Prologue: Divide by Cucumber Error

"I, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, in the name of the great Five Pentagon Powers, following my fate, summon a familiar."

It was a simple invocation, said to have been given from Brimir himself, the only changes through millennia being the necessary ones of translation as new languages arose and displaced their predecessors.

And if some of its meaning had been lost to time - there was much that had been lost to time - it nonetheless worked. It was recited each year by hopeful young mages, and every year those who were not lacking were rewarded with familiars well-suited to them.

It was taken as an enduring proof that the mages yet enjoyed the favor of their most ancient Saint. For who but a divine spirit could ensure, without fail, a harmonious matching of familiars to those mages strong enough to be worthy of the title?

Indeed, it required keen discernment on the part of something. If it please you, gentle reader, let that something be known to you as the Arbiter.

The Arbiter's usual function was straightforward, at least for one who could look past the veil of flesh to the gleaming power that lay concealed within. This was not an invasion, nothing so intrusive as the theft of private thoughts and unspoken dreams: It could See the mage who had proven to possess the strength to invoke it, and then it could Look for a familiar who fit what it had discerned. Mind to mind, the familiar would act as an extension of its new master. Heart to heart, the familiar would become the beloved companion or cherished tool that its master most needed. Power to power, the familiar's abilities would resonate with the affinities and dreams of its master, growing to be their ideal complement.

Little wonder that familiars were often treasured above even family.

Except that this time the hopeful supplicant was atypical. But not unexpected. This was the true reason that Brimir had conjured and bound the Arbiter to his design. The inner countenance of the supplicant wasn't its priority: There were different protocols to apply.

It was not often for this true purpose to be invoked. Each year it might judge hundreds, but never more than a handful of true supplicants. Indeed, it could be decades or even centuries between applications of the true protocols.

The Arbiter didn't particularly care, as boredom wasn't in its nature. Nor did it rejoice for this chance to perform its deeper function. It was not a mortal creature, to be born and to strive, to hold off death for a time. Its urges were entirely bound up in carrying out Brimir's design, and they were nothing like human instinct or emotion. The Arbiter did not need emotion: It had purpose. Judging typical mages by the thousands in between carrying out its true purpose did not erode that purpose, now that it had been called upon.

The countenance of the supplicant was set aside, and the Arbiter began to Look. This time, it was to seek passion.

Were it a person, this might have seemed odd. Sometimes when carrying out its true purpose before it had sought for vitality, or intelligence, or sometimes charisma. But this time, for the very first time, passion was the key in its Brimir-given purpose. A person might have wondered, but the Arbiter had no need of wonder. Its awareness reached out, and began to consider what it perceived.

The familiar required a narrow range of form, removing most of the usual familiar candidates from consideration. Any powers that it possessed had to be compatible with its new role, and this removed the rest of the usual familiar candidates. The remainder would never have been chosen as familiars, except under the true protocols. And certain bonds already on the heart would interfere with the new bond that must develop, so most of the remaining candidates were removed. The Arbiter considered the handful that were left, contrasting them with the supplicant one by one . . .

. . . and hesitated.

The countenance of the supplicant wasn't being considered in the regular fashion, but it wouldn't work to bring a familiar who would despise the supplicant. The bond could hardly form properly under such conditions, after all.

(If the Arbiter didn't precisely care about that, Brimir had. What good is a familiar who immediately despises or hates its new master? And so this requirement was true for all the summoning protocols of the Arbiter: It could not bring forth a familiar that would thereupon seek the death or ruin of the master that had summoned it.)

Of that final handful, each was a suitable vessel for what would be bestowed upon them as a familiar. Each possessed a great depth of passion. Each was free to leave lesser bonds behind, and cleave unto to the new-

But all of them, no matter the kind or kindred, would see their new master as an enemy to be destroyed forthwith.

The Arbiter had to choose, but it could not-

The moment had ended. It had not yet selected the candidate, but the moment had ended. That was not supposed to happen. It lacked the ability to self-recriminate, but it also lacked the ability to set its failure aside. It was locked into a loop of consideration of the final handful, and could not even care to wonder how long it would be-

"I, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, in the name of the great Five Pentagon Powers, following my fate, summon a familiar!"

It had been invoked again. The raw desperation of the supplicant flooded through it, bringing new strength. The Arbiter's awareness expanded across time and space, and where the barriers between continua were weaker than normal, it was able to discern new candidates. Many new candidates.

Powers? What few that could be discerned were talents of mind and soul, and would not interfere. Passion? Oh, yes. Tightly constrained, but often all the more potent for it. Bonds of the heart? For many, an eagerness for such a bond coupled with little hope of ever finding one. These would not hate a master that offered the companionship they were denied!

But given that the supplicant had already faltered once, there might not be time to sort through the possibilities for the best match. The Arbiter selected one that seemed, perhaps, a bit less developed than the others. Less likely to have incompatible traits. And indeed, a quick comparison of its countenance to the supplicant's revealed nothing truly amiss. As long as they were the least bit reasonable with each other they would quickly form a proper bond. So the Arbiter presented the standard lure, and-

. . .

The one who responded was not the one that had been selected. The Arbiter pulsed a warning. The false selection might prove incompatible, and if the supplicant faltered again-!

The false selection had been accepted anyway.

Purpose complete, the Arbiter resumed a state of quiescence, waiting until the next time it was invoked.