Tag Archives: Kaolu

Bonus #25: Scion, part 2

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“Ah ah! Don’t do that,” Tellwyrn’s voice ordered when Aradidjad instinctively raised her revolver to aim at the sky. “Keep it in your pants, cowgirl. Rule number one of the place between: ignore the sky monsters.”

“Ignore them?” Aradidjad exclaimed shrilly.

“Vital survival skill. You’re in a space created by the Elder Gods to keep the dimensional planes separate; it has qualities that make time travel possible if you move through it in the right way. But they didn’t want people messing around in there, so it also has security features. The sky monsters do not exist except in the context of someone there to observe them. The more attention you pay them, the more aware of you they become. As it’s not possible to completely ignore them, your time in there is limited, and it grows shorter the more you think about them. So don’t.”

“Don’t think,” she growled, lowering her eyes to stare fixedly at the ground. “Easy as that, huh.”

“It’s an acquired ability, takes practice.”

“What…exactly…happens when they become sufficiently aware of me?”

“Of you? I have to rewind your entire trip and you get to spend even longer stumbling around in there. Other people use the place between to travel, but not wise people. Only Scions and valkyries pass through with impunity. Now, follow the marker.”

Before she could ask what marker, it appeared: a translucent golden arrow extending out from her toward the distant mountains. It wobbled slightly for a second before steadying, like the needle of a compass.

“Invisible to anyone but yourself, before you ask. Always move quickly in there, doctor, but carefully. Watch that first step.”

Grimacing and repressing the urge to look up again, Aradidjad peered around. She was in the central street of a small village—near the middle, with no visible obstructions. Watch that step for what?

She stepped forward and the world blurred around her, leaving her suddenly standing in the middle of a wheat field with a forest rising up ahead and the mountain range beyond that. Also, her compass needle had shifted by a few degrees; evidently steps were not accurate units of direction at that distance.

“And this is why others travel through here,” Tellwyrn explained while Aradidjad stumbled and struggled for balance, nearly toppling over from sheer confusion. “If you know the trick of it, you can shave off most of any journey—on the same continent, that is, unless you can walk on water. Not as quick as teleportation or shadow-jumping, but it helps. And of course, a woman of your education is obviously aware that space and time are closely linked; a little help from our patron makes the same dilation effect usable for our purposes.”

And locked the ability to time travel to Scions on sanctioned missions with Tellwyrn’s oversight, Aradidjad noted silently. Aloud, she snapped, “At any point are you going to explain something before making me stumble headlong into it?”

“This may be your first rodeo, doctor, but it’s not mine. I’ve been guiding baby birds since literally time immemorial; trust me, I know the fastest way to teach you to fly. Now, step carefully but keep moving. Given the first impression you made on the watchers, you’re on a tight schedule.”

Something told her that rewinds or no, she didn’t want to experience whatever those things would do to her before Tellwyrn had to undo it. Grumbling to herself, Aradidjad shifted her face to follow the needle and stepped again.

This time she was in the foothills of the mountains, and it was the middle of the night. There was a dim, sourceless light all around, an effect made all the more eerie by the lack of moon or stars. She adjusted to match her compass again and stepped. One blurring footstep at a time, covering an unknown stretch of miles each, she paced across the continent, only the shifting time of day betraying that she was moving through time as well as space. The whole thing was so surreal it was almost banal, as if her brain were protecting itself from undue stress by refusing to dwell on the implications.

“Valkyries, huh,” she asked while walk-jumping across the land. “Are they what I’m supposed to shoot, if not the horrible sky monsters?”

“Don’t do that; the valkyries have been instructed not to interfere with Scions. They are fellow Pantheon servants and I don’t need the stress of cleaning up after that. Even after rewinding, Vidius always knows when one of my lackeys has taken a shot at one of his. No, there are occasionally…other things in there. That is where chaos comes from, after all.”

“Bloody brilliant,” Aradidjad muttered. “Who got attacked by a valkyrie? I assume if they had to be instructed…”

“I said interfere with, not attack.” Tellwyrn’s voice was amused. “They’ve been trapped in there for eons with nobody to talk to but their god, each other, and the recently dead. They kept cornering my Scions and jabbering their ears off until the monsters intervened. I had to ask Vidius to lay down the law.”

“No fun allowed. Got it.”

“You’re being punished, Aradidjad, it isn’t supposed to be fun. Go on, you’re almost there.”

Though her on-the-ground perspective made it difficult, Aradidjad possessed a basic knowledge of geography and figured out where she was by the time she got there; her path had taken her south around an impassable mountain range, then back north. The intervening landscapes were quite distinctive: the tall but rounded hills of Viridill, the pine forests of northern Athan’Khar, the canyons and rivers of N’Jendo and finally the steppes of Thakar.

“Why go all the way around the Wyrnrange? You can’t tell me this is efficient.”

“This method requires you to travel through space as well as time,” the voice of the elf replied. “The distance was necessary. It is efficient; I’ve plotted the optimal course, I assure you. And now you’ve arrived! Exit through the aperture, please.”

She kept her thoughts to herself, but took note: if she had to travel through time in order to reach a specific period, the Scions’ citadel existed at some point on the timeline, not outside it. At least, in theory. Temporal mechanics were her own particular field of study, in the last few years, and the one thing of which she was truly certain was that mortal minds weren’t configured properly to fully grasp them.

It looked very much like the gate through which she passed to and from the nexus: a vertical hole in reality right in front of her which grew wider in an uneven pattern, as if it were being tugged open by invisible hands. Light was distorted around its edges and through the middle was nothing but a dim golden glow reminiscent of the sands in the great hourglass, revealing no hint of what was on the other side. Assuming this place corresponded to the material world, probably the same northern jungle in which she now stood.

After the merest hesitation, Aradidjad stepped through the portal, which as before had no sensation; it was less disorienting than her time-shifting steps out there in the place between.

On this side, though, there was a village… Or had been, recently. Aradidjad stopped, clapping a hand over her mouth and staring around in shock while Tellwyrn nattered on in her ear.

“You’re near what would be the Onkawa/Thakar border in your time, though neither of those exists yet. It is roughly four thousand years after the Elder War, in a period which left little archaeological evidence for our era, thanks to the Hellwars which are slated to kick off in just a few centuries. Fortunately, you won’t have to deal with any of that as your focus here is extremely specific. Your target is up ahead; follow the path leading into the jungle. He has already been warned not to do what he’s trying to do. You are to inform him of the terms of the deal, the same ones you got. Join, or perish.”

Someone had clearly been through here after…whatever had happened. The village itself was still a wreck—huts badly damaged, evidence of recent fires in multiple places, rubble and dried bloodstains strewing the ground. The bodies, though, had been carefully dressed, all of them. They lay scattered all over, probably near where they had fallen, but were neatly positioned wrapped in blankets and adorned with flowers.

Aradidjad stepped forward, following the wide path between the small cluster of mud-and-straw huts toward the jungle at its other end, having to step around corpses. Her mind seemed to snap back into focus; spatial and temporal dilation it could numbly brush off, but in the face of this, she fell back into cold analysis to escape the horror of it. Nothing could disguise the gut-turning smell—all the flowers only complicated it—but the lack of scavengers, even insects, strongly indicated magic. She sensed none, so not arcane. Infernal could scare away pests, but warlocks in this era were little more than walking firebombs, lacking that kind of sophistication. Very likely fae; the shamanic traditions of Onkawa had persisted into the Imperial era, only gradually fading as the Pantheon cults strengthened their presence. But could a shaman work out a way to time travel? That really required arcane magic…

“How often do they choose to perish?” Aradidjad asked quietly when she had passed the final corpse and reached the treeline. “I didn’t agree to become an executioner…”

“In all your missions, you’ll get as many tries as you need to get it right. With recruitments, getting it right means working out a path through the conversation which leads to them accepting terms. We always recruit, never kill.”

“…why?”

“I have my suspicions, Dr. Ardidjad, but the truth is I don’t know. Those are the orders from Vemnesthis, with which I am as obligated as you to comply. Right down to the empty threat of murder if they won’t come along quietly. And there’s our boy.”

The thick foliage hid even the impressive monument ahead; she came upon it quite suddenly through an opening in the dense underbrush. It was a ziggurat similar to the traditional pattern of Omnist temples, though this one was basically just an angular pile of stone displaying no iconography. It was small, too, not more than twelve feet high. Though steep, it had a long stone ramp extending from its top to virtually the foot of the path. She had to push aside huge ferns to reach it, and might not have known she was close to anything had she not felt the distinctive prickle of arcane magic at work.

Not enough to power a time travel spell, though, which was partly why she was taken by surprise. Totems of wood and stone, decorated with crystal and feathers, lined the clearing around the ziggurat and dominated the four corners of its flat top. Concentrating, she could sense the flows of magic—oddly thin and stretched, and moving in patterns shaped by something invisible. Forced into them, in fact, like a magnet suspended by a precisely configured field of opposing magnets. He was, she realized, using a huge quantity of fae magic to construct an arcane working from whatever tiny dregs of power he could summon up. It was…brilliant. She could never have conceived of such a thing on her own. Oh, what she would have given to be able to study it…

But the shaman standing atop the ziggurat turned his back on his altar to glare down at her, and she audibly gasped.

It was the Scions’ chef and groundskeeper, Kaolu.

“Oh, you twisted little asshole,” she said aloud.

“I assume that was directed at me,” Tellwyrn replied with audible mirth.

Kaolu, naturally, assumed otherwise, and scowled. “Leave this place!” he thundered down at her.

It occurred incongruously to Aradidjad that she hadn’t known any of the languages being spoken at her in the Scions’ citadel, either; she certainly didn’t understand pre-Hellwar Western dialects. Except, she clearly did, evidently thanks to the auspices of her new god.

Clearing her throat, she straightened up, giving him her best undergrad-withering stare—which was difficult as it hinged on peering down her nose and he was standing on a platform twice her height.

“You were warned, Kaolu!” she called across the clearing. “You—”

He spat and gestured, and a spear levitated on currents of air at his side. Aradidjad immediately shut up and conjured a disc of force; it didn’t provide the same coverage as a standard spherical shield but was far sturdier, and that was a factor if he was going to be hurling spears at her. Shields bore up well against spells and energy weapons, but contact with solid matter degraded them quickly.

Her instincts were good, which was small comfort as she was proceeding upon false data. That wind spell he used to hurl the spear did not pitch it forward on a ballistic course, but whipped it at her as if it were tied to the end of a chain. It did move a lot faster than if it had been thrown by human hands. Unfortunately, it also arced around to the side, and she wasn’t able to move her shield in time.

The broad stone head hit her in the side right below the ribs, with enough force to hurl her bodily across the clearing. Given its size, that was enough force to very nearly tear her in half. Which was a delightful thing upon which to reflect while she was reliving that experience in reverse over the next few seconds.

Standing at the end of the jungle path, Aradidjad glared daggers at the screen of ferns separating her from the clearing. “That son of a bitch.”

“Nobody ever gets it in one try,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Well, you know his opening move, anyway! Or one of them.”

“One of them?!”

“People are complex, and so are situations; timelines aren’t mechanistic or completely predictable. I’m afraid you cannot just memorize a sequence of events and perform a dance. Your target will be quite predictable in the short term, but not to the point of reacting precisely the same way every time. You have to get to know him, the situation, and learn to adapt on the fly.”

“How bloody long does that take, on average?”

“Oh, the upper range is a couple of years, locally, of constant restarts. But don’t worry, that’s exceedingly rare. And this isn’t nearly so complex a situation. I started you out on a soft one, doctor; I’m fully confident you’ll be out of there in a few hours. A day or two, tops.”

Snarling savagely, Aradidjad stomped through the ferns. “Hey, jackass!”

Kaolu whirled. This time, probably due to her far more aggressive posture, he didn’t bother speaking to her. He did use the wind-spear again, though, rather than surprising her with a new trick.

Aradidjad conjured her localized shield, this time right in front of the spear instead of near herself, smacking it out of the air at the very start of its arc. While he was gaping at that, she hurled a pure arcane bolt at him.

As it turned out, his incredibly complex working of fae magic controlling a very precise array of arcane energy to pierce the fabric of the space/time continuum did not like being abruptly pumped full of unfocused arcane destruction. The resulting explosion scoured away the top half of the ziggurat, along with everything else within twenty yards, including herself.

“Well, what did you think was going to happen?” Tellwyrn snorted moments later when Aradidjad was once more standing on the path before the ferns.

“That, pretty much.”

“I suppose it’s good that you’re not deterred by the prospect of painful death. Just don’t take it too far, doctor. Also, do keep in mind the mission. You’re here to recruit him, not incinerate him.”

“Well, if nothing else, I guess I understand why he was giving me the stink-eye back at headquarters. This was a particularly cheesy move, Tellwyrn.”

“Heh. If I really wanted to mess with your head, I’d have sent you to recruit Idrie.”

Shaking her head, she shoved past the ferns again, and stopped at the foot of the stairs, glaring up at Kaolu.

Once more, he turned upon her arrival, and scowled down at her. “Leave this place!”

Aradidjad drew her revolver and shot him right through the chest. The force of the beam sent his body toppling over his altar and down the other side of the ziggurat.

And then, of course, Tellwyrn rewound her.

“Feel better?” the elf asked dryly.

“A little,” Aradidjad mused, placing a hand on her revolver, which was now holstered again in its magic sheath. “This thing is remarkably accurate for having such stopping power. Usually there’s a trade-off, there.”

“That was a very good shot. I didn’t realize you were a weapons enthusiast.”

“I don’t care for them, in truth, but I put myself through grad school making wands. In Calderaas, they’re the easiest money for an enchanter who doesn’t have the right mindset for factory work. You probably saw a couple of my pieces pass through Last Rock in the hands of one wannabe adventurer or another… Oh, I’m sorry, do you know about Last Rock yet?”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said with a chuckle. “But we can trade backstories when you’re not on the clock…so to speak. Keep in mind your ground rules, please: do not fire your service weapon on the mortal plane, and refrain from murdering your recruitment prospect.”

“Oh, right! I had a feeling I was forgetting something, thanks.” She stepped forward through the ferns again.

This time, she shot Kaolu before he was finished turning around.

“Are you just about done?” Tellwyrn demanded once she was reversed back to the path before the clearing again.

“Hmm…yes, I believe it’s out of my system now,” Aradidjad said solemnly. “Okay, for real this time.”

She strode purposefully through the ferns, right up to the base of the stairs. “Kaolu!” she called out in her most imperious tone. “I bring you a message from the gods!”

He turned more slowly this time, seeming to respond to the inherent gravitas of this claim, and stared down at her through narrowed eyes. Aradidjad knew she must be an impressive figure; those robes were very faintly luminous, and doubtless totally outside his experience. Actually, for a man in this region in this era, a human of Tiraan blood probably looked as exotic as an elf.

“Speak it, then,” Kaolu said, folding his arms across his bare chest.

“The gods have sent me to bring you this warning,” she intoned.

Then drew her revolver and nailed him right through the head.

This time, the rewind was longer, dragging her all the way back up the jungle path and through the slaughtered village, leaving her standing right where she had first arrived on the material plane in this era.

“Oh, that was just petty,” Aradidjad complained.

“Takes two to tango, sweetheart. You can play the comedian if you really want, Cyria; we quite literally have all the time in the world to get this right. If you’re thinking of testing your patience against that of an immortal, it’s probably best that we disabuse you of that idea early on in your career.”

“This isn’t my career,” she grunted, starting back through the village toward the jungle again. “And by the way. Would I be correct in extrapolating from this scene that Kaolu has just lost everyone in the world he ever cared about and is desperately trying to restore them? And this is the ‘offense’ for which I’m to rip him out of reality into an eternity of indentured servitude?”

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes. I should think you of all people would have a little more sympathy for him.”

“You’ll find I’m not a very warm or cuddly person, Arachne.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.”

The path terminated in a familiar tangle of ferns, with glints of daylight beyond, and now Aradidjad slowed, narrowing her eyes in sudden contemplation.

“All right…wait. Before I go charging in there unprepared, again, can you tell me anything about this situation? Something I can use?”

“Ahh.” Tellwyrn sounded so much like the dean of her University department smugly inflicting one of his “teachable moments” on some poor kid that Aradidjad resolved on the spot to shoot the archmage at some point, just to see what would happen. “So it seems you do learn! All right, here’s the situation, roughly…”


She didn’t get hungry, thirsty, or tired. Tellwyrn just directed her to pay attention to the mission when Aradidjad tried to pause and ask about this, so she put it aside for another time when the elf wouldn’t have that excuse not to explain things. In fact, Tellwyrn’s general lack of explanation was rapidly becoming an extremely sore point. It seemed her entire teaching philosophy was to hurl her subject into the thick of whatever task she had and see how well—and indeed, whether at all—they fared. By the end of this, Aradidjad was seriously wondering about those kids who matriculated from Last Rock, and how so many of them survived without having time regularly reversed. It seemed likely that those in particular would tend to run afoul of the Scions, if they picked up any of their teacher’s general attitude.

As her operator had warned, Kaolu didn’t react precisely the same way every time; this wasn’t a problem that could be solved through rote memorization. He did behave in predictable patterns, though, and through trial and error, she learned to adapt to them. The recruitment was like an elaborate dance, composed of steps but held together by elements of improvisation.

Lacking any frame of reference, she had no way of knowing how long the whole process took. It didn’t even occur to her to count the rewinds until quite a few had passed, though by the end they surely had to number in the hundreds. In retrospect, it seemed less ironic that as an enforcer of the timeline she had been issued a weapon and not a watch. Knowing would probably just have enraged her further.

In the end, she first had to impress Kaolu by engaging him in a magical battle and making a show of effortlessly neutralizing every spell he threw at her without losing composure or retaliating. This, of course, required a lot of trial and error, until she could dispatch every trick in his repertory by sheer muscle memory no matter the order in which he played them.

That laid the groundwork for the second phase, persuasion. Aradidjad did, indeed, know something of the pressures under which he was operating. That helped, but what truly tipped the balance was remembering what had worked on her. Threats, pleas, and reasoning had no effect on someone caught in the grip of life-altering grief. What made him finally agree to stop, to accept terms, was relentless, inexorable implacability.

She had a counterspell for everything he attempted, an answer for everything he said; she constantly, slowly, pressed forward physically, one step at a time, until she finally reached the top of the ziggurat.

Until she had finally worn him down into true, hopeless despair.

Shooting the man was one thing; Aradidjad had never considered herself a violent person, but she’d done it dozens of times now, in her frustration, and it never left a mark. Time travel quickly took the sting out of brutality. This, though, her final victory, made her feel truly filthy.

By the end of it, the reliance on repetition and reflex, as hard as it was to develop, was a blessing. Aradidjad was so numb and so disgusted with what she was doing that divorcing her consciousness from the process even a little was all that kept her from putting that revolver to her own head. Well, that and the fact that it obviously wouldn’t achieve anything except to give Tellwyrn the bloody satisfaction.

At least recalling Scions to the citadel was easier than sending them to another place and period. Tellwyrn was able to open a portal right where they stood, rather than forcing Aradidjad to backtrack through the village and then chaos space. By that point she was too relieved at avoiding the prospect of accompanying Kaolu past the bodies of the loved ones she had prevented him from restoring even to wonder about the temporal implications of the recall.

She stepped through the portal with him, her mind as far away as she could send it and still function. The relief at finding herself back in an elevator in the nexus alone was so intense it completely blotted out her momentary confusion.

“Welcome back, and congratulations on your first successful mission!” Tellwyrn buzzed in her ear. “Don’t worry about your target; we don’t have multiple iterations of the same person in the nexus, so he’s doing what he’d been doing for years by the time you got here. And don’t stress yourself unduly about non-linear events like that. You’ll be much happier in the long run just glossing over them. Now go relax a bit, you’ve earned it.”

Aradidjad said nothing in reply. Somewhat to her surprise, Tellwyrn didn’t push at her any further.


She found a seat on a random platform; some of the citadel’s spaces were obviously purposeful, but just as many seemed strewn with aimlessly scattered, anachronistic furniture. Aradidjad ensconced herself in an overstuffed armchair in a distant corner with a view past two buildings at the grand sweep of the cosmos beyond. The structures floating around the periphery of the nexus remained in place, linked as they were by bridges, but she now observed that the ring system slowly orbited. Was that purely a decorative touch, or did it serve some purpose? At that point, she didn’t care enough to ask anyone.

In truth, she didn’t really want to talk to anybody at all. Aradidjad had passed several people while wandering through the platforms, bridges, and staircases in search of an out-of-the-way place to hide. Some greeted her, some ignored her; none except Idrie were familiar. She didn’t react to anyone, and none of them seemed put off by that. Undoubtedly they had all been in her position. Even Tellwyrn, thankfully, left her alone.

The chair had a lever on the side, below its arm rests. This, it turned out, caused its back to lean backward and footrest to extend, reclining to a sort of improvised bed. What a marvelous innovation. Aradidjad lounged back, staring up at the ascent of the great hourglass into infinity above.

She was just absently wondering what that smell was when a big, dark hand holding a steaming bowl appeared in her field of vision.

Aradidjad reflexively grabbed the lever; fortunately the chair didn’t seem to go upright as quickly as it reclined, which spared her from rearing up straight into the bowl of soup.

Kaolu still took a judicious step back, watching her with a faint smile totally unlike his previous stony glare.

“We never grow hungry,” he explained. “Food is to nourish the spirit, here. You’ll quickly find this is important and well worth doing; we are all staving off one kind of madness or another. Here, it is a Sifanese noodle soup Tellwyrn likes. I don’t know your comfort foods yet, but one good thing about this place is the plentiful opportunity to discover new things.”

She got the chair back upright, and found herself clutching its armrests with both hands, staring at him with an embarrassingly fish-like expression.

Kaolu’s smile widened slightly. “An apology is owed.”

“Oh,” Aradidjad said weakly. “I…”

“No, no!” He actually laughed, waving at her with his free hand. “No, from me. I must have been very unfriendly when you first arrived. Truly, I am sorry for my rudeness. You see, I recall so vividly the mysterious Scion who appeared in the aftermath of my greatest anguish, and so calmly outmaneuvered everything I did to coerce me into this place. Yet, when I arrived here, she was nowhere to be found! I have grown accustomed to the service of Vemnesthis without the chance to grow accustomed to that person.”

Aradidjad blinked, and nodded. In fact, the cheerful Idrie who accompanied her on that first elevator ride had borne little resemblance to the unstoppable little force of nature which had…

“And so,” Kaolu continued, “there you suddenly were, and memory struck me like a mighty blow. I let myself forget what I now know, of how it feels to be suddenly…here. To be doing these things, with no choice.” Smiling, he bent forward again, offering her the bowl. “We are all prisoners together. We wear the same chains. It does not do to hold grudges between us. Here: soup cures nothing, but treats everything. Please have some.”

“Thank you,” she said finally, reaching to take the hot bowl from him. “I…appreciate it. And… I’m sorry, too, Kaolu. If it helps, you gave me quite a lot of trouble.”

His smile broadened into a wide grin, but just as quickly diminished again. “We are of two kinds, I find. Some are here because they grasped for power. Some, because they tried to undo a cruel loss. Often you can tell which, by what they do after their first mission. That you retreat like this—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said abruptly, then stopped and deliberately moderated her tone. “I’m sorry.”

“Be not sorry,” he replied, bowing to her. “I only meant that I understand. You need not hurry to speak of anything. Here, we have nothing but time. If you ever do wish to speak, though, I will hear.”

“I…thank you.”

He smiled broadly, and gave her a deep nod. “For now, enjoy your soup. She will have more tasks for us all soon enough. Welcome, Cyria Aradidjad. We shall try to make this a home for you, as we do for each other.”

Kaolu left her alone after that. She gazed pensively after him for a long moment, until he disappeared into the distance, before turning her attention to the slowly cooling bowl in her hands. Frowning, she carefully picked up the utensils provided with the noodles and broth.

“…in all of time and space, what sort of maniac uses two sticks to eat soup?”

 

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Bonus #24: Scion, part 1

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“Impressive, isn’t it?”

It was much more than that, but she was not about to give them the satisfaction of saying so.

Aradidjad folded her arms and did her best to look supercilious rather than sullen; she stared past the open walls of the cage-like elevator as much to avoid the eyes of her captors as to take in the incredible scene.

The citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis hung suspended in a void; all around was an endless vault of stars and eerie splashes of faint color like distant nebulae—a sight she dimly recognized from her undergraduate years, though she was no astronomer. The whole complex was even surrounded by a ring system like Bast’s, tilted at a crazy angle. Like the rings around the distant gas giant, it seemed to be made of dust and chunks of floating debris, being just close enough to the elevator for her to make out its texture.

In the center of the complex hung the vast hourglass. Multi-chambered, filled with sands which glowed in shifting shades of gold and silver, streaming through its many compartments in patterns that made no sense even when they were not interrupted by miniature sandstorms, the glass was an endless tower suspended in space. It actually seemed to terminate far below, but stretched above apparently infinitely. The relatively small segment surrounded by the Scions’ base might as well have been perfectly vertical, but as its vast length extended toward eternity it could be seen to weave and waver in an irregular pattern.

Rings of metal surrounded the hourglass, broad walkways upon which Arididjad could see people coming and going. There were over a dozen layers of them, connected by an erratic network of spiral staircases and rope bridges, all wrought from metal which gleamed like chrome. A faint glow washed outward from the great hourglass, but there were also incongruously mundane-looking street lamps on posts positioned here and there, mostly at the foot of each bridge.

The elevator “shafts” were little more than long metal poles guiding the course of each car, which itself was nothing but an open cage of brass and a glass floor—enough to give a person vertigo, to which she was fortunately not very susceptible. There were dozens of these elevators, all positioned around the edges of the metal platforms, apparently stopping at multiple levels and all rising to the gateways which hung in space several stories above the highest level of the complex.

Extending out past the network of platforms and bridges, but within the planetary ring, were a profusion of buildings covering every conceivable architectural style. Everything from mud brick huts to stone temples, log cabins and graceful palaces, even several towering and improbable-looking structures of glass and steel. They floated in nothing, reached from the platforms by more hanging bridges.

There were no banisters or safety rails anywhere in the place.

“Aw, it’s all right, you can say it,” the gnome prompted with an irritating grin. “It’s no admission of weakness. It is damn impressive, and you know it.”

“No need to prod at her,” the elf said in a mild tone. While the gnome seemed strangely cheerful about this whole contemptible business, the elf had just been standoffish and left her alone. Aradidjad didn’t know the little red-headed gnomish woman from a hole in the wall, but this elf was unmistakable, and her presence here boded ill. Her apparent disinterest was, if anything, encouraging.

“How long am I expected to serve, here?” she demanded.

Tellwyrn had been watching out the front of the elevator with her back to Aradidjad, but now half-turned to look at her sidelong, pushing those gold-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of her nose.

“This is a life sentence, Dr. Aradidjad. Idrie should have explained that to you.”

“Oh, I bloody well did, an’ you know it,” the gnome huffed. “C’mon, Arachne, you know what they’re all like when first picked up. I told ‘er what she needs ta know; it won’t stop the questions.”

“So,” Aradidjad grunted, “I’m here till I die, then? Well, at least I know how to quit.”

The elf’s shift in posture was infinitesimal, and her expression changed not a hair, but suddenly Aradidjad’s nerves jangled with a sense of impending danger.

It didn’t help. Moving with the characteristic fluid speed of her race, Tellwyrn whirled, whipping a gold-hilted saber out of nowhere, and drove the blade straight into her heart.

She gaped, in total shock, at the elf’s faintly sardonic expression…which drifted upward as she slumped to her knees. Blood spurted with each agonizing beat of her heart. The pain… It hurt less than she’d have expected. It felt like pressure more than a cut, she noted with scientific detachment, even as her senses faded into blackness.

Everything stopped.

And suddenly, everything was running backward. She moved through a haze over which she had no control, watching the last few seconds rewind. Aradidjad was pulled upright as if on strings, Tellwyrn reached out to grab the saber’s hilt and yanked it from her chest. That, oddly, didn’t hurt.

Then time resumed its normal flow, and she stumbled backward. Fortunately her back came against one of the elevator’s upright supports, which spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. Aradidjad scrabbled frantically for the handrails, gasping. She clawed at her chest; no wound. There was no blood. Her shirt wasn’t even rumpled.

“You get to quit,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “when we decide you can.”

Idrie the gnome rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Arachne.”

“You could just have explained that!” Aradidjad snarled.

Tellwyrn shrugged and turned her back again. “I find that experience is the best teacher.”

Aradidjad bared her teeth at the elf’s back, straightening up and raised one hand; energy began to coalesce out of the air in her grip.

Idrie cleared her throat, catching her eye, and then shook her head pointedly.

After a short pause, she let the half-formed spell disperse. What was the use, anyway? Tellwyrn didn’t even bother to acknowledge it, though she of course must have been aware of a spell of arcane destruction being cast directly behind her. Well, of course she didn’t. It was Arachne Tellwyrn. Cyria Aradidjad was a much more than competent mage, but instigating a wizard’s duel with this one would have been nothing but drawn-out, extravagant suicide.

And if she correctly interpreted the point of the very painful lesson she had just been given, even that option was not available to her.

Apparently the time reversal had been highly localized. She couldn’t tell whether Idrie had been affected, but the elevator itself was not; it continued down, its progress not altered by the few seconds which had moved backward for Aradidjad. She was still getting her breath back under control when it reached its destination. The cage came to a stop alongside a level near the middle of the complex, a soft chime sounded from somewhere, and the doors slid open.

“Well, step lively now,” Tellwyrn said lightly, striding out onto the metal platform.

“Are you in a hurry?” Aradidjad snipped, following her. “I would think we have all the time in the world.”

“Sloth is a moral failing regardless of its concrete effect,” Tellwyrn replied without turning around. “Come along, Doctor. You will quickly learn to develop the habit of keeping in motion. The kinds of people recruited to serve here are usually those whose minds go to dark places when they have time to sit and contemplate.”

Aradidjad narrowed her eyes, but followed. That description was so true of herself it was eerie.

With Idrie trundling along behind them, seeming to keep up effortlessly despite her tiny legs, they made their way along the platform. Aradidjad glanced down rope bridges as they passed. Not rope, she saw now, but some kind of steel cable. They still didn’t look terribly sturdy. Each led to a floating building; all had their doors closed. There was no guessing at the contents or purpose of any from what she could see.

“And here we are!” Tellwyrn proclaimed, coming to a stop at one end of the long platform. Off to the side of the space, two bridges extended away to other platforms, next to a spiral staircase leading both up and down to still more. This area, though, was set aside for occupation, with a profusion of mismatched tables, chairs, and a few long sofas. Perched across one end of the seating area, precariously close to the edge of the platform, were two food carts such as Aradidjad often saw on the streets of Tiraas. At least, their purpose was obvious, though one was a primitive wooden affair with a charcoal brazier and the other seemed made of brushed steel and contained an arcane cold box of a design clearly more advanced than she had ever seen, to judge by the compact structure of its enchanting components. “Everyone, meet Dr. Cyria Aradidjad, our newest Scion. Cyria, everyone.”

“This is everyone?” she demanded, sweeping a surprised stare around the group. There were only five of them. But then, with power over time itself, she supposed the Scions did not need to be a numerous group to be everywhere they needed…

“Not hardly, it’s just a figure of speech,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You can meet everyone at your leisure, but this is a good start: these are exactly the folks you’ll be interacting with the most. Behind the carts there is Kaolu, our chef and groundskeeper. Stay on his good side if you wish to eat well. This is Q, short for Quartermaster, and the only thing he wishes to be called. Chao Lu Shen is our librarian and archivist—any mission which requires you to be updated on the details of the period, which will be most of them, begins with him. And these are Rispin and Yalda, who are much less important.”

“Always a pleasure to see you too, Boss,” the blonde dwarf introduced as Yalda replied sardonically. Rispin, a male drow, just looked at Tellwyrn and then at Aradidjad, his expression betraying nothing, and did not pause in chewing whatever was in his mouth.

The three Tellwyrn introduced as important were all humans. Kaolu was a Westerner of towering height, who fixed Aradidjad with a stony stare from the moment of her arrival. Q gave her a curt nod to soften his speculative expression. It was a little hard to read his face, dominated as it was but an enormous handlebar mustache and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. He was actually an inch or two shorter than she, but incredibly burly, with a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair that was beginning to recede. Chao Lu Shen was a diminutive Sheng man wearing frameless spectacles which appeared to be clipped onto the bridge of his nose, without earpieces. He smiled pleasantly at her and bowed at being introduced.

Not one of them looked like mages, though only mages ended up running afoul of—and being forcibly recruited by—the Scions of Vemnesthis. Then again, appearances did not count for much even in the rational world she knew. Here, it might be best to assume nothing meant what it seemed to. What little seemed to mean anything.

“So, a doctor?” Q rumbled. “Would that be of the medical sort?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I am a researcher in the Arcane Sciences Department at Imperial Univeristy in Calderaas.”

“Were,” Idrie corrected her cheerfully. “You’re one of us now!” Her smile was undaunted by Aradidjad’s answering scowl.

“Pity,” Q grunted. “We could use a medic.”

“For what?” Yalda asked in exasperation.

“General principles. Feels wrong, serving in a unit with no medic.”

“So, a theoretical scientist.” Rispin had swallowed, and now addressed her in a low, warm voice that might have been seductive had she been in any mood for it. “I suppose that explains how you came to be here.”

Aradidjad’s attention was diverted by Kaolu, who had continued staring at her flatly with that unreadable expression. At the drow’s open invitation, though, she cut her eyes to him and narrowed them. “I’m not interested in talking about that.”

“Oh, by all means, take all the time ye need,” Idrie said lightly. “Times all we’ve got in ‘ere, aye? Everybody comes ’round eventually. Me, now, I’m an archaeologist!”

“Don’t you mean were an archaeologist?” Yalda retorted, earning a few points in Aradidjad’s book.

“Are, were, all the same,” Idrie replied, waving her off. “Leastwise, fer me it is. I’m in it ta study ancient cultures, an’ hell’s bells ‘ave I got the opportunity of a lifetime fer that! I may never publish another paper, but damn if the work ain’t excitin’!”

“I, too, find cause to appreciate my current position,” Chao Lu Shen said almost diffidently. “I created a stable temporal loop, enabling myself to live the same day over and over.”

Aradidjad had resolved not to get involved with these people and focus on getting out of this predicament, but that story diverted her attention both from her plans and Kaolu’s increasingly unnerving stare. “One day, on endless repeat? Why in the world would you want to do that?”

“I was a librarian even then,” he replied, smiling. “The Library of the Celestial Emperor in Zingyaru is among the greatest in the world. Texts from every land, from every age! A scholar could devote a lifetime and explore only a fraction of one wing. Indeed, it would take a lifetime’s study to learn every language needed to decipher every document in the Library. I could not bear to be among such a wealth of knowledge, and know that my mortality would deprive me of all but the merest sliver.”

“You imprisoned yourself in a time loop,” Aradidjad said slowly, “to read books.”

He bowed to her again, his smile undiminished. “And now, I have access to books and knowledge beyond all mortal apprehension, and eternity itself in which to study them! I am most content with my lot. If Vemnesthis demands my service for this privilege, then I am honored to serve.”

“If you’re thinking that makes you a bad fit around here,” Yalda said dryly, “don’t. Chao Lu Shen is the exception, not the rule. Most people who were ambitious enough to try messing with time don’t particularly care to be pressganged into being wardens of the very prison they tried to bust out of.”

“We all make whatever accommodation we must with our situation, as it is well and truly permanent,” Rispin added. “Trust me. Some of your new colleagues—none of those here—have chosen to embrace madness rather than endure this situation at face value. From watching them, we have learned that the excuse of madness does not relieve us of duty, but merely makes it more difficult to perform. It is worth devoting some attention to keeping yourself sane.”

“What’re you in for, then?” Aradidjad asked him.

“Bad form, that,” Q snorted. “Won’t tell us your story, but you wanna hear everyone else’s?”

“Aw, quit bein’ such a grouch,” Idrie ordered, strolling over to smack him on the knee reprovingly.

“There is no harm in the asking,” Rispin said with a shrug. “If I did not wish to answer, I wouldn’t. Vemnesthis is not widely known in the Underworld; most of the Pantheon are not. I crafted a plan which would have catapulted me to immense power over my fellows, but failed to account for the existence of an entire deity devoted to thwarting ambitions such as mine.”

“Sorry it didn’t work out for you,” Aradidjad said, struggling to withhold the spite from her voice. Typical drow.

He shrugged again. “One tries what one must; sometimes one fails. I may not have power, here, but the accommodations are indescribably luxurious, compared to what I endured before. I have not learned to appreciate being ordered around by a distant god and his sharp-tongued delegate, but who among us gets all we wish from life?”

“I just wanted to see my fiance again,” Yalda said quietly, fixing a cold stare on Tellwyrn. “But to hell with that and with me, I suppose.”

Aradidjad followed her eyes, deliberately ignoring Kaolu, whose stare had neither relented nor shifted from her for a second. The man didn’t even seem to blink. “Yes, I can’t help but notice that our most famous member appears to be out of uniform. What’s her story?”

Tellwyrn was standing off to the side, silently watching the conversation with her arms folded. Indeed, she wore a simple blouse, vest, and trousers in green and brown, while the rest of them were clad in robes of a pale bronze color deliberately reminiscent of the sands in the titanic hourglass which loomed off to the side.

“Oh, ‘aven’t ye guessed?” Idrie chimed merrily. “She’s the boss of us, an’ now of you, too! That there’s the high priestess of Vemnesthis, an’ the one from whom you’ll be gettin’ yer marchin’ orders from now on.”

“She’s out of uniform,” Yalda added with barely-concealed dislike, “because she gets to go home.”

“The Scions have no home but this citadel in time, and no life but our service,” Chao Lu Shen said in his soft voice, “and never see the world of our birth save on missions in the name of Vemnesthis. Except for our leader, who has the privilege of a dual existence. When not directing us, she returns to her own affairs in the mortal realm.”

“In your entire life,” Aradidjad asked Tellwyrn bitterly, “have you ever encountered a rule that actually applied to you? Or do you just apply them to others?”

“Yes, yes, how very put-upon you all are,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone. “You all know exactly what you did to end up here—especially you,” she added, tilting her head to stare over the rims of her spectacles at Aradidjad. “I should think it would be fresh enough in your mind. Complain if it makes you feel better, but I’ll warn you up front that it won’t, in the long term. And the long term is what you’d better start thinking of. There are no short terms, here.”

“You have barely begun to dislike Arachne Tellwyrn,” Rispin said with a sarcastic smile which strongly suggested he wasn’t of Narisian origin. “She is an abrasive, unlovable onion whose many noxious layers you have all the time in the world to open, one by one. But, and this is one of her most annoying traits, she is very seldom wrong. She’s not wrong now. Don’t dwell on your anger, comrade. It will only make you miserable, and gain you nothing.”

Offering him no response, Aradidjad stared at Tellwyrn through narrowed eyes in the ensuing silence. She glanced aside; yep, Kaolo was still glaring at her. That was going to get very old, very quickly.

Then, before her better judgment could kick in and dissuade her, she whirled and dashed for the edge of the platform.

No one tried to stop her; no one even exclaimed in surprise, with the exception of Idrie, whose whoop could only be taken as encouragement. Aradidjad only had to take four long steps to reach the edge of the un-railed platform and hurl herself off into the infinite abyss.

She had, fortunately, plunged into a section of space with no structures under it…or perhaps unfortunately. Involuntarily flailing her limbs, she plummeted past rope bridges and more platforms, and barely missed skinning herself on the long bulk of a floating lighthouse (of all the absurd things), and then she was falling through sheer nothing, toward nothing. Stars drifted all around; in her spinning descent, she caught glimpses of the base of the hourglass, retreating above her along with the citadel of the Scions. It was smooth and rounded on the bottom, filled with sand, and rapidly shrinking behind her…

And then time slowed, and stopped. For a second, she hung there, fixed in place. Then it began to run in reverse, dragging her helplessly along.

Aradidjad rose straight back up, unable to move against the rewind but conscious of it. She shot past hovering structures to the edge of the platform on which Tellwyrn and the other Scions stood, staring at her—not caught in her rewind, she noticed—as she landed on its edge, jogged backward a few steps without the ability to so much as protest, and was finally released, standing in exactly the position from which she’d started.

“Wow,” Yalda drawled, sounding oddly impressed. “Most people have to deal with this place for a few years before trying that.”

“Oh, we’ve got us a live one ‘ere, we ‘ave!” Idrie crowed.

“I was wondering about the lack of safety rails,” Aradidjad commented.

“You’ll be glad to know,” said Tellwyrn dryly, “or perhaps not so glad, that if you land on something solid and crush yourself like an egg on the cobblestones, it works exactly the same. You work for Vemnesthis, now, and nobody’s going to get you out of it. Not even Vidius.”

“We’ll see,” Aradidjad replied, staring her down.

Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well. All right, since you all look so bored, it’s mission time.”

There were a few muted groans, but clearly everyone present knew the futility of protest. Tellwyrn continued barking orders, ignoring them.

“Chao Lu Shen, back to the library and prepare to assist your colleagues. Q, fetch a service pistol for Aradidjad here and meet her by Shaft Six. Kaolu, I’ll have a bowl of kake udon with a slice of tangerine ginger cheesecake for dessert. Rispin, you’re delivering a first warning to an arcanist in Akhvaris; no special accommodations with the culture are necessary this time, I want you to scare the hell out of her. You’ll embark from Shaft Two. Yalda, there’s another tribal group fucking around with that off-kilter hellgate in Arkania, a century and a half after the last batch. Same drill as before. Chao Lu Shen will brief you on their etiquette; we’re assuming at this point that they’ll comply with a divine messenger. If not, we’ll try harsher measures. Shaft Eleven. Ardidjad, you’re doing a recruitment, Shaft Six. The shafts are clearly numbered, just head clockwise around the platforms from here and you’ll get there.”

“Honestly, that mess again?” Yalda whined. “Since you’re the one who can bloody well leave, can’t you straighten that damn thing out? It’s a big, red, glowing button with a ‘poke me’ sign for anyone with a shred of arcane or infernal talent.”

“You’re not wrong,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “but options are few in that period. In my official capacity as Vemnesthis’s representative I have repeatedly asked the local cults to intervene, but the Avenists have their hands full with the other hellgate in that region and the Salyrites aren’t yet organized enough in that century to be much use. It’s long before I came along, or I’d just do it myself. My next gambit will be Vesk; he’s annoying to deal with, but if I can get him to make a quest of it some adventurers will eventually straighten it out. That’s why I want you to be polite to these people. I don’t think this group will help, but try to persuade them to stabilize the gate instead of making use of it. If they won’t, just get them to leave it alone; there’ll be another group along in another eighty years who will be more accommodating.”

“Feh,” Yalda grunted, flouncing off. “Anything to avoid adventurers. All they do is make a mess…”

“Hang on,” Aradidjad protested while the group dispersed, with the exceptions of Rispin and Kaolu, the latter of whom didn’t stop eerily staring at her even while cooking up some kind of noodle soup with ingredients he appeared to have conjured out of thin air. “I just got here! You’re sending me—I mean, isn’t there training or something?”

“We learn by doing,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smile. “Shaft Six, off you go.”

“I don’t even have the uniform!”

“Don’t you?”

Aradidjad paused and looked down on herself. Her avuncular suit was gone; she was inexplicably dressed in a set of those golden-beige robes, apparently tailored to her.

“Already,” she observed, “I really hate you.”

“I suggest you get over that, since it doesn’t harm anyone but you. Need something, Rispin?”

“A request,” said the drow, who had remained behind while the others scattered. “Would you please direct Yalda last this time? You’re always unusually grouchy after dealing with her.”

“And you thought that would help my mood?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be on my cheesecake by then; gods know I’ll need it. Get to your assignment, Rispin.”

“I don’t understand,” Aradidjad said plaintively.

“Through the auspices of our divine benefactor,” Tellwyrn informed her while Rispin strode away, “I will be your eyes and ears while you are on mission; you are the hands and feet. I’ll be feeding you instructions and watching your progress the whole time you’re working.”

“Well, that’s creepy as hell. So… You’re going to direct everyone at once?”

“No, sequentially. I can multi-task, but there’s no reason to, and these things go off much more smoothly when I focus on one person at a time.”

“Then we each have to wait for the one before to finish before we…” She trailed off when Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah. Right. Never mind.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the elf said with mild amusement. “Everything about your brain wants to deal with time as a linear construct. The way things work here takes significant getting used to. If anybody makes fun of you for it, know that they started in exactly the same place, and also you have my blessing to shove them off a platform. Now, off you go. Shaft Six, already. Chop chop.”

Aradidjad sighed and slouched away, aware without looking behind that Kaolu was staring at her back until she was out of sight.

Despite the chaotic appearance of the citadel, there was a logic to it—at least, to the elevator shafts. She found number Six without trouble, and found Q waiting impatiently at its foot.

“Finally,” he grunted at her. “Take the scenic route, did you?”

“I have Tellwyrn’s permission to push you off the platform,” she informed him.

“Yes, and that runs both ways, doctor. This is your service revolver.” He held out the object on both open palms.

Aradidjad stared at the thing for a moment, before gingerly taking it by what was clearly the handle. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to hold it, based on the handle’s position and the obvious clicker mechanism, and it was clearly a weapon, but… “Okay. But what is it?”

“An extrapolation from a design which I gather comes along after your time,” he rumbled. “The originals used controlled explosions to fire shaped metal projectiles at close to the speed of sound—”

“That would absolutely destroy any known energy shield,” Aradidjad breathed in fascination, studying the revolver with a new respect.

“Until shielding charms grew more sophisticated to adapt, yes,” Q said impatiently. “That’s neither here nor there. This one uses arcane power crystals instead of bullets, because you cannot be leaving material evidence anywhere you’re going. Each time you squeeze the trigger—”

“You mean the clicker?”

“…the trigger,” he said deliberately, glaring at her, “it will engage one of the power crystals to fire an energy beam, and the cylinder will rotate to bring the next crystal into alignment—”

“Thus entirely avoiding the overheating problem of conventional lightning wands and enabling a much faster rate of fire!” she exclaimed, delighted. Aradidjad had never been a weapons enthusiast, but always appreciated clever applications of engineering and enchantment.

Q snorted loudly, making his mustache bristle. “I can tell you’re going to be a world of fun, doctor. You are under no circumstances to fire that weapon in the material world while on mission. Any problems you encounter will be handled by Tellwyrn—”

“How? I thought the whole point of her staying here was to provide logistical support while we’re the ones in the field?”

“Dr. Aradidjad,” Q stated calmly, “if you interrupt me one more time, I will take that weapon back from you and shoot you with it. I will then continue to do so each time you rewind until Tellwyrn comes down here and makes me stop. Do we have an understanding?”

“Ah. So that’s how we avoid injury with no medics.”

“Yes, yes,” he sighed. “Go ahead, get it out of your system now.”

So she shot him in the head.

The revolver produced a sharp beam, blue in color and less intense than the enchanter wands with which she was familiar. It also had more of a kinetic element, clearly. The bolt entered cleanly through a small hole it bore into his forehead, but erupted out the back of his skull in a veritable explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments.

The rewind was fascinating to watch when she wasn’t caught in the middle of it. Pieces of Q’s head flew neatly back into place and he staggered back upright.

“There,” he said sourly, “feel better?”

“That really is amazing,” she said admiringly, and shot him through the heart.

“Knock it off, Aradidjad,” Tellwyrn’s voice sounded right in her ears, making her jump. Q lurched back toward her in a reverse of the blow which had flung him bodily away—that revolver had serious punching power, far more than any wand—and the hole in his chest mended itself. “Q, finish your spiel, please, I want to get this one in the field so I can play with her.”

“Gladly,” he snorted. “As I was saying, you are not to fire that weapon on the mortal realm. Most Scions never have an occasion to use their service pistols at all. It is only for emergency use against hazards you may rarely encounter in the place between, which is the medium used to travel to different time periods and locations.”

She frowned. “Where’s that?”

“Where you’re going next,” Tellwyrn said with ominous good cheer. “Thank you, Q, you’re dismissed. Now up the elevator, Aradidjad, your first mission awaits.”

Deliberately not allowing her trepidation to slow her, she stepped into the elevator. “Did you say you’re sending me on a recruitment? Why is that my first mission?”

“Because they’re easy,” Tellwyrn’s disembodied voice informed her as the elevator ascended with no prompting from its passenger. “Place the revolver against your side at a height that’s comfortable for you to draw it from; a holster will automatically appear on your robes and contain it. And don’t worry, Aradidjad, I’ll be guiding you every step of the way.”

“And let me guess,” she said sourly. “You can make that rewind thing happen at will, not just in response to lethal injury.”

“Precisely! You have as many chances as you’ll need to do it right. It’s not dangerous work, doctor; it’s far more likely to be tedious. Nothing ever goes off perfectly on the first try. But with all of time itself at our disposal, perfection is a very attainable standard. Vemnesthis requires nothing less.”

“Lovely,” she grunted.

“Oh, don’t be surly, your face’ll freeze that way. I’ll tell you what, after everyone’s back from assignment, we’ll have a movie night to welcome you aboard.”

“…movie…night?”

“It’s Chao Lu Shen’s turn to pick, which means it’ll be early Madouris talkies, but they’re not bad. You’ll appreciate those when Kaolu’s turn comes, he makes us watch these truly inexplicable Glassian art films.”

“Am I expected to have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about?”

“Not at this juncture, no,” Tellwyrn said with a laugh that made Aradidjad really wish she could shoot her. “Come along, no dallying.”

The elevator chimed pleasantly, coming to a stop at the shimmering gateway at the top of its shaft. Aradidjad drew in a breath, but did not hesitate in stepping through it. Not because she gave a flying damn what her bossy captor thought about anything, but for her own sake she refused to fall into timidity.

On the other side, though, she had to stop, staring.

She did not recognize this town; it apparently empty of life. There was something wavery and indistinct about the air, an effect she could not quite place. The silence was absolute and frighteningly oppressive.

Worst was the sky; there wasn’t one. Instead was a vast mass of eyes, tentacles, claws, bulbous protrusions of pulsating flesh. It was as if the world were completely surrounded by heaving monstrosities, themselves the size of planets.

All of which, suddenly, were looking directly at her.

“Come on, Aradidjad, chop chop,” Tellwyrn prompted her cheerfully. “Off you go! Time waits for no one.”

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