The Chronicles Of Heavenly Artifice CLXXII – The Sources Of Denial

While Charles searched out Yu-Shan’s hidden Devas, and Leon finished up with the last few details of the Hanging Gardens, and Aikiko and Ruki were talking about kilts, about driving like a madwoman, and about how Ruki did NOT believe in magic.

(Aikiko) “OK, the privacy warding’s up (and the Coatl were coming out for some exercise)… so yeah, you wanted to know why I was here?”

(Ruki) “NO, I was wanting to know more about everyone wearing skirts here in this chilly ass place.

(Aikiko) “I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic… but” (at least according to the Adenic archives) “Tradition” is about all the answer there is. (There was a lot on meaning of the various patterns, and clans and such though – which Aikiko happily explained) “Oh yeah . . . and there’s this one fey market that forbids tartan and plaids in genreal, for some reason.”

(Ruki, sighing most dramatically) “I wasn’t serious you twit!”

Aikiko sighed herself… as bristly as a minor god being quizzed on it’s care of it’s domain… She had the Coatl spiral up and take a look around for any particularly interesting natural landmarks in the area. Those tended to lead to supernatural pockets in mythology… And there was an outcropping out in the lake, with a ruined tower on it. Quite the local landmark, although it didn’t seem to be in the local guidebook.

Well, there were rowboats and a few canoes for the adventurous available… A rowboat should be fine.

(Aikiko) “Hmm… that looks like what I’m here for.”

(Ruki) “You’re here for looking at ruins? When you’re driving like you’ve got a hit squad on your tail? What is WRONG with you?!?!”

The rental for the boats was very small; there is a warning about visiting the ruins though; rocks had been known to fall on people, and there had been several broken toes and such – although fortunately nothing worse. If they did visit, it was at their own risk!

Well, a few rocks didn’t sound like much of a menace to Aikiko.

(Aikiko) “I’m looking for this big city that’s supposed to be around here. The driving was because travel magic isn’t easy to control at times.”

She wasn’t going to admit that she drove like a madwoman even when she wasn’t using travel thaumaturgy!

Ruki… was fuming. What, a CITY? Hiding in a small resort? Yeah, SURE.Maybe one the bint realized just how ridiculous that was, she’d get a bit more sensible.

The ruins… were extremely picturesque, mossy, with vaulted stone ceilings, and looked to be in pretty decent shape. They had a spiral stair surrounding the central open shaft. The roof, however, was missing – which let in enough rain and sun for the moss to thrive. More importantly… the entire place was a creation of magic, strongest in the basement (the concealment effects were not yet all running).

(Aikiko) “Whoa! Man, that was just a hunch… feels like it’s coming from the basement.”

They headed downstairs – only to find that the basement had a complex little mosaic on the floor; it seemed to be a small labyrinth – the classical church variety, with one path only. There was even stronger magic at the center… Did you have to walk the labyrinth to open the gate? Assuming that there was a gateway here, and not some silly trap…

Yes, Leon would probably complicate things late on – but he couldn’t take care of everything at once.

Ruki followed her. At least the place was peaceful… And maybe she should keep the madwoman from hurting herself. With just a little luck she could soak the bint for her vacation…

There were several things to stumble over, and some slippery spots what with all the moss – but certainly nothing to challenge a pair of Exalts. As they reached the center, they found themselves on a set of ruby and emerald stairs, which spiraled up unsupported into the sky – headed for a massive floating mesa, carved into terraces and with a colossal statue on each side. Small streams trickled over the edges to drop to the earth a mile or so below and the clouds blew past.

(Aikiko) “Whoa… okay, this is the place for SURE. Check out those stairs…”

It looked like a long climb, but there seemed to be an oddly small number of steps making it up. The massive gemstone slabs were quite pretty though, sparkling in the sunlight. The railing was of gold and silver, intricately twisted, with ruby berries and emerald leaves for decorations.

(Ruki) “. . .”

One of the colossal statues – a falcon-headed thing – was keeping an eye on them.

(Aikiko) “Hi!”

There was a deep rumble, which was barely understandable as “Greetings! And welcome to the Hanging Gardens”

(Aikiko) “Huh, so that’s what this place is. I’d heard rumors about an entire city somewhere around here. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Ruki looked at the giant thing carefully… WHAT was going on here? Was she still tripping? A small mountain hanging suspended in the sky that no on else saw, a staircase that teleported you from the basement of an old ruin to an invisible midair staircase made of gemstone, and colossal talking statues?

(Ruki) “What the ~!@#$ is going on?”

(Aikiko) “If the rumors are true, a chancel holding a fairy city. Look at these stairs! They just wouldn’t work without magic holding them up. Oh yeah . . . a chancel is a portable alternate dimension.”

(Statue, in a deep – and geological – rumble) “It is the Hanging Gardens small one! The Realm of Leon… What else would it be?”

(Aikiko) “Is there a city in here… hmm, falcon head… Horus?”

(Statue) “Horus Indeed… and the City lies above, it’s gardens amongst the clouds.”

(Aikiko) “May we come in?”

(Statue) “There are few restrictions once you are past the labyrinth.”

(Aikiko) “Okay then… might as well have a look around.”

(Ruki…) “I guess…”

All right… either this was the LONGEST and most intricate trip she’d ever been on, or something was up! Some sort of virtual reality holodeck stuff maybe? There were supposed to be all kinds of tricks you could play with THAT. And who knew what had been hooked into her nervous system? That seemed a lot more likely than all this !@#$% “magic” baloney! She’d seen PLENTY of people who claimed to have magic powers as a kid; it was always tricks and flummery!

The stairs somehow wound up touching down on the side of a central step-pyramid/garden, with numerous paths, streams, and stairways wandering through it. It was surrounded by a fabulous city, rather like a mix between Ancient Egypt and the Arabian Knights. A local cabbie (it looked like a human teenager) stopped by with his flying carpet to see if they needed a ride.

Aikiko (vastly over-)paid with gossamer from the fair…

(Cabbie) “And where would you like to go madam?”

(Aikiko) “Where are all the tourists going?”

(Cabbie) “We don’t really get that many – but there are all kinds of places to see! What would you be interested in?”

(Aikiko) “Got any athletics facilities? What about rock climbing?”

There were indeed outdoor athletics facilities – mostly track and field style, although there was some provision for weight-lifting and such. If you really wanted climbing – and a dangerous thrill – there was always the outside of the mesa. That wasn’t too bad at all!

Then Aikiko looked at Ruki’s expression)

(Aikiko) “Er… is something wrong?”

(Ruki, dangerously flatly) “This ain’t normal.”

(Aikiko) “Of course not!” (As she lapped the track again…) “You’re in this Leon fellow’s personal world now!”

(Ruki) “That ain’t possible”

Aikiko lapped again – people moving at that speed on foot shouldn’t be possible either…

(Aikiko) “But it’s happening now. I could give you some Essence sight, so you could look for yourself.”

(Cabbie) “Why not possible? The Hanging Gardens are Lord Leon’s creation; I mean… just look at them!”

(Aikiko) “They’re really neat! He must be a powerful fey.”

(Cabbie) “Normally mountains don’t hang in the sky – but this one does because Lord Leon likes the view!”

(Ruki) “. ..”

(Cabbie) “Well, it was a bit startling for me too – and my great-mother was a naiad, so I was kind of used to the small magics – but Lord Leon has a GREAT deal of power!”

(Aikiko) “I don’t think she’s familiar with ANY magic at all . . .”

(Cabbie) “Oh! From one of the interdicted cities? People from those are often REALLY startled when they see any of the Feyborn!”

(Aikiko, to Ruki) “No clue. Hey, where are you from, anyway?”

(Riku) “Roanapur”

(Aikiko) “Wait, from that phony – well, maybe not so phony – documentary? Damn… I had no idea that it was real. It looked so… over-the-top! Like a really BAD action movie with all that gunfire and relatively few deaths…”

Aikiko was a lot more used to that occurring off-planet! Well… perhaps best not to mention that either.

(Aikiko) “It’s really that violent there?”

Meanwhile, a werewolf and a small dragon were having a wrestling match in one of the rings. That was going to be good!… It was, in fact, very busy! The werewolf eventually won – and noted that he did teach the Mountain-Hurling Style – a grappling form – in exchange for relatively small amounts of Gossamer.

Huh. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford it… Why not take some lessons from the werewolf? It was good to learn multiple styles! She wouldn’t be deploying Skoll though! That would be grossly unfair!

The werewolf fellow turned out to be quite a decent teacher – also fairly young and certainly friendly enough!

Ruki shook her head and wandered off to see just how far the insanity extended… A long ways! There were numerous shops selling magic, transformations, exotic pets, odd foods, clothing, and so on – and an archway that opened into a building full of staircases with people walking on both sides of them, some standing on the walls, and others on the ceiling.

The city was bustling, and full of cheerful people, and many strange and fabulous creatures, and it’s geometry made no sense at all even where it was paying attention to gravity. Fast travel seemed to be by flying carpet or by ducking through the kitchens (it seemed to have one giant set of kitchens, that connected to everywhere food was needed, regardless of how far away that ought to be).

Ruki… was utterly confused – and then was… hit by a ball, and a small mob of children looked quite embarrassed and wanted to know if they could have it back. MOST of them were human…

(Ruki, tossing the ball back) “What’s all this then?”

(Kids) “Er… a ball game… Or do you mean something else?”

(Ruki) “What sorta game kid?”

(Kids) “Soccer! (they happily explained soccer, and all the special rules for nonhumans, and and shapeshifters, and for space-distortions, and what magic was allowable – not that any of them could actually do all THAT much of it. The ball had been sensitized though; it responded to even very tiny charms, and that helped them learn!

Aikiko was considering… a Kickaha? He seemed older than most of them. Still, they were tracing dragon lines, and someone had just knotted together several here, and dropped an incredibly powerful demesne filled with massive amounts of magic on the new nexus. One might well drop by and try to fit in while surveying and investigating! Plus… the boy was teaching some pretty high-end stuff! Mountain Stance, Coils of the Dragon, Hurl to the Horizon… essence around seven and wrapped up in some VERY familiar protections.

(Aikiko) “You’re a good teacher! You’re not a Kickaha by any chance, are you? You’ve got some interesting magical effects going – and I suspect that the name Charles Dexter Ward means quite a lot to you!

(Werewolf, sighing) “Well, yes…. I suppose it is pretty obvious if you know what you’re looking for! This place though… Whoever put this place here… I don’t think it’s more than two months old! It’s still pretty underpopulated really! The “Lord Leon” has to be POWERFUL – even if he doesn’t seem to be doing all that much with it at the moment!”

(Aikiko) “He did a really good job. I don’t think there was even a DEMESNE here before.”

(Werewolf) “I was kind of afraid of that! Charles does that sort of thing, but he’s CHARLES. This is pretty obviously a Raksha – or maybe even an Ishvara!”

(Aikiko) “So what’s your association with Charles? He’s got so many people in Aden that even he probably can’t keep track of them.”

(Werewolf) “Oh, I’ve been surveying Earth’s dragon lines for him – but I got a younger boy in to run around England while I looked into THIS.”

(Aikiko) “You’re a bit old for a Kickaha, aren’t you?”

(Werewolf) “A few of us were older when we were recruited back in the early days! Mostly because some of our younger siblings had become Kickaha…”

(Aikiko) “Ah, I see. So you’re poking around here, then. Have you seen Leon around?”

(Werewolf) “So far… I haven’t approached him directly, although he DOES hold open audiences sometimes. He doesn’t show a lot of patience though! There are apparently a couple of people who tried to demand things from him in his kennels now…”

(Aikikp) “Ohhh… definitely a raksha.”

(Werewolf) “It certainly seems that way – but a Raksha with THIS kind of power… it’s a creature out of legend!”

(Aikiko) “Scary… and definitely something I need to investigate!”

(Werewolf) “Well… if you want to head in, I suppose I can back you up! At worst I’ll just get killed and sent back to Aden!”

(Aikiko) “OK then! Thanks!”

(Werewolf) “You’re certainly welcome!”

Hm… The place was… over the top just like Aden, but in a different way. It would be best to be careful what deals you made here, but the opportunities for pleasure were considerably wider than in Aden. Not quite on the level of the Algedonic Palace in Yu-Shan – but not all that tremendously far behind it either. And the ancient Babylon theme was pretty exciting, even if it WAS a lot smaller than Aden!

And for that matter… the humans seemed pretty happy, and were definitely being provided for and granted at least some minor abilities… Just like Aden. Almost SUSPICIOUSLY like Aden! Perhaps Charles really HAD spontaneously created a raksha through his subconscious? He certainly had more than enough power, and he WAS keeping a sea of chaos at the center of Aden – or himself. Well… not much to do about that other than visit this Leon and determine which urge he was based on.

That would be easy enough, he did hold audiences and a limited audience was permitted…

Leon… was a Lion-man, surrounded by a golden glow, attended by a bunch of scantily-clad teenage catboys and catgirls being servants. He was holding court – and holding a scepter and wearing a coronet. Except for the cat-theme, it looked like a bookplate from the Morte de Arthur, showing Arthur sitting in judgement. Definitely some kind of rulership narrative going on there! At a minimum… a very strong part of his current story. There was a cross between Merlin and an Hollywood Evil Grand Vizier presenting cases – mostly people looking to take refuge. Also very much like Charles, if a bit more organized.

The current one was… a young man who was currently looking horrified as the query about “and why are YOU seeking refuge here?” somehow dragged out of him a story about killing three people in a botched carjacking and the rest of the Feylands wanting to uphold their deals with the mundane police…

(Leon) “So! You seek to take advantage of my generosity! The sole thing in your favor is that you did not start your theft intending to kill! Therefore you will be permitted to retain your life, if not your form!”

Leon… transformed the man into a plowhorse with a wave of his hand and wrapped his mind in “good horse” compulsions.

(Leon) “Have him gelded and put to work!”

Fairly impressive! The transformation was a raksha charm, the compulsions… the power seemed a bit familiar, but she’d never seen it being used like THAT before. Raksha-magic boosted thaumaturgy with other powers backing it. Also very similar to how Charles operated. Uncannily so, really – although she’d NEVER seen Charles simply… hammer a cage of compulsions around someone’s mind, even when he was about as upset as he ever got! Leon certainly wasn’t restrained in THAT fashion… Perhaps Charles really had sublimated some of his urges in this fellow? He was obviously enough deep into the “King and Judge” narrative, the scantily-clad entourage were all good looking and the girls exceptionally so – if he’s following the “Cat” theme, his pride – and that golden glow tended to begin to grow into a blinding aura when he was annoyed – such as now. For a moment there… it was starting to look like a giant cat made of white and gold flame.

Very Solar! Way more so than Charles anyway! And yet he still seems to be a fairly decent… conglomeration of Graces and narrative. Wait… if he was an expression of Charles’s surpressed urges, what would those be? To relax, to rule outright, and to be harsh toward those who offended him? To be… classically solar. Was this is the result of him suppressing those desires to do what he believes must be done? There was a Lawgiver back on Earth – and he was a RAKSHA…

That was just SO WRONG! They were supposed to embody chaos!

Of course… there was Charles. Hiding in plain sight, being ANYTHING but a weapon, convincing people that he wasn’t at all dangerous by pretending to be a PRIMORDIAL… Was there something that he DIDN’T do backwards?

If Leon WAS a creation of Charles’s, he was probably ultimately benign – but he was obviously willing to be ruthless in pursuing his goals, That could be bad news for any unlucky humans who were in his way and not innocent enough! Although… three murders. Life as a plowhorse. It was severe and VERY high-handed, but somewhat fair.

Aikiko lurked in the audience while Leon dealt with several more cases – including one pair arguing over the details of a contract who BOTH refused to accept the ruling of the treasury official. The dummies insisted on opening their mouths – and get three months each as dogs chasing sticks for children with appropriate compulsions – but no neutering.

And with that closer look…. It was hard to be sure (just like Charles) – but his essence was even higher than Charles’s. At LEAST ten – which certainly explained the power source behind this place! If not an Ishvara, on par with one – and… a fair match for Charles’s other major creations. To think that sublimating his urges could create THIS!

He certainly sounded like the fellow who’d called her on your phone and knew a lot more than anyone but her, Charles, and Lytek should. A good thing that she’d checked up on the rumors! Although… that fellow had been recruiting her for anti-abyssal action in the far east… She might have to take him up on that… She could use a rematch now that she had some more charms and Skoll was doing what she directed! They’d never know what hit them!

And she’d… actually fight a battle… She’d never really done that before, and the thought was a bit scary! Even at the Mouth of the Void, she had only intended to run from them. Nonetheless, if pilgrims in Mecca were getting killed, she had to stop that! Especially if the souls of people who very firmly believed in their faith were being stolen to make soulsteel out of! That
would produce a quality of soulsteel not normally seen. And pilgrims on the hajj undertook purificatory rituals and practices too, which would boost the strength of their souls. They’d be… one of the few good sources of Soulsteel-quality souls left in the universe!

Well… Leon apparently did allow limited numbers of interviews for young men and women who wanted to see him more privately. It was obvious enough what he’d usually expect of course – but it didn’t have to be that way. He seemed to be polite enough as long as you didn’t try to lie to him!

She requested one – and that easily got her in to see Leon, who was relaxing at the moment with a hooka, a book, a smoking jacket, a roaring fire, and various other (increasingly odd) things about. A servant-boy and girl were present (still not wearing much) and so were drinks.

(Leon) “Ah, hello young woman!”

(Aikiko, bowing) “Hello, Lord Leon!”

(Leon) “Well now! You don’t seem to fit the usual profile! What is it you’re wanting?”

(Aikiko) “Well . . . you called me about a bad situation in Saudi Arabia a while back, and I’d like to help you out with that.”

(Leon) “Ah! You’re looking rather different these days… Fire and Steel! Indeed yes, some supernatural force is preying on the Pilgrims to Mecca – as silly as the Haiji is.”

(Aikiko) “I think you’d mentioned something about the Abyssal Exalted?”

(Leon) “That is what it sounded like! And up against those, allies are always handy!”

(Aikiko) “Well… I can’t let them continue with that. If the hajj gets disrupted too much, who knows what problems it will cause?”

(Leon) “I would bet on another Iran-Iraq war personally!”

(Aikiko) “Ergh… with their main income source suddenly not so important, that could still be nasty! And with them squabbling over abruptly-diminished resources… It’d be truly vicious, a fight for survival.”

(Leon) “ And just the place to open up a new Shadowland – in the midst of desolation plentifully soaked with blood! Quite unacceptable!”

(Aikiko) “Quite. So, what do you want me to do?”

(Leon) “Well… we had best visit the middle east! Fortunately, I had one of the minions head over there last week! So it’s just across bridge 27!”

Minions were nice to have… she had those kids up in Heaven, but mortals couldn’t stand up to even moderate threats like she’d be facing. Maybe she could find some supernatural ones?

(Aikiko) “I see…”

And the boy with the fan continued gently waving it.

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Federation-Apocalypse Log 42: All Your Base

   With Jamie taking time out for repairs (that colossal battering she’d taken had done quite a lot of damage), the House busy setting up their defenses around the doorway to the Rosary of Memory, the NeoDogs in delivery, needing to stay out of Core for a bit (although recruiting there was picking up again a bit), Marty and Kevin were at loose ends for a bit.

   Well, if there was anywhere that would make it easy to travel to obscure locations, it would be the Rosary.

   Marty had been meaning to do some recruiting and take care of a few things at home, so he headed back to Battling Business World.

   Battling Business World looked much the same as ever. Two hot-dog vendors battling it out with axes over a prime business spot, the subway on fire, the merry sounds of a kids gun battle over at the arcade, and an upset vending machine jumping up and down on someone who kept banging the button too hard.

   “Hey, Lou (the vending machine). Joe (the unfortunate being jumped on) push the Diet Pepsi button one too many times again?”

   “He was demanding Jolt Cola again! I don’t even CARRY Jolt Cola! I keep telling him, just dissolve a bottle of caffeine tablets and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar in regular coke, and it’s just the same, but NOOOooo!”

   “He never learns. Did you kill him again?”

   “Not quite yet! Got any hand grenades? If I put one in the can and hook the pin to the pull tab it should be really funny!”

   “Eh, you know Mr. Leland won’t let me have those since the oil tanker incident.”

   “Well, I keep asking maintenance to run a nitroglycerin line in here next to the water line, but they keep turning it down for some reason!”

   “Got me. Bah, I’ve got to call the office. I’m sure you heard about the London raid.”

   “Yeah! The Boss is really considering hiring the guy who led it on as a regular!”

   “He did some damn fine work. That wrecking ball maneuver was something.”

   “Only trouble is, he keeps setting off the sprinkler system. So hot-headed!”

   “He’ll learn. Uh . . . how are he and Sadie (the bosses pet opossum and raid-assistant) getting along?”

   “Sadie keeps toasting marshmellows on him and making smores. I think he’s getting smarter!

   “Wow, the boss must be teaching her some more tricks. Is he busy?”

   “Oh, I’d give him about five minutes before he pitches his last appointment out the window! (there is a scream going down): Darn it! I think the copier just won the pool!”

   Mr Leland did, indeed, have a brand new opening on his schedule. He was rather pleased with the amount of opportunities for expansion the Manifold offered – and with the fact that Marty had managed to hire some navigational specialists. (Kevin’s contractors had done some excellent work during the invasion. Very unusual tactics, but effective). They’d also helped bring in our counter-raid contractors – which brought up how the Balrog was doing.

   The Balrog was doing quite well. he seemed woefully uninformed on many practical matters, but he’d been picking up the way of things quite rapidly. His resume was a bit specialized – he seemed to have mostly been dealing with a very persistent bunch of raiders over and over again – but he certainly showed adaptability and enthusiasm in London! Mr Leland was planning on offering him the position, although it would be nice to know who “Gandalf” was, and why defeating him several times seemed to be such a point of pride. Presumably “Gandalf” was some really tough big shot where the Balrog was from.

   “Like Trump, only he doesn’t pay people to hit themselves.”

   “Well, at least he doesn’t seem to have a flock of kids like Kenshin and Gelman. I’ve never had “Bring your Daughter to Work” day turn into that kind of a bloodbath before. Even by our standards it was impressive!”

   “That made me glad Abigail and I only had Julia before the divorce – although I still can’t figure out why the Judge gave her full custody. What’s wrong with “I thought the kid had to learn about bars eventually” as an answer to “Why did you take your 4-year old to a sports bar?”

   “Well, I have to give them credit: the two teams stuck together pretty well!”

   “Heh. Wish Abigail would have let me bring Julia this year. She’s started on Oaken Staff in kindergarten.”

   “Well, she might have settled down a bit. Besides, during any period in which she’s dead and you’re not, you have custody again you know.”

   “Been hard to exploit that with all the travel. Ah well.”

   “What I really came by for was to see if Mr. Balrog’s raid had any fallout. Lloyd’s can’t be happy.”

   “Well, Lloyds has been trying to put together a major coalition, but there’s been some reluctance: the Contractors took over quite a few firms, and they haven’t been able to dislodge them yet.”

   “That’s good news. Oh yeah . . . check this little guy (Limey) out. I found him during the raid.”

   Marty got out Limey and woke him up…

   “Raise! Upgrade! Battery! Contract!”

   “Hm, sounds like he should be a valuable assistant for you shortly!”

   “Only problem is, I haven’t converted him from the British plug yet. And I have no idea where he came from. The union’s going to be angry.

   “Hm. Have you checked with Immigration? “

   “Not yet. I came here as soon as I got back. I think I’ll head down there, if you don’t need me.”

   “Well, there are plenty of local jobs which could use your touch – but if we don’t let the new staff do anything, they’ll never learn. Best get the kid there through INS, and I’ll see if the new guys are completely flummoxed anywhere.”

   Marty headed for the INS: it was nice to be driving his sedan again after too long an absence. The Flits and such were all very nice, but there was just something to the feel of five or six tons of solid armor around you. He had to knock a few cars out of the way, but even most of the Lloyds agents had given up at the moment: he’d been away too long… Still, it looked like the minigun car alarm had been worth the cash!

   “See how that guy’s car exploded, Limey? Isn’t that great? It was a Jaguar, too!”

   “Boom! (In different voice) <WELCOME TO ROAD RAGE RACING 27! SELECT YOUR CAR> Boom!”

   “Wow, you have a racing game!? That’s great! Now I won’t get as homesick!”

   The INS informed him that, since Limey had awakened in England, he’d need a new transformer if he was being naturalized and that it was obvious that he’d woken up non-violently, otherwise he would be fully aware from the start… If it was necessary to rush him, inducing some hostility would do it nicely – although it did make it hard to get along with them later on.

   Checking his hard drive revealed the Limey had been setting up for a transfer to a Demo Model – no wonder he was so friendly – and had quite a few expensive upgrades already. (Lloyds would definitely want him back). He’d recently had a reformat, but the backup partition was protected of course (that was why they picked everything up again so fast of course: unconscious memories). There was a registered corporate war declaration on file, and it’s still in the “open” category. That could make him a political refugee, prisoner of war, war refugee, or double agent – but he seems a bit young for prisoner or double agent.

   Marty opted for “Refugee” and an adoption form.

   “I’d be glad to sign on the little guy up as my assistant!”

   “You’ll have to reach some contract-breaking accommodation with Lloyds after the war or handle it with the settlement, and there might be a protest from Microsoft, but that will be none of my affair after I use the bosses stamp on the forms. Two choices there, you can either persuade him to use the stamp himself, or just take it.”

   “Couldn’t you do it now? I’ve got to leave town on business, and the little guy really likes to travel, don’t you little buddy?”

   “Travel! Underdark! POLYMORPH SECRETARY!”

   Well, that left him with a giant ground sloth.

   Well, the bosses office was next door…

   “Ah, hello, sir. I was just speaking with your secretary, and I need to nationalize this laptop as an American citizen.”

   “Are you asking me to take responsibility for something? You are not on my schedule, therefore you don’t exist! I don’t go out of my way for hallucinations! You can have a drink if you want though; if you’re a figment of my imagination it just goes straight back to me anyway! Vodka or Scotch?”

   “Why choose? Let’s have both!”

   “Now that’s a figment after my own imagination!”

   OK, there was a bar behind the wall screen, glasses in the safe – and the stamp chained down on the desk. Time for a plan… They’d both drink until the boss was so drunk that he wouldn’t care if Marty stole his office, much less used his stamp. All he had to do was hope that he remained sober enough to sneak over and use it.

   Limey woke up again halfway through.

“Data!”

“Here . . . have the nice government man’s flash drive.”

   Marty got to work approving his paperwork.

   “Data! Yummy! Forms! Passwords! Scheduling! Bura… Bura… Bureaucrat! Office! Desk! Service Records! Meanie! Meanie! Uploading… Personnel File Overwrite! Linking! POLYMORPH!”

   Suddenly the bureaucrat was an elephant seal – and there was a lot of noise suddenly throughout the building.

   Well, government types WERE sort of defined by their personnel files…

   “Tired!” (Limey went back to sleep suddenly)

   “Limey, I love you more every minute.”

   There. Paperwork finished and approved. Now to get out before anyone noticed anything wrong. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the building except seals, sloths, and pandas at the moment anyway.

   Limey digested Data all the way home. Once he woke up, Marty got some cartoons for him to watch. He was a little young for what Marty normally watched.

   “This little laptop went to work, this little laptop called in sick, this little laptop had silicon, and this little laptop had none! And this little laptop went beep, beep, beep all the way home!”

   “I like those!”

   “Very good! Your first sentence!”

   Marty set Elerra and Minel to watch Limey while he took a nap (they didn’t NEED a polymorph!). Even for him, he’d had a lot to drink today…

   Limey was talking a lot better when he woke up. Evidently he’d been doing well, and he’d had a blank CDROM to chew on. Evidently he’d junked most of the government files. He wasn’t interested in the union regs though…

   “Phooey! Freelance subcontractor! Free Agent! Excitement! Romance! (Starts playing the theme song from James Bond: Freelance Corporate Raider). Life for me!”

   “I think we’re going to get along just fine. I’m going to have to teach you how to fight if you’re going to be a scab, though . . . Here, hit me.”

   “LIGHTNING BOLT!”

   “WHAT THE HELL DID KEVIN FEED YOU!?”

   “I have surge protector!”

   “Ow . . . yes. Yes you do. Why don’t you try punching me?”

   “You too far from table!”

   “Well, part of fighting is getting to the target. What would James Bond do?”

   “Attack credit rating?”

   “No, this is a physical fight. Here, I’ll come over there. Give me your best punch. Good! You might be able to stand up to the labor warriors!”

   “Not need to! Junior executives and special agents not union anyway! You slash, I hack!”

   The INS incident had made the New York Times: it was listed as some sort of protest, since no trace of the staff has been found and the animals have all been shipped to the zoo until (at least until they get talking sorted out again) except for the sloth, which was doing the secretaries job competently enough that it was left there…

   Back at Ealor, the Singularites discussion over Kevin was getting a bit intense. What was he? How could he grant other youngsters that much power? He seemed to be telling them “you’re working for me now: you may now freely violate most of the laws of physics as long as you don’t go overboard about it”. And Immortality?!? Even with what they’d learned about Gatekeepers and Openers, that was a bit much. They all seemed so sure about it though…

   They could ask one to demonstrate – or offer to pay for a demonstration – but what if it was bull? On the other hand, could they afford to leave the question unanswered? True or false, it would say a LOT about Kevin – and possibly about Openers in general. The boy was almost impossible to pin down directly: he seemed to flow from personality to personality like mercury, so used to adopting roles that he didn’t even seem to notice himself changing.

   If it was true – well, there were only a few hundred kids on Ealor: they’d rescued as many as possible from Singular during the evacuation – after all, the kids took priority over everything but vital life support – but the birthrate had been declining for centuries, just as the life expectancy had been rising, and most of those who’d been rescued were adults now. Kevin’s advice about visiting Core to fix that seemed to be working – and everything else he’d told them had been checking out so far…

   But Resurrections and Immortality?

   The remaining kids had been playing with the young Gatekeepers Kevin had left. They’d been delighted to have new playmates – and not a few of them had wanted to know if they could have powers like the Gatekeepers.

   They decided to ask one of the Gatekeepers to demonstrate.

   The kid did ask for a fee – but the mere fact of asking for one showed that he expected to be around to collect.

   And he came right back. OK, it took a couple of hours, but apparently the “ritual of return” didn’t even call for a pinch of dust from the original body – and the kid came back carrying along a bag full of snacks and prizes from some sort of amusement park and a bundle of stuff he’d picked up shopping.

   So: for most people “dying” meant “reincarnate elsewhere and don’t come back”. If you were working for Kevin it meant “go entertain yourself at the mall and park until you get called back to your assignment”.

   They’d looked up Kevin’s biography while they were visiting Core. He’d been born a perfectly normal boy. He’d vanished into the Manifold at the equivalent of thirteen or fourteen a little over fifty years ago. He’d apparently spent some time studying magic at “Hogwarts”. He’d met Ryan O’Malley – another Opener who had apparently returned from the Manifold with vast resources and powers available. He had then – by his own word – spent many years in Faerie. He’d returned without aging, and apparently possessed of the kind of powers that ought to be reserved for gods.

   What the HELL had HAPPENED out there?

   Back at the Dragonworlds, “business” was getting back to normal – not as many challengers as he would normally have expected given how long he’d been away, but several. Several of them already subdued even. Well… he did have two thralls there to look after things now. Besides, his worrying about the place seemed to have poured a lot of power into his local ID. It didn’t really show, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that he was – at least locally – becoming an atrocity of power. The remaining challengers were easy enough to deal with.

   On the other hand, some of the females seemed to be trying to politically maneuver him into a formal alliance-mating. Evidently he was beginning to look like a very good prospect.

   That was the trouble with a realm with thousands of vaguely-defined worlds: stuff kept emerging from nowhere on you.

   So: how could he deal with Kelseru Ana’Nasu? He could always ignore her of course – the thousand worlds certainly had enough exploitable resources for two, and business was picking up again now that it was becoming apparent that she wasn’t a free prize for the taking and the novelty factor was wearing off – but she was INFRINGING on HIS TERRITORY.

   Wait. A young female intentionally infringing on his territory?

   He knew how he’d try to deal with her! He’d try an unprecedented tactic! He’d be sociable!

   Kevin had checked out the secret police records on Ana’Nasu and her companions some time ago: the local secret police only had information on the identities of course, but those would be based on their real as well as local abilities. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go on – but she certainly appeared to be young and unattached. He could try some major divinations now that he’d developed the right rituals – but a lot of dragons were sensitive to those, so that might put her off. Still, she seemed to be cunning and ruthless, but not cruel. She takes advantage of the weaknesses in others and feels deserve what they get for having weaknesses. She didn’t go out and kill puppies for amusement, but she was more than willing to break and humiliate young dragons that got in over their head.

   He purchased a few sets of metallic hatchlings (Gold, Silver, and Copper, to suggest money – easy enough to find via purchasing agents; hatchlings and young dragons were a glut on the market), made sure they were all phantasms, that they were all properly slave-conditioned, marked, modified, and bound to obedience, and that they were all well trained as pets and personal slave-attendants and pages.

   That actually made him feel a bit guilty: pesky metallic cuteness/niceness! Oh well, far better than most of the things that happened to hatchling-slaves. Still, he’d be glad to get back to dealing with the older ones who’d tried to steal from him or put up a fight. With them you could really enjoy being an evil red dragon without any bothersome guilt.

   He picked out the cutest trio, got them well polished up, fitted with jeweled collars, property-tags, and proper tack, coached them throughly on their approach and on delivering the well-composed invitation (to eat out at a fancy and secure restaurant that catered to dragons and could be rented for the evening), and sent them off – bearing gifts, and as gifts themselves. Sending gems and jewelry, some local magical items for the lady and her adventurer-companions, the deeds to some useful bits of local property, and three young dragon-slaves would be some pretty obvious courting of course, but there was nothing at all wrong with that.

   So: that offered, as a minimum, more presents, fine dining, a possible alliance – and through him, connections with the secret police and the imperium – and possible magic, all in the security of an established semi-public neutral zone. It would even, if her powers were exotic enough, offer her the possibility of a free shot at collecting him – even if he was sure to have taken precautions. If things went well, she might expect even more.

   They could check on him as well, but it would mostly show a skillful young dragon-artificer who’d gotten really lucky on an Imperial reward and was enough more powerful than average to have successfully defended his gains since (defeating quite a few would-be challengers) – although he’d apparently recently started collecting some intact subordinates as well as slaves.

   That was about all that could be done in the way of a dragon-invitation and demonstration of wealth short of sending an imperial warrant, a small army and some adventurers to drag her to him. He could try sending military forces, secret information, and raw power as gifts – but military forces would be more than a bit much, he had some secret information (and could get more as he practiced with his new divinatory rituals), but he had no real way of knowing what might be useful to her, and raw power generally didn’t come in gifts except as really major magic items – and it would be a pain to acquire any of them and he’d probably rather use them himself if he did.

   She accepted the invitation. She’d be bringing three aides/attendants, and expected that he would be bringing three aides as well.

   Outside of a few clumsy, adolescent, dates and liaisons back before he’d gained his powers – and not counting events in Faerie (what HAPPENS in Faerie STAYS in Faerie) – he’d never really tried this approach before: the Thralls were always available, slaves and captives were his to command, and not a few girls approached him on their own. He wasn’t usually a supplicant.

   He’d have to turn THAT situation around as quickly as possible.

   Now: How could he impress her?

   Well, renting the entire restaurant, a few more gifts, a fancy dinner, fine wines, a squad of servile slaves, and an impression of wealth worked pretty well on most dragons, just like they did on most humans – even better in fact if you really put on a show. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money to impress.

   He could make sure that the food was superb, that the drinks were enough to provide even a dragoness with a slight buzz – but nothing more unless she really overindulged – and that the dishes were amongst those that inflamed the senses. No manipulations or trickery with drugs or anything: just good food and drink. No tricks, and no cheating: just her social skills and enhancements against his.

   The musicians and entertainers would be highly skilled lesser-race types. For the servers… Hm. The rest of the hatchling coppers, silvers, and golds, with their relevant skills well boosted. The clear-away crew could be some of his fallen rivals. The personal attendants could be hatchling reds for both of them and for any companions she brought. Best to make the personal attendants outright presents, as well as bearers of presents.

   Now as for his assistants. Well, he’d bring his usual trio of Thralls, either in human or dragon form as appropriate, coordinating the musicians, the entertainment, and the service.

   Oh yes, he’d have to boost the talents of the cooks as well.

   He could display his power, but it would probably be best to be a little more subtle than that.

   Now, there were some things that were supposed to be dragon-aphrodisiacs (beyond wealth and power) – but he’d hold those dishes in reserve. Most dragons didn’t have any trouble with that sort of thing, but it’d certainly make him feel weird.

   Soup course or not, where things went from there would depend on her. She might have important connections, or a great deal of personal power, or be a lead into something he needed to know. In that case a bargain, or an alliance of some sort, might be in order. On the other hand, she might just be an opportunistic adventuress, or a youngster with an unexpected power set, or something. In that case, ideally – at least for him – the evening would wind up with her being added to his harem, whether as a Thrall (if she was low-powered enough) or by transformation and abjuration magic. Getting that far would be quite a trick though.