Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”

By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.


Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”

“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.

Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”


“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.


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13 – 52

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They watched him pacing in the monitors from the security hub which now served as the headquarters for the entire Hand program. There were, of course, two Hands present; they had, without comment, implemented a policy of never leaving the Emperor unattended when he was in a room with the kitsune. In addition to Sharidan, Milanda, and Akane standing in front of the monitor, the three resident dryads were huddled around another screen some distance away, reading something. They liked to be nearby when people gathered, but didn’t seem to have the attention span for prolonged discussions. In two smaller screens flanking the one showing the prisoner were displayed the images of the Avatar and Walker, the latter observing this through a similar two-screen setup down in her home in the GIC. The Avatar, of course, could see whatever the computers did. Making a visible face was just a courtesy he extended. Altogether it was rather more crowded than usual in the hub.

On the monitor, the damaged Hand of the Emperor, his clothing still stained and ragged from his travails at Last Rock, paced like a caged animal—which wasn’t far from the reality. They had secured him in one of the cells lining the access corridor. Not the one in which Walker had been kept for years; that one was now a sort of reading nook, permanently set aside with books and a small fountain. The dryads enjoyed congregating there.

“Tactically, it’s interesting,” the Emperor mused. “They weren’t able to destroy him—but they did fight him to a standstill. And those were a handful of miscellaneous leftovers after most of the University’s faculty and students were secured out of his reach. This is the closest we have ever been, or likely will be again, to testing the Hands’ on-the-ground combat capability against what are effectively the adventurer teams of the modern age.”

Everyone nodded, and no one commented. While Tellwyrn and her school were ostensibly allies of the Silver Throne, it was important to know how dangerous one’s allies were. In case one needed to call on them…or in case they suddenly changed their minds.

“Avatar,” Akane said, “how long until your scan of him is complete?”

“I estimate less than an hour, and apologize that I cannot be more precise. I am using the general trascension field sensor program Walker and Milanda established during the recent crisis, which is slower than this facility’s original detector functions. We could perform a full analysis almost instantly by employing the transcension matrix which forms the updated Hand system, but there is a risk of contamination if he is connected to it in his current state.”

“You can’t use it to gather information without hooking him into it?” Sharidan asked, interested.

“At that level of transcension activity, your Majesty, observation and interaction are the same.”

“Yes,” Walker added, nodding in the viewscreen, “that’s one of the principles of quantum mechanics which informs the core ideas—”

“Yes, Yrsa, we know,” Akane interrupted, one ear twitching impatiently. “If you must lecture, please spare us that Infinite Order quantum mystic drivel. We can, of course, establish barriers that would enable us to analyze a connected Hand while keeping him contained from the system…in theory. When I redesigned the structure I did not have that function in mind, and so it is not equipped.” She inclined her head politely to the Emperor, as close to a bow as the kitsune ever came—and a courtesy which she extended to no one else. “At this point, your Majesty, our next act depends upon your priorities.”

“Can you elaborate, Akane-sama?” he replied with equal politeness. It would not do for a sitting Emperor to show actual deference, but he always treated Akane with grave courtesy. The two of them got along surprisingly well.

“The most efficient action, here,” she said, “would be to sever him fully from the magic empowering him. That might be more complicated than doing so to one of our currently linked Hands, as… I am not exactly certain what’s empowering him at this point. He appears to be linked to the corrupted network, which of course no longer exists. I am confident I can brute-force a way around it in the worst-case scenario, since the more elegant option involves bringing Tellwyrn here to explain the nature of that dimensional cage of hers which caused this. I gather that is not on the table.”

“I want Tellwyrn in here even less than she wants to reveal her secrets,” Sharidan said with some amusement.

Akane nodded agreement. “That done, and after we have ascertained that his mind was not permanently damaged by this experience, we can simply re-initiate him the usual way.”

“Who’s we?” Mimosa asked from behind them. “You’re not the one who has to get all physical with the guy.”

“If you object, ladies,” the Emperor began, but Apple grinned and interrupted.

“No, we don’t object, she’s just being difficult. We like all the Hands. I’ll do him this time; I feel bad about all the trouble he’s been through.”

“The other possibility,” Akane continued with a long-suffering sigh, “is to take this opportunity to re-work the system once again, with him included this time. If there are further modifications you wish to make, your Majesty, it is a good moment to discuss them.”

“That would involve temporarily disabling the entire thing, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Walker said before Akane could answer. “Just like before. The Hands would be incapacitated for the duration.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “That, it seems to me, is a good idea to pursue at another date, when we have time to plan for it. For the time being, I would prefer the more efficient solution with the least disruptive ramifications.”

“Wise,” she agreed. “Then our only other potential crisis is your Left Hand’s little episode in Puna Dara.” She turned a supercilious expression on Milanda, who continued to stare blankly at the pacing Hand in the screen. “Obviously, we cannot have you melting down like that in a crisis situation. Now, I have outlined a training program which you can undertake with the Avatar and the dryads, which—”

“Shut up, Akane.”

It was Milanda who twitched, for an instant fearing it was she who had spoken. But Akane turned her glare on the right-hand monitor, her ears lying flat against her skull. In the screen, Walker was glaring right back.

“What did you say to me?” the kitsune hissed.

“You heard me,” Walker said bluntly. “Mouth shut. You’re being an ass, and it is beneath you.”

“How dare—”

“My brightest memories,” Walker said, raising her voice, “are of you extending a hand to me when our own mother would not. You were kind, and wise enough to know exactly how to ease a troubled young person’s unhappiness. But that was before thousands of years of only interacting with people who have been terrorized by generations of kitsune tyranny into dancing to your tune atrophied your social skills almost to nothing, Akane. And now here you are, barking orders at a trauma victim. Frankly I think spending time around here will come to do you a world of good, but in the meantime, here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t be nice, button your yap and go away.”

For once, Akane seemed too stunned to say anything imperious. Her ears remained swiveled fully backward, tail rigid and puffed up, but she only stared at Walker’s face in silence.

“She makes a good point, there,” Hawthorn observed after a momentary pause. “Nobody likes you, Akane.”

“You’re mean,” Mimosa added, nodding emphatically. “We’d much rather spend time with Walker. That really says something, cos she’s a terrifyingly wrong thing who makes my hair stand on end just being in a room with her. Not to mention the most boring person I ever met.”

“Hey!” Walker protested.

“Well,” Apple said reasonably, “you do go on and on and on about things nobody cares about. But really, that’s no more annoying than these two,” she waved a hand absently at her sisters, both of whom stuck out tongues at her, “and you obviously care. It’s kinda good hanging around with you even when you’re making long speeches about nothing, cos you at least act like a sister.”

“Unlike this one,” Hawthorn added, pointing accusingly at the flabbergasted kitsune. “I’ll be honest, Akane, the only reason none of us has punched you yet is Walker keeps saying how nice you are at heart and to give you a chance and you’ll surprise us eventually.”

“Still waiting on that, by the way,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Now, girls,” the Avatar began soothingly, but Akane whirled and stalked to the door without another word. It hissed open and then shut behind her, leaving an a strained silence in her wake.

The two attending Hands glanced at each other sidelong, which was possibly the greatest loss of composure they had ever displayed when not malfunctioning.

Sharidan drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh, stepping closer to Milanda and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against him.

“I am removing you from active duty, though,” he murmured.

She mutely nodded, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

“I have never ordered you to do anything, Milanda, but this time I have to. You will begin attending sessions with Counselor Saatri, as Lord Vex tells me he advised you to do weeks ago. I will not have you back in the field until she clears you for duty.”

“Okay.” That was perhaps not the correct way to acknowledge a command from her Emperor, but he pulled her closer in response and rested his chin atop her head. It would do, for now.

“I hope neither of us is in trouble for showing up late to the big climactic battle,” Teal murmured while constructing a sandwich of flatbread and curried fish. “Guess I wouldn’t blame anybody for being mad at us…”

“Nobody who matters will be,” Trissiny replied, pausing to sip her cup of cold tea. “I was warned shortly after Avei called me that there’d always be someone demanding to know where the hell I’ve been. Because something terrible is always happening somewhere, and a person can only be in one place at a time. The balance we have to strike is in learning to live with that, without becoming jaded over it. What?” she asked quizzically, as Teal had been staring at her in apparent shock for the last half of her reply.

The bard laughed softly, as much in surprise as humor, and resumed piling up fish. “I…sorry. I just never heard you curse before. Those Eserites really are as bad an influence as everyone says.”

“Oh. Well.” Trissiny grinned, idly swirling her half-empty teacup. “Mother Narny always said profanity was the self-expression of a weak mind. The Eserites taught me to use every weapon available, and favor the ones that make an impression without having to draw blood. If you think about it, a curse word doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just a word. Its power comes from the taboo. And breaking a taboo creates an impact. A stronger one if you don’t do it often; nobody bats an eye when Ruda curses, after all.”

“Wow, they taught you linguistics,” Teal said. Having finished making her breakfast sandwich, she set it down on the plate and made no move to take a bite. “That’s a surprising detail. I’d expect you to pick that up if you’d been apprenticing with the Veskers, but…”

“Everybody has a past. Eserites come from all over; they’re mostly people who feel a need to right wrongs in the world, and don’t trust the systems to help.” Trissiny’s expression turned somber, and she stared absently at the distance. “The guy who told me about strategic cursing had been a bard, before being a Guild apprentice.”

Teal nodded slowly, also staring at nothing, her sandwich apparently forgotten. They sat in companionable silence, letting the banquet hall stir idly around them with sporadic activity.

Punaji parties being as they were, the great hall of the Rock had not been cleaned up from the feast of the night before, and more than a handful of attendees were asleep in various positions around the room. There had been plenty of food and drink, and enough was left to make a serviceable breakfast for the early risers now coming through. Most of those were castle staff, minor bureaucrats and the odd guest of indeterminate origin. Thus far, Teal and Trissiny were the only members of the student or apprentice groups up and about—or at least, the only ones who had come down to eat. Principia and her squad had been through early and departed to meet the first of the Silver Legion special forces who were meant to help them settle the Rust crisis; Principia had looked fiendishly gleeful at the prospect of bringing them up to speed.

Teal never did pick up her breakfast again, though after a few silent minutes she looked over at Trissiny once more, and her lips quirked up in a smile. “You really need to fix your hair, though. It never occurred to me how well the blonde suited you until I saw you without it.”

“Everyone is so concerned about my hair,” Trissiny grumbled. “Mother Narny said women outside Viridill were obsessed with cosmetic details, but until very recently I’d come to think she was exaggerating. Anyway, you’re one to talk, Shaggy. I’m sure you’ll look very pretty when you finish growing it out, but the short cut suited you perfectly.”

“Ah…well.” Teal lowered her eyes, her expression fading back to wistfulness. “There’s a story behind that.”

“I noticed the robes, too.”

“Yeah… I may not be much of a Narisian, but—”

“Ah!” They both looked up at the satisfied exclamation, and found Professor Tellwyrn just inside the front door of the banquet hall, already making a beeline for them. “Perfect timing, for once—exactly who I wanted to see! Plus Trissiny, for some damn reason. I would ask what the hell you’re doing here, young lady, but I’ve known too many paladins over the years to be actually surprised.”

“Morning, Professor,” Teal said, waving. “Please let everybody wake up naturally before you teleport us all back to the mountain. We had a long night.”

“So I see,” Tellwyrn said, planting her fists on her hips and sweeping an expressive stare around at the ruins of last night’s shindig. “Anyway, no, Falconer. I’ll hear everyone’s oral report later today. But I thought you would appreciate me making an early stop, first.”

“Me? What did—”

She broke off as a tiny black shape came bouncing into the hall from the front door, yapping exuberantly and heading right for a half-eaten platter of roast boar which for reasons pertaining to a lot of people having been drunk the night before was resting on a bench rather than a table.

“F’thaan, come back here this instant.”

Teal shot to her feet at the voice; Trissiny rose more slowly beside her. Tellwyrn, grinning, stepped aside to clear a path between them and the door, turning to watch.

The puppy skidded to a halt with a plaintive whine, but obediently turned his back on the pork and went gamboling back toward the front of the hall. Shaeine entered in a stately glide, snapped her fingers, and pointed at the ground by her feet. Even as F’thaan came to sit where directed, her garnet colored eyes were already locked on the figure beside Trissiny.

Teal actually vaulted over the table behind which she was sitting. Barely catching her balance on the landing, she staggered briefly before dashing pell-mell across the banquet hall, robes fluttering behind her, bounding over the sleeping form of one of last night’s revelers. She skidded to a stop only a few feet from Shaeine, at the last moment seeming to remember the Narisian composure she was supposed to be practicing.

They both made the last few steps in unison, Shaeine’s face a mask of formal calm, Teal doing an admirable job of imitating one. The human reached out with both hands, and the drow took them gently, gazing up at her eyes.

“I…” Teal paused, then tried again, her voice less rough. “I am very glad to see you.”

Shaeine looked up at her in silence for a moment. Then a broad, totally uncontrolled grin spread across her face, transforming her entire aspect.

“Hello, wife,” she said, then surged forward, wrapping her arms around Teal and insistently tugging her face down to meet her in a triumphant kiss. The two of them whirled around in a full circle, F’thaan yapping excitedly and bouncing in rings around them. Both ignored the encouraging whoops that came from two of the more lucid occupants of the banquet hall.

“What’s all this?” Shaeine demanded finally, somewhat out of breath, running her fingers through Teal’s shoulder-length hair. “And the robe, too? You look so dashing in those suits of yours!”

“Ah, well…” Teal had given up all pretense of Narisian rectitude by that point, and her goofy grin didn’t go at all with the formal robes. “I was the last representative of House Awarrion left on the campus, after all. I figured, you know… If you’re going to play a part, you should embrace the costume.”

“Oh, beloved.” Shaeine tugged her close again, resting her cheek on Teal’s shoulder. “If that’s truly what you want, I support you absolutely. But if this is my mother and sisters trying to mold you, I won’t have it. I introduced you to Mother because I believed you would be an asset to House Awarrion, not because I thought I could turn you into one. Those were the terms on which she accepted you. No one is going to change my Teal.”

Teal squeezed her nearly to the point of pain, though the petite drow made not a peep of protest. “I missed you so much,” she whispered hoarsely into her white hair. “We missed you.” Then, after a pause: “Also, why have you got a baby hellhound?”

“Ah, well…” Shaeine drew back slightly, just enough to gaze up at her with a distinctly impish expression. “Why don’t you show me to your room? We have…things on which to catch up.”

Teal big her lip eagerly in an answering grin. Reluctantly pulling free, she kept a grip on one of Shaeine’s hands, and led her urgently toward a side door, F’thaan bouncing eagerly along behind them and yapping without cease. They slipped out into the corridor, a last startled yelp from Teal echoing behind them.

“Are my eyes starting to go,” Trissiny asked incredulously, “or did Shaeine just goose her? In public?”

“Shaeine has a diplomat’s instinct for adapting to local customs,” Tellwyrn intoned, strolling around to join her on the other side of the table. “Apparently, somewhere midway between Narisian and Punaji is grabbing your wife’s bum if you’ve not had the opportunity for a few weeks. So, what are we having?”

“Whatever’s lying around,” Trissiny replied, and the Professor plopped down next to her, picking up Teal’s untouched fish sandwich.

“Gods, I needed to see that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, still gazing in the direction of the side hall with a faint smile. “There’s been far too much ugliness lately. This wasn’t even my first stop of the day; the last order of business wasn’t nearly so pleasant.”


She took a bite of the sandwich and continued talking, enunciating with surprising clarity even as she chewed. “Had to deal with the Duchess of House Dalkhaan, she who had the goddamn temerity to send her House troops to attack my University.”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “I presume that ended poorly for them.”

“A lot more survived than you would think, but yes, they accomplished a sum total of nothing. Still, politics. I cannot have the aristocratic class of the Empire thinking they can so much as sneer in my direction without suffering consequences, nor can our political allies. House Dalkhaan, as of this morning, is dissolved and stricken from the rolls of the nobility, by decree of the Silver Throne. All its lands and property are seized and given to me in compensation for insults and offenses given, by command of the Sultana of Calderaas.” She swallowed, then frowned down at the sandwich still held in both her hands. “I got to deliver these edicts to the Duchess my very own self, and remove her from her ancestral home—which is now my property. I let her keep the clothes she was wearing.”

“That was gracious of you,” Trissiny said in a carefully neutral tone.

Tellwyrn’s frown deepened. “She immediately went at her own throat with a letter opener. I put a stop to that, and teleported her to the nearest Omnist homeless shelter. Not until I’d made a production of it for the Imperial observers, though. It was quite the sadistic little speech. ‘Die by any means you wish, but you’ll do it among the rest of the lowborn nothings, where you belong.’ I can’t take credit, the line’s from a play I used to like which hasn’t been performed in about eight hundred years.”

“You look…oddly disquieted,” Trissiny observed. “That’s surprising. I thought you loved delivering fools their comeuppance.”

“I love it when I don’t have to deal with fools at all. Anything else is a grudging compromise.” Tellwyrn shook her head and put down the sandwich, her appetite apparently gone. “I won’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction in hurling bombast in every direction until the people I want to leave me alone do so, tails between their legs and all. But… I don’t know, Trissiny. Deliberate, targeted, subtle viciousness just isn’t in my character. I could’ve reduced the old bat to atoms with a wave of my hand and that might have felt like a victory. The situation demanded that I hurt her, though. Right in the heart and spirit, in a way that no physical violence could have done. A way that’ll put the fear in the rest of her social class so none of them even thinks of trying such a thing again. Having looked in someone’s eyes at that moment… I suddenly find I don’t have a taste for it.”

“Hm.” Trissiny took a sip of her remaining tea, staring thoughtfully at the far wall now. “Professor Yornhaldt told me you once maimed and blinded a Huntsman of Shaath, and put him in the care of the Sisterhood. That sounds like highly targeted cruelty.”

“Oh, that.” Tellwyrn actually grinned. “Yeah, I threatened some idiot with that in front of Alaric once. Heh, I didn’t realize until just now I never got around to telling him that whole incident was a lie. I thought up the scenario while slogging through a swamp in a bad mood one day, back when I was roaming around the Deep Wild. Quite frankly, Trissiny, I find that anyone who deserves that kind of suffering isn’t worth going to the trouble of inflicting it on them. Or at least, that was my position until I had to start making accommodations with this subtle new century in which we live.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Best get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s not a fun lesson to absorb, is it?”

“I had a feeling you’d be sympathetic. It hasn’t escaped my notice that what I’m describing is thinking like an Eserite. If you’re going to scare the bastards into behaving, you have to make a truly chilling object lesson out of somebody.”

Slowly, Trissiny nodded. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the far distance, the cup hanging forgotten from her fingertips. “Not long ago, a very smart, very evil, not very sane person told me that we hurt people because some people need to be hurt. I…resent having to acknowledge how right she was.”

“Yeah. Well.” Tellwyrn held out a hand to one side, and a half-empty bottle of rum lifted off a nearby table, floating straight into her grasp. She raised it up to the morning light peeking through the hall’s upper windows. “Here’s to the age of progress. Fuck it and the horse it rode in on.”

Trissiny clinked her teacup against the bottle, and they both drank in silence.

The Punaji codes of war being what they were, the Rock did not have a proper dungeon. It did have a wing of “guest rooms” with barred windows, doors that only locked from the outside, and constant guard patrols in addition to domestic servants. It was a core tenet of the Punaji philosophy of life that if you deprived a person of their freedom, no matter how good the reason, you owed them all care and consideration, and that cruelty toward a defeated person in your power was the ultimate evil.

Confinement aside, Ayuvesh wasn’t finding his imprisonment arduous at all. True, his breakfast had been delivered through a slot in the door, but that was half an hour after a servant had politely asked him what he would like. The bed was comfortable, there was a shelf of books provided to relieve the tedium—all classics and raggedly secondhand chapbooks, but it was something—and there was even a painting on the wall. A cheap watercolor of a cliché pastoral scene, of course, though he was no art critic. The toilet was tucked in an alcove without a privacy door or even a curtain, but it was a toilet, which flushed and everything, and even came with a sink providing running water. He had never been in jail before, and was surprised at finding better than a bucket in the corner.

Not that his captors were soft, though. Even after just one night, he had heard the guards tromp past his door enough times to realize they did so at irregular intervals, preventing prisoners from memorizing their patrol patterns. Fortunately for him, he had no plans to escape. The King and Queen had shown themselves willing to extend consideration so long as they got it in return. He well understood that politics as well as basic sense prohibited them giving him the run of the palace. If it meant securing as much comfort and protection for his remaining followers as possible, some time spent locked in a room was a very light price to pay. Especially if, by working with the royals, he could help protect Puna Dara from its enemies, both seen and unseen.

Though caged, and marking time until the inevitable failure of his artificial limbs, he still had a mind, and a will, and that was all a person needed. The universe would bend, so long as he kept his mind strong enough.

Ayuvesh was pacing absently in front of his cell door when an odd shadow passed over the barred window. He turned to see what it could be; that window overlooked a side courtyard of the Rock. Surely no one would attempt to climb up…


By pure reflex, he snagged the object tossed to him, even as the darkness receded. The shadow had not come from outside; someone had just shadow-jumped into his cell.

It was, of all things, an elf wearing an alarmingly wide grin and a neat, pinstriped suit.

The next thing Ayuvesh realized was that the thing he was holding was ticking softly in his hands. It consisted of a dwarven clockwork device, complete with a tiny watch face, linking two terrifyingly fragile-looking jars of softly glowing alchemical substances of different colors. Primitive indeed, compared with the Infinite Order’s nanite-built machinery, but he had been around enough mechanical construction in the last few years to tell how this worked at a glance: once the clock wound down to zero, the two potions would mix, and then…

He twisted this way and that, looking frantically for a place to throw the bomb. It wouldn’t fit through the cell bars. The toilet? No, not big enough, and even water might—

The combination of his distraction and elvish speed was enough to give the intruder the drop on him. The elf surged around behind Ayuvesh and with one adroit move, place the tip of a stiletto against his throat while rapping the bomb out of his grasp with its pommel. Ayuvesh’s breath seized in momentary terror, but the device landed safely upon his blessedly plush pillow.

At the tiniest exertion of pressure against the un-armored portion of his neck, right atop his vulnerable jugular, a drop of blood welled. That blade was viciously sharp. Out the corner of his good eye, he saw the elf’s other hand hold out a palm-sized metal object, like two twisted vines laid atop each other so that their thorns clicked together when they were turned. He had never seen a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in person, but knew it by description.

The elf’s breath was hot against his one ear.

“Warmest regards from his Holiness the Archpope.”

The explosion, when it came, blasted the cell door clear across the hall.


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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”

They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”


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13 – 50

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The Imperials were true to their word; it took them scarcely an hour to complete their business and depart the campus. They were discreet in addition to quick, and while a single strike team placed themselves at the direction of Professor Yornhaldt in the Crawl to provide healing, teleportation, and whatever else was needed, the rest snatched the imprisoned and raging Hand from his confines, along with Lorelin Reich and the remainder of Cross’s men. Meanwhile, on the grounds above, the removal of the last House Dalkhaan soldiers went even faster. By the time the somewhat dazed students began trickling back out of the Crawl’s gates, they found the research staff meandering about inquisitively, having finally emerged from their protected magical bubble, and nearly all the Imperial personnel gone.

Only two Imperial Guards and one blank-faced Hand of the Emperor remained in Helion Hall after the rest had departed, keeping watch over the door to Tellwyrn’s office, while one last strike team discreetly stood by to convey the Empress home when her business was concluded. They, too, vanished without fanfare once they were able.

“And they even had their mages repair the damage to the cafeteria, as well as the Grim Visage,” Tellwyrn added very late that afternoon, slowly pacing around the chamber. “Even considering that it was their runaway caravan who caused this entire brouhaha to begin with, I can’t fault the Throne for courtesy. They can leave behind a positive impression, when they care to make the effort.”

“Quite,” Ravana said pleasantly. “And after all, who hasn’t incidentally wrecked a University and nearly sparked a civil insurrection atop a stack of diplomatic incidents?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop and turned a very flat stare on her. Ravana folded her hands demurely in her lap, managing to look placidly regal even sitting on a barrel of mushrooms.

The small gateway room behind the Grim Visage’s pantry was a little cluttered, between the foodstuffs stored there and the visitors present; having all the gates active filled the space with a white glow which seemed to accentuate its close quarters. Oak lounged against the door frame, Ravana had perched in a distant corner, and Tellwyrn was slowly ambling back and forth on the other side of the central pedestal from them. By unspoken agreement, they had spaced themselves out as widely as the tight quarters would allow.

“I’ve never seen you wear your hair down, Professor,” Crystal’s voice said out of the air around them. The glowing gateways pulsed in time with her voice, like the runes of a talking sword. “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Tellwyrn transferred her irritated stare from Ravana to the ceiling, which she had decided was as good a place as any to give Crystal eye contact, since the golem didn’t currently have eyes. “Nothing that need trouble you, Crystal.”

“I don’t mean to pry. After the day we have all had, I am somewhat leery of any more unexpected developments, however seemingly minor.”

“It’s called ‘afterglow,’” Oak said wryly. Ravana casually inspected her fingernails.

Tellwyrn just sighed and shook her head. “Anyway. I know I have asked you already, Crystal, but now that we are not in a crisis situation and have time to discuss the matter in more detail, let me do so again: are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, as I said before,” the disembodied voice replied. “In fact…this has all been rather educational for me, Professor. You were aware, of course, that this mountain and the Crawl once belonged to one of the Elder Gods as a kind of personal citadel.”

“Most of the great dungeons were, yes,” Tellwyrn said, nodding.

“Well, I have learned the broad strokes of why my…core was hidden away in the Crawl. It seems the Elder Gods were afraid of artificial intelligences, like me. They had the capacity to create them, but cultivated a deep paranoia about one gaining too much agency and turning on them. Strict rules governed the creation and use of any such AI. The god who owned this place, like most of them, conducted research which went against their rules. I am getting the impression, from the incomplete records I have found here and there, that this was more or less the Elders’ major pastime: hiding illicit projects from one another and trying to expose and wreck each other’s experiments.”

“Let me guess,” Tellwyrn said, frowning slightly. “This one was studying artificial intelligence.”

“So it would seem! I am not sure what, exactly, I was… There are a number of fragmentary intelligences squirreled away in various parts of the deep records which…I would not wish to activate. They would be, for want of a better term, insane. It is fortuitous for us all that you found me and not one of them.”

“Where relics of the Elders are concerned, apparent fortune has a disconcerting tendency to be design,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Which one was it?”

“His name was Druroth.”

“Mm. I’ve heard the name, here and there. Funny how I’ve been visiting this place for centuries and owning it for fifty years and never could suss out whose playhouse it used to be…”

“The Crawl, like all the dungeons, is an indescribable mess, Professor. It turns out if you leave the illicit experiments of nigh-omnipotent megalomaniacs to ferment unsupervised for thousands of years…”

“How intriguing!” Ravana said pleasantly. “I had always wondered, offhandedly, why the great dungeons existed. They make little sense, if you approach them with the presumption that they were designed to be as they are.”

Oak wrinkled her nose, but Tellwyrn ignored them both. “I have somewhat laboriously built up a rapport with the Crawl itself, Crystal. It has always had an indistinct but undeniably real intelligence of its own—and I guess now we know why. Is it…?”

“That would be the sub-OS, yes. It is functional and unharmed, Professor. At the moment I have overtaken its duties, but it provides a convenient…architecture, so to speak, to help me orchestrate my efforts. Without its help I think I would be totally at a loss.”

“All right.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Then, the question becomes: what do you want to do now?”

There was a pause.

“…I think I would like to come home, Professor. I believe the Crawl will be just as happy returned to its previous state, and while I am learning the most fascinating things… I very much enjoyed being on campus, being a librarian, interacting with the kids. I do hate to put you out—”

“Now, stop right there!” Tellwyrn held up a hand peremptorily. “You are a member of the University’s staff, Crystal, and you’re a friend. It is not an imposition. If you had preferred to remain down here, I was prepared to let that lie, but if you want your body back I will get right on it. I’ll have Alaric help. Working from whatever was left after that asshole’s attack, I’m sure we can have it functional within a week or so. That will tide you over till I can put together a better one. I’ve already thought of some improvements that I think you’ll enjoy.”

“I deeply appreciate that, Professor. It will be good to get back to my routine. I shall make certain my intelligence is contained in my core, so I should not be at all fragmented when you are ready to remove me from the interface.”

“Good girl. And that brings me to the next order of business.” Tellwyrn turned to face the doorway, stepping out from behind the pedestal so she had a clear view of Oak. “It seems I have another employee who has recently experienced a big change.”

“Yeah…same goes,” Oak said with a shrug. “I guess the little bastards will have some trouble getting used to this, but so far, it seems to consist mostly of gawking at my tits. That doesn’t hurt me any.”

Tellwyrn hesitated before answering. “Just so we’re absolutely clear… You want to go back to being the cook?”

“It’s as good a job as any,” the dryad said, smiling faintly. “Arachne… Thank you. I really appreciate you giving me a place to be while I was… You know. And more importantly, something to do. I’ve seen several of my sisters go weird like I did, and they all ended up a lot worse. Cooking for a hundred-odd people isn’t a real challenging task, mentally, but it keeps you busy and…y’know, engaged. I owe you for that. So, if it’s all right with you, I think I’d like to go back to doing it while I figure out…what’s next. Sometime in the future I may wanna leave, but for now…?”

“I’d be very glad to have you back at your post, Oak,” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “For as long as you’d like to do it. You’ve got thirty-six years of back pay set aside, too, if you decide you would like to participate in the economy.”

“…the what?”

“Oh, boy.” The Professor adjusted her spectacles. “We’re going to be having some interesting conversations in the weeks to come, I can tell. Let me just head off the biggest one: while you’re a member of the staff, sexual relations with the students are prohibited.”

Oak made a face. “That’s a dumb rule.”

“No, it isn’t,” Tellwyrn retorted. “If you’re actually interested, I’ll sit down with you and explain about power dynamics, abuse, and institutional corruption, but for the time being, all you need to know is that it is a rule. Understood?”

“Sure, fine,” Oak replied, shrugging. “Other…staff are okay, though?”

“Try not to create unnecessary drama in the faculty lounge,” Tellwyrn said with a pained expression. “But…yes, that’s…permissible.”

“Good,” the dryad said, a grin stretching across her face. “Cos that Rafe guy smells feisty.”

“Oh, dear gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well, all things considered, we were about due for good news. And this has been an optimal outcome; at least I don’t have to replace any staff members. This semester has already set a record in terms of losses among the student body.”

“How bad is it, Professor?” Crystal asked softly.

“Well,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter twist of her mouth, “Chase is gone, obviously. He’s having gods know what done to him in Tar’naris, and on his head be it. We’re also losing Miss Willowick. She slipped a letter under my office door…hell, it had to have been practically the moment she got back to the surface. Apparently this school is a little too exciting for her blood; she’s finishing the semester and then moving out. I understand,” she added, turning to Ravana, “that thanks to her current roommate, she has a guaranteed job at Falconer Industries lined up.”

“I would pull strings to make that happen, if it became necessary,” Ravana said, “but I hardly think it will. Maureen has worked with Teal on that…honeybee of theirs. Much better if Teal is the one to make the arrangements; I greatly prefer not to micromanage the Falconers, or any of my subjects. My philosophy is that when one wields power, it is always best to do so with the lightest touch circumstances allow.”

“I am very glad to hear that, Miss Madouri,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “Very glad indeed. You just spared yourself from being expelled, for the moment.”

Ravana’s placid smile vanished instantly. “I beg your pardon?”

“Look at how much help it was for you to interfere and destroy Oak’s sanctuary,” Tellwyrn said bitingly. “You accomplished a sum total of nothing.”

“I kind of appreciate it,” Oak offered. “I didn’t at first, but after some thought…”

“It was hardly wasted effort,” Ravana said, now frowning. “We delayed and injured the enemy, giving our classmates and teachers time to prepare, and weakening him for his eventual defeat.”

“Which occurred thanks to Crystal,” Tellwyrn snapped, “and Maureen. You and Oak had no effect on the outcome.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravana fired back, “at the time, based on the information I had—”

“That is also what you did to Addiwyn,” Tellwyrn interrupted. “And it’s what you did to your father.”

Silence fell in the chamber. Ravana’s hands clenched in her skirts, face going white.

“You put up with him passively for years,” Tellwyrn continued after a momentary pause, “until fate placed you in a room with him, an archdemon, and a Themynrite priestess, at which point you poked the hornet’s nest until the inevitable happened. When having a simple domestic squabble with your roommate, you ambushed her in a blind alley with witchcraft. When you woke up in the chapel and the obvious course of action was to evacuate the campus for your safety, you instead did…well, this.” She gestured at Oak.

“Forgive me,” Ravana said sharply, “but it sounds as if your complaint is that my methods get results.”

“Your methods?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “You’re a noblewoman, you have been trained in plenty of methods. What’s at issue is your whole approach to life, Madouri. In any situation where you’re tested against an enemy, you find the most uncontrollable, unpredictable weapon within your reach, point it in the general direction of your opponent, and give it a swift kick! On a fundamental level you think like the villain in a bardic epic. And what’s worse, you seem to effortlessly get whoever’s near you to go along with whatever mad plan you have pulled out of your butt this time. Do you see my concern, Madouri?”

Ravana stared. Her lips parted for a moment, but she seemed to be speechless for once.

“Have you noticed how few aristocrats we have here?” Tellwyrn pressed on. “And of those, either the kids of friends of mine, or the disgraced, disfavored, or bastard offspring of whatever House. The expendable. Aside from young Aldarasi heirs, scions of a family with which I have been close since before the Empire existed, you are the first student at this University who was destined for the high seat of a major House. For most nobles, this is simply not the kind of education they want for those who will lead their Houses into the next generation. I’ve been accused often enough of running a glorified school for adventurers, and while that’s a vapid oversimplification it is not totally wrong. What we do here just isn’t what nobles in this century do. And then you, first thing after getting rid of your father, applied here.”

“I should think,” Ravana said, struggling for poise, “there was a compliment in—”

“And now I find myself wondering,” Tellwyrn continued inexorably. “Am I teaching you what I seek to teach all my students—to go through life thinking about their actions and doing the intelligent thing in any situation? Or am I simply arming you with practice and connections so you can play out some kind of antiheroic fantasy? Because if it’s the second one, Madouri, I will not hesitate to toss you out of here on your dainty little butt. You’ll get killed doing that, and House Madouri with you. That’d be a hell of an end to a thousand-year lineage, don’t you think?”

“I have no intention,” Ravana said in a soft but rigid voice, “of being the last of my line, nor of going out in any blaze of glory.”

“Then you need to re-think your entire approach to life, girl, because the path you’re on leads to exactly that. Quite frankly, if you want to make yourself an arch-villain, go for it. It’s as good a strategy as any. But you need a subtler strain of villainy, if so. The world is not tolerant of people who rant on mountaintops with arcane super-weapons anymore. It won’t be marauding heroes who destroy you, it will be government regulators, newspaper editorialists, tax assessors. That would be an unworthy end for someone of your talents.”

“I confess,” Ravana said after a pause, “I am not accustomed to being so thoroughly dressed down by someone who is…correct. You’ve given me some things to think about, Professor.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said, her previous ire abruptly leaving her in a sigh. “Do so. I’ll think about them as well, and then we will have another discussion about your future. For now, though… I have one more difficult conversation to face tonight, one I’m looking forward to even less than these, so best not to put it off any further. Excuse me, ladies.”

And then, with her customary lack of fanfare, she was gone.

“She actually said a polite good-bye before teleporting out,” Crystal marveled. “She…really is changing.”

“And we, I note, are still here,” Ravana observed with a tinge of irritation. “I gather we will be returning home the slow way.”

Oak grinned at her. “Arachne’s always been a big believer in the cognitive value of walking.”

The sun had nearly set completely, leaving only the merest sliver of red light on the very edge of the prairie. The sky would continue to fade into darkness over the long minutes to come. She stood a full quarter mile from the base of the mountain, staring straight across the waving tallgrass at the sunset. After a stop in her old room, she had collected her dark glasses, which made this possible even for her Underworld eyes. Natchua hadn’t bothered to change clothes or apply mousse to her hair, and now it was tugged this way and that by the wind, green and white strands occasionally drifting across her vision.

She didn’t react to the nearly silent arrival behind her.

“I hope you don’t think you’re hiding, young lady,” Professor Tellwyrn said sternly, stepping forward.

“Of course not,” Natchua replied. “Just…being awake. I like sunsets. It seems I’ve missed a few.”

“We need to talk.”

“I know.”

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me about the hellgate?”

“I summoned the gnagrethyct,” Natchua said softly, staring at the horizon. The last edge of the sun had just slipped below it. “Chase was in communication with it, using it to re-arrange the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional barrier from the Golden Sea. I brought it to this plane, thinking you would destroy it. Vadrieny did just as well, though.”

Tellwyrn emitted a very faint sigh through her nose. “Anything else?”

“I know you never wanted me here, Professor.”

“If you,” Tellwyrn said dangerously, “are about to start blaming me for your historic lack of judgment…”

“No, no. I just mean… You didn’t want me here, but you’ve never made me feel unwanted. You always treated me exactly like every other student. I appreciate that a lot, Professor. Whatever else happens, I just want to say thank you, while I still can. I may not have made good use of it, but you gave me a chance. Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” Tellwyrn said. She stepped forward again, standing beside Natchua and staring off across the plain. “But you are just as culpable as Chase Masterson for the havoc he has caused, between the hellgate and his sleeping curse, because the whole time you had the power to end it at any moment by coming to me. You didn’t.”

“I thought I could deal with him,” Natchua said wearily. “At least, keep him under control. And avoid…”

“Facing responsibility like an adult?”

The drow closed her eyes, and nodded. “Yes. That.”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “This is more than I can overlook, Natchua. It goes beyond the realm where any assigned punishment is relevant. It’s no longer a matter of correcting your behavior. You’ve posed a severe threat to the existence of this University and everyone in it. I have to ask you to collect your belongings and leave.”

Natchua nodded again. “I understand.”

“I have a friend,” Tellwyrn continued. “Zanzayed the Blue. I’ll introduce you to him and arrange a sort of…apprenticeship.”

“Is that…a dragon?” Natchua asked incredulously.

Tellwyrn showed teeth in a faint grin. “Zanza isn’t much of a people person—even less than I am. You’d like him. He won’t like you, at first, but he owes me favors he’s not going to want me to call in; I can make him take you in. It’s not going to be as much freedom or fun as the University, but it beats the hell out of getting taken down by an Imperial strike team. And after a few years working for him, I think you’ll find yourself much better prepared to deal with the world.”

“I don’t understand.” Natchua snuck a glance at her. “You don’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if you’d decided to kill me.”

“That isn’t an acceptable solution to problems in most places that aren’t the Underworld,” Tellwyrn said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve screwed the pooch here, Natchua, made it impossible for me to justify keeping you on campus. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to throw you away. I hate to give up on a project. Or a person. And the truth is…”

She trailed off, staring into space for a long few seconds, while the drow watched her carefully out the corner of her eye.

“I relate to you so damn much,” Tellwyrn whispered at last. “You have no idea. Three thousand years ago I landed in a world I barely understood, carrying incredible powers I understood even less, and had to just…make do. We are very much alike, right down to your general disdain for social skills and entirely unjustified belief that the world owes you something. It’s like looking in a time-lost mirror. But the world today isn’t the world then. I grew to become the great and legendary Tellwyrn because in that era, swaggering around exploding things and hexing people with wild abandon was exactly how you built respect. Now? There are far too many individuals and institutions powerful enough to deal with the likes of you and I, and almost no empty space left in which to operate without stepping on their toes. If my life had suddenly started a year ago, or a decade ago, I’d probably be dead by now. And if you try to do what I did, which is exactly what your personality and life experiences will all but compel you to do, that is where you’ll end up. You’ve already messed up your life pretty thoroughly, Natchua. But not so thoroughly that I want to see you lose the remainder. Not if I can still help you.”

Natchua swallowed heavily, again gazing out into the dark.

“Zanzayed has colleagues in the Conclave of the Winds who know your…preferred type of magic,” Tellwyrn added after a moment. “Razzavinax the Red is a big deal in the organization, so I understand, and he loves teaching ornery youngsters. He’s sort of famous for it, or infamous. You can learn to control what Elilial gave you with the dragons. More importantly, they are in the process of adapting to the world as it is. Ancient, powerful, once unchallenged beings learning to get by in modern reality. Learn with them, and you’ll learn what you need.”

Natchua turned fully to face her, took two steps backward, and bowed deeply from the waist.

“Thank you for your very generous offer, Professor Tellwyrn. I appreciate deeply that you’d still show me that kind of consideration. But I have to decline. There is…something I need to do, first.”

“Natchua,” Tellwyrn warned, “you are not powerful enough to break through Tar’naris’s defenses and do anything to your mother. Your people have been fending off warlocks—Scyllithene warlocks, a much more dire breed than the craft you learned—since the Elder Wars.”

“Good guess, but no,” Natchua replied, straightening and letting her lips twist in a wry little smile. “If I never see Tar’naris or anyone from it again, it’ll be too soon for my taste. I really can’t say any more, Professor, except that I’m grateful for the offer.”

Tellwyrn heaved a deep sigh, shook her head, and turned her back, staring up at the mountain. As the sky darkened and stars began to emerge, it cut a striking silhouette against the deepening blackness.

“We’ve all noticed some of your…odd staffing choices,” Natchua said in a more hesitant tone. “The rumors about Stew are pretty unbelievable, but it’s an open secret that Afritia Morvana has killed more people than the Vashtar influenza. And is Janis van Richter really in the Glassian royal line?”

Tellwyrn half-turned back, just enough to give her a pointed look. “Is that any of your business?”

Natchua shook her head. “I’m just considering the future. Is it possible that…some day…if I come back here, there might be a place for me at Last Rock?”

The Professor studied her face. “That,” she said slowly, “would depend on the manner of your return, and what’s transpired in the interim. But if you haven’t done something to make it specifically impossible… It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a home for a prodigal child at my school.”

“Thank you,” Natchua said, and bowed again, now wearing a sad little smile. “For everything, Professor. I’m sorry I let you down.”

“Whatever you’re up to next,” Tellwyrn replied, “think. Think all the way to the end, before you act.”

“I will. I promise. This time, I already have.”

The Professor looked at her for another long moment, then nodded once, and vanished without another word.

For a full minute after, Natchua stood alone on the prairie, listening to the wind. Finally satisfied that she was alone, she pulled a little glass bottle from within her pocket and carefully removed the cork.

The mist that spewed forth was far greater in volume than such a tiny receptacle could have held, had its properties been merely physical. The swirling vapor coalesced immediately into a humanoid shape, then resolved itself to reveal milky skin, spreading wings, and various other features Natchua had scarcely a moment to observe before the succubus let out a long whoop.

Melaxyna launched herself skyward and began gliding about overhead, executing figure eights, loops, midair pirouettes and other exuberant tricks.

“That’s really subtle,” Natchua commented. “We’re still practically in the shadow of the mountain, you know. I just had a nice moment with Professor Tellwyrn; I’d rather not ruin it by finding out what she thinks of me smuggling you out.”

“The sky!” the demon crowed, settling to the ground nearby. She immediately flopped over on her back, folding her wings around herself, and began rolling around on the ground, mashing down a swath of tallgrass and giggling hysterically. “The ground! Grass! Bugs! FREEDOM!”

“Don’t use it all up at once,” the drow said dryly. “We’ve a long way to go yet.”

“Right!” Melaxyna hopped nimbly to her feet. “What is your plan, master? And how may this humble servant play a role in the fulfillment of your ambitions?”

“The short version,” Natchua said, folding her hands behind her back, “is that Elilial singled me out, unjustly, as a weapon. I intend to make her regret it.”

As if a switch had been flipped, the succubus’s glee immediately vanished. “Oh, no. Kid, no. No, no, no! You are not the first warlock to get it into her head she’s going to take down the Queen of Demons using her own power. I’ve heard many iterations of this story, and they all have the same ending. It’s a hilarious ending, unless I’m standing in the middle of it!”

“Three things,” Natchua said, holding up three fingers. “What I have, what I know, Elilial gave me herself. She specifically left me with more infernal knowledge, and thus power, than anyone could possible need or use, so I would create the maximum havoc. I am not just any warlock. Second, I have nowhere left to go and nothing to do with my life except seek my revenge, so if I fail, or die trying…eh. And third…” She lowered her hand and turned again to stare, this time to the southwest, toward Viridill, Tar’naris, and beyond them, Athan’Khar. “A great doom is coming. The Black Wreath have been pared to the bone by recent events, the archdemons brought to earth to inhabit mortal bodies and all but one lost in the process. Elilial is planning something now, something of great import, and she has already suffered setbacks. Her plans are frayed, if not hanging by a thread. There will never be a better time.”

“No. Absolutely not!” Melaxyna covered her face with both hands. “Just…just put me back in the Crawl. I’m not doing this. Not this.”

“I don’t recall our pact having an escape clause. Oh, relax,” she added disdainfully as the succubus made as if to physically lunge at her. “The last thing I want is a squirrelly child of Vanislass tagging along against her will, tripping me up at every opportunity. I’m not going to pit you against the Dark Lady’s minions, Mel. I just need your help to gather up some resources and allies who will see this through with me. Once that’s done, and before I move on to the real plan, I intend to offer you release from the pact. With, of course, stipulations to prevent you from interfering with me further. I have some sympathy for someone buried underground,” she added. “It’s stifling to the very soul. Whatever else comes of this, I’ll be glad to end it knowing you’re free. After you’ve made yourself useful.”

“All right,” Melaxyna said warily. “I am…tentatively not planning to murder you in your sleep, master. So, you want allies and resources that’ll help you take your fight right to Elilial, then? Why do I suspect the paladins on that campus of yours aren’t on your list?”

“Sort of.” Natchua grinned maliciously. “In fact… I know exactly where to start.”


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13 – 49

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”

Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”

“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”


At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.


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13 – 48

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“We finally have a bit of luck,” the captain in charge of the guardhouse said while one of his subordinates carried on untying the remainder of their compatriots. “These people don’t think like soldiers; they all just charged off to answer that threat without leaving a rear guard. They don’t even have the sense to keep watch on prisoners. That gives us an opening, and may give us more if we can take advantage.”

Several of the troops were still dazed and the room smelled unpleasantly of vomit; the sonic weapons which had incapacitated them had taken their toll. Fortunately, those had just been used as an initial measure, and then the cultists had methodically gone through and tied them up. Or, rather, one cultist in particular had, with apologies and pauses to make sure no one had suffered unduly from the screamer bomb his compatriots set off.

“How so, sir?” a sergeant asked, flexing her recently unbound wrists.

“That remains to be seen. We must be alert for opportunities, but these yokels don’t know a thing about fighting; all they have are superior weapons. To begin with, I won’t reproduce their mistake. Get staves aimed at the walltop door; I want that stairwell filled with lightning at the first sign of hostile—”

He broke off, spinning to face the grinding noise of wood being scraped against stone. Tallie, who had rescued the two soldiers from the armory below and brought them up to the barracks, had picked up one of the short benches from the tables and was now dragging it across the floor.

“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” a soldier demanded.

Meesie scampered out of the neck of Tallie’s shirt to perch atop her head, then pointed at him and squeaked furiously.

“Man,” someone whispered. “Even the rodents sass you, Ankhar.”

Meanwhile, not responding to them, Tallie kicked the door to the upper stairwell shut, hauled the bench up against it and propped it at an angle against the latch. She worked it securely into place, tugged at the door to make sure it wouldn’t budge, then turned back to them with a satisfied expression, dusting off her hands.

“There! Door secured, cap’n, sir. Now if you guys’ll show me how to open the actual gate, we can bring in my reinforcements.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, young lady,” the captain said grimly.

“First, I am a thief, so let’s have no more of that ‘lady’ talk. And second, yes, I damn well am. You can either take it on faith or hunker down here and wait for a miracle. I mean, another miracle, in addition to the one you’d be refusing to let in through the gates to save your castle.”

“Well, sir,” a lieutenant pointed out, “there wouldn’t be much point in her untying us if she wasn’t on our side. And if this is some kind of convoluted backstab, we can always shoot her.”

“That’s logic I can’t refute,” the captain said with a sigh. “All right, get that gate open, and let’s hope the next insanity that comes charging in here is on our side.”

“You know, I like you guys,” Tallie commented, following the two soldiers who turned and headed for the rear stairs at the captain’s order—the same two who’d been stationed down below. “If I survive tonight I’m gonna have to visit Puna Dara again. How’s the food here?”

“Depends,” one of her new companions said, voice fading from the barracks as they descended the stairwell. “You like curry and fish?”

Mandip frowned, walked, and listened. Holding up his screamlance in his only hand, he fired at the end of the hall up ahead. The lightning bolts stopped, and he picked up his pace slightly.

Sure enough, rounding the corner, he found a palace servant slumped against the wall, retching and clutching her head. The screamlances weren’t terribly accurate weapons, but that had its advantages when you didn’t know exactly where an enemy was. This looked to be a maid, someone not accustomed to physical hardship, and the weapon’s effect had done a number on her even with an indirect hit. She had even dropped her wand, which Mandip kicked away.

At his arrival, she snatched a curved dagger from her belt and swung at him. Woozy and disoriented, the woman didn’t actually get near him, but he shot her again anyway. At that range, the screamlance caused her to fall completely over to lie on her back. She barely managed to roll to one side before emptying her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Mandip said mechanically. “It will pass soon. Try not to move until your head stops spinning.”

He moved on, weapon up, leaving her there. It was the same shallow platitude, word for word, he’d offered to every palace defender he had shot thus far. None of them had seemed appreciative, not that he cared what they thought. Ayuvesh had explained that taking them down without doing harm was essential to the plan, setting up their next step after he reached an accommodation with the Crown, and Mandip had accepted his reasoning.

That didn’t mean he gave a damn about these rich people in their cozy palace, or that he didn’t feel satisfaction in leaving them slumped on the ground in pain. Well, not so much the servants, but still; their lives were easier than they’d ever appreciated. A little suffering would do them good.

On he went, listening to the voices in his built-in communicator. Something was going wrong on the walls; they were under attack. Probably the adventurers who had somehow destroyed the Elixir. Time was short… If those meddling monsters broke through before Ayuvesh could reach a deal with the King, it would all be over. Fortunately, everyone on the network could hear that, too, and it seemed to be going well.

Nothing he could do about it. He kept walking, looking for more people to incapacitate. He was in a richer wing of the palace now, the kind of place he could have fed the Order for weeks by looting for five minutes, but Ayuvesh’s orders were clear and his plan sensible. Not that Mandip had a hand to spare, anyway. Nor would again, unless they could restore the Elixir. His arm had begun to grow back where the dryad had torn it off, but it had stopped, of course, the new metal extensions coming well short of forming another hand.

Well, maybe he could meet some actually rich people and shoot them. Servants and soldiers might be better off than he had been, growing up, but it still didn’t bring any real satisfaction to strike them down. At least they worked, they did something, even if it was just propping up rich bastards. The halls continued to be deserted, though.

Mandip paused next to a door, hearing a sound from within. Someone hiding? His shield was holding just fine, but it would probably be better not to be ambushed from behind. He tucked his screamlance under his stub of an arm awkwardly to grasp the latch and pushed the door open.

This looked like a guest room of some kind. There was nobody present—no one human, anyway. Apparently the noise had been caused by the animal, which was sitting atop the upturned ottoman it had seemingly knocked over. In fact, half the furnishings in the room were overturned. This creature did not appear to be properly housebroken…

Actually, what was that thing? Mandip frowned, leaning into the room to stare. It looked like an overlarge rabbit…with antlers.

It also moved very fast. He didn’t have enough warning to even take his screamlance back in hand, let alone fire it, before the beast lunged across the room and those antlers drove right into his chest.

“I kinda like it when she’s glowy,” Darius huffed, raindrops spraying with each breath. “Makes ‘er easy to find in bad weather.”

Trissiny was no longer trailing golden wings, nor projecting a divine shield, but a residual aura of light still hung around her, making her stand out in the dimness of the storm. She had arrived at the north gate before them, which wasn’t really surprising given the fact that she was mounted.

“Are you guys all right?” she called as Darius, Schwartz, and Layla came running up. Layla skidded in a rain puddle, staring at the new arrivals rather than watching her footing, and Darius barely caught her in time to prevent a fall. “Any word from inside?”

“Good timing!” Schwartz said, waving. His glasses were completely fogged over, but strangely enough he didn’t seem to be having trouble getting around. “Looks like everything’s on schedule, expect that my diversion just finished crumbling. But Tallie and Meesie have rescued all the soldiers, blocked off the upper exit and are getting that gate open. Uh, I gather the south gatehouse is…under control?”

The two groups finished trailing to a stop, eyeing one another speculatively.

“You brought Hershel? Good thinking.” For that being a compliment, Principia’s tone was oddly cool. Her expression was flat, as well.

“Who’re these?” Ruda demanded bluntly. “And what are they good for?”

“They are friends, so keep a civil tongue in your head,” Trissiny replied. “Layla and Darius Sakhavenid are Guild—smart and good in a tight spot. Schwartz is a witch of the Emerald College, he’s our magical support. Well, more of it, I guess. I was not expecting to find you guys here.”

“Jeepers, a dryad!” Schwartz squeaked.

The object of his fascination wasn’t paying him any attention. “Something’s wrong,” Juniper murmured, her voice almost drowned out by the rain. She had turned to stare at the gate. “I can feel…”

“Yeah, a lot’s wrong,” Principia said, patting her on the shoulder. “We’re dealing with it, hun.”

“Oh, my,” Layla breathed, staring up at Gabriel, who sat astride his shadowy horse with scythe in hand, turning his head constantly to scan the surrounding streets. A number of Punaji citizens, not much deterred by the storm, had begun to gather and watch, but so far nobody seemed inclined to intervene.

Darius looked from Layla to Gabriel and back, and then placed a heavy hand on top of her head, forcibly turning her gaze away from the Hand of Vidius.

“No,” he stated. “Absolutely not. You wipe that look off your face, missy. I will drown you in a mud puddle before I—oof!”

“Next one’s going to be below the belt,” Layla snapped, backing up and rubbing her knuckles, much as her brother was now rubbing his solar plexus. “You just worry about your own business.”

Ruda rolled her eyes and strode toward the closed gates. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, Shiny Boots, how the hell did you dig up more bickering adventurers? Till I met these assholes I always thought that was a myth spawned by chapbooks.”

“Paladins attract them,” Principia observed.

The creaking of the gates cut through the conversation and the noise of the rain as they began to swing outward.

“All right,” Ruda said sharply, raising her voice. “We do this smart, people—remember your lessons from the Crawl. Uh, new folks, that means squishy thieves and finger-wigglers stay in the back. We’re going in hard and fast, heavy hitters up—hey!”

Ignoring her, Juniper had pushed through the crack in the gates the second it was wide enough to accommodate her frame, and dashed off across the courtyard toward the fortress. There almost immediately came a scream, the sound of someone being punched—loud enough to be audible from outside—and the peculiar whining of the Rust’s sonic weapons being fired.

Ruda threw her hands up. “Or, just charge the fuck in, I guess! Paladins to the front, ride down anything June leaves standing. Where the fuck is she in such a hurry to get, anyway?”

Their “improved” shields came with quite a downside: they stood up better than any arcane charm to wandfire, but did not block solid objects. A category which included giant devil-rabbits.

Mandip was driven bodily back into the hall by the force of the impact, then staggered further, wheeling all the way across it to slump against the opposite wall, where he stumbled to the ground in shock.

The rabbit had fallen, too, and now turned to glare at him with one evil pink eye while he gaped in astonishment, belatedly becoming aware of the pain in his chest. The tips of the thing’s antlers were bloody.

Mandip cautiously prodded at the wounds with a finger. Blood seeped out, staining his shirt; those antlers weren’t sharp, but given the force with which they’d hit, they had crushed as much a pierced. At least they hadn’t penetrated far.

The rabbit turned toward him, and with a yell, he threw himself sideways. The beast hit the wall directly above him, antlers first, and tumbled down, apparently stunned. It landed partially across Mandip’s legs, and he kicked it off, scrambling away.

His eye caught the glint of something white. There, by the door, lay his dropped screamlance. This little monster had very long ears; if anything would put it out of commission…

It started moving again, getting its feet under it, and Mandip tried to stand up, immediately faceplanting as he had unconsciously attempted to brace himself with his missing arm. Scrambling awkwardly, he managed to lay his hand on the screamlance’s handle and turn to aim it just as the rabbit hopped upright and faced him again.

He fired, point-blank.

And the beast went completely berserk.

Rust had assembled in the courtyard; they were currently in disarray, Juniper having bowled right through their group. Of the eight present, one lay dazed to the side with another helping him up, the rest mostly turned to fire screamlances after the departing dryad. She was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs, though, and didn’t appear even to notice. In fact, she showed no interest in them at all, and was in the process of dashing into the fortress itself when her compatriots streamed in through the opened gate.

At their arrival, the cultists whirled, raising weapons. Trissiny and Gabriel reined in their mounts, weapons in hand; Arjen stood stock-still, practically radiating discipline, while Whisper pranced and tugged impatiently at the bit. The pair of them were like contrasting bookends, light and shadow bracketing the princess who strode up to stand between them, rapier unsheathed.

Weapons were aimed, but as the paladins had stopped, the Rust did not yet fire. More of them began to appear from the fortress, coming around from side doors, though two staggered out of the main entry, looking dazed. They had probably encountered Juniper in passing.

Layla and Darius obediently held back, but Schwartz stepped up next to Trissiny. Principia cut off to the side, where the south gatehouse’s lower door had burst open, to join those now emerging. Punaji soldiers and Silver Legionnaires streamed in—a small group, but enough to form a significant flank. As if at this signal, the small inner door of the other gatehouse opened as well, and its complement of soldiers marched out, weapons at the ready.

With them, all but unnoticed in the rain and tumult, came Meesie, scampering across the courtyard to climb Schwartz and take her place upon his shoulder. Fross, meanwhile, zipped over to hover next to Gabriel.

The Rust were visibly frightened, over a dozen of them now in the courtyard; with weapons up, they continued to draw together.

“That’s your mistake,” Ruda said, her voice booming across the open space. “I have major spellcasters here, and troops flanking you from both sides; with you clustering together like that you’ve positioned yourself to get raked by fire from all angles while we’re in no danger of a crossfire. I’m well within my rights, here, to order you all slaughtered like sheep, but you’re still Punaji, even if you are traitorous little shits. And I’m tired of seeing my people die. You surrender now, I will guarantee you get fair treatment.”

They stopped moving immediately, leaving them in a disorganized, staggered formation across the courtyard.

“You’re wrong, Princess,” one cultist near the center said, stepping forward. She was holding a screamlance, but conspicuously pointed it at the ground. “Your weapons are useless against our shields—oh, yes, they work in the rain, unlike arcane shielding charms. You have no defense against our weapons, either. Don’t make this a battle. You will not win it.”

“Bitch, I’m not gonna have a pissing contest with you,” Ruda snapped. “We were just in your secret cavern. We just shut off your little nanite toys, permanently. The Avatar you tortured into insanity was very inclined to be helpful; believe me when I say you don’t have the advantage against me and mine that you did against this fortress’s defenders. If you came here to go out in a blaze of glory, take the first shot. Otherwise, drop them. I’m not asking again.”


Everyone twisted about, craning their necks, as a fiery streak cut through the rain overhead. Vadrieny arced over the walls, crying out as she ignored the drama unfolding below and made a beeline for one of the other towers, and the lone figure which had risen from behind its battlements.

“Stop! Don’t do it—”

Ignoring the archdemon’s pleas as he did her approach, Brother Arlund loosed the arrow he had drawn back.

The cultist who had addressed Ruda had positioned herself ahead of the group, giving him a clear shot. The shaft pierced cleanly through her neck.

The Rust began shouting in fury even as they fired in all directions. In the next instant, answering fire came from the Punaji soldiers fanned out to either flank of the adventurers, and the courtyard was lit by the glare of lightning upon energy shields.

Mandip had quickly given up trying to fire at the accursed creature; it just kept coming. In less than a minute, he had become a mass of bruises and bleeding gouges, and the psychotic rabbit had thrashed about, bouncing off the walls and ramming him over and over with those pronged antlers. He quit trying to shoot it again and resorted to bludgeoning the beast with his screamlance, which wasn’t having much effect.

Especially not when it got tangled in the jackalope’s horns and wrenched from his grasp.

He’d already tried to flee, and it had chased him. With nothing left but his hand, he grabbed at it frantically on its next lunge. Rather to his own surprise, Mandip got a grip on one of the antlers as it was buried a few inches into his side.

Of course, the little monster thrashed and twisted, threatening to wrench free from his grip. With one one hand to hold, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to for long.

In pure desperation, he swung it furiously against the wall. Then again, and again.

It was the blood, his own blood, slickening his grasp on the antler that finally slipped it loose, and he staggered back, hunched over in pain, bleeding from dozens of wounds, gasping for breath. The rabbit, though, finally lay still where he had dropped it. Dazed? No… It was bent nearly double in the middle, its back clearly broken.

Mandip drew a ragged breath of relief and stumbled backward. In the act, he lifted his head, and suddenly discovered he was not alone.

The dryad stood barely two yards away. She was not looking at him, though, but at his erstwhile opponent.

“My bunny.”

“There we go,” Toby said, helping the two of them into the gatehouse through its lower door, which was still unlocked. Just off the narrow hall onto which it opened was a small armory, and he carefully maneuvered both his patients inside and toward chairs. In addition to the woman who had fallen from the wall, he had paused to assist the man lifted from his mount by Gabriel’s charge. The scythe’s blade had not so much as nicked him—very luckily, or there would have been nothing even a Hand of Omnu could do—but the man had effectively been hit with a lance in the center of his chest and hurled to the pavement. Toby had fixed the internal bleeding and soothed away his shock, but his ribs would require more specialized seeing to.

“What…now?” the woman asked weakly once she was seated. “We can’t… After this, there’s nothing left for us. They’ll hang us all…”

“All of us,” Toby said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “are going to have to face responsibility for the things we’ve done here today. I have no authority over the Punaji government, but my experience has been that its King and Queen are fair-minded, and I know their daughter is. You have my word, I will do everything I can to ensure you’re treated well. The Crown doesn’t answer to me, but it will at least listen.”

“Thank you,” the man said weakly. He was still hunched forward, arms wrapped around himself.

Toby nodded, reaching out to touch his shoulder and passing a tiny glow of light into him. “Are you in very much pain?”

“Mostly…discomfort,” he gasped. “Long as I don’t move, it’s not too bad. Or breathe too much,” he added with a wince.

“All right. I’ll get a healer out here when I can, a proper one. It sounds like an all-out battle is unfolding out there, though. I don’t know how long this will be. You both seem stable for now. Please stay here; when the soldiers come back in, tell them you surrender and they shouldn’t harm you. The Punaji codes of war mean they’ll bring healers to take care of injured prisoners.”

“Not like we have much choice,” the woman said, not without bitterness.

“Everybody has choices,” Toby said, turning and taking a step toward the door. “I need to go deal with some of them.”

“And our…friends?” the man whispered. “You’ll have to kill them, too…”

Toby glanced back at him, his eyes already glowing. Light rose in the room, not so much as if emanating from the paladin, but seeming to rise from everywhere at once.

“No, I don’t. I have accepted too many compromises recently; that is my error to atone for. I’ve had enough. This is ending, now.”

“Stop! Stop! You must put down your weapons, we have surrendered! That was the plan, you—”

“What is happening?” Anjal demanded. “Can you talk to them, or can’t you?”

“They’re not listening,” Ayuvesh said. For the first time since he had cornered them, he was visibly shaken, even frightened. “I can give orders but unless they obey…”

“If you cannot control your people,” Rajakhan grated, “what good are you? What are your assurances worth?”

Ayuvesh whirled to face him, prompting the two Punaji soldiers and Akhatrya to surge forward. As did the two Rust cultists who had accompanied their leader, but Ayuvesh moved no further and fortunately a brawl did not break out.

“We can all hear one another,” he said sharply. “They can hear my orders, yes, but they are right now being pounded by your daughter’s cavalcade of monster friends, and listening to one of our own being apparently torn apart! Would you lay down your weapons under such conditions? Would your soldiers? Could you make them?”

“Zari,” Rajakhan grunted, then strode forward, pushing past Ayuvesh and ignoring his companions. “Come. Perhaps we can still salvage this.”

The initial rounds of the battle were an exercise in futility; the Punaji’s salvo did nothing except ignite shields around the Rust, while their counter-fire knocked the soldiers out immediately, every one of whom had only just recovered from previously being struck down by sonic weapons. In seconds, they and the Legionnaires were down, wiping out the defenders’ numerical advantage and leaving the Rust facing only the adventurer group.

At that point, the engagement immediately turned against them.

Fross didn’t bother firing lightning bolts, having learned from the example of the Punaji, but simply sprayed the Rust with elemental ice. It steamed violently in the tropical air, but the solid mass was not deterred by their peculiar shields any more than the rain was, and served to knock them down, freeze them momentarily in place, and deprive them of footing.

On the other side of the group, Schwartz began pelting the enemy with fireballs, which were ineffective, and chunks of rock torn up from the very pavement, which did much better. At least until someone nailed him with a sonic shot and he topped over backward, crying out and clutching his ears.

Meesie, however, burst into the form of a pony-sized lion with a roar of fury and hurled herself bodily into the main cluster of Rust. Trissiny charged a split-second behind her, not even bringing her sword into play but simply using Arjen’s bulk to smash the group apart and keep them off-balance. Gabriel spurred Whisper into a run belatedly, but rather than trying to trample anyone, he cantered off to the side, swinging his weapon (which had a much longer reach than Trissiny’s sword) against the cultists as he passed them. The divine scythe was deflected by their shields, apparently counting as energy to whatever function governed them, but it also did far more damage than staff fire, making them spark and flicker, and in several cases collapse entirely.

All the while, more Rust continued to trickle out of the palace, throwing themselves into the fray.

And once the first of them gave up on Ayuvesh’s order to use only the screamlances, the rest swiftly followed suit. Several were carrying weapons that were decidedly more lethal.

An explosion hurled Trissiny from her saddle, some kind of thrown bomb knocking Arjen bodily off his hooves. The man who had tossed it was immediately set upon by Meesie. Trissiny rolled to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a melee, and a blade of some kind attached to someone’s mechanical arm raked her divine shield, causing it to flicker badly. She countered the next one with her sword, the weapons sparking where they connected—that thing was clearly more than just steel.

Punaji soldiers, trying to get up and find targets again in the tumult, were struck by thrown blades, and another bomb went off, apparently hurled at Gabriel but missing and exploding harmlessly in empty space. The next, however, was far too close to the re-forming Legionnaires as they tried to get back into formation, bowling them over and causing someone to scream in pain.

Principia came sliding past them, snatched up a fallen lance, and hurled it with elvish accuracy, striking down the man who’d thrown the bomb. Another turned and raised a screamlance in her direction, and a Huntsman’s arrow struck him right through the arm.

Vadrieny shot across the courtyard, skimming over the battle and skidding to a stop on the ground, where she bodily swept Darius, Layla, and Tallie up into a knot, folding her impervious wings around them. To judge by the ensuing shouts, they were none of them reassured by this, but the archdemon suffered nothing from the theives’ attempts to beat her off, and began slowly but implacably herding them away from the unfolding brawl.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

From a single gap in the storm cover above came a beam of concentrated sunlight, illuminating the small side door to the north gatehouse, from which Toby had just stepped. His eyes were like pools of light, and gold raced across the ground through the cracks between paving stones from his feet, as if carried by the rainwater.

Light rose further, seeming to climb up from the ground like mist. It almost had a tangible presence; it thickened the very air, bringing stillness, and gradually a distant tone began to pierce through the sounds of battle. Like a flute, or a bell, high and sweet, it hovered just beyond the range of hearing.

All around them, the fighting stilled. People slowly stumbled to a halt, their movements growing sluggish and their gazes unfocused. Within moments, everyone present was standing still, staring in amazement at the Hand of Omnu.

He walked slowly across the courtyard like a living sun. The rain had ceased; above, the blue sky reemerged from behind increasingly wispy clouds as what had been a furious storm cover moments ago burned away as rapidly and unnaturally as it had risen. Light blazed from Toby, covering the courtyard, intense enough it should have been painful to look upon. But there was no pain.

In fact, wounds had already begun to knit together. As everyone stared in shock, arrows and fragments of metal were gently dislodged from flesh, which healed without scarring behind them. Bones realigned, lightning burns evaporated, pierced organs were restored. The only injury which struggled momentarily against the glow was a black gash rent in a man’s chest by Gabriel’s scythe; his flesh had been in the process of crumbling to dust, and the power of death did not easily relinquish its claim. Under so great a concentration of Omnu’s light, however, it finally receded.

There were dead, still lying where they had fallen, but anyone in whom the faintest spark of life had still flickered was now left fully restored.

For a single moment, it seemed as if someone else stood behind Toby, or around and above him; someone whose presence was like the sun itself, powerful enough to drive lesser minds into paralysis simply by being near them. It was a fleeting moment, though, and passed quickly. With it went the overwhelming rush of magic.

It was sunny and balmy in the courtyard in its passing; steam rose from rainwater and pixie ice as it rapidly dissolved under the sun. Everyone simply stood in awed silence, staring at Toby.

“Some of you are defending your homes, or the people you love,” he said, not raising his voice but projecting easily into every corner of the courtyard. “Others were abused and abandoned, just trying to make something of your lives, and trusted the wrong people. Everyone present has made mistakes, but there are no monsters here. That’s enough fighting. Enough.”

Nobody found anything to say, just watching as he stepped across the courtyard and knelt to pick something up.

“Fross,” Toby said more quietly, “I am so, so sorry.”

“Wooooow,” the pixie said weakly. “That was a loooooot of divine power. Way impressive, man. Also, I’d kind of appreciate a warning next time.”

For the first time since they’d known her, her glowing aura was entirely extinguished, leaving only her fuzzy little body lying in his hand. Big black eyes blinked owlishly up at Toby from a little moth’s face; her antennae drooped listlessly, and even her crystalline wings seemed too weak to flutter.

“I didn’t exactly plan the way that went,” he said, eyebrows drawing together worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Aw, sure, jus’ drained,” the pixie said, weakly lifting a tiny arm to wave. “I am a bottomless well of power! Bottomless, I tell you. But you burn off enough of the top, an’ it takes a while to refill.”

“Thank goodness. Here—you’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Schwartz blinked at being suddenly addressed. “I, uh…yes? How’d you know?”

Very carefully, Toby held out his hand, cradling Fross. “Would you please hold my friend until she can fly again? Hopefully it won’t take long.”

“I—that—why, sure, I’d be honored.” Just as gingerly, Schwartz carefully accepted the little burden. Meesie, having returned to her normal form and normal perch, climbed down his arm to peer closely at Fross.

“Hey, uh… Where are you going?” Ruda asked as Toby turned and strode toward the castle.

“You know better than I what needs to be done here,” he said. “I have more healing to do.”

He didn’t have to search. In that unexpected moment of total communion with Omnu’s presence, he had been shown exactly where to go.

Juniper knelt in the hallway, Jack’s broken body laid across her lap, one hand slowly moving over his fur. All around her lay the ruins of what had been a human being. Blood practically painted the whole area, interspersed with scraps of flesh, bone, organs, and a few pieces of twisted metal.

Toby stepped through it without reaction, ignoring the smell and the squishing under his shoes. He simply walked up to Juniper and squatted on his heels, bringing his face down to the level of hers.

“Wasn’t really fair of me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t…really his fault. You know what Jack was like. There’s a difference between killing somebody and murder, isn’t there?”

“There can be,” Toby replied.

“Understanding why it’s wrong,” she said tonelessly. “And then doing it anyway. Because I wanted him to hurt, and then die. I don’t know what to think, Toby. I don’t feel bad about killing him. I don’t. I do not. He killed my Jack. But…I feel very bad about not feeling bad. It’s stupid. I used to think developing a conscience was just a burden, but now? I think mine doesn’t work right.”

“No.” He reached out and lay his hand atop hers on Jack’s fur. “That sounds about right, June.”

“It doesn’t make it right, does it.”


“But…is it at least…understandable?”

He nodded. “Very.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t do this, Toby.”

“You’ve proven you can,” he insisted softly.

“No, not like this. Is this what it’s going to be like to love something? People are defined by their attachments, by what they love, I keep noticing that. And when one is ripped away like that they break so completely that…everything breaks. I swore I would never kill anybody again. And it just…doesn’t matter now.”

Leaves had begun to sprout in her hair. As she spoke in a dull monotone, tiny tendrils of roots appeared, branching out from beneath her and squirming through the blood.

“I love you all, my friends. And you’ll all die. And it will destroy me. I can’t feel like this anymore, Toby. I’m not strong enough.”

He leaned forward, leaned his weight upon her, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then he began to glow.

Juniper gasped sharply. In the divine light, the leaves vanished from her crown, the tiny roots retracting into nothingness. “Stop it, Toby.”

“I can barely understand how hard this must be for you,” he whispered. “Humans, all the rest of us… We learn about loss earlier on. We grow up with it, and we learn that as much as it hurts, we are strong enough.

“No, I’m not,” she said weakly, slumping against him. “It makes me a monster, Toby. I threw away everything I’ve learned… It makes me a killer. I was so stupid to think mortals are weak. You’re stronger than I could ever be. Please let me go. I’m too dangerous.”

“So am I,” he said. “We’re all dangerous, June. Everyone has the power to kill and destroy.”

“Not like me.”

“Not like you,” he agreed, “but still. It’s about choice, and mastering yourself. Something we’ve all been learning how to do for years, and you’ve only just started trying. But we’re all just learning, Juniper.”

“Stop it,” she whispered. “I don’t want to feel better. I just killed somebody. It’s supposed to hurt.”

“Yes, it is. Killing should hurt. Losing Jack should hurt. I’m not trying to make you feel better, June. It needs to hurt; if it doesn’t hurt, it’ll never heal. But it can heal, and you can still do better.”

“I can’t put a life back into the world.”

“That’s right, he’s gone, and it’s your fault, and you will have to deal with that. But you can still do good in the world. Something you loved is gone, but you will still love. I don’t want to take away your pain, June; you need it. I just want you to understand that this moment, this pain, is not the whole world. Leaving the world behind won’t get rid of the pain, or the guilt, it’ll just cut you off from the good you can still do. The happiness you’ll go on to feel.”

“But it’ll make me stop feeling this,” she said plaintively.

“You can’t destroy pain, is the problem. You can only spread it around. If you go, June, then everyone who loves you will feel the way you’re feeling right now.” He shifted, moving his hands to cradle her face and pulling back enough to rest his forehead against hers. Brown eyes met brown eyes from the distance of a soul’s breath. “You don’t want to do that to us. I’m not some sage, June. I’m just a guy who’s been trying to figure this stuff out for a little bit longer than you have. I want to keep figuring it out with you. I just…I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Slowly, he let the light fade, then wink out.

They knelt there in silence. Her transformation, once driven back, did not begin again.

Tears welled in her eyes, began to pour down her face, and the barren emptiness of her expression crumpled into agony.

“I’m so sorry, Toby. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I m-miss my b-bunny.”

He pulled her close again, and didn’t let go.


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