Eris Morn returned to the Vestian Outpost. Because she spoke well, it was agreed that aid would be traded for intelligence and a long-term alliance. In this way, the Awoken were the first to know of the Great Navigator: his philosophies, his strategies, his weaknesses. And as the coven contemplated the possibilities laid wide before this god-king's far-flung sword, it was decreed that they would build a throne world beneath an energy well as blind as the ferryman Charon. Nascia drew the schematics. Portia worked out the calculations. They made their first test with a small rift generator on the eastern shore. Satisfied that their methods were sound, they then went to a grand cathedral to dig the well. There, Lissyl and Sedia augured the first borehole with the help of Riven, who had taken the shape of a needle-nosed basilisk, while Kalli and Shuro Chi constructed the gate itself, deep below, in a hall they named "The Confluence." Illyn made tincture after tincture of queensfoil until her clothes stank and her hands were stained reddish-black. Open-eyed, she walked between planes and sorted the threads of reality on a vast metaphysical loom, weaving some closer, some more distant. Mara and Riven shaped her third throne together, and the artistry of their work was a testament to the hungry joy they felt in that partnership. They named it Eleusinia, and it was in those Ascendant halls that Mara finally carved a statue for Sjur. When it came time to connect the Well to the unreality that lay beyond the gateway, Sedia asked, "Would it not be wiser to leave this door without a key?" Riven, now an immense antlered serpent with broad tiger paws, tightened around the perimeter of the room like a noose. "Egg," Mara corrected absently, chewing on her thumbnail. "The key is so heavy as to be unliftable," Kalli ventured, since they were speaking metaphorically. Sedia flapped her hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, I know." They all knew that the gate required a continuous multi-week charge of paracausal energies, and that almost nothing in this solar system could produce such energies at the scale required by the gateway. Almost. "It's just— do we…" "Do we wish to trust the Guardians?" Illyn filled in dryly. Mara ran her hand along the sleek surface of the primary well's control mechanism, then turned and walked alone toward the fresh, foggy air that blew in from the coast. The Techeuns watched her go. "There is only the plan," Illyn said. "Remember your vows, Sedia."
There came a morning when the Techeuns spoke in unison, though none were near each other, and they said, ++WHO ARE YOU WHO BUILDS A HIDDEN CITY HERE IN OUR THOUGHTS?++ And Mara, alone in the Queenswalk of the Dreaming City, heard their voices ring out as if each Witch stood beside her, and she said to the empty air, "I am Mara Sov. Who are you?" The answer came at once, ++WRONG! IT IS THE EKPYROSIC. WE ARE THE NOTHING-SPACE FABRIC.++ Hearing this, Mara recognized a riddle. She turned at once and left the Queenswalk so that Riven would not be inspired. As she walked, she thought. At length she said, "Wrong. You are the Ancients. You are the idea that gives fate its shape." That one-voice came again, as clear and strong as the birth of the universe, booming with dispassionate curiosity, ++IT THINKS ITSELF WISE! HOW DID SOMETHING LIKE IT ATTAIN SUCH REVELATION?++ Mara lengthened her stride, taking the steps three at a time so that she could duck into a little-used transport gate. She emerged in a small coastal observatory—then nothing more than a grand dormitory—and found Kelda Wadj, the Allteacher, hovering four feet off the ground. Blood poured from her ears and nostrils. Her eyes saw nothing. The other Techeuns were transfixed thusly in a geometric array around the Dreaming City—each one inert, suspended, bleeding. Mastering her horror, Mara said, "I have lived alongside you." And because she was afraid for Kelda, she asked, "Do you intend violence?" At once, the Techeuns collapsed to the ground like marionettes from severed strings—all but Kelda Wadj, whose augment blazed with coruscating light. She rose higher into the air and began to unravel, particle by particle. As she came undone, she said, ++NOW IT INSULTS US.++ Mara steeled herself against the horrific sight of her old friend's ruin. She had been a fool to think the riddling was over. She said, "Of course." Violence, after all, is a matter of perspective. "What I mean is, what would you ask me?" Beloved, wise Kelda Wadj burst apart and then collapsed all at once into a singularity that burned and burned and burned but destroyed nothing around it. From her un-throat came the voice again, which Mara felt in the atomic marrow of her bones, and it said, ++WHAT WOULD IT ASK US?++ For fifteen days and fifteen nights, the singularity burned unshielded. On the sixteenth day, they began construction of the Oracle Engine, which took the singularity of the Allteacher as its seed-heart.
The Vandal stoops as he exits the Galliot. All of his arms are bound behind his back, so he cannot shield his eyes from the bright sun. A breeze stirs his cloak. There is a cliff behind him and lush gardens ahead. His jailer would not grant him the honor of a quick death, so she must intend to torture him. She thinks he will yield like the flesh-lovers from House Judgment. She is wrong. Whatever indignities she can muster are nothing compared to what he deserves. With his chin held high, he imagines shucking off his armor and laying all four of his arms in his Captain's hands. His Captain is his mother, and she will not dock him with a scythe. She will twist and tear his arms from his body like she is shucking a fine, fat crab for dinner, and he will be glad of the slow, sick cracks and crunches of his bones. He will be glad of the shame. Let him go limbless for the rest of his wasted life. Let the Ether-thirst shrivel him up like a yaviirsi fig. "What do you think?" his jailer asks in a language he cannot understand. She steps up beside him and claps a hand on his shoulder. He flinches. She is nearly as tall as he is, and for a creature with no claws, her grip is strong and sure. Together, they contemplate the gardens. "It's all a bit much for my taste," she admits as he sneaks a furtive look at her. Her bow is unstrung. There is only one arrow in her quiver. She is stupid. He whirls, trips her, and sprints for the cliff. She swears, recovers, and lunges after him. As he pitches himself off the edge, he thinks of his mother's shame and prays that she forgets him. Better that she never had a son than a weakling so easily captured by the enemy. It is his bad luck that she catches his foot with one hand. His helmet slams into the rocky cliffside. A piece of his rebreather cracks off and disappears into the mist far below. He flails, but he cannot drag her down with him; somehow, she hauls him in like a fish. As soon as she has him on solid ground, she binds his ankles with the string of her bow. "All right," she says, catching her breath. "All right." She chuckles, pats his shoulder fondly, and then pulls him upright like a sack of psakiks. She takes a step back, brushing off her hands against the seat of her trousers. He glowers, the surliest psakiks sack this side of the Great Machine, hating her horrible, squared-off teeth and her blunt, stubby fingers. "Let's try this again, shall we?" Drawing two fractal knives from sheaths on her thighs, she makes a perfect ireliis bow before him. Thunderstruck, he sits up straight. Stares. "Not good?" she asks, and tries again. Furious confusion takes him. This is some kind of trick. Blasphemous mockery. "Iirsoveks," he rumbles. She shakes her head. "Nama." Sheathing one of her knives, she holds out her free hand with her fingers spread in supplication. He draws his chin toward his throat with this fresh betrayal, narrowing his secondary eyes. It speaks! Slowly, without breaking eye contact, she lays her other knife on the ground between them. The blade points toward her boots. He watches her every movement. How many secrets have the flesh-lovers betrayed, that this creature can make peace like a cringing drekh before his kel? She taps two fingers against her cuirass. "Sjur," she says slowly, then she points at him. Honor-bound even as he simmers in scandal, he replies, "Misraaks. Velask, Si-yu-riks." "Mithrax," she repeats, then grins. "Velask, Mithrax. And welcome! Let's have a look about, shall we?"
And when the second solstice began in earnest, many Awoken and Ahamkara alike came to the Dreaming City to celebrate the delirious pleasure of being alive. Those who came arrived in the Gardens of Esila, and Azirim was the very last. Seeing him land, Esila said to him, "Ah! You are bold. Do you truly think you've earned the right to revel in this place?" And Azirim answering said, "Please, wise lady. I've gone 'round the worlds and through the stars themselves. I have come only to congratulate your people. If you lend me your ear, I can prove I will not waste the mercy you might grant me." And Esila said to him, "We've often lent our ear to your indiscretions. I know what happens to that which is lent to you. I need no assurance." And Azirim answering said, "My indiscretions? Wise lady, I do admit, I may have whispered truths you gave me to deceive those who would deceive me. But have I ever struck out with hungry fang against your people? Have I set fire to your trust? I have seen the error of my ways. Let me prove to you oh how I have changed." And Esila, though she could see a flickering in Azirim's reflection, could not resist a redemption story. Esila cast forth her hand and beckoned to Azirim in mercy. And Esila said to him, "Join us and be glad, but let me hear your testimony first." And so invited, Azirim bowed his crested head and hid a secret smile and spoke with the pardon Esila had given him. He recounted his many regrets in deceiving the kind merchants in the capital city of Interamnia. He recounted his charity to the wayfaring Corsairs who could not have escaped the heliopause without his aid. He recounted his journey to retrieve the eutech stolen from Pallas by the profane scavengers the Fallen, and he named his friends and those who had shown him kindness. And from the raucous parties beyond the lush gardens of Esila came an audience of Techeuns in training and flush-cheeked young Corsairs. They knelt in the dewy grass and they listened, and as they listened, and as Azirim spoke, his appetite grew and grew. Night fell on the Dreaming City. And Azirim said to those who knelt enraptured, "Come, let me sing to you of extinction. Let me sing to you of lives lost in beautiful places, o audience mine. Sing with me, sing!" He bade them rise, and led them singing down and away from the gardens of Esila. He spread his wings and flew out into the empty air beyond the steep cliffs that bordered the gardens. And to those who happened to glance toward the gardens from far-off pavilions, it seemed a merry parade, a joyous chorus. And they did not hear the singing stop. And they did not hear the bodies dashed against the shore below. And they did not see Azirim grow, or laugh, or flee.
$ $ COPY BAMBERGA"ORIN RCLJN3YJPYQ79YER"::APHEL.REL APHEL.REL $ TYPE APHEL.REL %%%%%%%%%%% VIOLET CLEARANCE ONLY %%%%%%%%%%% INDEX: EVENT 2PAL-A :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 2PAL-B :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 4VES-A :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 4VES-B :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 4VES-C :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 4VES-D :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 4VES-E :: OTDR-4-REL EVENT 7IRI-A :: OTDR-4-REL SUMMARY OF SBU APHELION INCIDENTS FOLLOWS BELOW. *** EVENT 2PAL-A :: OTDR-4-REL *** INFORMATION RECEIVED APR 09-18T02:29:45+00:00 FROM PALADIN NOLG, CONSIDERED SOBER, DEPENDABLE, NOT OF FANTASY. NOLG REPORTED "A GLOWING CREATURE" ON EXT OF HIS SHIP "RETRIBUTION" MOMENTS BEFORE ROUTINE NLS JUMP. "RETRIBUTION" FDR SHOWED RAD SPIKE (5 SIGMA) ON TEPC, CPDS, AND RAM. CPD SHOWED NO EFFECT. ON RECOMMENDATION OF K WADJ, NOLG WAS QUARANTINED UNDER TECHEUN SUPERVISION FOR 1 MONTH. "RETRIBUTION" DECOMMISSIONED, SET ADRIFT BEYOND REEF. *** EVENT 2PAL-B :: OTDR-4-REL *** INFORMATION RECEIVED APR 10-27T17:11:56+00:00. REEF SPACE STATION AMESTRIS, THEN UNDER CONSTRUCTION, ISSUED 6 UNIQUE DISTRESS CALLS OVER A 2-MINUTE PERIOD. TRANSCRIPTS FOLLOW. T-1: PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN. ALL STATIONS, ALL STATIONS, ALL STATIONS. THIS IS RSS AMESTRIS. WE HAVE A POSSIBLE SKYSHOCK EVENT IN PROGRESS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE VIDCOM WITH ANY AVAILABLE TECHEUN. [STATIC FOLLOWS] T-2: MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY! ALL STATIONS! THIS IS RSS AMESTRIS, WE ARE UNDER ATTACK! OUR HULL HAS BEEN BREACHED! MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY! THIS IS RSS AMESTRIS PLEASE SOMEONE [STATIC FOLLOWS] T-3-A: I'VE GOT IT, HANG ON. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO… WHAT'S THE CHANNEL? T-3-B: THEY'RE SCREAMING! LISTEN, THEY'RE ALL SCREAMING! T-3-A: BE CALM! HELP ME! WHAT'S THE CHANNEL? T-3-B: IT'S THE CORE, IT'S THE CORE, THIS IS THE STALKING CORE! T-3-A: SHUT UP! WHAT'S THE CHANNEL! T-3-B: OH NO, OH PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE [STATIC FOLLOWS] T-4: ORIN, IT'S ME, IT'S NAMQI. I DON'T THINK I'M COMING HOME, BABY. I'M SO SORRY. I'M, I'M, I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU THAT I LOVE [STATIC FOLLOWS] T-5: MAYDAY, MAYDAY! THIS IS VEN ASAR ON THE RSS AMESTRIS. WE ARE 300 SOULS ABOARD. SOMETHING IS HAPPENING, EVERYTHING IS BLUE, SOMETHING IS HERE [STATIC FOLLOWS] T-6: [UNINTELLIGIBLE] [SCREAMING] [STATIC FOLLOWS] A SAR FLEET FOUND THAT THE AMESTRIS WAS UNSAFE TO BOARD DUE TO RADIOACTIVE SURFACE CONTAMINATION. SAR DEPLOYED MULTIPLE CROW DRONES FOR INTERIOR SURVEY. NO EVIDENCE OF HULL BREACH WAS FOUND. NO EVIDENCE OF MALTECH DETONATION WAS FOUND. NO EVIDENCE OF HOSTILE ALIEN INTERFERENCE WAS FOUND. NO EVIDENCE OF INTERNAL SABOTAGE WAS FOUND. NO SURVIVORS WERE FOUND. AMESTRIS ABANDONED, SET ADRIFT BEYOND REEF. *** EVENT 4VES-A *** $ Q $ DELETE APHEL.REL;*
Undelivered, lost. Did you watch them die? Did you watch me take the knife and carve out each eye, one-two, one-two-three? Did you watch your body rot? You pretend to be aloof, but you've always been defined by your preoccupations. How deeply did you grieve when your bones were crushed to ash and dust? Undelivered, damp. Both crowns have been sundered, and Sky save me but I am unmoored. I have been a blade crying for a hand to wield me for so long, but what is a blade with nothing solid to cut? You will gentle me. You will tell me I can rest. You will try to pull me to the libraries. I cannot. I cannot. I cannot. Undelivered, burnt. Патетическая. The swelling of strong sentiment in your chest even as you mourn the world that is and was and will be. I did not go to Mars. I will not go to the Dreaming City. There is only the plan. Undelivered, lost. Cousin, do you remember the streets of the Last City? Do you remember eating fresh red grapes and playing tag between the market stalls? You cannot. We grew, we died, we were reborn. But I remember. It is the one thing I know is true. You used to LAUGH. What manipulation of the fates has led us each to our own calamities? [Forceful, looping script.] I listen to Vanguard channels every day for news of your death. If and when that news comes, I will fly to you at once, no matter where I am and no matter what front I fight on. [Aggressive pressure, carved deep enough into the paper to tear it.] I swear it. Delivered. I have been inside. I have nothing but beautiful and violent words for my report. I will meet you at your throne.
Pride flutters in Petra's throat like a trapped bird. She doesn't know whether she will fly away or drop dead. As the elevator descends, she looks left at Illyn and then right at Uldren. She shuffles in her gleaming formal armor. From exile as Tower emissary to THIS is incredible. Unbelievable. She does not deserve it. "This is real," she whispers, unable to stop herself. Uldren smiles, but Illyn makes a warding gesture: Be silent! Music begins to swell as the elevator settles. At the center of the room, the Paladins and the rest of Illyn's Techeuns are arrayed around Riven, of course, and— Her breath catches. Mara. She can't help shooting another quick glance at Uldren: How..? His smile widens. Petra sets her jaw, pulls her shoulders back, stands strong and tall. A chorus of thirty sings them into the Hall of Names. The air is sweet with lavender, and there are hundreds of candles lit all around the room, and even at this distance she can see Hallam is verklempt. This is as good a homecoming as she could ever imagine. More than she ever deserved. When they reach the dais, she kneels. Uldren and Illyn proceed past her so that they can acknowledge the Queen and her waiting counselors. The song ends; the music quells. Uldren and Illyn speak together, and their voices ring out fierce and true. "Your Grace, we here present to you Petra Venj, your loyal servant, wherefore all you who are come this day to witness her homage and service. Do you acknowledge her?" Petra cannot see anything but her own distorted reflection in her polished sabatons. She closes her eyes. "I do," Mara says, and Petra's throat tightens. Uldren and Illyn turn, synchronized. "Petra Venj! Are you willing to take the oath?" "I am willing," Petra manages, struggling to steady her voice. "Will you solemnly promise and swear to protect our people, our holdings, our territories, and our immaterial interests?" "I solemnly promise so to do." "Will you to your power cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?" "I will." "Will you, to the utmost of your power, uphold your sospital duties in defense of your Queen's life? Will you execute and preserve inviolably the orders of your Queen? And will you preserve unto your dying breath the secrets committed to your charge?" "All this I promise to do." "Then rise," Mara says, "and declare yourself." Petra lifts her head to find Mara's eyes. "Let it be declared that the oaths which I have here before promised, I, Petra Venj, will perform and keep." Mara smiles and steps forward with a fresh-forged knife. "Then receive this blade, brought now from the forges of Interamnia. With this blade, do justice, stop the growth of inequity, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform the things that are amiss, and confirm the things that are in proper order: that doing these things you may embody my will and become my Wrath. May the hunt be good." "May the hunt be good," echoes the assembly. Petra does not see the cynical glance that passes between Leona and Pavel, who have both served the Queen faithfully for decades. She does not see the way Riven tastes the air. She sees Mara, and Mara alone.
Mara sits cross-legged in the canopy shade of Riven's wing. She wets the pad of her thumb with the tip of her tongue, then uses the moisture to hold a bundle of fresh-picked asphodelia in place. She ties off the stems with a length of silk-spun gold thread, then begins the mindless busywork of braiding in all the expected accoutrements: a serrated fang, a shotgun shell, a cloudy amethyst crystal… Riven turns to watch. On this day, her head is the size of a Fallen pike. She is vibrant blue with a yellow and red crest, and her pupils are crescents within her lidless eyes. After a time, she says, "Madadh is dead but you make him no bouquet." Mara looks up, struck by the novelty of the moment. She studies Riven, and swallows the first words that come to her tongue, which are, Madadh's bones are whispering at this very moment on Venus. Instead, she asks, "You mourn him?" That crescent-pupil contracts as thin as a sickle's edge. "No." Having found the true answer, Mara resumes her work. A while passes in silence until she says, "Ahamkara have no traditions." "No." "No sentiment." "No." Mara bites off a piece of thread. "Why did you allow my brother to spirit you away?" "You know this truth, wise Queen. He is so full of succulence." "Mm. And why do you roost here when there is rich hunting beyond my Reef?" "Truly I say to you"—here Mara hides a small smile—"the Awoken have entrusted What-Will-Be to you their Queen, and thus they are all dry as a stone to me. Pleasantly so, for wetness is sweet feed, but dry stone is a friendly basking-place. You, you are as hot and flat as the plateaus of Mercury, and your heat stirs my blood to move." Mara nods and says nothing more, though she thinks a while on the three-parted curse used by Ahamkara to mark their prey, the shackle between Appellated and Appalling. When she finishes her memorial bouquet, she unfolds herself and rises to stretch. Riven does the same, and as she relaxes, she spreads and shuffles and shakes her pinions until they all lie straight. The land around them is shapeless rock that will become an aubade to those left behind; Mara will honor her enemies and friends alike in stone, she will build grand cathedrals veneered in amethyst and agate. Riven butts her rounded snout under Mara's hand and waits. "Let us find Kelda," Mara says.
SHE HAS RUINED EVERYTHING! Such blind arrogance— WE ARE LOST! h u r r y He will recruit them all if we do not act now W H A T C A N W E D O Done cannot be undone! Everything is lost! kill them where they creep and crawl let their bones whisper naught THE CHILDREN! t h e y a r e n o t o u r c h i l d r e n We have no time for sentiment It is this or we lay ourselves bare before the veil. NO! No! W E M U S T B E F O R E H E T A K E S T H E M A L L imagine his power REACH TOGETHER NOW No, no, no! that our touch be lethal Riven! w e w i l l i t s o THE DREAMER IS LOST CULL THE REST that our judgment be true W E W I L L I T S O
Now in time Uldren Queensbrother returned to the Reef with a new creature. He had killed it twice in ambush, he said, to be certain it could not die. It had once been an Awoken man, and, recognizing it, Mara turned away from her plans for the Dreaming City and watched it coolly. "It is a Guardian," she said. "Once it was Chao Mu." He had left the Reef alone, knowing that he could never return or see his family again, to repair a failing climate controller in what had once been Earth's Gobi breadbasket. He had said he could not bear to watch the world wither. "Bow before the Queen," Uldren said, giving him a shove. The Awoken man looked at him, then back at Mara. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing. "My name is Savin." "You do not remember your wives?" He did not. "You do not remember your child, who is now a hundred and ten?" He did not. "You do not remember your passion, which was the insulation of minutely sensitive detectors from all but the most specific and subtle radiations?" He did not, except that he said he could touch magnetic fields and loved to tweak the miniscule weave of the circuits in his robe. He had a zoogoer's enthusiasm for particle physics. "To what do you owe your loyalty?" "Your Majesty," Savin-who-was-Chao-Mu said, "my Ghost told me that I am a Guardian of the Traveler, reborn in its Light. I was not a day old when your brother waylaid me." And he caused to appear from his body a machine like a sphere cradled in a broken cube, which bobbed impertinently and blinked at the Queen. "You'll make an enemy of the City and every Guardian in it if you keep us against our will," the machine warned them. "But we would gladly be your allies, if you desire it. The City has no idea of your existence, except faint myths among the Awoken on Earth." "Does it speak for you?" the Queen challenged Savin-who-was-Chao-Mu. "I speak for myself," Savin-who-was-Chao-Mu answered. "Behold!" And he drew forth from the quantum vacuum a shrieking singularity, which he held between his hands and then telescoped down into nothing. "Are you intrinsically good?" the Queen asked. "I hope so," he answered. The Queen knew this was a lie or a misapprehension. She was aware of the Risen and the cruel fiefdoms they had sometimes enabled. However, perhaps the Ghosts that had made the Risen were destroyed or became enlightened. Now the Queen asked the Techeuns to assess the differences between the Chao Mu they remembered and this Savin returned as a Guardian of the Traveler, using their most sensitive physical and psychological tests. Most of all, though, the Queen was curious about the reaction of her Ahamkara, which had begun to salivate, and to assume a form more like the Guardian expected: monstrous and befanged. But her brother whispered urgently to her, "We must know how to kill it, Mara. There are more every day." Savin the Guardian showed a tremendous fondness for doing things; he had a pathologically task-oriented nature, which made him very useful to the Reef. Yet there was always the sense that his Ghost was watching, observing, reporting. And Savin was most of all greedy—not in the grasping manner of the petty, but in an enormous, all-consuming way, for he desired materials and experiences that would temper him into a better Guardian, and he was always experimenting with his strange powers in foolish ways that left him briefly dead, seeking "a new Super ability" or "some way to make my grenades faster." He grew tired of performing trivial tasks about the Reef, complaining that the dangerous repairs he made were endless and boring, and that he wanted to move on to new worlds. He leapt into space, repeatedly and without reason, as if his death were no more traumatic than a hop off a curb. Obsessed with reward and efficiency, he would rather do one profitable thing a thousand times than waste his efforts on a less beneficial novelty. By the end of her acquaintance with Savin, Mara had decided she did not like this Traveler and what it did to people. Yet she had also decided that she felt a strange kinship and sympathy for it, this cornered, desperate god, making infinite sacrifices out of its people. Perhaps the Earth would be better off if the Traveler vanished or was destroyed, she thought. Even in the Reef, she felt as if she were living next to a torch held up in a dark wilderness, calling out across the galaxy to hungry things with too many eyes.