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 formula, given from Brimir himself, and the only changes through millennia were the necessary ones of translation as new languages arose.

It would certainly have been lost to the sands of time, as had so very much, except that it worked. Every year without fail, young mages recited the incantation, and every year they 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 such harmonious matchings of mage and familiar?

And indeed, it required keen discernment on the part of something. Let that something, dear reader, be known to you as the Arbiter.

Normally, the Arbiter's function was simple enough. Examine the inner desires of the heart of the supplicant mage, and find a familiar that would resonate with those desires and the elemental affinity of the mage, ensuring that the powers of the familiar, as they developed, would be a harmonious fit with the mage for whom the familiar was summoned.

Except that this time the elemental affinity of the supplicant was . . . well, this was the real reason Brimir had conjured and bound the Arbiter to his design. Different protocols were to apply.

It was quite rare for the Arbiter's true purpose to be invoked. Each year it might judge hundreds of supplicants, but never more than a handful of true supplicants. Indeed it could be decades, or even centuries, between applications of the special protocols.

The Arbiter didn't particularly care: Boredom was not in its nature. Nor did it rejoice for this chance to perform its highest purpose. It was not a mortal creature, to be born, 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. Periods of inactivity, whether long or short, did not erode that, and purpose had been called upon.

Criteria were brought up. This time, the Arbiter was to seek passion. Intelligence had been acceptable in past choices, but passion was the key in this aspect of Brimir's design. The awareness of the Arbiter reached out through the world, and so the sorting began.

Innate magic disqualified this particular type of candidate as incompatible - a number of the candidates were removed from consideration. Bonds already on the heart would interfere with the new bond that must develop - most of the rest of the candidates were removed. The Arbiter considered the remainder, and hesitated.

It would seem that passion and a hatred of those who wielded magic went hand-in-hand. The bond would not form properly under such conditions. All but a handful of the candidates were discarded. The final remainder . . .

Passion and freedom to form a new bond, yes. Their other qualities were either lacking or a poor fit. The Arbiter considered the remaining few candidates, brought up tertiary criteria, reconsidered, and-

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, increasing its potency. 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.

Passion? Oh, yes. Tightly constrained, but all the more potent for it. A willingness to conform to imposed circumstances? Common. Love of magic and those who wield it? Not just love, practically worship!

Given that supplicant had already faltered once, there was no time to sort through the possibilities, but no real need, either. Many of them would be suitable. The Arbiter selected the first one that fit its criteria adequately, presented the standard lure, and-

. . .

The one who responded was not the one that had been selected. The Arbiter sent an error message. The false selection might prove incompat-

The false selection had been accepted anyway.

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