Tag Archives: Rector

16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 47

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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”

Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”

A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.

“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”

She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.

Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.

“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.

Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”

“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”

“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.

The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”

The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”

“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.

“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”

Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”

“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”

In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”

Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.

“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”

“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”

“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”

The enchanter grunted, going back to work.

“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”

“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”

“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”

“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”

Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.

“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”

Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”

“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”

“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.

“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”

“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”

Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”

He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.

Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.

“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.

The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”

“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.

Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.

Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.

“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.

“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”


He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.

He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.

Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.

This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.

Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.

“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.

“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.

“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.

“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”

Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”

“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”

“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.

“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”

“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”

“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”

“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”

Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.

“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”

Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.

Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.


Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.

The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.

Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.

“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”

“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”

“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”

He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”

“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.

“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”

“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.

“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.

“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.

Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”

“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”

“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”

“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.

“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”

“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”

His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.

“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”

“What are we moving out for?” November asked.

“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”


“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”

“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”

“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”

He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”

She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”

“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”

Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”

“Always and forever,” he promised.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”

“Too right you fucking do.”

“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”

“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”

Then it closed with a decisive click.

“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”

The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.

“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”

Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.

Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.

It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.

Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.

Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.

On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.

A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.

“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”

Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.

As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.

“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”

The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”

The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”

“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.

So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.

Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.

“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”

“For?”

“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”

“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”

“Must be nice.”

“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”

“Good of you to notice.”

She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”

That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.

And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.

“Fuck.”


It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.

The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.

In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.

Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.

They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.

It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.

Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.

The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.

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16 – 34

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“Thank you,” Rasha said quietly enough not to interrupt the ongoing discussion as she accepted the mug of hot cocoa.

“Ma’am,” McGraw answered at the same volume, smiling and tugging the brim of his hat to her before turning to pick up another cup from the tray he’d set on the end table and offer it to Shahai.

Watching him, Rasha did not miss the inherent cleverness of the old man positioning himself as the de facto housemaid; it was a discreet but undeniably effective strategy for keeping himself in the good graces of the large group of dangerous women occupying the living room, nearly all of them Avenist and several of uncertain motivations.

Joe hadn’t employed any such strategy, but then…he was Joe. It was less likely to occur to him than to the more experienced old wizard, and anyway, Joe was probably the most inoffensive person in the room. He stood against the wall out of everyone’s way, listening with his arms folded and—unlike far too many teenage boys—reflecting his lack of anything to contribute by keeping his mouth shut and bothering no one. The only person in the safe house who even might be misandrist enough to take issue with Joe’s existence was, herself, subdued and seemed so depressed that even Rasha felt a grudging pity for her. Grudging, and very slight.

The woman in question found herself the center of attention at that moment as both McGraw and Shahai turned on her, with a mug of cocoa and a question, respectively.

The seats in the safe house’s small living room were mostly taken and Sister Magden, being the least favored person present, hadn’t managed to snag one. She was sitting on the other end table in a slouched posture with her head down, arms wrapped around her scabbarded sword as if clinging to it for comfort.

It was a couple of seconds before she responded to either of them, finally looking up at McGraw patiently holding out the steaming cup to her. Mutely, she shook her head, and he withdrew with a smooth bowing motion that made Rasha wonder if he’d ever been a waiter.

“Magden?” Shahai prompted.

“Sorry, I was…” Magden turned to the elf. “What did you say?”

“You told Rasha you were looking to get in contact with General Avelea,” Shahai repeated, showing no sign of impatience. She was one of those people who gave the impression that impatience was an entirely foreign concept to her. “What did you need her for?”

“Oh.” If anything, Magden’s shoulders slumped further. “I was… I sought to ask her personal intercession with Avei on behalf of Sister Lanora. I understand the point of a public punishment of that magnitude for political purposes, but I believe it was unfair. Lanora was—we were misguided, the goddess made that clear. But she was always a good priestess, who did what she believed right. I thought…she deserves another chance. At least, I did,” she added bitterly, her voice dropping to a bare whisper. “Apparently I didn’t know any of my sisters as well as I thought. I cannot believe women I trained and prayed alongside would try to do something so contemptible as what I saw tonight.”

Shay let out a loud, expressive snort, and Casey lightly swatted the back of her head.

“It might comfort you to know, Magden, that by far the majority of your erstwhile comrades have done exactly as the goddess commanded,” Shahai said gently. “About two thirds have already left the city alone or in small groups, departing for unrelated destinations. The Sisterhood lacks a comprehensive intelligence network, but Tiraas has only two publicly accessible gates and two Rail stations; it is not hard to watch the comings and goings. Plus, most of them abandoned their Purist gear in the section of the Temple barracks they’d taken over. Tabards, chainmail, bracers, and swords; the High Commander has set our quartermasters to examining them for hints as to their origins. We can dare to hope that those you saw tonight were the only ones engaged in such depravity, but I’m sure I needn’t caution you all not to hang too much trust on optimism.”

She swept her gaze around the room, receiving nods of acknowledgment.

“I believe I have the full picture now,” Shahai continued. “I must inform you all that I received a message from General Avelea herself just before Sergeant Elwick’s reached me. She has to travel to Veilgrad tonight on political business, and in fact will be taking Bishop Darling, who I understand has been an ally in this matter. That means that until tomorrow, we are effectively on our own. Right now our priority has to be locating the remaining Purists, and most especially Sister Lanora. Their whole order was clearly propped up by the Universal Church as a ploy to divide and damage the Sisterhood, and now that that has failed, those women and the knowledge they hold present a danger to the Archpope’s operational security. They are prime targets either for recruitment into his inner circle, or elimination. We must find and secure them.”

“Why?” Shay demanded. “We’re talkin’ about a bunch of morons whose entire shtick was dragging Avei’s name through the mud so they could have an excuse to bully people. Screw ‘em, I don’t see how this is worth stickin’ our necks out.”

Magden’s expression darkened further, but she didn’t look up from her steady examination of the carpet at her feet.

“First of all,” Shahai replied, turning a flat stare on Shay, “because Justinian has a long pattern of recruiting hopeless individuals and honing them into effective servants; every warm body we keep out of his coterie now is a better trained and better armed problem we won’t have to deal with later. And second, Shay, the Purists were dealt with by Avei. As of that declaration, those who have not gone on to commit further crimes are not wanted for any offense, and those who have should be duly tried and punished under the law. Leaving them to be brutally silenced in some back alley the way they tried to do with Rasha is not acceptable in either case.”

Shay looked less than convinced, but offered no further objection, just sprawling back into her armchair.

“There is also the reason Justinian will be motivated to secure or silence them: Lanora and possibly others possess materially useful intelligence which we need. Knowing that the Archpope is behind so much recent trouble is not the same as being able to prove it. If we can definitively link something to him, we will gather a great deal more support and the Empire can bring its resources to bear on him.”

“Why did you let Lanora out of your sight in the first place, then?” Rasha asked pointedly. “I mean, not you specifically, Sister Nandi, but…”

“I take your point, and it’s valid,” Shahai said, nodding to her. “Were the Sisterhood a governmental or solely military organization, she probably would have been held and interrogated. But it is first and foremost a faith, and lacks the legal authority to involuntarily detain an excommunicated individual within the Empire. I personally would have had her followed, at the very least, but evidently that did not occur to anyone at the time.” She pursed her lips in disapproval.

“How’re we gonna find ‘er, then?” Joe asked quietly.

Shahai nodded. “As Sister Magden has lost contact with her, we are forced to fall back on the measures you used to locate the Purists this evening. With apologies, Casey, I need to divide and direct your team.”

“Nandi, it’s me,” Casey said, grinning. “I’m not Locke, you don’t have to explain what a chain of command is every single time. What’re your orders?”

Shahai gave her an amused smile in response as she answered. “Bandi, Elias, I need you to attempt to locate Sister Lanora via magic. Do you believe you can do it?”

“I will try,” Sister Bandi said, bowing. “My magic is paltry, I warn you. I cannot predict the outcome of the attempt.”

“Worth a shot,” McGraw agreed. “I can do a bit with sympathetic principles… It’d help if we’ve got anything connected to her. Somethin’ of hers, ideally somethin’ she valued.”

Magden raised her head as everyone turned to look at her. Straightening, she fished in the neck of her robe and pulled out a small talisman, an Avenist golden eagle carved in a disc of ebony, hanging on a chain. “Lanora gave me this. She made it herself, years ago, and wore it for over a decade.”

“That’ll do,” McGraw said, both he and Bandi nodding. “That’ll do quite nicely. I do warn you, ma’am, any divine charm on it’s likely to be degraded by me doin’ arcane craft at it…”

“It is not blessed,” Magden said softly, rubbing her thumb across the sigil. “Just…special.”

“Excellent,” Shahai said crisply. “Sister Magden, I would like you to assist them as best you are able. I remind you that Lanora may be in danger if we cannot find her.”

“I’ll help in any way I can.”

“Good. Casey, please remain here to coordinate and supervise; make sure they have everything they need. Meanwhile, Shay, Joseph and I will escort Rasha and Private Medvidaar. First to an Imperial police station to file a report on the Purists’ attack this evening; it will be politically important for a record of their actions to be in government hands, and this will provide the Empire with a pretext to bring pressure to bear upon both the Church and the Huntsmen. After that we can conduct Rasha back to Tamisin Sharvineh’s house, and the Private to the Temple. I believe the five of us represent a group which would deter anyone willing to attempt an ambush in the city.”

“Why don’t we just keep Rasha here?” Shay suggested. “Y’know, where we can keep an eye on ‘er ourselves.”

“Why don’t we ask what Rasha thinks of all this?” Rasha countered, raising one eyebrow.

“There is that,” Shahai agreed. “We are certainly not going to coerce Rasha into anything. I do hope you agree with me on the importance of making a police report?”

“It’s never my first instinct,” Rasha conceded, “but it’d be interesting to be in a police station on the right side of the bars for once.”

“I’m sure,” Shahai replied, smiling. “As for the rest, I am not attempting to get rid of you; I simply think you will be safer at home. This safehouse’s only defense is its anonymity, and when we are working specifically against Church and Sisterhood personnel it may not even have that. By contrast, the Sharvineh mansion is a target I understand even the Svennish intelligence service did not dare assault.”

“No, it’s fine, I agree,” Rasha assured her, taking Zafi’s hand. “I’d really like to get home, anyhow. You sure Zafi will be all right back at the Temple?”

“Wherever the Purists are, they’re not there,” Zafi replied. “That’s the one place we know they’re not. Nobody’s gonna try to snatch a Legionnaire out of her own cohort. And when I’m not drilling with the squad I can stick near Sister Azelea.”

“I will also make an effort to keep an eye on you, Private,” Shahai promised, “at least until we are sure the immediate situation has been resolved. Does anyone have further questions? Good, then let us get to work. Time is short and growing shorter.”


“So…I understand the problem.” She stood in the center of the chamber, clawed hands on her hips and her wings neatly folded against her back so that they flowed behind her like a rigid cape of feathers, with their small claws rising above her shoulders. “The machine must be, in essence, rebuilt from scratch after the damage it suffered. The work takes time because it is a secret of the highest order, so no one is trusted to help you work on it. And also, no one knows how. Plus, it is made mostly of pieces which are rare and expensive, including many irreplaceable Elder God artifacts for which there can be no substitution. Even with the search ongoing, it might be years before enough have been gathered, and…possibly never. I understand.”

The underground space had at least been cleaned up over the last four months, and was no longer a charred wreckage of mechanical and enchanting parts. Now, the equipment arrayed around it and climbing all the walls encircling the broad summoning circle in which she stood was clearly in a half-built state, with incomplete metal structures bristling from the floor, unfastened wires trailing, copper and glass rods extending from various machines into empty air, and miscellaneous parts strewn about either loose or in crates.

She heaved a deep sigh, then grudgingly nodded. “I owe you an apology, then, Rector. I am sorry for implying you were deliberately stalling. The work you do must be very difficult.”

Azradeh turned when there was no response save the continuing soft clatter of a wrench on the inscrutable cabinet on which he was working, something that resembled a twelve-foot-tall grandfather clock with glowing parts and a face which depicted a swirling portal into some mysterious darkness.

“Rector?” she prompted. “Did you hear me? Please respond.”

“I’m not deaf!” the man abruptly shouted in exasperation, not looking up from what he was doing. In fact, it sounded like he was tightening bolts harder all of a sudden. “Omnu’s breath, woman, will you go away?! I am trying to work!”

Azradeh tilted her head, studying him curiously. Rector was an odd one, and truthfully rather annoying to deal with, but she felt no animosity toward him. Of the very few people with whom she had contact, only two treated her…in a word, normally. Colonel Ravoud and Delilah were both polite, but their tense bearing never let her forget that she was a creature capable of tearing them apart bare-handed, that her name was a byword for terror and destruction in their language. Branwen set off alarms in her head just by being in the room. Justinian himself, of course, was always kind and composed, but he was his own kettle of fish. Only Rector didn’t seem to care at all what she was. It made her like him, despite his congenital lack of even the most basic social skills.

“A cogent analysis, Azradeh, but there is another important factor which limits us further.”

She turned again, regarding the Archpope himself as he descended from the half-rebuilt control platform to join her on the summoning circle below.

“When we rescued you,” Justinian explained, leaning his head back to look up at the central point on the ceiling where a secondary energy nexus would be housed when the great machine was activated, “another being…intervened. Something extra-dimensional and extremely powerful. We must do considerable research to determine what effect this had, and plan for it before trying again. That alone is prohibitive.”

“I see,” she murmured. “Then there’s no telling when I can see my sisters again. Or if.”

Justinian laid one hand gently on her upper arm; he alone was unafraid to touch her. Well, Rector wasn’t afraid either, but he loudly disliked being touched at all, as she had discovered.

“What can be done can be repeated; it is simply a question of the difficulty and the cost. Sometimes, they are too great to attempt in practical terms. In this case, I refuse to accept that possibility unless it is forced upon us. We will rescue your sisters, if it can at all be done. I simply cannot predict when. I’m sorry, Azradeh.”

She shook her head. “Everyone is doing what they can. I feel like I could be doing more. Maybe I could help Rector?”

Head buried in his clock-like apparatus, Rector emitted a feral growl that echoed oddly.

“I certainly don’t understand how this thing works, but I can follow simple directions. You can’t tell me someone who can lift giant metal beams and cling to the ceiling wouldn’t be useful—”

“KEEP THE DAMN DEMON OUT OF HERE!” the enchanter bellowed. “NOTHING BUT INTERRUPTIONS! LET ME FOCUS!”

Delilah was already descending from the platform, giving them one of her pointed looks, the one which presaged a lecture about how much more difficult it would be for her to calm and re-focus Rector after this.

“Perhaps we have interrupted his work enough for the time being,” Justinian said discreetly.

Azradeh sighed. “Fair enough. I’ll see you later, Rector. Don’t forget to eat something, okay?”

With surprising accuracy, he hurled a brass-framed power crystal at her. Azradeh made no response, not even blinking as it bounced off her temple.

“I’m wearing him down,” she assured the Archpope while the two of them climbed the steps toward the control platform. As the passed, Delilah pressed a hand over her eyes.

“I am not sure that approach will work,” Justinian said delicately once they had passed out into the hall beyond. “There is a method to befriending people like Rector. Pressuring them is not part of it.”

“People like Rector, huh,” she mused. “So is there a name to what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” he said without hesitation. “He is different, that’s all. But yes, we have at least a partial understanding of it. The dwarves have made a scientific study of this in recent decades, and elven tribes have traditional methods of raising such individuals. They appear to occur naturally in every race in small numbers. Most people, Azradeh, have minds that are made up in large part of people-related instincts, innate skills which enable us to recognize and interact with one another. Rector, and those like him, are born missing some or all of those aptitudes; they are replaced with other capacities. As you have doubtless observed, his talents lie elsewhere. We simply must extend more than the usual tolerance and understanding to help him make those skills useful to us all.”

“Hmmm. So they’re always gifted enchanters?”

“No, and no,” he replied, smiling. “They do tend to produce savants, but in various fields; enchanting happens to be Rector’s particular specialty. But even so, not the majority. Most are simply people, with a condition, and their own talents and abilities like anyone else.”

“I wonder if it’s really worth the effort of extra care, then, if they’re not mostly as useful as Rector…”

“Always, if only to avoid the judgment of how useful someone is. The effort is worth it, regardless of any singular result yielded. Making that effort to care for others is what determines that we are a society which does so, as opposed to one in which people are merely exploited for whatever utility can be wrought from them. The former always creates a stronger and more resilient social order than the latter.”

“Collective over individual utility,” she mused, nodding slowly. “I can see the logic. I wonder if they have similar ideas in Hell.”

“Our knowledge of that is secondhand at best,” the Archpope said gravely, “but indications are very much the opposite. Back to the present, I’m sorry about the sparring golem you were using. I was only just informed.”

“Oh. I guess I’m the one who should apologize,” she said, grimacing.

“Not in the least.” With one of his caring smiles, Justinian patted her again on the shoulder. They had arrived at her room; Azradeh hadn’t been going anywhere in particular, just following him, and now allowed him to gently usher her in while he continued speaking. “I’ll make arrangements to bring you another one as soon as I am back above, but…I fear the thing will happen again, eventually. Unfortunately, those things simply aren’t made to withstand strength like yours. I truly am sorry, Azradeh. It’s hard to provide means for you to exercise down here.”

“I’d really like the chance to fly,” she said, wandering over to her music player—a rare and expensive enchanted device, so she understood, and which she treasured—and lightly rested her claws atop it without reaching for one of the sound disks. “I feel that would help me…remember. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of me visiting the surface soon?”

It had been a desultory question with no real expectation behind it, but he gave her a pleased smile in response. “In fact, I finally have good news about that! You know the reasons we must maintain discretion, but I have been monitoring an ongoing situation which I think will provide exactly the pretext we need to let you stretch your wings above a bit. I am carefully nudging it in the proper direction; with a little bit of luck, I expect to be able to bring you up within the next few days.”

“Really?” She looked up at him, smiling in genuine anticipation.

“It is not set in stone yet,” he cautioned, “but I have committed to the plan. If it does not pan out, I will re-prioritize to put aside some other concerns and arrange an outing for you in the near future. I owe you that much, at the very least.” The Archpope’s eyes fell on her well-stocked bookcase, next to her reading desk, and he reached out to draw his fingertip through the light coating of dust on the spines of the theological histories on the top shelf. “Are you…not interested in reading about your family?”

“I’m interested,” she said, letting her own expression grow more pensive, “but…concerned about prejudicing myself. Nothing has brought up memory, not as an explicit recollection of something I could describe, but I do get flashes of feeling. A sense of familiarity about some things. I’m concerned about corrupting my perception, so to speak. If it’s going to come back to me, I’d like it to come before I start filling my head with other people’s ideas about what my sisters and I were like.”

“I do see the sense in that,” he said, his eyes falling on one of the volumes laid on the desk. “Ah, that’s right, you did ask for a copy of Branwen’s book. Have you finished already?”

Azradeh snorted. “In the sense that I read four chapters and now I’m finished with it, yes. What a bunch of absolute piffle. It’s all self-aggrandizing nonsense—anybody who already believes that stuff doesn’t need the encouragement, and anyone who does need it isn’t going to have their life changed by a book. The whole thing is nothing but selling people validation.”

“I suspect no one involved in the creation of this book would dispute that,” he said, his smile a touch wry. “It was a mechanism to improve Branwen’s public perception, and did its job quite well. Of course, I will continue to supply you with more reading material. Have you any specific requests?”

“Oh!” She looked up from her shelf of music disks, smiling. “That reminds me, could I get a newspaper subscription?”

The Archpope did not betray any emotional reaction, not by so much as a blink. “Newspaper?”

“Or several of them, ideally,” she went on, frowning at the disks. “Why are these out of order… Oh, that’s right, I re-shelved in a hurry after…anyway.” Azradeh set about sorting her music collection, speaking in a distracted tone. “Newspapers are mentioned in more recent books; it sounds like a great way for me to get up to speed on the modern world. Oh! Even better, what about some magazines? The books are great, but I like the idea of something more, how to put it… Ephemeral? Connected to the current moment in time. It sounds from what I read like magazines aren’t very well respected in literary circles. That sounds ideal.”

“That should be quite easy,” Justinian replied, smiling again. “Yes, I will have a selection brought for you immediately. Magazines are usually quite focused in their subject matter; you can pick those which most interest you and I will have them delivered regularly.”

“That’s fantastic, thanks!” Azradeh said brightly, giving him a smile as she slipped the last disk back into its place.

The conversation continued as usual and she showed no further reaction to betray the victory she had just won; revealing that she was even aware of a victory would have likely undone her efforts.

Azradeh might not have memories, but she still had instincts, and every one of them had screamed at her from the beginning that Archpope Justinian could not be trusted—and that further, revealing that she sensed this would place her in danger. This, finally, was hard confirmation. That his response to the idea of her receiving newspapers was anything other than the prompt “yes, of course” with which he had answered all her requests for entertainment and education showed he was invested in controlling her understanding of the world outside. And that meant both that she had zero chance of getting newspaper subscriptions, and that she must swiftly dispel any suspicion on his part that she sought to wriggle out from under his control.

Hence the magazines. They would reveal less about the current world, particularly a selection curated by Justinian himself, but they would reveal something, in little bits and pieces. And even better, he all but had to accede to the request in order to keep her distracted from the more dangerous subject of newspapers.

For now, Azradeh would continue slowly gather information and play along with whatever he was doing, certain only that his final goals were not what he was telling everyone. It might be that his true agenda was in her best interests after all, and if not, better that she be trusted and in a position to do something about it. Even if she hadn’t the recollection of her history, millennia of habit still cautioned her to keep her friends close and enemies closer, at least until she could tell the difference.

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15 – 78

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She wasn’t laboring on the omnipresent, never-ending paperwork for once. The office was quiet and dim as usual by that hour of the evening, the moonlight pouring through its large windows not competing with the warmer glow of the fairy lamp sitting on her desk. Tonight, Tellwyrn had elected to take some personal time, brushing all the papers to be graded into a filing cabinet and indulging in one of the hobbies she was least inclined to admit to in public.

Not that she’d ever have contended that it was good poetry, but the satisfaction was in the creating, not the having. Most of them she shredded, anyway. Tellwyrn paused with her pen hovering above the parchment, considering syllables and studying the kanji already marked down. Haiku didn’t really work properly in anything but Sifanese, in her opinion, having tried it in several languages. It was an aesthetic matter of the syllabic structure of the language, not blind adherence to custom; had she been a stickler for tradition she would be using a brush, not a pen.

She sighed heavily at the soft flutter of wings on the windowsill outside. Setting down the pen, she blew gently on the ink to dry it, then carefully picked up and tapped the stack of papers into neat order, ignoring the tapping from the glass behind her. The professor continued not to acknowledge it while it grew steadily more insistent until she had meticulously filed away the pages in a desk drawer, locked it, stowed the key in her vest pocket, and capped her inkwell, all with careful and precise little motions.

Then she whirled, grabbed the window, and roughly threw it open.

“Fucking what?” Tellwyrn demanded.

Mary the Crow swung her legs into the room. “Arachne, we must speak.”

“Well, it’s not like I expected a social call,” Tellwyrn retorted. “What’ve you done this time, lost another dryad?”

“It was you who—no, never mind, I’m not going to play that game with you tonight. It’s about the Arquin boy, and that sword of his.”

“Yes, Ariel.” Tellwyrn leaned back in her chair, scooting it back from the window and smirking faintly. “Who has never spoken in my presence. Arquin showed her to Alaric but has never asked my opinion about it. I think he’s afraid I’ll confiscate the thing.”

“He seemed to fear I would do the same,” Mary replied, her expression intent and grim. “It is an original Qestrali magister’s blade, Arachne. According to the boy himself, Salyrene confirmed this. Do you know anything of the significance of such weapons?”

“I figured it might be,” Tellwyrn mused. “Not many other mages have worked out the method. Yes, that’s what they do to the really naughty criminals, right? Not murderers or anything so pedestrian, but the ones with opinions the Magistry doesn’t care to hear.”

“You are barking up the wrong tree if you think I’m going to defend the Magistry,” Mary replied, eyes still intent on hers. “I went to Qestraceel before coming here to check on something. Arachne… They are not missing one.”

“Huh,” Tellwyrn grunted. “And?”

The Crow’s jaw tightened momentarily in annoyance, but she pressed on. “He found that thing in the Crawl, did he not?”

“Yes, during an excursion while the place was somewhat dimensionally unmoored, due to my incubus messing with some old Elder God tech he found. It’s probably from an alternate universe, Kuriwa, nothing to get your knickers in a knot over.”

“Arachne,” she said quietly, “I was… I visited the Crawl once, before you arrived. Before the Third Hellwar. It was my escape route from the deep underworld.”

Tellwyrn’s eyebrows rose slightly, but she remained silent.

“I understand,” Mary continued, carefully choosing her words, “you spent many years seeking out the gods to ask something none of them were able or willing to tell you. Was it about your own origin?”

“That’s ancient history,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “You had better have a damn good reason to be digging it up again, Kuriwa.”

“I am not proud of this,” she replied, “but I did the least wrong thing I could at the time. I thought it was necessary, even despite the price. To undo a curse Elilial laid on my entire bloodline, I had to deal with Scyllith.”

Tellwyrn worked her jaw once as if biting back a retort, then said in a deceptively mild tone, “So is that where the hair comes from? Always wondered.”

The Crow drew in a deep breath. “The price Scyllith demanded for her aid was one of my kin. She said they would be removed from all memory, excised from the timeline. Only I would know that someone had been lost, but…not who.”

The silence was absolute.

“You what,” Tellwyrn finally whispered tonelessly.

“Arachne, you have to understand—”

“You knew,” the mage hissed, leaning forward. “From the very beginning. You recognized my name. If you’d been in the deep Underworld before then, you would have recognized my accent. And you are telling me this now?”

“Listen, Arachne,” she said desperately. “It was suggestive, but not proof! You do not trigger my familial sense, your hair is the wrong color, you are an arcanist when none of my descendants are—”

“Are you trying to pitch to me,” Tellwyrn snarled, standing up so abruptly that the chair smacked against the desk behind her, “that it never crossed your mind that any of that could be explained by alternate-dimension fuckery caused by the sadistic Elder God you were playing around with? You’re going to stand here at the apex of all the history between us and claim you are that blitheringly stupid?”

“I had to be sure,” Kuriwa protested.

“YOU HAD TO BE IN CONTROL,” Tellwyrn roared, and a sudden shockwave of pure kinetic force blasted the office apart, smashing its furnishings and sending the door shooting across the hall outside, but also pulverizing the window and flinging Kuriwa out into the sky.

She caught her balance in the form of a crow, squawking frantically, and Tellwyrn shot out of the ragged hole where the outer wall of her office had been, landing nimbly on a square pane of blue light that appeared conveniently under her.

Kuriwa lit on the opposite end, in elven form again, and held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Arachne, listen, consider what—”

“Thee thousand years,” Tellwyrn raged, stalking toward her, each step sending ripples across the panel beneath them. “While entire civilizations rose and fell around us, I drove myself mad scrabbling desperately for answers in every dark corner of the world, and you had them the whole time?”

“It wasn’t that simple! Given what was at stake—”

“YOUR EGO WAS AT STAKE!”

The wind rose as Kuriwa gathered the attention of familiar spirits, but not fast enough; the blessing shielded her from serious bodily harm but the bolt of pure arcane power that hit her from point-blank range was comparable in strength to a mag cannon burst. She went tumbling moccasins-over-ears again, barely catching her balance on a leaf-shaped construct of green light which coalesced out of the air and hovered atop a constant updraft conjured from nothing.

“If you want to blame me—”

“Oh, you’re damn right I blame you!” Tellwyrn hurled a pumpkin-sized orb of lightning, forcing the shaman to glide swiftly out of the way. “Spare me your dissembling, you self-obsessed old carrion feeder! From the very beginning, you had everything you needed to answer both our greatest questions and you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it because I am something you couldn’t control!”

“The risk—”

“The risk was that you might have to acknowledge someone as an equal and then deal with them!”

“Would you let me finish a sentence?” Kuriwa snapped.

“Fucking NO!”

A spray of lightning bolts burst out of nowhere around them, forming a deadly obstacle course in midair. Kuriwa dodged nimbly, directing her leaf through the crackling haze with the deftness of an acrobat while Tellwyrn stood impassive atop her glowing panel, electrical discharges snapping harmlessly against the arcane shield around her.

“You may have swallowed your own bullshit, Kuriwa, but I never have, and in the end that’s what all this is about.” Tellwyrn folded her arms, her voice suddenly dead calm again. “You are so incapable of entertaining the possibility of not being in total control of something that you’ve squandered probably the widest window of time anyone has every had in which to do anything. Three thousand years, and you could have come to me at any point. Were you not such a walking bladder full of ego and spite, you’d have taken me aside the very day we met, but no. You had to wait.”

“Arachne, please.” Kuriwa brought the leaf to a hover again.

“You waited,” Tellwyrn continued, baring her teeth in a snarl, “until I tried everything I could try, and failed. You waited while I gave up on my whole existence and spent thirty years trying to die, in a place where you were quite possibly the only person alive who could have come to find me. You waited until I moved on, you selfish piece of shit. I gave up on the whole thing, found a true purpose in life and devoted myself to it, created an actual place in the world for myself that wasn’t just passing through it in every direction while trying to find my way back to somewhere I couldn’t remember. I was finally done, and happy, and this, this is when you chose to come here and tell me all this?!”

“I understand,” Kuriwa said urgently. “I am not saying I handled everything perfectly, but—”

“PERFECTLY?”

This time it was an actual mag cannon burst, or near enough, a barrel-thick beam of pure white light which impacted the prairie below less than half a mile from Last Rock, fortunately at an angle that sprayed the debris away from the town. Kuriwa tried to evade, but the deceptively wide corona of the beam finally caused her conjured leaf to explode, forcing to catch herself in midair on her own tiny wings.

A white sphere of divine light snapped into place around her, dragging the squawking and struggling bird forward until it rested right in Tellwyrn’s hand.

The tiny shield only collapsed when her fingers closed, clamping around the crow’s neck. Arachne held it up, glaring into Kuriwa’s beady little eyes from inches apart.

“I am done with you and your shit, Kuriwa,” she stated. “Stay away from my mountain. I don’t want to see you again.”

A sheer kinetic burst erupted, just like the one which had demolished the office, but stronger; centered on Tellwyrn as it was, she was not affected, but having released her grip on the Crow in the same instant as the explosion, Kuriwa was hurled over two hundred yards into the night sky amid a spray of dislodged feathers.

Tellwyrn stood impassively atop her floating panel of arcane magic, watching the little bird catch herself in the distance, flapping desperately to right her flight.

Kuriwa started to circle back to head toward her again.

Tellwyrn held up one hand, and a whirling vortex of sheer arcane destruction manifested in her grip, causing a steady breeze as the very air was drawn into it like a black hole.

The Crow veered off in defeat and glided away to the south.

The sorceress stood there watching until she had passed beyond the limits of even elven sight, even augmented by her enchanted spectacles. Then the pane of light beneath her turned and carried her back toward the hole in the wall, in which she could see and hear several of her faculty gathering. Explaining all this and then fixing her office promised to keep her occupied for a while.

She welcomed the distraction.


“The questions are growing more and more insistent, your Holiness,” Branwen said, her expression openly worried. On his other side, Colonel Ravoud walked in silence, but wearing a matching frown of concern. “I don’t think Imperial Intelligence has more than rumor out of Ninkabi yet, but the rumors are themselves damning, and there’s just too much evidence left, too many witnesses… They will piece together an account of what happened, at least in the broad strokes. The newspapers are already all but openly attacking the Church, including some I thought were in your pocket.

“And the symbolism,” she continued, her normally controlled voice rising in pitch. “The Guild and the Sisterhood haven’t formally left the Universal Church, but with both choosing to forego representation, it’s a very bad look. That’s two of the three cults that forced out Archpope Sipasian to install Archpope Vyara in the Enchanter Wars. If even one more cult turns away, this could present a major schism. The Veskers would complete that symbolic break and they’re the most unpredictable anyway, especially with Vesk himself having been involved in Ninkabi. Given that he actually forced a public surrender from Elilial, his credibility is at an all-time high. If they do withdraw it will be a political catastrophe, and I can’t get Bishop Tavaar to even respond to my messages.”

“And the Shaathists,” Ravoud added. “They are the most loyal to your cause, your Holiness, and thanks to this Ingvar character and his splinter sect, with all the dreams and visions and portents that heralded them, Grandmaster Veisroi is going to be too occupied trying to control his own cult to lend much in the way of help.”

“Thank you, Branwen, Nassir,” Justinian said calmly. “I greatly appreciate all the work you do.”

“Your Holiness,” Branwen protested, coming to a stop. The Archpope did likewise, turning to regard her with beatific calm, and Ravoud trailed to a halt a few steps further on, glancing up and down the hallway. This corridor was deep within the tunnel system under the Cathedral; they were unlikely to encounter anyone and all but certain not to meet anyone who was not supposed to be there, but Ravoud took his duties as Justinian’s protector with the utmost seriousness.

“I understand your fears, Branwen,” the Archpope said, reaching out to lightly rest a hand on her shoulder. “They are not misplaced. All of this I have planned for with great care.”

“I believe in you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said firmly. “I knew you would be in control.”

“Control is an illusion, my friends,” Justinian warned. “All we can do is have faith, and act as best we can without fear, and with our utmost skill and effort. You are right to be concerned, Branwen. All of this is unfolding too soon, before I am ready.”

“What shall we do, your Holiness?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“I…have planned for that, as well,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I had hoped and prayed that it would not come to this. I have, ready and waiting, the means to keep the circling vultures at bay until the proper time for them to strike, but it will require me to do things which I had desperately hoped I would not need to.”

“We’re with you, whatever comes,” Ravoud assured him. Branwen nodded.

“I am deeply grateful for you both,” he said, smiling. “Come, there is little time to tarry. Preparations must be made to meet the unforeseen, but first, tonight’s business has been long awaited and should not be delayed.”

This wasn’t the first visit by either of them to this secret underground complex, though it was the first time he had brought both together. Grooming each of them to a state of assured loyalty had been a long-term project, more so in Branwen’s case than Nassir’s as she had a far more complex mind and intricate motivations. In the end, though, he felt assured of both their loyalties, now that the moment had come. As much, at least, as anyone could be assured of anything. Certainty was as much an illusion as control; a time inevitably came when one simply had to act.

Justinian led the way in silence to the iron door, tapping the proper code into the runes affixed to its frame. It opened with a soft creak under the power of its own enchantments, and he strode through, both hurrying after as the door immediately began to shut again behind them.

Delilah turned and bowed to him upon his entry, receiving a smile and a deep nod in response.

“Finally,” Rector snapped, barely looking up from his runic console. Ravoud, ever protective of the Archpope’s dignity, shot the enchanter a scowl, but held his peace. It wasn’t his first time encountering the man, and Delilah had done her best to explain Rector’s eccentricities.

The chamber was a chapel-sized apparently natural cave in the bedrock beneath Tiraas, only improved by having a door added and the floor smoothed down; the rest of the walls had been left in their natural contours, originally. Now, it was heavily built up with powerful fairly lamps to illuminate the space and its heavy-duty equipment. Machinery was arranged all around the walls, along with sturdy beams of iron and copper to hold some of it up, and intricate networks of wires, glass rods and brass tubes. Most of the structures were made of modern enchanting equipment, though there were several purely mechanical apparatuses in the dwarven style, and here and there, sticking out from the contemporary machines, ancient fragments of Infinite Order technology distinguishable by mithril surfaces and in two cases, glowing information panels. All of it was confined to the outer walls of the chamber, including the section on which they now stood, leaving a wide open space clear in its center.

“Rector,” Justinian said calmly. “Is everything prepared?”

“I’m ready,” the enchanter said peevishly. “Have been for an hour. You did your part?”

Behind Justinian, Branwen gently placed a calming hand on Ravoud’s back as the Colonel tensed in agitation.

“I have made all possible preparations,” Justinian assured him. “We should be able to proceed without drawing the interference, or even notice, of Vemnesthis.”

“Should?” Branwen asked quietly. “No disrespect meant, your Holiness, but the Scions are one cult I am simply not prepared to contend with.”

“Wouldn’t they have intervened already if they were going to?” Delilah asked.

“Not till the last second,” Rector grunted. “Their standard policy. Wait till the event is ready to occur, freeze time, disassemble machine, deliver warning. Maximum emotional impact.”

“Indeed,” Justinian said gravely. “If I have failed and the Scions do register their displeasure, that will be the end of it. Apart from the probable loss of Rector’s entire construction, I will not engage in a futile contest with such an impossible force. And so, in more ways than one, this is the moment of truth. Proceed, Rector.”

“Thinning dimensional barrier,” he said curtly, rapidly manipulating runes on his console. “May be uncomfortable, but harmless. Stay calm.”

Massive power crystals began to glow and hum, energy lit several of the glass rods and brought several pieces of moving machinery to life, and in the next moment, the very quality of the air changed. It seemed to thicken and shift color, and a feeling almost of vertigo fell over all five of them, as if the floor had tilted. It did not, however, despite Branwen stepping unsteadily over to the wall to lean against it.

“Stable,” Rector reported. “Initiating major breach.”

In the domed ceiling of the cave, light began to swirl, quickly collecting into a visible vortex like the atmospheric effect caused by new hellgates. More lights activated and another bank of machinery hummed to life. Several brass connectors began to emit sparks, and a stray arc of lightning climbed one of the steel beams lining the walls.

“Rector?” Justinian asked calmly while the others ducked.

“All within normal parameters,” Rector grunted. “Triple redundancy in crucial systems, some circuit burnout planned for. Opening it.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Branwen muttered.

The vortex in the ceiling widened, till the swirling effect was not a spiral but a border, rimming a circular space that was pitch black, as if the machinery had opened a portal onto some absolute void. No more equipment came to life, but the energy coursing through the connectors visibly and audibly intensified. A red indicator began flashing on one of the Infinite Order panels.

Rector’s control panel put off a sudden shower of sparks, causing him to dodge momentarily to one side, but he did not otherwise react, even when Delilah rushed forward.

They seemed to form out of the very air, a network of gossamer strands fanning out from the portal in every direction. Most passed through the very walls, trembling as if their other ends were affixed to targets which moved and caused the whole web to shiver, but many of the streams of ephemeral spidersilk were connected to each of them. Ravoud grimaced and tried to brush at them.

“Be calm,” Justinian urged over the noise of the enchanted machines. “They have always been there, you are only now able to see them. The webs are a visual metaphor, delineating connections. They will not harm you.”

He himself was connected directly to the portal by a single, massive cable of gnarled silk. So many streamers of spiderweb radiated away from him it was as if he were a second portal in his own right.

“Portal stable,” the enchanter stated, brusque as ever. “All values locked in. Initiating temporal phasing. Stay on this side of the console, may be disorienting if you’re too close. If the Scions interfere it’ll be now.”

He grabbed a lever and slowly eased it into an upward position.

Around the center of the open space a swirl of golden dust arose, quickly forming a helix shape in the air and then fluctuating wildly about, a tornado extending from the dimensional portal to the floor. Or, looked at another way, the upper half of an hourglass.

The Archpope’s deflections held. No Scions appeared; Vemnesthis’s attention was not drawn to the portal they had made between two points in time.

But someone else’s was.

The entire network of webs shivered, then began to shake violently. And then, suddenly, more things poked out of the portal.

Long, segmented appendages emerged, amid showers of sparks and arcs of lightning from the equipment all around as the portal was strained beyond its intended limits at the entity’s emergence. One of the colossal spider legs drove into the wall, thankfully missing the machinery; unlike the webs, this was clearly a physical projection. Its tip made a crater in the ancient stone.

“Your Holiness!” Ravoud shouted. “We have to get out of here!”

“Peace.” Justinian held up one hand, noting the way the strands of silk binding it went taut at the gesture, quivering with tension as their other ends were collected by whatever now rose on the other side of the spacetime aperture.

Someone screamed, either Deliliah or Branwen, at the sudden pressure that fell over the room, the distinctive psychic force of a consciousness orders of magnitude beyond their own looking upon them.

Amid the blackness in the center of the swirling, eight crimson eyes appeared.

Justinian flexed his forearm in a circle, gathering a physical grip on the spiderwebs, then yanked hard.

The eyes shifted, fixing their gaze upon him directly. The mental thrust of it might have crushed another person. But he was the Archpope, and even while hiding his activities from the gods, he enjoyed certain protections.

Justinian nodded once in acknowledgment, and released his grip on the webs.

With a great tearing of metal, the entire portal collapsed. All the visible magical effects dissipated and the arcane hum of the machines began to power down. The last evidence any of them could see of the metaphysical forces they had summoned was the spectral shape of a spider the size of a dragon emerging into the chamber, fading from view like a shadow from a campfire.

It was only relatively quiet, with furtive fountains of sparks and several residual electrical discharges snapping around the edges of the walls. A significant percentage of the equipment built into them had either exploded or been crushed by falling stone and beams; this great machine wasn’t going to work again any time soon. More than half of the industrial sized fairly lamps had been burned out, leaving the chamber cast in odd patterns of light and darkness.

Ravoud stepped forward, planting himself in front of Justinian with his wand in his hand.

“W-what went wrong?” Branwen asked tremulously. “That wasn’t the Scions. What was that?”

“Nothing went wrong,” Rector said.

“Excuse me?” Ravoud exclaimed. “What do you call that?”

“Unexpected side effect,” the enchanter said noncommittally. “Experiment succeeded, worked exactly as predicted. Look.”

He pointed, and they all turned to stare at the unconscious figure now lying in a heap in the middle of the floor, directly below where the portal had been.


The swirling column of golden light had been bad enough. Prairie folk were very much accustomed to tornadoes; glowing tornadoes that came out of a clear sky and sat in one place for several minutes managed to conjure both their very reasonable caution for nature’s destructive power and the more primal fear of the unknown.

It did not help that the citizens of Hamlet could all tell at a glance exactly where it had centered.

But then it got worse.

Thankfully, the glowing storm didn’t approach the village, but when it abruptly dissipated, it left behind a column of pure fire that would have been visible for miles around, accompanied by the ear-piercing scream of a woman in the extremity of terror and pain.

Exactly as it had been only a few short years ago on the night June Witwill had died.

Now, Marshal Ross, having ordered the rest of the townsfolk to stay back, led his two deputies on a fast march across the prairie to the old basin full of flowers, wands in hand and expressions grim as the grave. Of all the things this town did not need dragged up again…

He slowed as he reached the rim of the little hollow, raising his weapon and peering down into the depression, ready for anything. Or so he thought. Ross was not ready for what he actually saw.

As it had been on that other terrible night, the entire basin was scorched black, every stalk of tallgrass and versithorae blooms scoured away by the unnatural firestorm. But this time, she was there.

She huddled in front of the stone marker, her gingham dress hanging off her in charred rags; even her hair looked to be half-burned away. But apart from that… What could be seen of her skin looked whole, untouched by fire.

And she was alive.

The Marshal stepped down into the basin, Lester and Harriet right on his heels. Their boots crunched on the charred ground, kicking up occasional sparks where the destroyed vegetation still smoldered. She had to have heard their approach, but she just knelt there, huddled around herself, staring at the stone memorial bearing the Omnist sunburst, and her own name and date of death.

He came to a stop a few feet away, glanced at the other two. Lester looked wide-eyed and on the verge of being sick; Harriet’s face was set in grim lines as if she still expected the worst.

“June?” he said softly.

Slowly, she turned. Her eyes were wide and terrified beneath a charred fringe of brown hair, but it was her. He’d known her all her life, mourned her and moved on. And there she was, alive and scared out of her mind.

“M-Marshal?” June Witwill said weakly, tears beginning to cut tracks through the soot smeared on her face.

“Harriet, go fetch Doc an’ the priest,” Ross ordered. Immediately she turned and climbed back up the rim of the basin, heading off for Hamlet at a run.

“Marshal Ross?” June whispered. “What happened? What is going on?”

He dropped his wands on the ground, already shrugging out of his coat, and knelt to sweep it around her shoulders. She grabbed and clung to him as if for dear life, trembling.

“June, honey, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”


“Data matches,” Rector reported, hunched over the repurposed telescroll machine affixed to his console. “Good thing I added the redundant circuit breakers. Didn’t lose any data in the overload. Perfect match for the values in the Vadrieny data, filling in all the blanks. Looks good, your Holiness, we can finish the Angelus Project with this.”

“Well done, Rector,” Justinian said softly. “Very well done indeed.”

“What was that thing?” Delilah demanded. “The spider? Where is it?”

“Didn’t actually emerge here,” Rector said distractedly, still pouring over the stream of markings being produced by the transcriber. “Looked like it cos of temporal effects, but she used the opening we made to…I dunno. She’s not here, or now, though. Probably not far off. Time travel’s confusing and dangerous, good reason there’s a whole god of not letting people do this.”

They all tensed, save Rector and himself, as the sprawled figure in the middle of the floor stirred. Claws rasped against the stone.

Justinian stepped forward at an even pace.

“Your Holiness, no,” Ravoud insisted, planting himself between the Archpope and the thing they had summoned.

“It’s all right, Nassir,” Justinian said kindly, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “This is according to plan.”

“But that creature…” The Colonel glanced over his shoulder, gripping his wand. “The risk. Without you, your Holiness, everything will fall apart.”

“Nothing of value can be done without risk, my friend,” the Archpope said softly. “But you know me, Nassir, and have been with me for a long time, now. Have you ever known me to take a risk that was not meticulously calculated?”

Ravoud hesitated, agonizing indecision written clearly on his face.

“Have faith,” Justinian said softly.

Finally, clamping his mouth into an unhappy line, the Colonel stepped out of the way. Branwen sidled up next to him, tucking her hand reassuringly into his arm, and they all watched the Archpope descend to meet the new arrival.

She groaned softly, in pain or confusion, twitching again, and then flapped her wings once with a force that sent a burst of air whirling through the chamber. There came an audible crunch as the claws tipping her fingers sank right into the stone beneath her.

Justinian stopped a yard away, and knelt. “How do you feel?”

With a jerk, she snapped her head up. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were whirling pits of orange flame.

“What—who are… Where am I? Who are you?”

Her wings were tipped with little claws at the joints, otherwise being decorated with a rather pleasing arrangement of red and blue feathers not unlike a Punaji macaw. She had hair of a fiery orange—but orange that human hair could actually be, not literally made of flame like her younger sister’s.

“My name is Justinian,” he said gently. “Take your time. You have just been through something deeply traumatic, but you are safe here. Don’t rush it. What do you remember?”

“I…I…” She sat upright, curling her legs under herself and letting her wings slump to the floor, clutching her head in both clawed hands. If she had been wearing anything, it had been burned away by the transition. “Nothing. Nothing! Who is… Who am I?”

“I feared this,” he said, sighing softly. “We have seen this once before.”

“My memory… It’ll come back. Won’t it?” Her expression was pleading, as desperate as her voice.

“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “It may not; you must be prepared for that possibility. I will do everything I can to help you, but I will not make promises that I don’t know I can keep.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. “Who am I?”

“I am someone,” he said slowly, maintaining calm in the face of the incredibly dangerous creature’s growing panic, seeking to help ground her, “who is supposed to be your enemy.”

“My enemy?” She bared fangs at him.

“Supposed to be,” he replied, voice even but firm. “We have been set against each other by those who would presume to rule us. By liars calling themselves gods; by those who were meant to give me guidance, and one who should have loved you above all else. But they seek to manipulate me into fighting unjust battles on their behalf, and condemned you to die for their own convenience. I tire of dancing to the tune of selfish creatures who presume to be my masters. I believe we should be free to choose our own fates. Me, you, all people, everywhere. And so I saved you.”

He bowed his head once in a deep nod.

“I am sorry I failed to do so more thoroughly. I had hoped to spare you some of this trauma, at least preserve your memory. We are laboring against colossal powers, and my efforts have been…imperfect. But I at least have managed to preserve your life.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Any of this. I don’t know who I am, let alone why I’m here. What’s happened…”

“All will be well.” Justinian extended a hand to her. Behind him there came several indrawn breaths as his companions tensed. “None of us can say what the future holds, but I will do my very best to protect you. And together, perhaps we can free ourselves of our enemies’ control.”

Slowly, she reached out and wrapped her murderous talons around his hand. She had, he knew, the strength to crush him with a single clench, but she just held onto him. Firmly, yet gently.

“I’ll tell you everything I can about your history, and what’s happened,” he said, slowly standing up. Still holding his hand, she did likewise, raising her wings in the process. “But that will take time, and we should get you somewhere more comfortable first. To begin with, though, your name is Azradeh.”

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12 – 64

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As usual, the patch of blackened grass followed her on her way toward the teleporter. It was a convenient time for visitors, the little orb’s rotation having brought the gate within easy view of her construction project. Behind her rose the unfinished white marble columns of a Grecian temple, already twined with flowering vines despite the construction itself being in an early stage.

Milanda came forward to meet her, a hefty box tucked under one arm. After giving Walker a smile of greeting, her eyes shifted to study the new project, and then to the black streaks on the ground, where patches of dead grass and crumbling bushes showed Walker’s path.

“Wow,” she said, coming to a stop about halfway between the temple and the teleporter. “It looks kind of…Avenist.”

“The style is older than that by far,” Walker said, grinning, “but yes, you’re not wrong. Please pardon the destroyed vegetation; I can’t help it. It grows back fairly quickly; the Avatar had to adjust the settings down here, but with the facility already keyed to Naiya’s transcension field, re-growing plant life isn’t very taxing. I must say, lifting and placing marble blocks has been surprisingly therapeutic. I’m stronger than I realized.”

“What about those?” Milanda asked, pointing with her free hand. “Did you manage to create vines that are immune to your effect?”

“Oh! No, those are plastic. Really, decorative touches like that ought to be the last stage of construction, but…I was really yearning for some greenery that I could touch. Even if it’s fake.”

“Plastic?”

“Wonderful stuff! Lightweight, very resilient, incredibly versatile. It’s made from oils, both petroleum and organic. Having the fabricators produce it avoids the messy by-products of that, of course. Based on what I’ve gleaned of your civilization, I’d guess you’re within fifty years or so of producing something similar through alchemy.”

Milanda nodded, then cleared her throat and held up the box in both hands. “So! Where I come from, it’s customary to bring a house-warming gift when someone moves into a new home. Granted, this is apparently more of a pseudo-Avenist-temple-on-a-tiny-underground-planetwarming gift, but I believe the principle still applies.”

Walker chuckled as she took the box from her, tucking it under one arm to open the top. “I would say that it’s the thought which counts. It really was a very thoughtful…”

She trailed off, her expression falling still, then carefully reached in to extract the object, letting the box fall to the ground. The gravitational isolation chamber’s artificial sun gleamed blindingly on its glossy red paint, steel accents, and glass dome filled with tiny colored balls.

“I asked the fabricator for a gumball machine and it had thousands of schematics,” Milanda said almost nervously. “So…that probably doesn’t look anything like the one your mother had. And, of course, it’s not an Earth relic, I made it less than an hour ago. But I figured, at least… Well, it could be a start at making this a home, and not just a cell. You know. Um, you definitely don’t have to display it or anything, if it’s not to your taste…”

Walker took a step to the side, out of their way, and very carefully knelt to place the gumball machine upright on the ground. Then she rose, stepped back to Milanda, and wrapped her up in a tight hug.

“I just discovered something,” the fairy murmured. “It appears I can’t cry. That hasn’t really come up since I ended up like…this.”

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

It was a long moment before Walker finally pulled back. “You know…at first, I was planning to betray you. To go along with your intentions until I found something I could exploit to get out. No matter what I had to do, or to whom.”

“Was?” Milanda asked quietly. “What changed your mind?”

“I didn’t,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “Or…more accurately, I suppose, I don’t know. I just…happened to think of it at one point, and realized I didn’t want to anymore. I liked working with you, and talking with you. And your project was a challenge. To have something to do after so long… But mostly, I think it was you.”

Milanda grinned back. “Well…I guess I should also admit I was expecting a betrayal and trying to plan for it. The Avatar even gave me a book by Robert Greene to read, to help with outwitting you.”

Walker’s face collapsed in an incredulous grimace. “Ugh. Greene? That amoral, nihilistic, self-satisfied—”

“Yes, I honestly had a little trouble getting into it, though that’s partly because the historical allusions are over my head. You are not a fan, I take it?”

Walker scowled. “It’s a little personal, rationally or not. Greene is a favorite of Vidius. I hold him indirectly responsible for several of my ongoing frustrations. If you want to read Earth political philosophy, I would start with Rousseau. Oh, I bet you would really appreciate Marcus Aurelius, too. Actually, if you’re going to start somewhere, I suppose it should be with Aristotle and Plato, at the beginning. And that’s just the Western tradition! Personally, I’ve always been partial to Musashi, but he was more a warrior poet than a philosopher. Now, Lao Tzu—”

“How about this,” Milanda interrupted, grinning broadly. “You think it over, and pick the best book of philosophy that you’d consider a starting point on Earth’s tradition. Have the fabricator print one up for me on my next visit. And the visit after that, we can discuss it.”

“That…” A broad smile blossomed over Walker’s face. “That sounds excellent. Yes, it’s a date.”

“Perfect.” Milanda sighed, glancing at the teleporter, which had retreated several yards toward the horizon. “Well, I seem to have inadvertently finagled my way into a more central role in politics, and it’s a mess up there right now. The Imperial bureaucracy is resilient and Vex and the Empress held order the best they could, but after most of a week with no Emperor and the Hands acting unstable, there are a thousand fires to put out. Also, the Punaji are having some kind of crisis and Tellwyrn has picked this moment to pull something exceptionally cute.”

“I rather doubt that was personal,” Walker opined. “Tellwyrn isn’t a strategic thinker, and just doesn’t care about the doings of Empires.”

“Gods, I hope you’re right. This is not a good time for her to start caring.”

“It sounds like you had better get back to work, then,” Walker said, smiling. “Thank you for the gift, Milanda. It was just the thing I needed.”

“It’s going to be a hectic few days, but I’ll come down again as soon as I can,” Milanda promised. “Till next time, then!”

“Till next time, friend.”

She watched her all the way to the teleporter before turning to pick up the gumball machine again, almost reverently, and carried it into and through the temple. The roof was not in place, showing only the artificial sky, and sunlight which continued to gleam on the machine’s surfaces. Walker took it to the back of the main chamber, where the altar would be, and set it gently on the floor.

Still kneeling there, she pressed the mechanism, and with a satisfying little clunk, a gumball dropped through the metal door into her waiting hand. A pink one. Straightening up slowly, she popped it into her mouth and bit down.

Nothing but sugar, food coloring, and glue, as she’d said to Milanda, what seemed like ages ago. Saccharine sweetness erupted across her tongue, and with the flavor came an acute burst of memory and emotion.

She chewed in silence for several minutes, before abruptly turning and striding out of the temple. The grounds around were beginning to turn green again, though she unavoidably cut a black swath through them. Walker steered away from the trees—it seemed a shame to kill such sizable things—and set off through an open field for a good walk, leaving behind a path of blackened destruction.

After she was gone, slowly at first, new life began to rise in her wake.


Setbacks.

The labyrinthine corridors beneath the Grand Cathedral were useful for more than security; Justinian found the long process of traversing them gave him opportunity to think, and plan. Even here, he kept his expression serene, not allowing any of his thoughts even the slightest exposure. It did not do to let one’s self-control grow even the tiniest bit rusty. This was a fine opportunity to practice; his thoughts were not encouraging.

Naturally, he had kept the true Avatar template far from Rector’s workshop, so the destruction had merely cost years of work, tipped his hand to the Empire and forced him to scramble to cover his tracks, and not destroyed a truly priceless artifact. Merely. The Hands had suddenly reversed their changes, which proved Sharidan had his systems back under control, and strongly suggested there would be extra security on them now. That avenue of attack could be considered closed, and in the process of poking that beehive under the Palace…

The Holy Legion, decimated. He had faith in Ravoud, and even that Khadizroth would come through on his promises, now that he had given his word. The restoration of his maimed soldiers would take time, still, and far too many had been slain outright. Ravoud’s analysis was correct; building the Legion’s numbers back to their previous level would require a slackening of their standards, which he was not willing to do, yet. The plan had always been to open recruitment to less thoroughly vetted men and women, but not until the solid core of elite troops had experience working together, and the Silver Throne was not in a position to object. Neither was yet true.

Khadizroth was his own issue, too. He was growing slowly more ambitious, and the current situation would only further cement his hold on the Holy Legion and Justinian’s organization, in addition to the influence he wielded over the other adventurers gathered at Dawnchapel. Sending them into danger last night had been intended partly as a reminder to him that Vannae, at least, was physically vulnerable, but the improbable survival of every one of the team had rendered that an empty gesture. Justinian had his own theories about that, which he would shortly be able, finally, to test…

And as for last night, the loss of the Tide was a bitter pill to swallow. They had fulfilled the purpose for which he had spent the last ten years recruiting and grooming them: a sect of devoted fanatics, without traceable origins or proof of their true affiliation, ready to be hurled at whatever target he deemed necessary. But it was too soon—far too soon. He had intended them for use much closer to the endgame, when the accelerated pace of events would make such violent methods more appropriate, and the need to introduce chaos more pressing. Now, that joker had been played far too early. There was, at this point, no benefit in trying to rebuild them, not even as seeds for more chaos cults such as he’d deployed in Veilgrad. There just wouldn’t be time.

Unless…

Justinian did not allow himself a smile, but filed away that jolt of inspiration to be refined into a proper plan. As it was, the Tide were gone, used up for no greater purpose than to maintain deniability against the Throne’s increasing suspicions. Sharidan knew who his adventurers were, and he had made a much stronger show of friendship that way than any words from him could have done. It had been necessary, but the loss still rankled. It would be that much more keenly felt, the farther and faster events progressed; he’d been counting on having the Tide to use when he was in a tight spot. He had every hope that the upcoming confrontation with the Rust in Puna Dara would, at least for a while, cement his fracturing relationship with the Throne. It would not do for Sharidan to find reason to move openly against him too soon.

There was that, at least. The one bright spot in all this: the increasing pressure upon him had provided the leverage he needed to force Szaiviss’s hand. The Rust was her pet project, one he was not supposed to know about, and he had at least manipulated her into deploying them too early. The combined forces about to descend on them would wipe out the cult no matter what armaments they had cobbled together. All he had to do was ensure that any remaining tracks he had left in Puna Dara were covered in the chaos, which should not be hard. It would not do, of course, to think Szaiviss harmless or under control, but at least, now, he was confident she had no more external assets.

Except Scyllith. He had better be careful not to pressure her further; if she felt cornered enough to call her goddess’s attention, there would be no end of disaster.

Setbacks, on every side. This entire week had been a debacle without parallel in his plans thus far. None of these setbacks, alone, was enough to form a threat to his plans, but in aggregation the resources he had lost or been forced to expend seriously hampered his ability to maneuver. Not to mention pushing him close to a precipice. If he suffered one more major loss before he could rebuild his assets, it might all be over.

He put his grim ruminations aside, arriving at the door he sought. Almost mechanically, he passed through its security measures, entering a short hall leading to a whitewashed wooden door, and entered without knocking.

The little cottage inside was still somewhat under construction, but it was clearly a replica of that which had been outside Rector’s last workstation. The walls had just been painted, leaving most of the furniture pushed into the center of the floor, with boxes of smaller objects half-unpacked among them.

Ildrin had been splayed out in a rocking chair, the very picture of exhaustion, but upon the Archpope’s sudden appearance she jumped up.

“Your Holiness! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—”

“It’s quite all right, Ildrin. Please, rise,” he said kindly, helping her up from the kneeling position to which she had dropped. “These events have been extremely difficult for all of us. You are well? Getting enough rest?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, don’t fret about me—I know my limits, and I’ll be sure to rest extra when I’m nearing them. It’s not that time, yet; Rector is still have trouble adjusting. He and Delilah need me.”

“Ah, yes,” Justinian said seriously. “And how is he faring, in your view?”

She hesitated, frowning pensively. “Your Holiness…I feel I’ve gained a new appreciation for Rector recently. He’s a creature of—that is, a man of routine, and it’s been very difficult for him, having all his work undone and then being uprooted. He’s making it difficult for us, too. But at the same time… This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s become clear he knows he’s unusual, and is trying to mitigate his own…issues, for our sake. I feel…quite ashamed of the way I thought of him when I was first posted down here.”

“Don’t,” Justinian advised gently, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving her a warm smile. “I know you’ve not mistreated him, or I would have heard about it from Delilah. We cannot help our thoughts, sister; it is our actions which define us. You have done well, here, and if you’ve learned something of empathy in the process, so much the better. For now, though,” he continued more seriously, putting on a carefully measured frown of contemplation, “I’m afraid recent events both here and elsewhere have forced me to adjust a number of my plans. Among other things, I am in need of trustworthy people in a variety of positions. I am sorry to keep shuffling you about this way, Ildrin, but I will soon need you elsewhere. Not immediately—we want to avoid subjecting Rector to any more abrupt changes than we can help, I think.”

“I’m eager to serve in any way you need me,” she assured him fervently. “I will…somewhat to my surprise…miss this place, and even Rector. But we all go where the gods need us most.”

“Quite so,” he agreed, smiling again. “And now, since I have to interrupt our resident genius again, best to do so quickly rather than dragging it out.”

“Of course, your Holiness.”

She followed him through the kitchen, similarly in a state of partial completion, and to the work area beyond. This was different than the workspace of Rector’s last project; though roughly the same size, it was a rectangular room with walls formed of massive stone blocks, not a natural cavern. Something of the same aesthetic was present, in the enchanting equipment lining its walls in a profusion of pipes, glass tubes, and wires, though that was also laid out much differently. The total apparatus was far bulkier than the previous one, but rather than concentrated in clumps, lined the walls and climbed to a central crystal disc set amid brass and copper fixtures in the middle of the ceiling. Apart from that disc, and the runic control console laid in the center of the chamber and connected to the rest, most of the arcane materials were clearly connectors; the bulkiest parts of the structure appeared to be small shrines spaced around the walls at regular intervals, each prominently featuring the sigils of a god of the Pantheon.

At their entry, Delilah turned and started to kneel, but before she could complete the gesture, Rector barked impatiently without looking up from his console, “There you are! I’ve been waiting!”

“Rector!” Delilah exclaimed, turning to face him. “Don’t speak that way to his Holiness!”

“It’s quite all right, Delilah, no harm is done,” Justinian said soothingly, striding into the room. “I apologize for the delay, Rector, there are numerous demands on my time. It sounds as if all is in readiness, then? Shall I proceed?”

“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, I’ve had it set up for an hour,” Rector grumbled, still fidgeting with the runes on his console, his finicky motions evidently more for something to do than because anything needed to be done.

“Very good,” Justinian said calmly, striding across the room to a shrine set up in the center of one of the shorter walls, linked with enchanting paraphernalia to the two in each of the nearby corners. Prominently featured upon it were the gears and hourglass of Vemnesthis, one of the few gods whose sigil was not widely known—in his case, because he had no worshipers.

All around him rose a low hum as Rector powered up the new device. This time there was no sign of the Avatar, and in fact no display surface in which one could have manifested, but only the activation of various arcane circuits and their accompanying musical tones and azure light effects. Each of the shrines around the edges blazed to life, as well, glowing a mellifluous gold and emitting harmonic tones like the clearest of bells.

Only the shrine of Vemnesthis remained dark, until Justinian reached out to touch its sigil with both his hand and his mind.

There was, and could be, no other device like this in the world. Only a sitting Archpope could invoke the powers of individual gods without drawing their direct attention—and even so, much of the apparatus constructed here served to ensure that what they did would not draw the gods’ notice. At his touch, the time-bending power of Vemnesthis poured into the system with the activation of that final shrine, the only temporal effect in the world guaranteed not to draw the Timekeeper’s swift censure.

With the final activation of the structure, the room was suddenly filled with a colossal spider web.

“Please, be calm,” Justinian said over Ildrin and Delilah’s shouts, loudly enough to be heard but careful to keep his own voice utterly serene. “This will not harm you—it was here before. What we have done is created a bridge between the subtler expressions of reality and human perception, enabling us to see this effect, in a manner which makes sense to our own minds.”

Both priestesses edged closer together, peering around nervously. The web was disturbing to look at, in the way that things in dreams did not quite stay put; its strands shifted position when not watched closely, creating a constant sense of motion out of the corners of one’s eye. It all spread from the crystal disc in the ceiling in a most disconcerting display, at once as if the web were a normal one radiating from that point, and a constant spiral funneling into it like water down a drain. Always in furious motion, yet totally constant. It was almost physically painful to look at; they all quickly decided not to.

“Your Holiness,” Delilah whispered, staring at him.

Justinian stepped back from the shrine of Vemnesthis, lifting his hands to study them thoughtfully. He was linked to the web—in fact, strands lay thick over both his arms, connecting to his fingers, wrapped around his waist and upper body. Every movement he made caused the whole thing to tremble.

“Don’t be alarmed, Delilah,” he said gently. “This is not directly harmful. We are simply seeing, now, the machinations of an entity which does not, at present, exist.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Ildrin said faintly.

“You will find her there,” he said, lifting a finger to point at the swirling vortex of webs in the ceiling. They both reflexively followed his gesture, then immediately averted their eyes. “And this is why it was the power of Vemnesthis, who guards the timeways, that was necessary to finally see it. That creature is dead, and has been for millennia. But it seems that in a time very soon to come, she will not be—and is reaching back through time to arrange things to her benefit. Possibly to arrange her own resurrection. Try not to think about it,” he added kindly, smiling at their expressions. “Causality breaks down in matters like these. That is why Vemnesthis and his work are so important.”

“But why is it all attached to you?” Ildrin squeaked.

“Not just me,” the Archpope said gravely. “I have noticed something, recently. A pattern, which this begins to confirm. Certain individuals, being drawn forcefully together in the face of events—and also resisting grievous harm, coming through trials which ought to destroy anyone, unscathed. As if they are being lined up in a particular formation, to serve a particular purpose.”

“So…it’s…good?” Ildrin asked, frowning deeply. “As long as the webs hold you, you can’t die?”

“Nothing in this world cannot die,” he replied. “But I take this as confirmation of my theory. I suspect that I, and the others who are bound to the strands of this great web, will find ourselves all but impervious to circumstance resulting in our death, imprisonment, disfigurement…anything which prevents us all arriving at that point, ready to play whatever part she intends.” Again, he indicated the crystal; this time, they didn’t look, though Ildrin grimaced with remembered discomfort, wiping her palms on the front of her robe.

“Can’t…Vemnesthis…deal with that?” Delilah asked faintly, glancing back at Rector, who was muttering over his runes, making fine adjustments. “Isn’t that what the Scions of Vemnesthis are for?”

“Vemnesthis has no proper cult,” Justinian said solemnly. “The Scions, with the exception of their leader, are effectively enslaved. They are the mages and warlocks gathered from across history, all those who tried to meddle in the timestream, and were given his ultimatum: serve, or be destroyed.” He shook his head. “No… Aside from the fact that this creature is, or will be, superior in power to their patron, the Scions of Vemnesthis are not a force which will stand against an Elder God. She will be ready for anything they do—able, even to subvert them, which makes it the wiser course not to bring them to her direct attention. This apparatus, however, is a thing which should not be, which no one will expect—not even our Pantheon. This is why the gods needs us, sisters. For all their power, there are things in their service which only mortals can do.”

He turned to gaze directly into the mind-wrenching chaos at the center of the spiral of webs, not flinching.

“It falls to us to thwart Araneid’s return.”

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


“Hang on!” she shouted over the crash of the waves. “In fact, it’d be better if you sat down, but at least hang on!”

He ignored her, clinging to the bowsprit and staring grimly ahead through the spray, as he had since they had passed through the guardian stones and from calm, sunny seas into this chaos. The boat tipped over the precipice, shooting straight down the colossal wave into what seemed a chasm in the surface of the ocean.

He tightened his grip, wrapping one hand more firmly in the rope. He was stronger than a normal human by far, but even so… They were picking up terrible speed, and seemed about to plow straight into a wall of water thrown up by the undulating sea, taller than the walls of Tiraas. He drew in a breath, and closed his eyes, and they hit.

The boat plunged under—everything was water, roaring and pulling him, and suddenly, it was gone. Everything was gone. The noise, the pressure… Even his clothes weren’t wet anymore.

He opened his eyes, peering around at the flat, shimmering expanse of the ocean around them, glittering calmly beneath a sunny sky, then swiveled to look behind. The boat was in perfect condition, showing no sign of having just passed through that tempest. The towering sentinel stones that ringed Suffering were not to be seen, nor was the island.

“Woo! Made it again!” Karen cheered, pumping one fist in the air. Her heavy black robes prevented him from getting a glimpse at what she really looked like, not that he’d been curious enough to investigate. “I told you it was nothing to worry about. Next stop: Onkawa! Well, the docks below Onkawa, depending on whether you count them as part of the city proper. I do, just for simplicity’s sake. I don’t know what kind of sense it makes to build a city up on a cliff and its wharfs way down below, but hey, what do I know? I’m just the ferryman. Ferry person. I dunno, I’ve had Avenist passengers yell at me for it, but it doesn’t sound right, ‘ferry person.’ ‘Ferryman’ rolls off the tongue, y’know?”

She carried on prattling, as she had from the moment he’d stepped aboard, and he turned his back on her, tuning her out. Other things demanded his focus.

He could feel them again. The others, and his Emperor. But…distantly. Distorted. Altered. Something terrible had happened in Tiraas, something which cut at the core of his Empire. He feared the worst—anything which could alter the Hands had the potential to topple the Silver Throne itself. No wonder she had been so anxious to get rid of him, if something like this were about to unfold.

And that, at least, told him where to start. He would not be able to trust the others, at least until he learned what had happened, and how to free them from whatever the effect was that all but cut them off from his senses. It would be necessary to be cautious, subtle, investigate slowly and carefully. But at least he knew, circumstantially, who had to be behind it.

There was one Hand of the Emperor left, and Tellwyrn would rue the day she turned against the Silver Throne.


She closed the chapel door gently, and paused for a moment just inside to gaze abstractly into the dimness. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, creating shifting patterns upon the floor in the absence of fairy lights, and a heavy floral scent hung in the air from the veritable mountain of bouquets piled around Ravana’s resting place.

Slowly, Tellwyrn paced down the central aisle, turning her head to study each sleeping student without stopping. Natchua, she noted, had a Narisian blessing talisman resting on her chest just above her folded hands—one carefully painted in House Awarrion colors. Nothing had been sent from her own House. Other gifts and tokens lay in each of the improvised beds—coins, candles, notes, flowers, sent by fellow students and family members alike. More than that, in Ravana’s case.

Only at reaching the end, Shaeine’s resting place, did Tellwyrn finally stop. For a long moment, she gazed down at the sleeping drow. Then, moving slowly and wearily as if suddenly feeling every one of her three thousand years, she turned, and sank down to the floor, resting her back against the wood. There, she tilted her head back, gazing emptily through the silence.

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 26

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”

“Him?”

“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”


“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”


“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”


“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”


“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.


“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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Prologue – Volume 4

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Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.

He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.

“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.

The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.

Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.

Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.

“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.

“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”

“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.

In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.

“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.

Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”

Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”

Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”

“Oh?”

“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”

“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”

“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”

“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”

“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”

“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.

Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”

“Oh?”

“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”

The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”

“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”

“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.

“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”

The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.

As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.

Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.

In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.

“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.

“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”

“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”

“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”

“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.

Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.

“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”

“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”

He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.

“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”

“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.

“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.

He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”

Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.

That, perhaps, was just as well.

He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.

“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”

“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”

He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.

Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.

He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.

The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.

A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”

“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”

“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”

“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”

“Indeed I do.”

She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.

“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”

“Charmed!”

“Pleasure.”

“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”

“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”

“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”

“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”

“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”

“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”

“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”

She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.

Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.

Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.

Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.

In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.

Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.

“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”

“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”

“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.

The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.

“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”

“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”

“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.

The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.

“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”

The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.

A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.

Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.

Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.

When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.

It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.

“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.

The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.

“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”

The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.

“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.

Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.

“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.

At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”

“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”

As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”

“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”

He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”

“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”

She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.

“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”

Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.

“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”

The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.

“The future.”

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