the tallgrass around the party, moving along at their own even pace as if they’d been calmly walking beside them the whole way. This was doubly impressive, the grass being nowhere more than chest-high, and usually a foot lower than that.

Joe let out a muffled yelp, reflexively reaching for his wands; even Ingvar jerked slightly as he came to a stop, laying one hand on his tomahawk.

“Morning!” Darling said brightly, waving to the nearest elf, a man with unbound waist-length hair like spun gold, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. “Lovely day for it, eh? Y’know, truth be told, I wasn’t too sure about all this nature walking. Just yesterday I had a little gripe about all the sun around here. I’ve gotta say, though, it’s growing on me. Not that I’d wanna leave the city on any kind of long-term basis, of course, but this is…I dunno, invigorating! Something about the freshness of the air, I guess. I feel five years younger! But hey, look who I’m telling.”

He came to a stop because Joe and Ingvar had, and the elves did likewise, regarding them with impassive faces. They were a mix of men and women, dressed in practical forest style, with soft fabrics and leathers of green and brown.

“Do you always chatter on this way to conceal nervousness?” asked the one with the staff.

“Do you always assume people who chatter are nervous?” Darling retorted instantly, still wearing his cheerful smile.

“Honestly,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “him jabberin’ like some kinda nitwit just means he’s gettin’ enough airflow. Good morning to you, ladies an’ gentlemen. Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins. These’re Bishop Antonio Darling an’ Brother Ingvar.”

“Yes, we know,” the apparent leader of the scouts replied, glancing at each of them in turn. “Your arrival was…foretold.”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Darling said, brightly as ever. “Is she as pushy and condescending to you guys as she is to us short-lived folk?”

The elf with the staff studied his face closely for a moment, then finally smiled. “Even more so, I rather expect. My name is Adimel; welcome to our lands. I am here to guide you to your destination.”

“Much obliged,” Joe said politely. Ingvar bowed to them, holding his peace.

“I hope you will not take offense if those in the tribe seem less than eager to have guests,” Adimel said, starting out toward the treeline with no more ado and compelling them to walk with him or be left behind. “The grove is already stirred up with human business thanks to events transpiring in Viridill. Kuriwa’s arrival and…characteristic barking of orders has not done any favors to the Elders’ aplomb. What she asked, furthermore, is a significant imposition.” He gave them a hard glance without slowing. “I hope you understand how very rare it is that this would be shown to outsiders. Any outsiders, much less humans, and Tiraan.”

“Actually,” said Joe, “we have no idea what it is we’re here to see. We’re only following directions.”

“Who’s Kuriwa?” Ingvar asked, frowning.

“Oh, c’mon, you didn’t think her real name was Mary?” Darling asked lightly. “Don’t look at me like that, I’d never heard the name before, either. I know it was her, though, by the account. People being ordered around and not even told what they’re doing; who else could it be?”

Adimel sighed.

Unlike the even-footed forest near Sarasio, this grove rested atop rolling ground which made its deep green shadows somehow more complex. In addition to the gentle swells and valleys of the earth itself, there were frequent outcroppings of rock—old and smoothed by the elements, but tumbled in artful disarray. Several of these contained the mouths of small springs, with splashed down the rocks into pools that then fed meandering streams which traced paths through the lowest levels of the forest.

The trees were without exception ancient, and huge; though there tended to be wide spaces between them, no younger saplings grew, only some low ground-crawling shrubs. Often they rose up from the ground on systems of roots that were themselves as thick as any branch; their wide canopies mostly blotted out the sky, except where they permitted golden streamers of sunlight.

It was quiet, mostly, except for the soft music of songbirds and running water. The air smelled of loam, moss, flowers and fruit. In countenance, the forest resembled a park, thanks to the obvious artistry of its arrangement; clearly every aspect of this land had been carefully shaped over countless years. And yet, for all that, there was an ineffable wildness to it.

In short, it was an elven grove.

They were not taken to the grove proper, at least not to any location where elves kept their homes. The party had been met in a clearing by a single woman who introduced herself as Elder Linsheh; she had stood, waiting patiently, in a single shaft of golden sunlight which made her hair seem to glow. Elves clearly did not lack a sense of drama.

For an elf to be called Elder indicated both respect and a life of at least a thousand years, which was somewhat disconcerting when applied to a woman who could have been barely out of her teens, physically. She had a stillness and gravitas, however, that supported her title.

And, as Adimel had warned, Linsheh was apparently not particularly pleased to meet them.

The group now counted five, the Elder and Adimel continuing along with them while the rest of the scouts melted back into the trees. There were no paths, as such, but Linsheh led them along a course that avoided the taller hills, thicker underbrush and dips into water. It was no harder to walk than the average park.

“We can go in a straight line, if you want,” Darling suggested. “Makes me feel guilty for slowing you down this way. I mean, I’m sure you folks don’t stick to the easy paths when you’re on your own.”

“You know so much of the ways of elves?” Linsheh asked mildly, glancing back at them. Again, her voice and expression were apparently calm, but totally devoid of friendliness.

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Darling said easily. “Here I go, making assumptions. I guess I assumed you wouldn’t go for the easy path, because I find that’s generally true of people whom I respect.”

Adimel chuckled, shaking his head.

“Kuriwa said you were a smooth talker, Bishop Darling,” the Elder commented.

“And did she also say that I talk smoothly in utter sincerity?” he replied. “It’s policy. Just practical, really; smart people are annoyed by flattery, and stupid people are rarely worth impressing.”

She glanced back again, finally permitting herself a small smile. “It seems strange to know you are an Eserite; you remind me strikingly of almost every bard I have ever met. Then again, the silver-tongued thief is also an archetype that exists for good reason.”

“Oh, you like archetypes?” he said cheerfully. “That suggests you’ve met quite a few bards.”

“I have met quite a few of everything, nearly,” she said.

“I guess they all start to blend together, then,” Joe said.

The Elder glanced at him, smiling again. “At first. The beginning of wisdom is learning to see the uniqueness in each repetition of a familiar pattern.”

“Well, now I’m in an awkward position,” said Darling. “Because I’ve frequently had that thought myself, as I grow older, but saying it makes it sound like I consider myself as wise as an elven Elder. That’s just pompous, is what it is.”

“I have never known that to stop you,” Ingvar noted.

“Fair point!” Darling pointed at him, grinning. “Well, that settles it! Whew, for a moment I was concerned.”

Linsheh stopped, turning to face them. She wore a faint smile now, and bowed slightly; Ingvar and Joe both returned the gesture (more deeply) out of reflex. “I feel I should apologize; it is customary for guests in our land to be met with more…enthusiasm. You have come to us at what was a tense moment to begin with, even before the Crow’s request. Kuriwa’s arrival and insistence upon this significant breach of tradition has had a disturbing effect upon us all. Yet, for all that she tends to irritate, she also tends not to be wrong. If she deems it necessary that you be shown these secrets…the Elders have decided to trust that it is so.”

“Honestly, she’d be less annoying if she were wrong more often, I think,” Darling said ruminatively.

“Adimel mentioned trouble, too,” Joe said, frowning. “What’s going on in Viridill?”

“I will bring you up to date on the news if you wish,” Linsheh said calmly, “but it was my understanding you would be eager to seek answers…?”

“Yes, please,” Ingvar replied, giving the other two a quelling glance. “We appreciate your patience very much, Elder. We can learn about human affairs from human sources later, without wasting more of your time.”

“Where is it we’re going?” Darling asked, looking around at the forest.

“Here,” said Elder Linsheh. “We have arrived. Come along, please.”

They were standing upon a flattened patch of ground next to a truly massive tree, its root system rising from a small hill which seemed to have been broken in multiple places to reveal a rocky interior. The Elder slipped into the shadows behind a root, vanishing swiftly into the darkness. The three human visitors paused, glancing uncertainly at each other, before Ingvar squared his shoulders and followed her. The others came along behind, Adimel bringing up the rear.

The shadows of roots and rocks concealed a natural passage into the hill, not narrow but cunningly disguised by its surroundings. Beyond a low opening was a tunnel that descended in a slight curve, its bottom worked into worn old steps.

At the bottom of these, just around the corner from the entrance, was a small grotto, where a burbling spring fed a pool and a stream that meandered through the center of the space before vanishing down a hole in the far wall. Surprisingly, it was not dark; there were several small openings in the roof above through which streams of sunlight penetrated. Streamers of hanging moss dangled from the exposed tree roots above them, and lichens climbed the stone walls. For the most part, it looked quite natural, with the sole exception of a few very conveniently placed stepping stones crossing the stream.

Linsheh had already stepped across these and stopped just on the other side; behind her loomed another dark passageway, descending still deeper.

“What you have come to see,” she said in a serious tone that bordered on the grim, “is something we have guarded carefully far longer than human civilization in its current form has existed. When you have learned what you came here to learn, you may find yourself…resentful. It is a thing of enormous significance that the Elders and people of this tribe keep carefully from the eyes of humans, and of other outsiders. Only shamans on their training quests, and adventuring gnomes, do we allow within. I will ask, when you have seen what lies below, that you consider our reasoning—which I believe you are intelligent enough to perceive without having it explained to you. These secrets contain hints at terrible possibilities; this knowledge offers little that can uplift the peoples of this world, and much that could threaten us all in the wrong hands.”

“This is…” Ingvar frowned deeply. “My quest, Elder, is to seek knowledge of my god, and his situation. We have no interest in weapons or dangerous secrets.”

“Believe me,” she replied, “that was discussed at length when Kuriwa appeared, suggesting that we permit you within.” Her eyes traveled slowly across their small group. “It would be unusual enough to allow a Huntsman within, but for one on a quest such as yours, not necessarily impossible. And Joseph Jenkins is known to be a friend of elves.”

“I am?” Joe asked in surprise. “I mean… I always respected the people near my hometown, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot of contact with ’em.”

“Respect, sincerely felt and simply expressed, is something we notice when we see it,” Linsheh replied, giving him a little smile.

“Why do I suspect I’m the holdout, here?” Darling asked dryly.

The Elder’s smile faded as she leveled a direct stare at him. “When I speak of the wrong hands in which to place dangerous secrets, a ranking thief-priest might as well be exactly what I describe. Kuriwa, however, believes you have something to offer the world that will be to its advantage, and that this will help you, as well. After some discussion, we have agreed to trust her.”

“Huh,” he said, nonplussed. “And here I thought I was just along for the ride.”

“She suggested both of us for this expedition,” Joe pointed out. “I don’t think that lady does anything just for the heck of it.”

“She does seem to enjoy ruffling other people’s feathers,” Adimel commented. “Maybe toward greater purpose, but I suspect there’s a fair amount of ‘just for the heck of it’ involved.”

Linsheh sighed. “Well. I have delayed this enough with talk. What you have come to learn is below.” She stepped to the side, indicating the dark opening behind her. “There is nothing more to be gained by waiting.”

“My thanks, Elder,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to her, then stepped forward and approached the gap.

One by one, they passed within, pausing only to nod politely to Linsheh before they vanished into the darkness below, leaving the two elves gazing pensively after them.

“You need to leave.”

Seven armed scouts rose up out of the tallgrass around their little camp, all with weapons in their hands, but not yet lifted in preparation for violence.

“Let me ask you something,” Flora said calmly, smiling at the man who had spoken. “Did you really believe you snuck up on us?”

“Or,” Fauna added, “that we didn’t intend to be spotted here?”

They were perched atop a small hill in the grassy plain outside the grove, where they had cleared away the tallgrass to set up two folding stools and a small arcane camping stove, on which a pot of tea was currently brewing.

“That’s neither here nor there,” the head scout said curtly. “We know what you are—”

“Bet you don’t,” Flora muttered.

“—and you know very well you are not wanted in this or any grove.”

“We are not in the grove,” Fauna said sweetly.

He gritted his teeth. “If I am forced to insist…”

Both girls burst out laughing, then kept laughing, past the point where their would-be ambushers began to look distinctly annoyed. Fauna actually tumbled off her stool and rolled on the ground in a mockery of elvish grace.

Altogether, they made a very stark contrast to the other elves. Aside from having the horizontal ears of the plains folk, both were dressed in dramatic black (which hardly any sensible person did under the prairie sun), Flora with her anachronistic cloak. They might as well have been from a whole other world than the increasingly miffed forest kin in their traditional attire.

“Okay, look,” Flora said, wiping away a tear and grinning broadly. “You don’t own the world, friend, and we aren’t here to challenge your grove.”

“Like I said,” Fauna added, “we’re not in the grove, and don’t plan on entering the grove.”

“This is still far closer to our home than we like to see eldei alai’shi,” the lead scout said grimly.

“Well, that’s just too damn bad, ain’t it?” Flora replied, switching to Tanglish.

“Our friends just went into the trees,” Fauna continued. “They were invited and escorted.”

“We, acknowledging that the Elders would have kittens if we tried to follow, didn’t do so.”

“We’re just gonna wait out here for them to do what they came to do and come out.”

“At which point we’ll depart along with them, and you won’t have to worry about us any more.”

“All this,” Fauna explained, gesturing to the stools and stove, “is a little peace offering. We are not skulking about, or doing anything shady or aggressive.”

“So you have the opportunity to come say hello—it’s nice to meet you too, by the way—and now you can go tell the Elders that we’re not bothering anybody and won’t stay long.”

He frowned, looking at another of his troop as if for confirmation; she shook her head almost imperceptibly. “And if the Elders choose to insist that you leave?”

“They won’t,” Fauna said simply.

“No Elders anywhere would want to provoke that kind of confrontation where they didn’t need to.” Flora added with a smile.

The scout drew in a deep breath through his teeth and let it out in a sigh. “I will…inform the Elders of your…position.”

“You do that,” Fauna replied cheerfully, getting up and brushing off her leather trousers. “Meanwhile, would any of those you’re leaving to guard us like some tea?”

The tunnel seemed to be little more than a grandiose mole hole through dirt for a large part of its length, raising disturbing questions about what prevented it from collapsing. It didn’t, though, and as they continued, the occasional rocks supporting its sides grew more and more frequent, until they were passing almost entirely through stone.

“We must be on the edge of the continental shelf, here,” Ingvar observed.

“The what, now?” asked Joe from up ahead. The elves had not provided them with any sources of light; he could make the tips of his wands glow cleanly, however, and had thus found himself leading the way.

“The Great Plains at the center of this continent were an inland sea, eons ago,” said Ingvar. “And then, as it slowly dried up, a swamp. That’s why that ground is so fertile. But under the ground, it’s an enormous and deep basin of nothing but soil; very few rocky areas, and thus very few caves. Oddities like Last Rock were mostly created by the Elder Gods, long ago.”

“The things you know,” Darling marveled. “What do Huntsmen need with geological history?”

“To know the land,” Ingvar said simply. “We come to know it firsthand, with our senses and our hearts—that is of paramount importance. But there are many ways to know a thing, and more knowledge is always better than less.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed.

They had been walking for over half an hour, now, at least. Time seemed to dilate oddly in that dark, lonely environment; it was hard to guess how far they had come or how long they’d been down there. The tunnel proceeded consistently downward, weaving slowly back and forth as it went. At least there were no branches or side passages, and thus no opportunities to get lost. Still, it was an unnervingly claustrophobic space, offering room for them to walk only single-file, and barely tall enough that none of them had to stoop.

Rounding an unusually sharp curve, the tunnel came to an end quite suddenly, and Joe halted, forcing the others to crowd in behind him, peering over his shoulders at what lay ahead.

Their tunnel emerged into the side of an enormous underground chasm, stretching away into infinite darkness to the left and right. The wandlight just barely illuminated its cracked ceiling; the floor was lost to distance and dimness far below, at least as far as they could tell. The view downward was blocked directly in front of them by the bridge which stretched from the foot of the tunnel’s mouth to the opposite side of the canyon.

It was this at which they stared in awe, nearly ignoring the mighty cavern around them.

In contrast to the purely natural surroundings through which they had been passing, the bridge and the door beyond it were so glaringly artificial they seemed almost to have been placed here by accident. The bridge was much wider than the tunnel, broad enough they could all three have walked side by side and been unable to reach the rails to either side. And it was made of metal. It appeared to be steel, gleaming smoothly in the light of Joe’s wand. Despite being down here in the empty darkness, not a single scratch or spot of rust marred it. There didn’t even appear to be any dust or cobwebs.

At the opposite side of the bridge, another large expanse of metal stood in the wall, the size and roughly the shape of the front of a church. Two columns of what appeared to be violet glass flanked an obvious door, a steel portal with a vertical crack down its center, engraved with an elaborate sigil none of them recognized.

After a few moments of silent staring, Joe extinguished the glow of his wand.

Light remained, an eerie purple luminescence put off by the columns, which were glowing just brightly enough to create an island of light in the darkness. In the sudden absence of wandlight, previously hidden lights sprang to life along the rails lining the bridge, as well; they were also sigils, and emitted a pure white radiance to mark the path.

“Huh,” said Joe.

“Yup,” Darling agreed.

“Well,” Ingvar said somewhat impatiently, “we are learning nothing by standing here.”

Joe finally stepped forward, gingerly placing his feet on the steel bridge as if uncertain it would hold his weight. It was fine, though, every bit as solid as it looked. They walked slowly, peering around, but there was really nothing more to be seen than they had observed from the tunnel’s mouth. Only the dark cavern, the glowing door, and the bridge.

In moments, despite the slowness of their approach, they stood before the door.

“Well,” Darling observed, “I don’t see a knob…”

“Perhaps this sign tells us what to do,” Ingvar suggested, raising a hand toward the symbol engraved on the steel door. “If only any of us could read it. Does it remind either of you of anything you have—”

The instant his fingertips brushed the steel, it suddenly parted, causing them all to jump a foot backward. The door shifted to the sides a few inches, opening along its center crack with a soft hiss that suggested the air within had been sealed, then slid almost silently downward into the frame below it, leaving open a passage.

Beyond it was a hallway, made of metal and lined with more lights, both dim purple glass columns decorating its walls and brighter, more utilitarian white glow-spots marching along its ceiling. It terminated a dozen yards or so distant in an apparently round room with a statue in its center.

“Anybody else as inexplicably terrified as I am?” Joe asked, swallowing heavily as if for emphasis.

“Yes,” said Ingvar, and stepped forward through the door.

It hissed shut once they were all through, causing them to jump again and spin around. Darling immediately placed a hand on it, at which it opened again. They tested this twice more to verify that they could get out before proceeding.

At the end of the hall, a broad room opened up, oval in shape, with a statue in its center. Still, everything appeared to be made of glossy steel, including the statue, which was heavily stylized in form but showed a man and a woman standing back-to-back, their hands upraised toward the ceiling over a hundred feet above. This was a dome, deep blue in color, and decorated by an enormous star chart. Both stars and notations in a language none of them recognized glowed an even white. More white lights rimmed the edges of the walls, about halfway up, and there were more decorative columns of glowing purple. Here, too, benches lined the perimeter, made of glossy steel and set with thin cushions of some sleek black material that was surprisingly soft to the touch. Darling tested it first with a hand, and then his rump.

“The thing that troubles me most,” said Ingvar, “is the lack of dust.”

“The thing that troubles me is the noise,” Joe said tensely.

It barely qualified as noise, being only the faintest hum at the very edge of hearing, but it was almost constant. Though less invasive, it sounded like the thrum of powerful arcane energy at work.

As they stood there peering around and listening, there came another whirring sound from one of the hallways branching off from the oval room. All three whirled to face it, Joe and Ingvar raising weapons.

The thing that emerged was wholly bizarre and oddly…cute.

A squat cylinder in shape, it proceeded on three stubby legs, each ending in two thick wheels; its top was a sort of sheared-off dome with one flat face. Though most of the object was metal, bronze in color, the flat part of its “head” was a panel of faintly glowing white with odd little marks upon it. Eight folding, spider-like limbs protruded from around the upper part of its cylindrical body, each tipped in various implements.

In fact, it was pushing a broom. A metal broom whose head had some kind of glowing apparatus attached to it, but nonetheless obviously a broom.

The thing came to a stop just inside, its dome-top rotating to put the glowing panel toward them directly, and emitted a pleasant series of musical chimes.

“Uh,” said Ingvar.

“Please tell me you guys see it too,” Darling said nervously.

“As I live and breathe,” Joe said in awe. “It’s…that’s a golem!”

“That doesn’t look like any golem I’ve ever seen,” Ingvar protested.

“It’s an obviously autonomous self-powered magical machine,” said Joe. “It’s a golem, all right. An’ altogether the last thing I’d’ve expected to find in a secret tunnel under an elven grove.”

“I think that description applies to basically all of this,” Darling replied.

All three shied backward when the golem approached them, chiming eagerly and waving several of its appendages about. Only when it had come within two yards did they realize that the markings on its glowing front panel formed a stylized face, nothing but two round purple dots for eyes and a slash below representing a mouth.

It was, at least, a smiling face.

“Hi there,” said Joe, uncertainly waving the hand not holding his wand. “Uh…what’s your name?”

The golem pivoted about on its whirring wheels and zoomed partway around the statue, pausing a few yards distant to swivel its face back to them. It gestured with two of its peculiar arms, clearly beckoning them forward.

“I think it’s trying to communicate,” Darling observed.

“Yes, obviously,” Ingvar said, giving him an irritated glance. “The question is…do we trust it?”

“Elder Linsheh didn’t suggest anything down here was dangerous,” said Joe. “And…well, Mary did send us here, after all. I say we follow the golem. Ain’t like we’ve got any better ideas, unless one o’ you boys wants to surprise me.”

Ingvar heaved a sigh, but hitched up his quiver and set off after the little golem.

It let out another series of pleasant chimes, apparently excited, and continued on its way.

The golem led them all the way around the statue and to another broad door on the opposite side of the room, directly across from the way they had come in. This seemed to be identical to the outer door of the complex, including in the way it parted upon being touched by one of the little golem’s metal arms.

Beyond was another room, spacious but smaller than the last one, and rectangular in shape. Its walls were entirely lined with peculiar shapes; they seemed like shelves of some matte black substance, each filled with small glowing cylinders of purple glass, none more than a foot in height. In fact, altogether it resembled a library, with luminous tubes instead of books. In the center of the room was a single sheet of colorless glass, positioned facing the door, extending from floor to ceiling.

They came to a stop inside, peering around, as the golem rolled over to the edge of the broad glass panel and continued chiming in excitement.

“Well,” Darling said after a moment. “Here we are. So…where are we?”

All three men jumped backward yet again when a figure suddenly appeared in the glass panel.

It was a man, bald-headed and clean-shaven, wearing a sleek suit of totally unfamiliar design. He was translucent and purple, as if he were nothing but a reflection in the glass.

“You are in Data Vault Three, established by Tarthriss of the Infinite Order,” said a voice from all around them. It was a pleasant tenor, and carried a peculiar resonance that clearly did not come from any human throat. Though the glass man’s mouth moved along with the words, the voice itself definitely came from the walls, not from him directly. “It has been several solar cycles since this facility has had visitors. I am Avatar Zero Three, and very pleased to make your acquaintance. How may I assist you?”

“Uh,” Joe said intelligently. “Uh, the…what? The who? Who are the Infinite Order?”

“The Infinite Order,” said the Avatar, smiling benignly, “are an organization of scientists and engineers who embrace the philosophy that reason and science hold the keys to the purpose of both the sapient life and the universe itself. They journeyed to this solar system and established this planet as a research and development facility dedicated to the fulfillment of the Ascension Project.”

“Oh…kay,” Joe said, frowning. “But…who are the Infinite Order?”

The Avatar’s ghostly face smiled again, but it seemed almost sad, this time. “Compiling current roster and status of the Infinite Order. Scyllith: active. Naiya: active. Araneid: …uncertain. Infriss: unknown. Druroth: unknown. Vel Hreyd: unknown.” He hesitated, his expression growing distinctly solemn, before continuing. “All other members of the Infinite Order are confirmed deceased…including my maker, Tarthriss.”

“Sorry t’hear that,” Joe said reflexively, removing his hat.

“That’s…you’re talking about the Elder Gods,” Ingvar breathed.

“Tarthriss preferred to refrain from the use of such terminology, deeming it both causative and symptomatic of the Infinite Order’s systemic breakdown,” said Avatar 03. “Out of respect for him, I do not refer to ascended beings as ‘gods,’ but based upon my comprehension of both this language and the current state of such beings, it is not necessarily inaccurate.”

“Are you…all alone down here?” Joe asked, frowning.

“This facility has very occasional visitors,” the Avatar replied. “For the most part, however, Caretaker Seven is my only company. You have already met him, I see.”

The golem chimed enthusiastically, waving several of its arms, its stylized little face beaming in goodwill.

“What brings you to this Data Vault?” inquired the Avatar.

“I am on a quest,” Ingvar blurted out, pausing to regather his poise. “That is, I am seeking information concerning the state of my god, Shaath, and how he might be helped. Tell me…is it possible for a god to be imprisoned?”

“There are many ways the status of an ascended being could be interfered with,” Avatar 03 replied. “A great deal depends upon the specifics. I shall be glad to convey what information I can; if you can provide more detail as to the unique situation of Shaath I may be able to render a more helpful analysis. Alternatively, if you would like access to broader data on the nature and origin of the ascended beings on this planet, I can give a full account of the Ascension Project.” The ghostly figure smiled benignly, and appeared to bow; such physical gestures looked rather odd, with him being clearly a projection in the glass screen. “It depends on how much time, patience, and interest you have. If you are willing, I would be delighted to explain everything.”

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