12 – 6

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“This is what you’ve been doing the whole winter break?” Iris asked in awe, slowly pacing around the construct. “This is amazing! I mean, it’s huge, Maureen! Well, maybe not huge, but considering you put it together all by yourself in a week…”

“Mayhap I oughtta stop ye there,” Maureen said, grinning and straightening up from the bolts she had been tightening. “Aye, she’s a substantial chunk o’ hardware, all right, but pretty much just so much metal at the moment. An’ she ain’t just my project. Me an’ Teal ‘ave been at this. Well, me, Teal, an’ ‘er other half.”

“Shaeine helped you with this?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow.

Maureen cleared her throat. “Oh, uh… That’s not what I meant by… Um, her other other half. Vadrieny. Plus, Scorn likes to ‘ang around with ‘er, so, y’know, between an archdemon an’ a towerin’ great Rhaazke, I didn’t exactly lack fer muscle t’lift the ‘eavy parts.”

“Oh.” Iris’s expression shifted to a rueful grin. “Well, that makes a great deal more sense, then.”

“Quite,” Ravana said brightly. “It would appear to be right up Teal’s proverbial alley, in any case. Am I correct in guessing this is some type of vehicle, Maureen?”

She paused to sip her cordial while raising her eyebrows expectantly. She had had them brought in by the case from Calderaas starting at the end of last semester, after discovering that while the fruity bottled drinks did (barely) contain alcohol, it wasn’t enough to trigger whatever effect Tellwyrn had laid on the campus that rendered it undrinkable. Thus, Ravana had seldom been without a bottle in the last week, despite the fact that she claimed they tasted like mouthwash and the carbonation was purely irritating. According to her, it was a matter of principle. As always, she was generous with her bounty, though most of her roommates were sufficiently put off by her descriptions of the cordials to decline, with the exception of Szith, who actually liked them.

The shed Maureen and Teal had appropriated for their project was theoretically designated as storage for the Well, their dorm, but Afritia had told Maureen to make herself at home. The dorm had only this year been re-opened and had nothing stored, so for the time being at least, it was available and at least this way, someone got some use out of it. The space was not much larger than a somewhat generous stable stall, and had been quite dim and dingy before Maureen had strung up a few fairy lamps, then keyed them all to a single runic switch so that one touch could turn on the lights—a standard arrangement, but Iris had nonetheless been impressed that the gnome had done the enchanting herself.

Taking up the bulk of the space was Maureen’s project, which at the moment mostly resembled a large, confused wheelbarrow: the smoothly rounded copper shell bristled with pipes and wires where various gadgets were to be attached, its rounded side up, and the wheel affixed to its flatter underside. The wheel itself was hugely broad, coated in a springy black material and carved in odd patterns. Extending from the rear of the copper shell was a tail-like structure, currently propped up on two sawhorses, and Maureen was in the process of bolting an enchanted apparatus to its underside.

“What’s all this?” Iris asked, bending to gently run her fingers along the wheel. “It feels…odd.”

“Aye, that’s synthetic rubber,” Maureen explained.

Ravana straightened, frowning. “Rubber? I’ve never seen it that color. And there appears to be quite a lot.”

“Well, sure, it’s alchemical, yeah? We don’t actually ‘ave rubber trees on this continent, as I reckon you know, an’ anyhow the real stuff’s a mite soft for our purposes.” Stepping back from the other end of her invention, she trundled around to join Iris by the wheel. “This ‘ere’s the newest thing outta Falconer Industries! See, y’know how carriages require big enchantments on the wheels to make ’em run smooth an’ hold to the road?”

“Uh, sure,” Iris said, shrugging. “If you say so.”

“Aye, well, that’s cos at the speed they move they tend t’bounce. Carriages still owe a lot o’ their design to the old kind that was pulled by horses. Teal’s parents are workin’ on this: they’re called tires! Rubber coatings on the wheels, see? They’re softer, which absorbs impacts, an’ textured to give ’em traction. That way they can take some o’ the power outta the traction an’ smoothing charms, which leaves more power for the motive charms on the wheels, thus faster carriages.”

“Ingenious,” Ravana marveled, studying Maureen’s device with new interest.

“Aye, it’s all pretty experimental. Teal says they’re findin’ it works better to make a kinda thin shell of the rubber an’ inflate ’em with pressurized air.”

“Inflated wheels?” Szith said incredulously. “That sounds like a disastrous idea.”

“Many innovations do, at first,” said Ravana. “The Falconers know what they are about.”

“According to Teal,” Maureen continued excitedly, “they’re lookin’ at buffin’ ’em up from inside, usin’ springs an’ possibly a kind of gel they can make from petroleum instead of air. More stable that way, an’ less fragile.”

Iris frowned. “What’s petroleum?”

“A kind of mineral oil,” Ravana explained. “It has some industrial and alchemical applications, but it’s not as useful as organic oils for most things. Also, it’s found in deposits underground, like ore, which makes it hugely difficult to extract. If F.I. can make something worthwhile out of it, more power to them. Is the wheel that wide for balance, Maureen?”

“Aye, it ‘elps with that,” Maureen said, grinning. “But the wheel’s that wide because this is the leftover piece from an F.I. experiment that Teal could get fer me, so the rest o’ the thing’s designed around it. Beggars, choosers, an’ all that. All right, ladies, moment o’ truth!”

“I mean the greatest of respect, please do not think otherwise,” Szith said carefully as Maureen stepped back to the other end of the vehicle, “but…how much danger are we in, here?”

“Uh…” The gnome paused in double-checking the runes on the gadget, straightening to frown at her project. “None at all, I shouldn’t think. Provided ye stay on this side. Just physics bein’ what it is, if there’s any trouble it’ll be up front.”

“Righto!” Iris said quickly, scurrying around behind Maureen.

“And now,” the gnome said, pausing to rub her hands together and grinning in delight. “Moment o’ truth, fer real!”

She pressed a rune.

Immediately, the crystal plate she had attached to the underside of the vehicle blazed to life, putting off a brilliant torrent of azure light and a powerful hum of magic at work.

It also shot toward the ceiling, taking the back end of the vehicle with it. The whole thing flipped forward on its wheel, its newly-enchanted tail slamming against the wall above the front door hard enough to shake the whole shed. Still putting out levitative force and with nowhere else to go, the upside-down vehicle began creeping toward them on its sole wheel, which remained firmly affixed to the ground.

Iris shrieked and mashed herself against the back wall; Ravana leaped up adroitly to make her own retreat, Szith stepping between her and the runaway invention.

Maureen, though, yelped and scurried forward, heedless of the erratic motion of her large, metal creation, and threw herself bodily atop it. After a moment’s frantic scrabbling, she found the rune again.

In the next instant, it went dark and silent.

“Okay,” Iris said tremulously from the back. “Needs a little work.”

“Needs a lot o’ work,” Maureen grumbled, scowling at her invention as if feeling betrayed. “That’s a lot more force than it’s s’pposed to put out… Where’d I go wrong? I was sure o’ me figures…” She shook her head, then suddenly looked up. “Oh! Everybody all right?”

“Quite,” Ravana said with a smile, “though perhaps someone should go let Afritia know that no one is being murdered up here.”

“I doubt she could even hear that, from down in the Well,” said Szith.

“I’ll go,” Iris offered, edging around Maureen’s vehicle toward the door. “She may not have heard it, but I bet Addiwyn could. The last thing we need is her stirring up trouble.”

“I think Addiwyn has been making great progress,” Ravana said placidly. “You’ll note the complete lack of vicious pranks since we stuffed her in an entling, and a general lessening of her attitude starting around that time. Whatever issues she was grappling with, she appears to be developing some maturity. Really, Iris, I believe we could make progress with her if everyone would refrain from picking at her.”

“Everyone meaning me?” Iris said sardonically. “I don’t even disagree, Ravana, but some people I just don’t care to get to know. She buttered her bed good and proper.”

“As you like,” Ravana said equably. “Just for the sake of peace in the dorm, then, I merely ask that you not be provocative.”

“I guess I can do that much,” Iris muttered, carefully opening the door and squeezing out through the gap; it was still partially blocked by Maureen’s invention.

No sooner had she stepped outside than she shrieked again and tumbled to the ground.

“Iris!” Szith smoothly strode to the door. “Are you—”

Leaning her head out, she broke off. Iris was gathering herself up, and now both of them stared at what she had tripped over.

Their fifth roommate lay sprawled outside the shed, her legs stretched across the doorway.

“You addle-pated blonde bundle of sticks!” Iris shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here?”

“Shall I assume that wasn’t directed at me?” Ravana asked, her face appearing in the gap. Szith had already slipped smoothly out and knelt beside Addiwyn.

“Iris,” the drow said flatly, “she’s asleep.”

Iris broke off in the process of drawing breath for more invective, her expression suddenly horrified. “I—what? No, it’s not like—she’s just being a pain, like always. Oy, cut it out!” Scrambling to her feet, she prodded Addiwyn’s hip with her foot, none too gently.

Szith, with more care, rolled the elf onto her back. She looked rather peaceful, if anything, her eyes closed and expression quite relaxed.

“Breath and heartbeat even,” Szith reported. “Slow, as if in natural sleep.” She lightly slapped Addiwyn’s cheek, to no avail.

“Ohhh, no,” Maureen whispered, poking her head through the door below Ravana’s.

“No, this is crazy,” Iris said nervously. “This is just one of her jokes. Come on, first Chase and now her?”

“And Natchua,” Szith said quietly.

“Exactly! You notice it’s only the jerks and assholes? She’s faking. Get up!”

Ravana cleared her throat loudly as Iris drew back her foot for what looked like a more earnest kick. “Rather than do that, Iris, I suggest someone fetch Miss Sunrunner. If this is Addiwyn’s idea of a prank, on her head be it, then. If not, you’ll feel terrible later if you start kicking her.”

“I’ll go,” Maureen volunteered, wriggling out around her. She took off down the path, quickly vanishing around the corner. Despite her short legs, she could move with amazing speed when motivated.

“I will get Afritia,” Szith said, standing up and turning toward the door of the Well, which was a few yards away around a hedge. “She should be informed of this immediately, also.”

“Good idea,” Ravana said approvingly. Szith gave her a nod and strode off.

“Why,” Iris asked weakly, staring down at the sleeping Addiwyn, “is it always us?”

“Based on the stories I hear,” Ravana said with more equanimity, “I wonder if perhaps it is not just the freshman class each year. And honestly, if half the things I’ve been told are true, we shall have to do a lot better than this if we hope to compete.”


The atrium of the building in which she waited had a lovely modern style of architecture, with an entire wall which arched inward two stories up to become a skylight which would have admitted the reddish glow of late afternoon, had there been any. Tiraas lay under a fresh glaze of ice, the heaps of snow having been mostly cleared away, and its sky was a typical gloomy gray. Still, at least the room was pretty.

Tellwyrn paced slowly up and down the atrium, peering now and then out the windows, studying the furnishings, and glancing occasionally at the government functionaries stationed at desks along the rear wall, all of whom were stealing glances at her whenever possible, only to lower their eyes to their paperwork when she happened to meet their gaze.

This place was fairly opulent, though it wasn’t part of the Imperial Palace itself. Several entire blocks behind the Palace were given over to the offices from which the Empire was administered, and the Empire required vast amounts of administration. All of these were designed to be beautiful when observed from without, though many were drab and purely functional on the inside, as befit a good bureaucracy. Quite a few interior spaces, though, were meant to receive important persons who felt they deserved to be entertained in style.

It amused her slightly that she made the list.

Tellwyrn glanced up again, finding a reedy young man peering at her from the corner of his eye. At her gaze, he instantly ducked his head, scribbling so furiously on the paper in front of him that he couldn’t possibly have been producing anything but meaningless scrawl.

She stood still, suddenly, just staring at him.

He held out well for such an apparent milquetoast. It was more than two full minutes before he finally glanced up at her again.

The sharp pop of her passage was almost inaudible amid all the pen-scratching. One moment she stood by the door, the next she was inches from him.

“BOO!”

He actually screamed and fell out of his chair.

“Don’t try that yourselves,” she advised the room full of shocked clerks, backing away and grinning. “You have to be very old before you can get away with being juvenile.”

They were spared more of her boredom by the opening of the door through which her escort had vanished half an hour ago.

“Thank you for your patience, Professor,” the Hand of the Emperor said in his customary clipped tone, striding toward her. This time, Lord Quentin Vex was with him, regarding her with an expression of mingled boredom and idle curiosity. Her face-to-face interactions with Vex had been fairly limited, all things considered, but she knew very well not to be fooled by his sleepy demeanor.

“Not at all, I’m quite confident you know better than to waste my time deliberately. Considering the bureaucratic levers you were apparently back there pulling, I’m impressed this has all gone so quickly. Joining us, then, Quentin?”

“The personnel being requisitioned for this project do answer directly to me,” Vex said, nodding to her. “Always a pleasure, Professor.”

“So formal,” Tellwyrn chided, “after all we’ve meant to each other. I thought you outranked basically everyone,” she added to the Hand. “You need his permission to bring talent on board?”

“This may be a challenging concept for you, Professor, but because one has the power to do something does not mean one ought to. Lord Vex’s work has always been imminently satisfactory, and his Majesty prefers not to needlessly disrupt the functions of his agencies. If you would come this way, please, we shall meet the individual you’ve come to see in a more secure location within.”

She followed wordlessly at his gesture, and the two men led her back into the hall. The décor remained simple but expensive, with glossy wood paneling and a thick carpet, but the only decorations as such were simple Tiraan banners hung along the walls at intervals like tapestries. They turned left twice and then right, passing doors which her guides ignored, and a few yards later the hall terminated against a set of vertical brass bars.

The Hand grasped a handle on these and pushed the whole thing aside into the wall, gesturing her forward into what appeared to be a small room lined with velvet-padded benches and no doors save the one covered by the bars.

“Rest assured, we are not putting you in a cell,” he said with a thin smile. “This is called an elevator. It will—”

“I dearly hope you don’t think you invented elevators,” she snorted, striding past him and taking a seat. “They’ve been used in the dwarven kingdoms for decades.”

“Yes, but this one runs on magic,” Vex said mildly, lounging against the wall a few feet away while the Hand pulled the bars shut behind them and touched runes on a control panel nearby. “No cables, pulleys, gears or anything else which is likely to up and break.”

“Spells break just as easily as anything,” she replied. “One just has to know how.”

“It’s so good to find you in such a cheerful mood,” he said. Tellwyrn grinned at him.

They descended for nearly ten minutes. None of them spoke. If any found the silence awkward, they made no sign.

When the elevator finally came to a stop, Tellwyrn surged impatiently to her feet, barely giving the Hand a chance to pry the bars open again before pushing past him into the space revealed. There, she planted her hands on her hips and looked around.

This had to have been deep underground, but rather than the customary fairy lamps, the rotunda was lined with tall panels of glass which glowed a pale white, approximating windows. They even had curtains to heighten the illusion. The floor was glossy marble, the walls gilt-trimmed, the domed ceiling a mural depicting important scenes from Tiraan history. Two curved staircases swept up to a balcony ringing the second floor, from which doorways led into dark halls.

Dominating the center of the room was an obelisk of gleaming white metal, etched with geometric patterns which glowed a subtle green. On two sides, small arms extended from it, holding up transparent panels in which maps were projected, one of the city, one of the continent. Directly above and centered on the obelisk’s tip was a translucent globe of light depicting the planet, its continents and countries clearly labeled in glowing text, the whole thing so massive it nearly filled the space, rotating slowly. The moon, unattached and similarly translucent, swung around it on its elliptical orbit, almost grazing the balcony in places.

“A very useful gadget,” Vex said idly, giving the globe a disinterested look. “Lets us keep track of our agents. You may have seen similar things here and there.”

“Artifacts of the Elder Gods should be left buried,” she said disapprovingly. “A good number of them thought weaving deadly booby traps into mundane objects was the height of comedy. Those things have been known to go off after centuries, prompted by nothing.”

“Your advice is appreciated,” the Hand said curtly. “What you see here is, in a sense, the direct descendant of the old Ministry of Mysteries.”

“His Majesty wouldn’t let me revive the name,” Vex said with a languid smile. “Shame. I really wanted to make my people carry badges that said MOM.”

The Hand gave him a sour glance, but continued. “The original Ministry’s mandate was to respond to and potentially make use of unexplained phenomena, which is an inherently foolish and romantic notion. The Imperial government’s current policy is that anything unexplained has been insufficiently investigated, and we will not indulge in mysticism. Nonetheless, there are assets we may choose to leverage which are difficult to fit into the normal order of government or society. Those of them who answer to Imperial Intelligence do so via this division.”

“What, exactly, did you bring me here to see?” Tellwyrn asked, slowly studying the room.

“A specialist,” said the Hand. “Someone gifted, trained, and experienced in complex criminal investigation; in fact, the very author of the Empire’s ongoing reforms in police work. For a long time, catching criminals has been an extremely slapdash affair. Our man here has developed methods of gathering and analyzing evidence which have both exonerated many falsely accused subjects and led to the capture of countless guilty parties who might otherwise have escaped justice. I contacted Lord Vex from Last Rock and ordered that he be briefed.” He turned to raise an eyebrow at the spymaster. “I thought you said he was coming?”

“I told him to come,” Vex replied. “And then, since I knew he’d be late, I sent Ashley to fetch him. Should be along any moment—ah.”

“Ah, indeed!” said the new arrival, bounding out of a second-floor hallway and landing with his rump on the marble banister of one of the staircases. He slid all the way down, his trench coat fluttering in passing, and hit the bottom in an elaborate bow. “So this is the great and terrible Professor Tellwyrn! I had honestly hoped never to be in a room with you, but clearly nobody cares what I want.”

He was a rather diminutive man, not even as tall as she, and correspondingly slim. Though quite handsome, he was also markedly scruffy, in need of a shave and haircut, and wearing a slightly shabby coat and hat even indoors.

Tellwyrn gave him a long, baleful look, then pushed her spectacles up her nose to stare through the lenses, then turned to the other two men.

“Are you aware—”

“Of course we are,” the Hand said irritably. “This is why I began by explaining the mandate of this agency. Inspector Fedora is the best detective in the Tiraan Empire, and possibly beyond it, and has been briefed on your problem to the extent that he can be.”

“Murgatroyd to my friends,” the Inspector said, giving her a smile which did not disguise the hostility in his eyes. “Which doesn’t and won’t include you, but I understand you enjoy being presumptuous.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Murgatroyd Fedora? You were going for maximum possible absurdity, then?”

“Well, I think if one’s going to choose a name, it ought to be pleasing to its owner,” he replied, grinning impudently. “Of course, some people prefer names that are laden with heavy-handed meaning. But then, look who I’m telling, Miss Spider-Priestess Yells-At-Dragons.”

“That’s Professor,” she said flatly.

Vex cleared his throat. “Did you manage to lose Ashley again?”

“Nah,” said a voice from above. “He just wanted to make an entrance. Don’t worry, I’m not about to leave him unattended in company.”

A young woman was leaning over the balcony above, giving them a sunny smile. She had a pixiesh face, with brown hair cut boyishly short, and seemed to be dressed in a man’s suit, or at least had on a jacket and tie.

Tellwyrn craned her head back to stare at the latest arrival through her glasses for a moment, then turned again to Vex and the Hand.

“Do you realize—”

“Yes,” they chorused.

“Inspector,” the Hand continued, “kindly tell us what you have so far.”

“What I have so far is virtually nothing,” Fedora stated, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat and slouching. “All I’ve been able to do is consider the overview of the situation and pull a few files on known personalities at the University. That’s nothing. If you want any actual, useful answers, I will need to be on site and given a significant amount of access. And anyway, while this case does look like it could shape up to be something fascinating, I rather think there’s just not enough yet to begin closing in on a perpetrator, even if I could see firsthand whatever little there is.”

“This,” Tellwyrn stated, pointing at the Inspector and addressing herself to the Hand, “will not be visiting my campus.”

“Well, then, I’m just a pretty face here,” Fedora said, shrugging. “If she won’t let me do my work, that’s that.”

“Troy,” Ashley said reprovingly from above, “be nice.”

“Everyone, please,” Vex said soothingly. “Professor, I realize this is a troubling suggestion and we’re asking a lot, but for the record, you came to the Empire for help; the Empire doesn’t have a direct stake in your problem. We are doing a favor—with the expectation of favors in return, let us not dissemble, but still. I think it would be appropriate for us all to extend some tolerance toward each other.”

She snorted and folded her arms. “Fine, then. Impress me, detective.”

“Can’t do it, probably,” Fedora said glibly. “But what I’ve got so far is a short list of suspects. Now, let me begin with the disclaimer that to call criminal profiling an inexact science is giving it way too much credit, but just on an overview, my instinct is to approach this as a serial attacker. Two victims thus far isn’t a pattern, but striking people down at apparent random fits that profile. Much will depend on what develops—how many more victims appear, how frequently, how they are connected.”

“I’m sure you have something,” said Vex.

“I’ve got a few names who have files that are suggestive,” the Inspector replied, turning his sharp gaze back to Tellwyrn. “First, of course, your first victim, Chase Masterson. He left an impressively consistent record of incidents at the Shaathist lodge which had the misfortune to have raised him. No close friendships, charming demeanor, a general pattern of rulebreaking and manipulative behavior to get his way. Textbook social pathology. Literally, I’ve got a fantastic book from the Svenheim Polytheoric Institute on this, which I just flipped through for reference.”

“Aside from being the first victim,” Tellwyrn said, narrowing her eyes, “Chase was unconscious when the second was attacked.”

“And that may or may not be significant,” Fedora replied, shrugging. “We know nothing about how these attacks are carried out, yes? It’s clearly magical, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. However, that is significant, and it’s for that reason that I don’t particularly like Masterson for the crime. I list him just on the strength of his nature—a boy like that doesn’t need a motive, he just does things, and that’s what argues against him doing this. Striking down himself and then arranging the next victim to happen while he was out would be, if he did it, a mastermind’s ploy. The action of someone who thinks multiple steps ahead. That isn’t Masterson’s pattern; he’s a dog chasing carriages. Anth’auwa aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and the profile he left behind at the lodge was of the ‘harmless pain in the ass’ variety. Unless you’ve seen something in his two and a half years under your tutelage which contradicts that?”

“No,” she said slowly, “no, I tend to agree. Chase is not a planner. He’s impulsive and lacks both restraint and remorse, but he just doesn’t care enough about the future to think ahead.”

Fedora nodded. “I’ve got two others I consider more likely. Lord Jerome Conover has been disinherited thanks to his antics while on your campus and even by the standards of young noblemen he’s established enough of a pattern as a grudge-holder that Intelligence had a file on him before he set off for your University. I consider it extremely noteworthy that his primary contention was with Trissiny Avelea, who is far too powerful for him to threaten, and whose sudden absence from your campus immediately preceded the start of these attacks.”

“Hum.” Tellwyrn frowned deeply, but offered no further comment.

“My personal favorite,” Fedora continued with a grim smile, “isn’t a student. What you’ve got happening at your school, Professor, is exactly the established mode of attack of Morvana the Poisoner.”

“Afritia has my complete trust,” Tellwyrn snapped.

He shrugged again. “Well, clearly, someone who has your trust has betrayed it. That does nothing at all to narrow down our suspects, now does it?”

“Troy,” Ashley said, coming down the stairs behind him, “ease up. There’s no need to make this any worse for her than it is.”

“I will say,” he acknowledged, “that this clashes with her established motive. The Poisoner went after much higher-profile targets, most Wreath-affiliated. Unless you’ve got some truly skeevy shit going on at your school, this isn’t that. However, if this curse proves to be transmitted through an alchemical vector, I’d have to call her suspect number one.”

“And that’s all you have,” Tellwyrn said scathingly.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in a melodramatic shrug. “That is all I have! This looks like it might be an interesting puzzle and I’d love to have a crack at it, but let’s be honest: standing here, with nothing to go on but your descriptions and Imperial records? I’m as useless as a beat cop in Ninkabi.” He turned to give Vex an expressive stare. “So what’s it gonna be? Am I on the case, or are we all wasting each other’s time, here?”

Vex looked at the Hand, who cleared his throat and nodded to Tellwyrn.

“You’re right to have reservations, Professor. But…this could be a start.”

She was staring at Fedora, who grinned right back. Finally, she heaved a short sigh and let it out through her nose.

“I guess…we shall see.”


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12 – 5

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Dawn had just graced the mountain when they returned.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn said in response to the sharp knock on her office door.

It swung open and Professors Rafe and Ezzaniel stepped inside, the martial arts instructor pausing to shut the door behind them.

“All right, gentlemen,” Tellwyrn said, watching them expressionlessly. “How bad is it?”

Rafe blinked at her, then scowled. “Okay, come on now, really. Just how sharp are those ears? You could tell we have bad news just from listening to our footsteps outside?”

“I can tell you have bad news because I can see your face,” she said in exasperation. “You look like someone just drowned your puppy in a pond. Both of you.”

He grimaced. “I sort of wish you’d expressed that differently…”

“I’m not getting my hellhound breath, am I?” Tellwyrn asked, her eyebrows lowering into a scowl.

“No,” Ezzaniel replied, folding his arms behind his back. “The hellhounds are gone.”

A moment of silence followed, in which Rafe sighed irritably. The office was lit only by the windows, leaving it pleasantly dim, but bright enough for them to clearly see the University president’s expression. Unfortunately.

“Gone?” Tellwyrn asked softly. “Can you be more specific, please?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ezzaniel replied. “It is quite the mystery. Khavibosh, who is now in charge on Level 2, has been stomping about in a fury about it for the last week. Apparently, both hellhounds just up and…vanished.”

“I’m sure I need not explain to you two how very impossible that is,” she said.

“No indeed,” Rafe agreed. “Level 2 is supposed to be instanced and sealed, and Melaxyna’s jiggery-pokery to overcome its multiple-version effect should make it even harder to extract things from it. In fact, rather than just come straight back here empty-handed, we looked around in the Crawl for some answers. Hence this trip taking all damn night.”

“Unfortunately,” Ezzaniel continued, “there is a dearth of persons to ask. Our ideas ran dry after Melaxyna, as she is the only denizen of the Crawl we know of who has been placed in Level 2 and yet escaped.”

“She didn’t escape,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “The Crawl let her out, at my request. I prefer to have a Vanislaad or something similarly manipulative watching over the Grim Visage. A more brutal kind of demon can keep order on Level 2 just as easily, but Sarriki does not need to be slithering about without a significant check on her movements. What did she say?”

“She affected to be incensed at the news,” Ezzaniel said with a shrug. “Frankly, the only definitive result we can claim from the encounter is evidence that she does not have the hellhounds in the Visage itself. Beyond that… I am not going to take anything a succubus tells me at face value.”

“She brought Xsythri to the Visage with her, too,” Rafe added. “That hethelax who follows her around. Did you authorize that?”

Tellwyrn’s eyes narrowed. “…not explicitly. But in retrospect, I can see how she might have arranged that loophole.”

“So,” Ezzaniel said in satisfaction, “she could be behind their disappearance.”

“Maybe,” said Rafe. “Xsythri was heartbroken at the news her puppies had vanished. Emilio’s right, a child of Vanislaas is more likely to lie than breathe, but I don’t think Xsythri has the imagination to be deceitful. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought.”

“Whatever happened to the hellhounds,” Ezzaniel said, “we are not going to get information, much less their breath, without conducting some serious investigations. And that involves a dungeon delve of the old school. Not one of our comparatively tame class trips with the Crawl itself watching out for the students; we’ll be down there looking for answers, facing the native dangers, and probably not with the cooperation of the dungeon itself.”

“Don’t rush to conclusions,” Tellwyrn warned. “Before it comes to that, I’ll see what I can get from the Crawl myself. We get along well.”

“Regardless,” he replied, “if it does come down to an investigation of the type I referred to, it will mean several members of the faculty will be occupied doing that for a significant amount of time. Right at a moment when we need every one of us on campus and alert.”

“Yeeaah,” Rafe drawled. “We were pretty much running with the conclusion that none of this is a coincidence. It’s a virtual certainty that whoever’s casting this sleeping curse is a student, and probably one who’s been here at least two years. They all know about the hellhounds on Level 2. And a student is more likely than most to be able to get the Crawl to cooperate with them in mussing things up down there. More likely than anybody who lives in it, anyway.”

“And now you’re speculating,” said Tellwyrn. “Don’t do that. We need information, not baseless theories.”

“Well, pertaining to that,” said Ezzaniel, “dare I hope you have made some progress up here while we were occupied?”

“Of a sort,” she replied with a sigh. “To the extent of ruling out possibilities. Alaric and I have been at the scrying arrays and studying Natchua, and we seem to have established that whatever this curse is, it’s simply not detectable by magic.”

“I thought we already knew that,” said Rafe.

“Not exactly. Both the incidents were recent enough that Alaric could scry them through the ley line network. We had perfectly clear views of Chase and then Natchua just drifting off to sleep, apropos of apparently nothing. In her case, while she was walking between buildings. Something about the curse, or something done by the person who casts it, corrects the sight when viewed through a scrying apparatus.”

“Perhaps that is literally what happened,” Ezzaniel suggested. “We know nothing about how this curse is transmitted.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Then again, Chase recalled someone approaching him from behind just before he was struck.”

Rafe groaned. “When Chase is our most reliable source of information, we’re pretty well boned.”

“We also spent some more time studying Natchua,” Tellwyrn continued, giving him a sour glance. “None of our tests have yielded any direct evidence of magic at work. By all appearances, her body is simply maintaining and infinitely rejuvenating itself at the cellular level for no reason at all, which of course is impossible. It’s made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she is an elf; her body doesn’t decay nearly as quickly as a human, but even drow aren’t meant to lie still for more than hours at a time. The unfortunate fact is that to get more data, we will have to hope she remains that way for a long period, or that other students of more short-lived races are struck. Obviously, I can’t bring myself to hope for either outcome.”

“Well,” Ezzaniel mused, “there is some precedent for things being invisible to magic. Or antithetical to it.”

“I am still certain this isn’t the Wreath’s doing,” Tellwyrn replied, “and I don’t see how mithril could be a factor here, thought it does block scrying. For it to be doing this, it would pretty much have to be ground to a fine powder and introduced directly to the subject’s bloodstream. Leaving aside the horrendous expense of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the stuff, it’s physically impossible to reduce that way. Also, elves require magic on a basic biological level. If that were possible, doing it to a drow would simply kill her.”

“Chaos disrupts magic,” Rafe said quietly.

“Chaos does not behave itself when used,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “I did think of that, but no. Wielding chaos involves grand, dramatic spells, which don’t work in any consistent fashion at the best of times. This is extremely precise. No…we’re still in the dark.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rafe grumbled.

Tellwyrn sighed. “Well, anyway. Thank you both for making the effort. I’ve already posted notices that your morning classes are canceled; go get some rest.”

“Nonsense!” Rafe proclaimed, puffing out his chest and planting his fists on his hips, while Ezzaniel gave him a long, sardonic look. “I’ll just throw back a vial of one of my many sources of bottled vitality and be rarin’ to go!”

“Admestus,” she said more gently, “no. Keep those for later—I have a feeling we may need them. You and I both know, and even you have to acknowledge, that no shortcuts or replacements for natural sleep are as good as the real thing. I’m going to need both of you—and everyone else—in their best shape. No more students have been struck down yet, but I’m not enough of an optimist to assume this thing has run its course.”

“Nor I,” Ezzaniel agreed. “I rather suspect it’s only beginning. Very well, I’ll grab a few winks and be back to class after noon. What’s your plan for the time being, Arachne?”

“For now,” she said, pushing back her chair and standing, “I’ve let the faculty know to keep their eyes open; any students found inexplicably and unwakeably asleep are to be brought straight to Taowi. I’ve first period today free, and I need to go deal with yet another perplexing new thing that’s come up.”

“Anything bad?” Rafe asked, raising an eyebrow.

She grimaced. “I really, really hope not.”


The Saloon kept evening hours exclusively and the town’s sole inn did not serve food, which left but one place where people could congregate in public over breakfast. The Ale & Wenches seemed marginally less ridiculous in the morning, occupied only by a few townsfolk and with the windows open to admit the sunlight, than it did in the more raucous evening shift, when University students and passing would-be adventurers were the main clientele.

He had been here nearly twenty-four hours, not long enough yet that he needed to start thinking about food or sleep. It wasn’t his plan to stay in Last Rock enough time to make those a necessity. Nothing he was doing here was terribly urgent. It had been a well-spent day, though; wandering invisibly about, he had observed much and heard some extremely enlightening conversations. Vex’s intelligence reports generally agreed with what he had now seen, but he did not like to rely overmuch on secondhand information. Considering what might be at stake, it was well worth it to take a day and see for himself.

Now, another such interesting conversation was occurring at the next table over.

“Just don’t feel right, Hiram,” Ox Whipporwill rumbled, folding his arms across his chest. “I know, it’s all in good fun, but after the events a’ the last year…”

“Omnu’s breath, Ox, you’re getting downright stodgy in your old age,” huffed the banker, who was easily fifteen years the deputy’s senior. “You’re right, it is just a bit of fun. As Sam is so fond of reminding us, if the pool ever did pay out, we’d be in too much of a cataclysm for anybody to collect.”

“That’s what I mean,” Ox replied. “I like the kids, Hiram, you know I do. Even the ones I don’t like; as a group, I got no quarrel with ’em. An’ if you ain’t heard, Loretta’s girl will be enrolling next semester—seems Tellwyrn was serious about havin’ Last Rock’s kids sign up if they’re interested.”

“Should be a grand opportunity for young May,” Hiram Taft agreed.

“But,” Ox continued, pointing a finger across the table at him, “last time we had the freshman pool was before the hellgate, an’ then that near riot. I just don’t think it’s the same.”

“It’s very easy to say that now,” Taft replied petulantly.

“I said it then,” Ox shot back. “That hellgate was pretty fresh in everyone’s minds when you were organizin’ it first thing last semester. Matters ain’t a lot better now, despite Tellwyrn’s promise…”

“Ox, old boy, I’m going to have to disagree with you there,” said Taft. “Things are better. I rather wish the good Professor had done this years ago, if for no other reason than that it has improved the general feeling toward the University here in town. But aside from that, the fact that there’s lingering tension makes it all the more important, in my view, that we not walk on eggshells. Having our little annual joke as usual sends the message that nothing has changed. We’re still the same town, it’s still the same school, and we’re no more afraid or resentful of them than in any year before.”

“I s’pose I see the reason in that,” Ox said grudgingly. “Still makes me a mite nervous, though.”

Suddenly, the A&W’s door burst open with far more force than it required, and Arachne Tellwyrn strode in.

She made a beeline for his table, passing the startled locals without a glance, stopped right in front of him, folded her arms and stared down her nose, over the rims of her spectacles.

“Hi there, and welcome to Last Rock. Might I have a word with you in private?”

Gasps and murmurs rose all around; the tavern wasn’t busy at this hour, but half a dozen people were scattered about, all now staring at him. The serving girl went pale and actually knelt.

The Hand of the Emperor sighed softly and rose from his seat. His magic did not provide true invisibility, but it served to deflect all notice from his presence when he so chose. That technique had its weaknesses, however. Such as when someone on whom it did not work deliberately called attention to him in a way that no one could ignore.

“Good morning, Professor,” he said, nodding to her, then turned his head to nod again at the room at large. “Please, everyone, go about your business. Rise,” he added gently to the waitress, who jibbered something incoherent and actually scuttled backward a few feet without getting off her knees. Well, at least even in this backwater they knew how a Hand of the Emperor was to be treated. “Is this going to be a friendly conversation?” he added pointedly to Tellwyrn.

“As far as I know, it is,” she replied. “I have absolutely no quarrel with the Empire and my interactions with it have mostly been quite satisfactory.”

“Yes,” he said dryly, “I understand the Treasury quite enjoys receiving your taxes every year.”

Tellwyrn grinned unrepentantly. “What concerns me is the question of why a Hand of the Emperor would feel the need to skulk around here without announcing himself.”

“Perhaps my presence has nothing to do with you.”

She made a face. “Do we have to fence and banter in front of the citizenry? Nobody here needs the awkwardness of being in that crossfire.”

“There will be no crossfire,” he said firmly as the whispers started up again. “The Empire has only the highest opinion of your University, Professor. In any case, yes, I believe we should speak, now that we already are. Would you care to provide teleportation to a suitable spot? I’m sure you know the town better than I.”

She actually raised her eyebrows in visible surprise. “Don’t mind if I do, then.”

He knew her teleportation was smoother than that of any mage in the Empire’s employ, but knowing wasn’t the same as experiencing it. The world changed around him so suddenly and without fanfare that it was quite disorienting.

They now stood in a long, wide hallway, one wall consisting of glass windows overlooking the Golden Sea from atop the mountain; the rest of it was thronged with potted plants of various kinds. One lifted a blossom to face him. It had an eyeball in its center.

“Of all the highly secured, soundproof labs on my campus,” Tellwyrn said, pacing over to the windows to gaze out, “this one has the best view. Keep well back from the plants. There’s a reason these species are kept in a secure lab.”

“Duly noted,” he said, following her. “So, Professor, what can the Empire do for you?”

She turned to give him a look. “What does the Empire want from me?”

“Certainty,” he said promptly.

She actually grinned. “Something tells me I can’t help you there.”

“I quite meant what I said in front of the townsfolk,” he went on. “His Majesty’s government bears you no ill will, and in fact, Lord Vex speaks highly of your cooperation over the last two years. Regardless, there are…uncertainties. Your relationship with the entire Tirasian Dynasty has been somewhat tumultuous. And it must be said that the Throne bears half the responsibility.”

Tellwyrn blinked in apparent surprise. “You really think I harbor animosity toward the Throne?”

“It has hardly been forgotten,” he said, “that the Tirasian Dynasty exists in part because you ended the previous one.”

She shrugged. “Emperor Arvusham was incompetent, corrupt, weak, and had instigated a civil war at the same time the Universal Church was undergoing its own coup literally across the street from his house. If I hadn’t taken him off the Silver Throne, someone would.”

“Yes, but the fact remains, someone didn’t. You did. When we consider the nature of your relationship to the government, that is exceedingly relevant. The Throne appreciates your recent aid, but it also recalls that unfortunate business with the Ministry of Mysteries, not to mention Emperor Sarsamon’s attempted abduction of you just before you vanished. And, Professor, just because we cannot prove where that vodka elemental came from does not mean we don’t know.”

She grinned again. “Oh, come on. That was funny, admit it.”

“I believe his Majesty agrees with you,” the Hand replied, calmly folding his arms. “I may speak with his voice, in the eyes of the law, but I necessarily cannot share his relaxed attitude toward…practical jokes.”

Tellwyrn’s expression sobered and she turned again to gaze out over the prairie. “You’re really concerned that I’ve been eyeing the Throne since Sarsamon?”

“The facts as they are recorded are that you attempted to penetrate the Palace’s defenses with a very high-level scrying spell, and the Emperor dispatched agents to collect and question you—to no avail.”

“That’s it?”

“Is there more?”

Tellwyrn smiled, this time reminiscently. “I guess he never did leave behind a clear record…well, that doesn’t surprise me. That kerfuffle was the only way we could get in touch with each other one last time without letting on that we were doing so.”

Very slowly, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Sarsamon Tirasian was my friend.” She shifted to look at him sidelong. “I saved his life a dozen times during the Enchanter Wars. He’d have done the same, but I was the archmage and he the nobleman; our power differential didn’t really work out that way. We once got liquored up to the point of combustibility and spent a whole night bawling about our respective dead lovers. I was about to leave, and… Well, I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Go on,” he said after a silent moment.

“It’s all ancient history now,” she whispered, again staring out the window. “And anyway, you’re the living embodiment of sufficient clearance. The Emperor and I couldn’t let on that we were acquainted for the good of the Empire. You see, House Tirasian was an insignificant little merchant House from southern Calderaas before Sultana Shiranza, Duke Rashond and Archpope Vyara cooked up between them the idea to take advantage of the Empire’s fractured state to install a puppet on the Silver Throne. With the combined influence of House Aldarasi, House Madouri and the Universal Church, they were able to bring enough other nobles and cults on board to make it happen. Once they put Sarsamon in place… We decided the Empire deserved a true leader to help it heal. So some of us put together a conspiracy of our own.” Tellwyrn turned to stare him fully in the eye. “It revolved around another acquaintance of ours. A Stalweiss warlord named Heshenaad. We set him up as a threat, someone we could rally the Empire against and elevate the Emperor above the machinations of his original supporters.”

“…I see,” the Hand said slowly. “And you couldn’t find someone not called Horsebutt? It’s an ongoing humiliation that that has to be written in the history books as someone who seriously threatened the Empire.”

She grinned in open amusement. “There’s a certain savage poetry to the Stalweiss and their honor names. It’s funny, but I originally heard the name translated as Horse’s Ass; the modern version is the improved one, believe me. Really, it’s not so bad. Everyone who’s worked with horses understands the reference. Heshenaad was a man you absolutely did not want to sneak up on from behind.” She shrugged. “So, no. Not only do I not resent the Tirasian Dynasty, I am the lion’s share of the reason it’s a thing at all. I haven’t exactly been active in politics, and I’ve never made the effort to get to know Sarsamon’s descendants, but that’s probably for the best.”

“With regard to that,” he said, “the Silver Throne does owe you an apology for the Ministry of Mysteries affair. It may interest you to know that the Ministry’s dissolution was not directly due to your efforts, but to Empress Theasia’s outrage that it had presumed to pressure you in her name without her consent.”

“She always seemed like a good one,” Tellwyrn mused. “I missed the bulk of her reign, though. That was not how I preferred to be welcomed back to the world. Well, as I said… Certainty I cannot give you. When one has seen governments come and go as often as I have, one learns not to become attached. In point of fact I happen to think the Empire in its present form is a very good thing, and Sharidan seems the best leader this continent has seen in the last century. To you he may be the center of the universe, but to me, he’s one more in a long line, and others will come after him. Someday the Empire will fall; empires always do. Someday long before then it will be afflicted with a government which is neither as competent or as benign as Sharidan’s. It will not find me in a position where I am tied to it excessively closely.” She tilted her head back, again looking down her nose at him. “For now, though, at this moment? I heartily approve of the boy and his work. You need fear no interference or hostility from me, and in fact I’m glad to help out here and there as it is necessary and appropriate.”

The Hand of the Emperor regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment, then took one step back and sketched a shallow bow.

“The Silver Throne acknowledges and appreciates your sentiment, Professor. And returns it in virtually perfect symmetry.”

That earned another amused smile. “So, then. What specific thing brings you out here sniffing around? And kindly don’t waste my time by dissembling. Vex wouldn’t do this, and I’m well aware that you Hands lack initiative. Sharidan isn’t likely to suddenly be making gestures like this un-prompted, so either he or you are reacting to something.”

The Hand permitted himself the luxury of a soft sigh. “The Empire is…beset.”

“What else is new?”

He shook his head. “The Black Wreath is more aggressive than it has been since the Enchanter Wars, the Archpope has begun making highly disruptive moves, there is unrest simmering in multiple provinces… Both the Punaji and Tidestrider nations test the terms of our treaties, Narisians are suddenly interacting with elven groves on an unprecedented scale, and Sifan has begun making noises to the effect that the Silver Throne should offer formal reparations to the orcish clans for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. Now, the dwarven kingdoms are suddenly acting with great aggression in Tiraan territory.”

“The dwarves?” She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That makes no sense. The Empire could roll over in its sleep and pulverize them, and they have to know it.”

“That is precisely the issue,” he said. “A competent, comparable rival will conduct himself in a fairly predictable manner, at least insofar as refraining from rocking the boat too much. Someone cornered and desperate, however, might do absolutely anything at all. The dire condition of the Five Kingdoms is exactly what makes their overtures worrisome, and exactly what makes the Throne’s response uncertain. We can do as we have always done: send our armies, leverage our economic and political might, make the world bow before the power of Tiraas. But…the world is not as it was a hundred years ago. Economically, politically, socially, we are tied to more people and in more ways than ever before. Great shows of force are increasingly inappropriate ways to accomplish the Throne’s aims. It is his Majesty’s considered opinion that they are likely to backfire.”

“Wait a moment,” she said. “Am I on that list? You’re here because you worry I’m going to add to your troubles?”

“As I already assured you, no,” he said firmly. “On the contrary. I am tentatively studying you as a possible…solution.”

Tellwyrn folded her arms. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“No more do I, but this is the world we live in. Better that we make our accommodations, with it and with each other. Do you not think so?”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What, exactly, are you proposing?”

“Exactly?” He shrugged. “Nothing. But the Throne is interested in fostering…amity. With you, and wherever else it may be possible. The more friendly faces we can see in the world, the better positioned we are to gently counter the hostile ones.”

“That is remarkably forward-thinking,” she said thoughtfully. “Of course, it raises an ugly question.”

“Oh?”

“I find myself quite suddenly beset by problems I am having trouble solving. And here you come, looking to build some kind of…partnership. I have to wonder what role the Throne may have played in arranging for me to need help.”

“None,” he said immediately. “Bothering to say so may be an empty gesture if you are determined to be suspicious, but I assure you the Throne does not want you riled up. If it helps you at all, I did not come here to propose an alliance. I was simply watching and listening in Last Rock to see how you and your school are perceived by the populace. My purpose was to gather information and form opinions, not offer a helping hand.”

“But,” she prompted.

He smiled faintly. “But, if we can offer such a hand… It would seem to be in both our interests, would it not?”

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12 – 4

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Tellwyrn came in through the door. She had been spoken to about teleporting in and out of the infirmary, and while she adamantly maintained her authority over the campus in general, her policy was to accept Miss Sunrunner’s dictates with regard to the management of her little domain. That practice had served them both well, as it had the student body (and their various frequently injured student bodies), so it stood unchallenged. Thus, despite the urgency with which she had been summoned, she now came striding through the infirmary’s entrance.

“All right, what have we got?” she barked.

Miss Sunrunner gave her a flat look. “Lower your voice, Arachne. I have told you not to shout in here; recuperating patients require a calm atmosphere.”

“Taowi, there is no one else here, except the patient who won’t wake up.”

“It’s the principle of—”

“We can rehash this argument yet again at a less urgent time,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Now what is going on?”

She turned an expressive look on Professor Yornhaldt, who stood to one side of Chase’s bed, watching. He nodded to her in greeting, then pointedly directed his attention to the campus healer, yielding the floor.

“You already know the salient points,” Miss Sunrunner said, folding her hands and gliding back over to join Yornhaldt at the bedside. Chase was stretched out, uncovered, and looking actually rather peaceful. “We cannot awaken him. He is uninjured, and there is no trace of either alchemical or mundane poison in his system. Undetectable agents can’t be ruled out, obviously, but as you know we’re equipped to detect things most hospitals are not. Altogether, Chase is in the same generally good health as always. He simply will not wake up. The sleep itself appears quite natural, aside from the fact that we cannot bring him out of it.”

“Mm,” Tellwyrn said noncommittally, studying Chase through her spectacles. “I gather you’re here to expand the battery of tests being run, Alaric.”

“Indeed, I can check for a few things Taowi can’t,” Yornhaldt replied, nodding apologetically at Miss Sunrunner. “And based on the examinations I have done, I’m reasonably sure he has been cursed.”

Tellwyrn shot the healer a look. “That’s what you call generally good health?”

“In point of fact,” Sunrunner said with muted asperity, “that is exactly the issue. What we have detected is that Chase’s body is in a state of suspension. It is far too early to have observed the effects naturally, which is why I asked Alaric to come and examine him magically, but we have determined that he has the standard protections. He will not require food or water while in this state, nor experience any muscular or skeletal atrophy from lack of exercise. He is in generally good health, in short, and will remain that way until we work out how to awaken him.”

“This is where it begins to worry me,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “You know very well that suspended animation is a standard feature of sleeping curses and has been…well, longer than you’ve been alive, even. The troubling thing is that this is the only indication we have of what has befallen him. I can detect no curse at all. No trace of one. Arachne, the state of his body shows that magic has to be acting upon it in a powerful way, but I cannot find any magic.”

“We had hoped,” Miss Sunrunner said in a softer tone, “that you would be able to discern something we have missed. Failing that, I can also have Admestus do some tests, but…alchemical procedures are necessarily more invasive than scrying, and in any case, Arachne, I trust your judgment substantially more.”

Tellwyrn looked at her, then at Yornhaldt, then sighed softly and turned her gaze back to the patient, peering through the lenses of her glasses. After a moment, she reached up to hold one side of the golden frame between her thumb and forefinger, narrowing her eyes.

“…you’re right,” she murmured at last. “Nothing. Not a thing. He could just be asleep. There’s no magic there.”

Miss Sunrunner tilted her head to one side. “Can those detect the suspended animation?”

“No, they see magic. I assume you were scrying for specific cellular activities, Alaric?”

“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “But I see no harm in you double-checking…”

Tellwyrn waved a hand impatiently, shaking her head. “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve observed two things: you don’t make pronouncements unless you’re sure, and you’re never sure unless you’re right. I’m quite comfortable taking your word for it, Alaric. So that leaves…this exciting dilemma.”

Yornhaldt drew in a deep breath, his blocky frame swelling till it seemed to strain his tweed jacket. “Well, I shall point out the oliphaunt in the room if no one else will. We all know that magic concealed from detection is Black Wreath craft.”

Still frowning down at Chase, Tellwyrn shook her head slowly. “The Wreath didn’t do this.”

“How can you be sure?”

“For one thing,” she said, “I know how their evasion tricks work. I’m sure they have some I don’t know, but I’m familiar enough with the others to spot the patterns. Not that I can reliably catch them in the wild if I’m not paying attention, but with a comatose subject and the luxury of time to study him? No, if the Wreath had cursed him with Elilial’s gift, I’d be able to see that. And magic aside, Embras Mogul is too intelligent and self-interested to make himself my personal chew toy by attacking one of my students. Moreover, Elilial specifically promised me, in person, that she would not harm the kids.”

“You trust a promise from the demon-wrangling goddess of cunning?” Sunrunner said skeptically.

“I do,” Tellwyrn said softly, nodding. “Elilial is sneaky; she isn’t a liar. The really, really good deceivers often aren’t. And she doesn’t want me for a devoted enemy, either. Even if I were wrong about that, this is not her pattern. She’s more careful about bystanders than some of the Pantheon gods; I’ve never actually known her to target innocents in order to provoke someone.”

“Magic aside, then,” Yornhaldt said gravely. “The reason my mind sprang directly to the Wreath, aside from the obvious, was that there is one person on this campus whom they wish to annoy possibly even less than yourself, Arachne. Or there was, until yesterday. Literally as soon as Kaisa departed, this happened. It’s a coincidence I cannot make myself credit.”

Tellwyrn heaved a slow sigh, finally lifting her eyes to his. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But my points stand; Elilial has no reason to provoke me this way, and her cult has far too much to lose and nothing at all to gain by it. Plus, as I said, I think I could detect it if this were their handiwork—but that is due to my specific familiarity with their handiwork. It’s easier for me to believe that someone else out there found a way to conceal magic from me than that it’s them.”

“The prospects become more horrifying the longer I dwell on them,” Yornhaldt muttered. “Who in the world can work spellcraft that sophisticated? The Empire, the Church, the College of Salyrene, the Wizard’s Guild? No one I can imagine would wish to antagonize you this way…”

“Unless I misremember,” Sunrunner said archly, “one entity on that short list has already deliberately antagonized her, for no discernible reason beyond curiosity as to what would happen.”

“This is pointless,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “We do not have enough data to begin pointing fingers; we will collect evidence before forming theories, not the other way round. Taowi, is it possible he did this to himself?”

“I did think of that,” the healer said. “It’s Chase, after all. Maureen said they found him sitting against a wall, in a stable position; while it’s not impossible to fall into that pose, it more suggests someone put him there. If he did it to himself, I would assume it to have been an accident, as not even Chase Masterson would have any reason to do something as utterly daft as deliberately curse himself to sleep. He can’t enjoy any of the things he lives for in this condition. Anyhow, if he were to do such a thing, why on a random path in the middle of campus? Anything might have happened to him. Many of his classmates owe him a few pranks.”

“Not to mention,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “the boy barely has the magical aptitude to get through my classes. He’s not one I’d expect to pull out a brand-new sleeping curse from beyond the cutting edge.”

“So,” Tellwyrn mused, “the only one who knows what happened to Chase is Chase. We shall simply have to ask him.”

“Arachne, I have no idea how long it will take to fix this,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “For all our investigations thus far, I cannot even claim to have truly begun. We can’t even detect the curse; removing it could potentially be a major undertaking.”

“If you go about it the scientific way, yes,” she said flatly, folding her arms and giving him a challenging look. “Alaric, what do I usually do when something intractably complex stands in my way?”


The tiny, jewel-like bottle looked out of place affixed to the rest of the contraption; little larger than a bean, it was cut in facets like a diamond, seemingly empty. Professor Rafe screwed its stoppered end into the apparatus attached to Chase’s face with the utmost care. Aside from the nozzle holding the bottle in place, and the gadgetry contained within that which would remove the stopper without breaking the airtight seal, it was just a contoured suction cup that fit over the patient’s mouth, leaving his nose free.

“I’m impressed, Admestus,” Yornhaldt commented. “I’ve never actually seen a bottle of anything that size, and yet you had a device right on hand which fit its mouth perfectly.”

“Oh, this actually wasn’t designed for this bottle,” Rafe said cheerily. “I just slapped this thing together out of bits and bobs I had lying about. Really, though, it’s a simple enough gadget; every bit of what it does is all part and parcel of working with gaseous reagents. The nozzle there was meant to be attached to rubber tubing—actually, I’ve wedged a ring of the stuff in the opening to tighten its grip on the bottle. Be a pal and check my seals? I’ve already done it myself, but I don’t want to pop the cork until you’ve triple-verified we don’t have any leaks. There is a very tiny amount of hellhound breath in that bottle and pretty much no earthly way of getting more.”

“Agreed,” Yornhaldt rumbled, gesticulating with one of his thick fingers. A cerulean spell circle flared into being directly below Chase’s head, then slowly drifted up through it, flickering out once it passed above the little bottle of hellhound breath. “Clear. No air or other gases escaping from the device.”

“You had a spell on hand to do that?” Sunrunner asked, impressed. “I expected a more elaborate casting, like you had to do previously.”

“It isn’t every day I have to scry for activity on the cellular level,” Yornhaldt explained. “Checking anomalous air currents is a common enough need in several forms of spellcasting. The wrong breath of wind can mess up…well, that’s not important right now,” he added, glancing at Tellwyrn’s expression.

“Are we ready, then?” she demanded, frowning at Rafe.

“Yeah,” he said, straightening up and turning to her with an uncharacteristically even look. “Good to go on your command. Before we do that, though, let me just point out that if what happened to Chase is as mysterious as you all say, there’s nothing to suggest it won’t happen again. This could be a one-off event, or we may soon have other students coming in under undetectable sleeping curses. Are you sure you want to do this now? Or maybe reserve this, the only sample of foolproof anti-sleep gas which is worth more than the land this campus is built on and can’t be replaced, for a future victim who’s generally less of a butthole?”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn stated, staring at him over the rims of her glasses, “you are already on my short list right now.”

Rafe shrugged, turning back to the patient. “Yes, fine. I’m not saying anything everyone in the room wasn’t thinking. I just wanted it out in the air so you all know you’re not the only ones thinking it, and the idea isn’t without merit. But, you’re the boss.”

So saying, he took a careful grip on the apparatus sealed to Chase’s mouth and twisted the screw attached to its nozzle.

There was no hissing or any other sound; there just wasn’t enough gas involved to make one. Rafe removed his hands, and they all stared down at the still-sleeping patient.

“Oh, dear,” Yornhaldt murmured, squeezing his hands together. “It’s possible there just wasn’t enough—”

Chase shot upright with a protracted gasp, his eyes snapping open. He quickly began coughing and retching, the sound muffled until he succeeded in wrenching the suction cup off his face with a wet pop.

“Oh—ack. Ew. What the fuck? Why do I taste like I’ve been snogging Scorn?”

“How do you feel?” Miss Sunrunner asked gently, leaning forward to place a hand on his shoulder.

Chase blinked twice, turning to her. “Uh… Well, what most springs to mind is the snogging Scorn thing. Seriously, it’s like a mouthful of sulfur.”

“You were under some kind of sleeping spell, boyo,” Rafe said brightly. “We had to pump you full of hellhound breath.”

Chase blinked again, then his eyes widened. “Whoah, what—wait a second, now. I did not authorize that! I refuse to be held financially liable for— I mean, holy shit, man, why would you waste that stuff on me? Really, this ever happens again you’ve got my permission to just chuck my ass in a ditch, much more cost effective. Need me to sign something?”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn’s voice was not raised, but her tone was firm enough to immediately command his attention. “What happened?”

He licked his lips, staring at her, then grimaced. “Okay, uh…look, it was just a figure of speech. I assume Scorn would taste like brimstone. I’ve never actually snogged her. Not that I wouldn’t give my left nut to try that at least once, but I’m pretty sure she’d literally eat my face. I have it on good authority that most other women do not go for a half-eaten face.”

Tellwyrn blew out her breath in a sigh that was half-growl. “Young man, my patience today is even less generous than usual. We need to know what you remember most recently. You were found propped against a wall below the quad. How did you get cursed? Did someone attack you?”

Chase blinked twice more, then suddenly leaned forward with an animated expression. “Oh—oh, yeah! Man, there were dozens of them, I think they were demons. I gave ’em hell, you better believe that, but one of the cowardly bastards snuck behind me—”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn leaned forward, staring balefully at him from barely a foot away. “This. Is not. The time.”

He met her gaze for a long moment, looking suddenly a little alarmed, then dropped his eyes. “I…sorry, Professor. I don’t know. I, uh, actually was sitting down by the wall, I remember going there myself. I like to be alone with my thoughts—” He glanced up at her and broke off, managing a weak half-grin. “Okay, fine, it’s a great spot to hide and jump out at people. I was that bored, yes. Anyway, I remember sitting there…” He stared at the far wall, frowning in concentration. “…I don’t remember falling asleep. I think someone…walked up to me? Yeah, someone did. A shadow fell across me from behind, and I was annoyed cos they came from the wrong angle for me to surprise ’em. That’s…” He shook his head. “Man, I’ve got nothing past that. I wouldn’t swear it’s the last thing that happened. It’s kinda like falling asleep naturally, y’know? I don’t remember it specifically happening. That’s just the last distinct impression I had of anything.”

Tellwyrn straightened up, letting out a much softer sigh, and exchanged a worried glance with Yornhaldt and Sunrunner.

“So,” said Rafe, “correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this pretty much the worst case scenario? He knows nothing, we’ve blown our only stock of the one damn thing that can cure this, and with it cured now we don’t even have anything to examine.”

“Uh, what’s the big deal?” Chase asked, looking around at them. “So some joker zapped me with a sleeping charm. We learned to do those in your class, Professor Yornhaldt.”

“Alaric, you didn’t,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

Yornhaldt gave her a long-suffering look. “You know I like to show them a few fun spells every semester. It’s the lion’s share of what keeps the non-magic majors interested, Arachne. Those of us who don’t terrify our students have to think of these things. Anyway, no, I just show them the standard, extremely basic sleep charm. As you well know, it’s easily detectable, blockable, breakable, and even if one hasn’t the opportunity to do any of that doesn’t last but ten minutes.”

“Uhhh.” Again, Chase panned an inquisitive stare around at them. “What’s going on? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“Are we keeping it from him?” Rafe asked, scratching his head. “Cos, y’know, the boy pretty much knows something’s up. I mean, I can bash him over the noggin with a bedpan, see if that erases his memories—”

“Admestus,” Sunrunner said very evenly, “what have I told you concerning what is and is not appropriate joking matter in my infirmary?”

“I really couldn’t say, Taowi my dear,” Rafe simpered. “I just get so distracted gazing into your pretty eyes—”

“Shut up, Admestus,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, I don’t see any benefit in keeping secrets. We don’t know what happened to you, Chase; it was some kind of sleeping curse, and it baffled even the collected expertise you see standing before you. So yes, this is potentially serious.”

Chase stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then frowned. “Huh. That’s interesting. Who the hell would wanna do something like that? I mean, I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important…”

“He’s got a point,” Rafe agreed. “Trissiny’s off-campus this semester, and anyway, I’m like eighty percent sure she was just letting off steam. I can’t see her actually beheading him.”

“Just for the record, she did try to do that to someone her first week,” Chase said helpfully, “but anyhow I should clarify: I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important who could do that kind of advanced magic. Also, holy shit, anybody doing that on this campus is pretty much asking to get transmogrified into a grease stain, right?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Sounds like you’re up to speed. For now, Chase—”

She broke off abruptly, turning to face the door. Sunrunner did the same; both elves frowned in apparent consternation.

“Yeeesss?” Chase prompted after a moment. “For now, Chase, what? You can forget about homework for the week? We’re taking you out back and putting you down? I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

The infirmary door burst open, and a senior arcane studies major named Laria backed inside. Once into the room, she stepped aside and turned, revealing both her worried expression and the prone body of the classmate she was levitating along behind her.

Natchua lay face-up in midair, her arms hanging limply, as were her legs below the knee. Her green-dyed mohawk sagged in that position like the fronds of a thirsty plant. As soon as she cleared the doorway, Hildred squeezed in behind her, looking nearly distraught.

“Miss Sunrunner!” the dwarf cried. “Please—we can’t figure out what’s wrong. She won’t wake up!”


Calming and getting rid of Laria, Hildred, and Chase had taken a few minutes, during which Miss Sunrunner swiftly examined Natchua. By the time they had again cleared the infirmary of students, she was able to report, grim-faced, that the drow’s case appeared identical to Chase’s.

“I realize you’re gonna hex me for saying I told you so,” Rafe informed Tellwyrn, “so let me just take a moment to emphasize that I don’t care, because I damn well did and now look.”

“This is extremely rapid,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “Two in the space of one afternoon. If it continues at this pace, we’ll be out of students in a matter of weeks.”

“I do not want to hear that kind of talk again,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “No accusations, no doomsaying, no whining. What we’re going to have is action. Taowi, Alaric, and I will examine Natchua as intensively as we can while we’re waiting for the more reliable cure to be replenished. In fact, I’m going to bring this to the attention of the rest of the faculty; I want anyone who has even a glimmer of an idea to have a go at this. They can’t possibly make it worse, and anyone might find something we missed.”

“Um.” Rafe held up a hand. “Waiting for the reliable cure to be replenished? Arachne, the reliable cure is hellhound breath. You cannot get that stuff on this plane of existence.”

“You can, it’s just prohibitively hard,” she said patiently, “and less hard for those of us standing here than probably anyone else on the planet. Un-panic yourself and think, Admestus, you know the answer, here. There are two hellhounds on Level 2 in the Crawl. I want you to gather up whatever equipment you need, then haul ass down there and harvest as much of the stuff as you can get.”

Yornhaldt cleared his throat. “You have specifically forbidden that as a condition of allowing Melaxyna to keep them, Arachne…”

“Because,” Tellwyrn snapped, “hellhound breath is illegal and dangerous, and sufficiently rare that if it gets out we have any, even my reputation won’t stop necromancers and other undesirables from coming here after it. For that reason, this needs to be done as discreetly as possible. Admestus, take Emilio down there with you for backup, and as much as possible, prevent it getting out what’s going on.”

“You know that won’t work for long, Arachne,” Rafe said seriously. “Not with the student body we have.”

“Yes, I know it all too well,” she said with a sigh, glancing over at Natchua. “But the need is too great right now to pass up the opportunity.”

“Arachne.” At Yornhaldt’s tone, they all turned to look at him. “On the subject of secrets… You have to know what’s going on here. You said we have students to whom Elilial gave untold demonic knowledge. We have never figured out who opened the hellgate. This started virtually the instant our predatory arch-fairy departed the campus. It’s too perfect.”

“It could be any of the students,” Sunrunner whispered.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “The current freshmen weren’t here then. The current sophomores are not suspects. That group is too close-knit, half of them are light-wielders, none of them are the particular kind of daft that would be trying to summon demons in the Crawl, and they stayed to throw themselves at the hellgate in defiance of all orders. No…it could be any of the upper half of the student body.”

“Gotta say, that is less of a comfort than it probably sounded like in your head,” Rafe informed her. “That’s a good fifty young’uns with generally more personality than sense.”

“I did not intend it to be comforting,” Tellwyrn shot back. “We cannot afford to be comfortable or complacent right now. It’s not going to be long before it becomes known what’s happening, and it won’t be long after that before suspicion starts making people crazy. We are under an unforgiving timetable, here, people. I will not have a witchhunt on my campus.”

“A witchhunt is not something you can end by declaring it so,” Yornhaldt said.

“Precisely,” she agreed, “which is exactly why we need to get in front of this and head it off now.” Tellwyrn paused, chewing her lower lip for a moment. “And this time, I’m afraid we’re going to need help.”

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12 – 3

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Out of nowhere, beneath the clear dawn sky, a circular patch of tallgrass vanished from existence, taking with it the top layer of soil and leaving behind a round patch of dirt and exposed roots which might as well have been carved off with a razor. It only stayed smooth for moments, however, before two figures materialized upon it with a similar lack of fanfare.

The vegetation made for problems when it came to teleportation; a person who materialized with their body phased through dozens of large stalks of grass had an excruciating death to look forward to. These preparatory measures were necessary, though they raised problems of their own.

Both men turned in half-circles facing the opposite directions, looking around. The prairie was empty and quiet, lit golden red by the rising sun, and stretching featurelessly away in all directions but one. To the west, the thin line of the Rail marked the horizon, and in the near distance due northwest of their position rose the mountain, with the town of Last Rock huddling against its base.

The man in the Army uniform with the Azure Corps insignia turned to his companion and bowed. “Will you require us to remain alert for extraction, sir?”

“No,” mused the Hand of the Emperor, studying Last Rock. He was middle-aged in appearance, balding and with sharp dark eyes set deep in his craggy features. The Hands were, in theory, all one voice, that of the Emperor, but in practice they did tend to specialize. This man habitually sat on the security council, but they would have to accustom themselves to his replacement for a while. “No, don’t focus any scrying on the area. She’s very likely to detect it, and I don’t wish to introduce myself until I am ready.”

“Yes, sir,” the battlemage replied, saluting. “Will you require any further aid in case she detected the teleportation?”

“I’m employing my own countermeasures against that. In any case, no. Tellwyrn is not classified as hostile, and I can deal with her.”

“Understood, sir. By your leave, then.”

The Hand gave him a nod, then strode off toward the town without another word. He walked only far enough to be out of the cleared circle, pushing his way into the surviving tallgrass, then turned to face the mage.

At that signal, a shrill buzzing rose from the air around them, accompanied a second later by a cerulean shimmering in the air, and then the battlemage vanished with a sharp pop of displaced atmosphere.

The Hand waited attentively for nearly another minute until the buzzing returned, and seconds later the displaced tallgrass reappeared.

It started to fall immediately, of course, but as if drifting down through syrup, its velocity slowed to roughly one hundredth of normal. Instantly, the Hand gestured with both arms, and it slowed further. Earth congealed together, roots re-attached, a few stalks which had been shorn off above ground level merged back into place, with the exceptions of a few which were too displaced by the time the healing took effect, and continued to tumble downward.

The slowing effect decayed rapidly, and had vanished in less than another minute. The replaced tallgrass listed drunkenly this way and that, most of it again attached but still feeling the effects of the trauma it had just undergone. The Hand studied this thoughtfully, then closed his eyes in concentration.

Stalks shifted, righted, regained some of their vitality. It wasn’t a huge difference, but when he was done, most of them stood more or less upright.

Opening his eyes, the Hand surveyed his work critically. Obviously, it was plain something strange had happened here—and to anyone who knew what to look for, a close inspection would reveal exactly what. This should be enough, though. Given how the students (and occasionally townspeople) ranged, a mirror-smooth patch of dirt in the middle of the prairie ran the serious risk of attracting attention; this would have to be noticed before anyone inspected it closely, and in its present state was unlikely to be. Most of those who vanished into the tallgrass from the town or University did so in pairs, and were more interested in privacy than botany. The next rain would set it more or less right, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

Of course, it still might be noted, but the risk was minor, as was the cost if he were exposed. He did not intend to conceal his presence long, anyway. This was standard procedure, though, and it was a procedure which existed for excellent reason. He approved of thoroughness. The Emperor approved of thoroughness.

Nodding once in satisfaction, the Hand of the Emperor straightened his black coat, turned, and strode away through the tallgrass toward the town.


“Something’s amiss.” Gabriel squinted suspiciously, peering around the classroom. “Something…is different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but maybe if I study closely…”

“Arquin, quit bein’ a dickhead,” Ruda ordered, plopping down in her seat and taking a jug of moonshine from inside her coat.

“Aw, c’mon,” he said, grinning, “if I did that, how would you know it was me?”

“Cos out of the only two present who dress in men’s casual, Teal actually dresses in it, as opposed to accidentally falling most of the way into whatever was lying on the floor in the morning. And she combs her hair.”

“Nice to have my efforts acknowledged,” Teal said with a smile.

The classroom was devoid of the decorations which had appeared at the beginning of the last semester—no silk screens, no potted plants, no blossoming cherry tree. Every sign of Professor Ekoi’s unique presence had abruptly vanished. Though this left the room in more or less the state to which they had become accustomed over their first year, it suddenly looked empty.

“It’s actually kinda sad,” Juniper whispered, gazing around with wide eyes. “The walls look lonely, now. Do you think Professor Ekoi’s okay?”

“Based on what I’ve been reading about kitsune,” Fross chimed, “I would be absolutely astonished if anything was able to actually harm her.”

“Really?” Gabriel looked up at her. “I tried to read up on kitsune after it became clear I was gonna be her favorite punching bag, and I couldn’t find much in the library.”

“Well, there’s not much in Tanglish,” Fross explained. “I had to order some things from a Nemitite temple, and before I could read them I had to learn to read Sifanese. That slowed down my research by a good six weeks, but that was still quicker than having to look up every single thing with a bilingual dictionary and grammar codex as I went.”

Teal dropped her book; fortunately she was already at her desk. Staring at Fross, she didn’t seem to notice that it had fallen. “You taught yourself Sifanese in six weeks? When?!”

“Well, I had some spare time. I don’t sleep; it gives me an extra few hours a day to pursue personal research projects. And I don’t need a lamp, which is very handy for reading at night!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gabriel said grandly, “I give you our future overlord, Fross the pixie.”

“That’s a damn difficult language,” Ruda added. “Seriously impressive shit, glitterbug.”

“Arigatou gozaimashita,” Fross said modestly.

“What I wonder,” said Toby with a frown, “is if this has something to do with what happened yesterday.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty suggestive,” Gabriel agreed in a more serious tone. “I mean, just the timing alone.”

“The way you described it,” said Ruda, “she was just pissed off, not hurt.”

“Wait, what happened?” Juniper demanded. “I didn’t hear about this.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a sigh, “apparently, yesterday Rafe slipped Professor Ekoi one of his anti-magic potions.”

“He did WHAT?” Fross shot upward until she bounced off the ceiling, chiming in agitation. “Professor Ekoi is a fairy! She’s made of magic! That’s like making someone drink poison, or strong acid!”

“She’s made of a lot of magic,” Toby said soothingly. “Ruda’s right, she didn’t seem hurt. Just angry, and…um, interfered with.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, “apparently she doesn’t actually speak Tanglish and was using her magic to translate. We couldn’t puzzle out a word until Tellwyrn showed up. And she actually walked away instead of doing that melodramatic non-teleport thing she loves so much.”

“That’s still a nasty prank!” Fross exclaimed, now buzzing about in figure eights above their heads. “I am extremely disappointed in Professor Rafe!”

“Why?” Ruda asked lazily. “You’ve met the fucker, haven’t you?”

“Questions of Professor Ekoi’s welfare aside,” Shaeine said quietly, “kitsune are rather notorious pranksters, and she is somewhat unpredictable herself. I have greatly enjoyed her class, but I fear if Professor Rafe has instigated some kind of practical joke war, the collateral damage is likely to be considerable.”

“Oh, dear gods in fancy hats,” Ruda groaned, tugging her own hat down over her eyes.

“Good morning, students!”

The classroom’s lower door had opened, and they all turned to regard Professor Yornhaldt, who strolled in wearing a smile.

“Take your seats, please, it is time for class to begin. Ah, I confess this is rather satisfying,” he said, stepping up behind the lectern and beaming at them. “I have quite missed teaching. And all of you, of course! Now, then! Fortunately this has befallen us no more than a week into the semester, so we should be able to proceed with only minimal disruption to the curriculum. First of all, I must announce, as you have undoubtedly intuited already, that Professor Ekoi has rather suddenly departed the campus. Until further notice, I am resuming duties as your primary magic teacher for the remainder of the semester.”

“Is she…okay?” Juniper asked somewhat tremulously.

The dwarf sighed. “Well. To the best of my knowledge, yes, she is well. Beyond that, anything I could say as to the reasons for this would be mere speculation. Or rather, it would be gossip, which is a most inappropriate use of my classroom time.”

“What about your office hours?” Ruda asked, grinning.

Yornhaldt gave her a wry look. “Miss Punaji, have you ever known me to gossip? Professor Ekoi’s personal business is just that. And I should perhaps take a further moment to mention,” he added more severely, “that Professor Tellwyrn shares my feelings on the subject of discussing faculty business with nosy students. And, in addition to being her usual charming self, she is already rather piqued about this entire affair. Anyone considering asking her for more details should be forewarned. And, ideally, refrain.”

“Well, there ya go,” Ruda said cheerfully. “We have now known you to gossip!”

“I find,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “that warning my students against terrible errors in judgment is usually worth the relaxation of certain other standards. Not that they necessarily listen, but the effort is still worthwhile. Now, then! I shall have to ask you, students, what you have already covered in the last week. I’m afraid my predecessor was not one for leaving detailed notes.”


“Okay,” Iris said, nodding earnestly and clutching her books to her chest. “Okay. It’s gonna be this semester, girls. I’m gonna do it.”

“That leaves you a great deal of time,” Szith noted.

Iris nodded again, her eyes fixed with determination on the path ahead of them, but not seeing anything. “Yes. Right. Exactly. I have time to psych myself up. I can do this.”

“I meant rather the opposite,” the drow said gently. “The whole semester gives you plenty of time to back away and find excuses. Perhaps setting yourself a shorter timetable would be wiser.”

Iris’s eyes widened in near panic. “I…I… Shorter? I don’t know if…”

“Aye, that right there’s the look of a lass just rarin’ to charge off after ‘er ‘eart’s desire,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Iris gave her a sour look. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“Iris, hon, y’know I love ye, right?” The gnome stepped closer to affectionately jostle Iris’s leg as they walked. “That’s why I make fun. I mean, wantin’ the boy by itself ain’t doin’ you any good in the ‘get out there an’ get ‘im’ department. I figure, maybe a little friendly joshin’ from yer roomies’ll help? Cos between you, me, an’ the tree, you’re bein’ ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Iris said sullenly.

“Wanting him is not ridiculous,” Szith replied in her usual placid tone. “All this melodrama about it, however…”

“It’s just not that easy,” Iris whined.

“Perhaps my own cultural background sabotages my sympathy,” Szith mused. “In Tar’naris, the only obstacle in your way would be his rank. He is lowborn, however, which mitigates that; those of granted rank have little prerogative to look down their noses at being approached by others beneath their station. He is, after all, a man. It’s your right and obligation to reach out a seize him, if you desire him.”

“Szith,” Iris said in exasperation, “for the last time, that’s not how we do things here!”

“Indeed,” the drow said solemnly. “Bad enough you have to suffer under such a backward system without perpetuating it yourself.”

“And I don’t want to seize anyone,” Iris added, scowling now. “I want Gabriel to like me! I just…I don’t know how to make him. Ravana’s really helpful to me in learning social skills, but…um…”

“Aye, now ye bring it up, it’s a mite hard to imagine Ravana gettin’ a boy to chase after ‘er,” Maureen mused. “I bet she’d reckon any lad she couldn’t just order to report to ‘er chambers an’ perform was beneath ‘er. An’ not in th’fun sense.”

“Now that is the proper attitude for a noblewoman to have,” Szith said approvingly.

“Is there such a thing as a Hand o’ Izara?” Maureen asked. “Cos this campus could sure as flip use one. I mean, we’ve got all the other paladins, aye?”

“You two are a tremendous help,” Iris growled.

“Iris,” Szith said with one of her rare smiles. “Friend. You only hurt yourself, doing this. Just ask the boy. It does not have to be perfect, and it does not have to be impressive. We do not live in a bard’s tale, and quite frankly, the male upon whom you’ve set your sights is the local champion of well-meaning awkwardness, himself. Just ask him, honestly. I quite think the results will go in your favor.”

Iris closed her eyes. “But what if he says no?” she whispered.

“Then,” Szith replied, “you will know, and can stop torturing yourself. But honestly, why would he?”

“He likes th’ladies, that one,” Maureen said cheerfully. “Ask me, you’d do him a world o’ good in addition to gettin’ over yer own hurdle, here. That’s a lad who needs a lass to settle ‘im down.”

“Even more than most,” Szith agreed.

Maureen suddenly stopped, turning to her right, and the other two halted as well. They had just passed a low retaining wall atop which was a raised flower bed; suddenly revealed sitting in the shadow of it was one of their classmates.

“All right, there, Chase?” Maureen asked, frowning.

He was slumped against the brickwork, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes closed and mouth open. At Maureen’s prompting, he made no reply.

“Oh, my gods,” Iris said, her eyes widening. “He’s not dead, is he?!”

“He breathes,” Szith reported, “and his heart beats. Both at about the speed that is normal for a sleeping human, if you and Ravana are average examples.”

“’ere, now, this ain’t the best place to take a nap,” Maureen said severely. “C’mon, just cos you’re the leadin’ source o’ tomfoolery on the campus don’t make all yer classmates harmless. Chase? Oi, I’m talkin’ to—”

She reached out to jostle his shoulder, then broke off, going pale, as he slumped over on his side.

“Okay, very funny, Chase,” Iris said nervously. “That’s kind of cheap by your standards, isn’t it?”

Chase lay there, inert.

“Chase?” Maureen whispered, looking up at the others. “Um…”

Szith stepped over and knelt by his head. “Chase!” she said sharply, shaking his shoulder, to no effect. She pried open one eyelid, lightly slapped his cheeks, then as a last resort plucked a hair from his eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with him?” Iris demanded shrilly. “Are you sure he’s breathing?”

“Yes,” Szith said tersely. “He is asleep. This close, I could tell if he were faking; neither his breath nor heart rate change in response to pain. Do you sense any magic on him?”

“Nothing like that,” Iris said, shaking her head rapidly, “but I’d only be able to pick up on fae magic, anyway…”

“Keep an eye on ‘im,” Maureen ordered. “I’ll fetch Miss Sunrunner.”


She often paced, as much as the space in the cell allowed. For days, even weeks on end, she kept moving, back and forth and in circles, long enough that in any normal cell her feet would have worn grooves in the floor. Not this cell, of course. She had naturally tried her strength over every inch of it, which yielded nothing. Its floor, ceiling, and three walls were all one piece without joints, made of the pale alloy known in this era as mithril. Its fourth wall was transparent, but not glass; the material dampened her inherent magic just as well, and was just as impervious to her physical strength. She’d never bothered to learn what they called the stuff, back in the old days. It had just been…there.

Not that she’d ever had much in the way of physical strength, which just added to the irony. In this cell, of all places, physical strength was the only kind that mattered—and was even more irrelevant, as in addition to its magic-dampening properties, mithril was hard enough once cast to survive passage through the corona of the sun.

That was neither exaggeration nor a random example. She had had the good fortune to observe that particular test. Or at least its aftermath.

The “glass” wall would surely be the weak point, anyway. Mithril just had to be impervious; that wall had features. It was in it that the doorway formed when the command phrase was spoken, though she had not seen that done since the Hands of the Emperor had first put her in here. That panel emitted the light, illuminating both her cell and the corridor outside—a neat trick, since it did not seem like a light source when looked at directly. It was also in that transparent wall that the signs and sigils appeared, little notations in a language which had not been used on this planet in millenia. They came and went rarely; there was very seldom anything for them to report. The facility itself ran silently along, only rarely registering any data on significant events, which were never anything but minor seismic activity. Occasionally there would be a solar flare, which was of no import to this facility, but she had instructed it to report on anything its sensors could detect.

No, the only significant data registered on the transparent panel was the arrival of visitors. It very obligingly informed her when the facility was accessed. Not that it did her much practical good to know when the Emperor or one of his Hands was about to pass through, but there was a small satisfaction in knowing. Especially since they did not know that she knew, much less how.

They didn’t know how any of this worked. They’d just found it down here, deep below the city. She was mildly curious whether it had been located by accident, or some of the original passages had survived and the Imperial Palace been built deliberately above them for that reason. They certainly did not know how the panels worked. That it wouldn’t acknowledge the command to open if spoken from inside was none of their doing, that was just how the Order had programmed their holding cells. After all these years, she knew how the local humans thought and what they thought of her. They didn’t know she could get information from the panel; they’d have instructed it to deny her if they knew that, and if they knew how. She had never even heard them speak in the language to which the Order’s systems defaulted. Of course, the sub-OS recognized even their bastard English, so why would they need to?

They knew nothing. Silly children playing with the tools of a true civilization which they mistook for toys, distracted by their glossy surfaces and blinking lights. Such a pity nothing down here was likely to harm them if mishandled.

Well, except herself, of course. If she ever got out. She had to acknowledge that in this cell she was basically helpless; the stripped-down state of the facility worked against her, there. Had there been an Avatar running, by this point she could surely have manipulated it into giving her some concessions, if not actually releasing her.

At the moment, she was not pacing. Sometimes she didn’t; such little changes in her routine were the only distractions she could arrange for herself. The panels certainly were not programmed to provide any entertainment. Being cooped up in here would have long since driven her mad, had that ship not well and truly sailed long before she had been imprisoned. So she sat, idly, in the corner, just staring out through the panel at the empty cell across the corridor.

They could at least imprison someone else down here. She couldn’t possibly have been the only anomalous being to be caught in a vulnerable position. They were increasingly clever, these Tiraan, and becoming rather sophisticated for primitives. And they were certainly fascinated by Naiya’s experiments, to judge by the presence of those dryads down the hall. Eventually they would surely poke at something with which they couldn’t contend; she’d just have to hope they managed to stick it in one of these cells, first. Hopefully something that could help her get out. But no, there she sat, alone, as always. For now.

Indicators appeared.

She stood, not moving like a creature made of bone and muscle, but simply straightening upright as if lifted by a string attached to the top of her head, staring at the text which now flashed in the upper corner of the transparent panel.

System activation.

Interesting.

“System,” she said in Esperanto, “status of aperture?”

The facility doors were sealed, no sapients in range. So the humans were not visiting.

“Identify current user.”

The panel calmly informed her that she did not have clearance to access that data.

“Display user activity.”

Still no clearance.

Then the light level shifted, dimming slightly before resuming its customary brightness. A moment later, it changed, becoming magenta, then blue, then returning to normal.

After that the temperature altered. It grew several degrees warmer, then plunged to near freezing, then normalized again.

Condensation appeared on the panel as the humidity was tampered with. Seconds later it was gone.

“Report system damage.”

No damage, everything was functioning normally.

So someone was doing this. Someone who knew how to activate an Infinite Order sub-OS.

Someone, she reflected as the lights flickered again, who could activate the computers but didn’t know what they did. They were apparently poking at the system blindly, trying to puzzle out their functions. Someone who either had physical access to the Imperial Palace in Tiraas, or had managed to patch the transcension field linking the Order’s facilities and was operating from another one.

She smiled.

“Well, well, well. And who might you be?”

No one answered, of course. They might be able to tell she was in here, if they figured out how to access the internal sensors. Whether they would care was another question; what they might do about it, another still.

Still smiling, she began once more to pace.

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12 – 2

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“Why am I just now hearing about this?” General Panissar demanded.

“I would surmise,” Lord Vex replied, “for the same reason I didn’t learn about the existence of these disruptors until the Army lost them. We cannot all keep one another informed of every little thing our respective departments do. Experimental weapons are the Army’s affair; knockoffs of the Army’s experimental weapons popping up on the black market is the province of Intelligence. And as I said, General, this was two days ago. We had this meeting scheduled anyway. I have hardly been keeping it from you.”

Panissar subsided with a grunt, looking not particularly mollified.

“Both the letter and spirit of interdepartmental protocol has been observed,” said the Hand of the Emperor, planting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before his mouth. “Let us not waste time in recrimination. What is our course of action now?”

“I’ve been attempting to trace the path these weapons took,” said Vex, turning to face him. “Sergeant Locke refused to hand them over, and referred me to the High Commander. I did not think it best to press the issue at that time; my primary muscle on the scene was her cousin, and I’m sure you gentlemen recall how it went the last time I had both of them in a room.”

“Can she do that?” Panissar asked, frowning. “Legally?”

“Her defense,” said Vex, “was that the weapons on site were made by herself and property of the Sisterhood, which appears to have been the truth. So…yes. The Empire’s prerogative to seize property does not extend to the Sisters of Avei except in extraordinary circumstances.”

“Sounds like those were,” Bishop Darling noted.

“Indeed,” Vex agreed sourly, “but not in the right way. In any case, when I questioned Rouvad about this, she likewise declined to cooperate except to the extent of saying the weapons were seized by her troops in a raid on an illegal arms meet, where they were in the process of being sold to the dwarves in question by the Thieves’ Guild, or at least, by representatives thereof. I have asked the Bishop to follow up on that. Has there been any word?”

“It was quick and easy enough to get,” said Darling. “Boss Tricks declined to reveal exactly where the things came from, but he did acknowledge the affair in question was a setup, his ploy to put the weapons into the hands of the Sisterhood and bring those dwarves to their attention at the same time. By your description, Quentin, it sounds like half of it worked.”

“The originals were Imperial property, and clearly of a sensitive nature,” said the Hand, his eyes hard. Harder than usual, even. “Withholding information of that kind is potentially treasonous.”

“I know the law, thank you,” Darling said equably. “I mentioned this to the Boss, just to cover all the salient points, which yielded nothing. Well, there was a bit about Quentin’s father and some goats, but I didn’t consider it germane to the situation. Given time, I may be able to get more information using my personal connections, but I am frankly reluctant to do so. Considering the subject matter and my known affiliations, it’ll be a dead giveaway that I’m rooting around for dirt on Guild members to give the government. That’s the kind of thing that can damage my laboriously-built reputation and web of contacts. Unless this is crashingly urgent…”

“I really can’t see that it is,” Vex said when Darling trailed off and gave him a questioning look. “It’s far too late for containment to be a possibility, and that’s the only thing that could still have made it worth clamping down on.”

“We have all but two of the originals back,” added Panissar, scowling. “Weapons we can seize; what’s going around now is the knowledge of how to build them, and that’s another thing entirely.”

Vex nodded. “Narrowing it down to just the parties we know, those things passed through the hands of that now-extinct chaos cult, the Black Wreath, Tellwyrn’s sophomore class, Duchess Dufresne, the Thieves’ Guild and the Sisterhood of Avei, with Svenheim’s Exploratory Office being made aware of and very interested in them in the process. Far too many of those are completely inscrutable to us, for various reasons. I have directed polite and careful inquiries to both the Duchess and the Professor, but I doubt either will yield results. No, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.”

“Then,” said the Hand, “I believe that attempting to pressure the Guild or the Sisterhood is counterproductive. At this point, it may better serve our interests to mollify them. The Avenists, at least, might have taken it amiss that the Army is developing weapons that might as well have been specifically targeted at them.”

He shot a long look at Panissar, who sighed.

“In point of fact, those were only the first stage in a much longer research project,” said the General. “Neutralizing divine energy is just about the least useful Circle of Interaction trick we could play, but it’s the one my enchanters cracked first. The plan was to crate those and use the insights gained from their creation to move on to more strategic types of disruptors. We would love nothing more than a way to shut down infernal magic with the squeeze of a trigger.”

“How is that proceeding?” the Hand inquired.

Panissar shrugged irritably. “Obviously, the whole project was brought to a near halt by the nonsense in Veilgrad. Virtually all the records were destroyed in the attack on the research facility. The Army enchanters have been working on reconstructing the project since then; we’re not yet back on track. The whole business was far too complex for them to have it all in their heads. At least we didn’t lose anybody, and they still have the prototypes to reverse-enchant. Among other people,” he added bitterly.

“Your thoughts on that, your Grace?” asked the Hand.

“Anti-infernal weapons would be a godsend, if you’ll excuse the pun,” said Darling. “With regard to the Sisterhood, I am of course not an insider but in my interactions with Commander Rouvad, I have had the impression she is too pragmatic to bear a grudge.”

“She took clear satisfaction in obstructing me,” Vex noted, “but considering the circumstances…”

“I can raise the issue with his Holiness, if you’d like?” Darling offered.

“Best not,” said the Hand with a sigh. “If the High Commander has issue with the Throne, she won’t go through the Church anyway. We’ll address that directly. On matters about which you doubtless are in the know, can we expect further action from the Guild?”

“I think the Guild has made its point,” Darling said with a thoughtful frown. “Developing sketchy weapons in secret isn’t so awful; considering the state of the world, nothing about it looks especially tyrannical. They’ll definitely react if leaned on further, but for now, I don’t believe the Guild is a further consideration in the matter.”

“Good,” said the Hand briskly. “That leaves us with the rather thornier issue of these dwarves.”

“Several things about that concern me,” said Vex. “For starters, the lead operative was able to mobilize dwarven civilians who clearly had no training and just as clearly did not want to be there. I’m still investigating those we identified, but I rather suspect they had no direct tie to their government beyond the taxes they pay. This is without precedent, which suggests it is more than just cultural. We should look into conscription laws passed in Svenheim in recent history.”

“Good,” said the Hand, nodding. “We shall direct the Foreign Service to do so, but it won’t hurt for you to add your own efforts, Lord Vex.”

“I already am,” Vex said with his characteristic sleepy smile. “There is also the matter of their extremely determined interest in acquiring Imperial experimental weapons. By itself, that would be merely troubling, but there has been a pattern of interest in weapons in general from the Five Kingdoms, and especially Svenheim, over the last five years. They have allocated more research funds than their economic state would suggest is wise to these pursuits. Particularly in the realm of explosives.”

“A suspicious person could draw the conclusion they were planning something,” said Panissar.

“Preparing seems more likely,” said Darling. “The dwarves have to know there’s no possible victory for them if they were to attack the Empire, and by this point we all know their declared war on Tar’naris is an empty gesture of pique. But when you live next to a huge, monolithic political entity that can accidentally collapse your economy and not show much concern over it, a certain amount of defensive thinking is just basic preparedness.”

“That makes sense to me, in fact,” Panissar agreed. “A key strategic factor here is the dwarven ability to call on divine light without a deity’s support. For thousands of years, that gave their armies and unquestionable defensive advantage. Our modern shielding charms pretty suddenly negated that advantage, and these devices have the potential to completely reverse it. They can hardly be blamed for feeling threatened.”

“That complicates matters,” Vex mused. “I have any number of ways to educate King Gjarten on the inadvisability of letting his spies run amok in Tiraas, but any such measure takes on an entirely different tone if he already suspects hostile intention from us. And yet, we cannot allow aggression of this kind to go unanswered.”

“The ongoing trade negotiations do not exist in a vacuum,” said the Hand. “While the virtually free mineral wealth we receive from Tar’naris is a boon, it has also made the Tiraan economy terribly dependent upon the Narisians, and we still don’t know if their increasing activity among the groves is pointed toward something or just general peacemaking. His Majesty has directed resources toward our native mining industries, which have been in severe decline since the treaty, and trying to reinvigorate trade with the Five Kingdoms is another measure. It is wiser, in general, to be on good terms with one’s neighbors, anyway. The more so if the Kingdoms suspect us of having designs upon them.”

“We are on good enough terms with Rodvenheim that I can be fairly certain they harbor no such fears,” said Vex. “We have all possible assurances short of an actual promise from Queen Jadhra that Rodvenheim’s support of the war on Tar’naris was nothing but a means to mollify her neighbors.”

“Which is the same as no assurance,” Panissar grunted. “Politicians will say anything, and Jadhra is cleverer than most. That brings up a thorny matter that has to have been a factor, here: our treaty with Tar’naris heavily emphasizes mutual defense, hence our military presence on their Scyllithene frontier and them sending a detachment to that recent mess on the Athan’Khar border. Technically, the standing state of war by the Kingdoms should require us to declare war in kind. Bless Queen Arkasia for seeing the whole picture and joining everyone else in politely ignoring this, but this is the situation, here. All it would take is one instance of the dwarves actually assaulting the drow, or the Narisians deciding to insist upon that clause in the treaty… The situation is already too volatile for Svenheim to take risks like these unless they already regard conflict as inevitable.”

“Hmm,” the Hand murmured, transferring his piercing gaze to Panissar. “How, roughly, do you think such a conflict would proceed, General?”

“Immediate stalemate,” Panissar replied without hesitation. “Our forces would crush anything they can field, but our military superiority does not negate the fact that pressing dwarves in their own caverns is a fantastically bad idea.”

“Didn’t the orcs invade them once?” asked Darling.

“Three times,” the General replied. “Only one was ever a threat to them, because of a plague in Stavulheim that left most of the population too weak to mobilize, and in that case two Hands of Avei held the gates until Svennish reinforcements could arrive. The other two, Svenheim actually let them get inside. Deliberately. Not one orc made it back out either time, and the second was the last time they ever tried to raid farther north than Viridill.”

“It seems clear that war doesn’t serve anyone, then,” Darling said, shrugging.

“War often doesn’t,” Panissar agreed. “Wars are declared for countless reasons, very few because they were in any way necessary. What concerns me is all this weapons development you’re talking about, Vex. Weapons, once built, very rarely go unused. You’re all familiar with the run-up to the Enchanter Wars.”

“The dwarves are working with explosives, yes,” said Vex, “but they seem to be specifically favoring non-magical weapons. They are hardly cooking up another Enchanter’s Bane.”

“The principle remains,” Panissar shot back. “You don’t build a weapon unless you’re planning to use it on somebody.”

The Hand of the Emperor cleared his throat, regaining their attention. “The commentary is useful, but please keep it focused. We, here, have no power to set policy, but these discussions make a significant impact on what ideas we bring to the Emperor. And pertaining to that…what ideas have we?”

“We appear to be between the rock and the hard place, diplomatically,” said Vex. “Some reprisal for Svenheim’s extremely aggressive behavior seems necessary, but given their already-raised hackles, any such could be a further provocation.”

“A couple of points on that, and correct me if I’m mistaken about anything here,” said Darling, holding up a finger. “The dwarves, I was told, were very careful to maintain deniability for their government, yes?”

“To the greatest extent that such can be done,” Vex replied, nodding. “No immediate traces to the King are apparent, but I can doubtless turn them up with some digging. I’m working on that, as I said, but just for the sake of thoroughness. It seems rather academic at this point.”

“Just so,” said Darling, nodding back. “And additionally, I’m not sure how necessary it is to retaliate against Svenheim, when we know and they know who the power on this continent is. Were there some disagreement, there, letting them do this could be taken as weakness. If anything, don’t we reaffirm our position by gently chiding the dwarves and refraining from coming down on them about this?”

“Is that how you Eserites enforcers keep order among the riffraff?” Panissar asked skeptically.

“Well, I was never an enforcer,” Darling said modestly, spreading his hands in a half-shrug, “but the principles scale up, don’t they?”

“In fact, there’s some validity to that,” Vex mused. “I don’t think this should be ignored, but there are many ways of quietly making a point that don’t involve threats of force.”

“It is one of the inevitable downsides of empire,” the Hand said, still regarding them over his folded hands. “The temptation to wield force increases concurrently with the repercussions of doing so. In our many problems, gentlemen—the Wreath, the dwarves, the elves, the last adventurers, the Punaji, even some of the cults—we are left wondering what to do, and specifically, how to avoid making it worse. Exercising the powers at our command does have a tendency to create disruptive ripple effects.”

“You speak as though you have an idea,” Darling observed.

The Hand smiled thinly. “You said something last year, your Grace, which has stuck with me. Sometimes, two problems are the solutions to each other. I think it suits us in this interconnected modern age to act without throwing our weight around, as much as possible, and what better way than by leveraging some of our…fringe allies? Lord Vex.” He shifted his gaze directly to the spymaster. “I understand you have enjoyed some success in working with Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Yes,” Vex said slowly, “largely because I am extremely careful to limit my interactions with her, and especially the situations into which I thrust her student groups. That is a very particular box of tools, which it will not do to upend upon the wrong project.”

“We agree,” said the Hand, nodding. “But it’s not as if Tellwyrn takes orders, anyway; I was hardly proposing to try and enlist her. However, the University’s graduates do represent a pool of significant talent which we have long allowed to go largely untapped.”

“What are you suggesting, exactly?” Panissar demanded, scowling. “That woman is a bad enough influence as is; the last thing we need on top of our troubles is for her to get snippy about the Throne trying to push her around.”

“Indeed, I am familiar with her profile. Consequently, I don’t propose to push.” The Hand smiled thinly. “After all, weren’t we discussing how interconnected entities can influence each other? And she does have problems of her own.”


Toby ordinarily cultivated awareness of his surroundings as a point of personal discipline, but that afternoon, Gabriel had to call his name twice before he jerked his head up and noticed his friend approaching.

“Gabe! Hi!” Toby waved back, a grin breaking across his features. “You’re back!”

“Yeah, I see that makes two of us,” Gabriel said wryly.

“Three of us.”

“Has it occurred to you,” he said to his sword, “that maybe people would talk to you more if you weren’t such an ass to them?”

“It has. I consider it an irrelevant point of data,” Ariel replied primly.

He patted her hilt. “Hush. Seriously, though, what’s on your mind, Toby? It’s been years since I saw you that distracted in public, and that’s back when you were first called by Omnu.”

“Oh, well, nothing that serious,” Toby said. At Gabriel’s encouraging expression, he glanced around. They had met on one of the lower terraces, just below the gazebo; Gabe was coming back from the main stairs down the mountain, and Toby hadn’t been going anywhere in particular. “I’ll…tell you later. Actually, I kind of do want to talk to you about it, Gabe, but it’s a conversation for, uh, someplace less public.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows, but nodded. “Okay, then. Is everything all right?”

“That’s a thorny question,” Toby replied with a wry grin. “It’s no more or less all right than when you left the campus, let’s leave it at that for now. Enough about my maundering, though! How was it? Your first real Vidian holiday! I bet you were a hit in the capital!”

“Uh, actually, they kept me back from the public,” Gabriel said, frowning. By unspoken agreement they fell into step, setting off on a meandering path through the terraces. “Lady Gwenfaer held a private service, pretty much entirely for my benefit though some of the cult’s other muckety-mucks were there, and arranged for me to watch the main public ceremonies from concealment.”

“Oh.” Now Toby frowned. “Well, that’s… I’m sorry. I guess they’ll come around…”

“No, no, no!” Gabe said hastily. “That was my idea. Nobody fought me on it, or anything, it’s just… I was in no way ready to be held up as a pillar of the cult. Man, the more I learn about the faith, the less I can really think of myself as a Vidian. And the more I interact with Vidius himself, the more I get the impression that is exactly the point of this. He’s concerned about…um, corruption in the ranks. I think he has an idea of me as some kind of enforcer. An outside perspective, there to whip people back into shape.”

“…huh,” Toby said after a long pause. “I… I really wish I had something more helpful to say, there, Gabe. That’s just…so very outside the realm of my experience…”

“Yeah, I don’t think Trissiny could help me much with this, either,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Both your cults think the sun shines out of your respective butts. I appreciate you listening, nonetheless. I’m unprecedented in a lot of ways. Anyhow, it was a good experience, all in all. I’ve never really paid much attention to Doom’s Day before; it’s not like I had anybody to mourn. Dad’s folks were gone by the time I was born, and…” He made a wry expression that tried to be a grin but never quite made it past a grimace. “Yeah, I don’t even know if my mother is alive, but if not, somehow I suspect praying to Vidius for the peace of her soul would end badly for all three of us.”

“Have you ever…wondered?”

“Course I have,” Gabriel said, his eyes straight ahead. He had never talked about his mother; in all the time they’d known each other, it had never come up. “But, um, not enough that I really wanted to know. She isn’t part of my…anything. Someday, I guess I’d like to know what my dad saw in her. You know, what happened. But his perspective is really the only part that I’m curious about. I do not need more demon shit in my life.”

“There has always been a surprising core of wisdom beneath your habitual inanity, Gabriel. It is gratifying to see you making more use of it.”

“Thank you, faithful sidekick,” he said sardonically.

“Did you have a chance to see your dad while you were in the capital?”

“He’s not there, remember? The Church found him a place in Mathenon out of the public eye.”

“Oh!” Toby slapped a hand to his forehead. “For heaven’s sake, I knew that. I’m so sorry—”

“I’m just gonna cut you off there,” Gabriel said, peremptorily holding up a finger. “You are allowed to be distracted and think about your own stuff, man. I know you like to be everybody’s big brother, but sometimes you gotta focus on yourself.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Toby said with a sigh. “I’m sort of tired of focusing on myself right at this moment, though. Got any recent foolishness you want to get off your chest? Y’know, for old time’s sake.”

“Excuse me,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I am deep amidst a program of personal self-development, and no longer go in for such diversions. I’m a new man, Toby. No more foot-in-mouth half-demon designated comic relief, thank you.”

“You’re not going to mention that you very nearly bedded the High Priestess of your cult?”

Toby came to a halt, turning to stare at him. Gabriel did likewise, rolling his eyes so hard he tilted his head back to bring more sky into their range of view.

“Thank you, Ariel.”

“My pleasure.”

“Gaaaabe,” Toby said warningly.

“Okay, first of all, no part of that was my fault!” Gabriel said defensively, holding up his hands and taking a step backward. “She came on to me. Um…quite aggressively. Honestly, until we were alone in that room I had actually not even made especial note of the fact that the woman is searingly hot.”

“And approximately twice your age.”

“Yeah, true,” Gabriel agreed, a slightly dreamy smile drifting across his face. “But damn, does she wear it well…”

Toby cleared his throat. “And yet…?”

“Yeah, and yet.” Gabe’s expression cleared and he focused again on Toby’s face. “It’s just that… Okay, this may sound odd, but I don’t think Gwenfaer was really seeing me there. I might be reading too much into things, but I am pretty sure she was not remotely interested in Gabriel Arquin, fascinating enchanter-in-training and the hero of many adventures—”

“To give yourself a tremendous amount of credit.”

“But,” Gabriel continued doggedly, “she seemed rather aroused by the thought of the unprecedented paladin of her god, and maybe a bit by the twin taboos of a demonblood who is, as someone made a point of mentioning, about half her age.”

“Really, you picked up on all that?” Toby whistled. “I’m impressed. Not long ago you weren’t at all perceptive about…people.”

“You were going to say ‘women,’ weren’t you,” Gabriel accused.

Toby grinned. “Well, as Trissiny would emphatically remind us, women are people.”

“I think,” Gabriel said more thoughtfully, turning and beginning to walk again, “it’s more that even if I had noticed it, not long ago I wouldn’t have thought of any greater consideration than the possibility to going to bed with a gorgeous woman who was into me. It’s hard to say exactly what’s changed…”

“It is called ‘maturity,’ and it’s bound to be uncomfortable for you at first, all things considered.”

“Could you stop helping, please?” he said in exasperation.

“No,” Ariel replied. “I can’t stop helping and I can’t stop expressing myself without regard for people’s feelings. You are a naturally occurring sapient and can evolve and modify your behavior. I am a constructed intelligence. My personality is rigidly defined.”

He grimaced. “I…yeah, sorry. I guess that’s kind of unfair of me.”

“Yes, it is. My feelings are not particularly hurt; given your general pattern of thoughtlessness you treat me with a surprising degree of consideration overall. However, I am still bound to point it out when you’re being foolish. For your own good, you see.”

“With friends like these,” Gabriel said to Toby, “who needs the ravening hordes of Hell?”

Toby’s answering laugh was interrupted by the rapid arrival of Chase Masterson.

“Whoah, guys!” he said, skidding to a halt after having pelted down the path toward them. “You may wanna clear the vicinity, it is about to get dangerous out here. Oh, hey, Gabe, you’re back!”

“What did you do?” Gabriel demanded.

Chase planted a hand on his chest and looked shocked and wounded. “I? What did I do? Gabriel. After all these years, after all we’ve meant to each other! Why do you say these things just to hurt me?”

“Because,” Gabriel said bitingly, “you came up grinning. I’ve only ever seen you grin when someone else’s day was about to be ruined.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to me like that?” Chase demanded of Toby, who shrugged.

“Well, he could stand to be a little politer, but he isn’t really wrong.”

“Now, that is just unfair,” Chase complained. “This is scurrilous character assassination and you both know it. I also grin when people’s days are in the process of being ruined, or when I happen to reflect upon a particularly impressive ruination which has already transpired. Honestly, I thought you guys knew me a little better than that. This is just hurtful, is what it is.”

“My gods,” Gabriel marveled, “he’s still talking.”

“Just for that,” Chase continued, again grinning, “I’m not gonna warn you about—oop, too late anyway.”

Both turned to look the way he had come, and their eyes widened in alarm.

Even without knowing the full situation, what they could glean from the spectacle of a visibly incensed Professor Ekoi chasing a gleefully cackling Professor Rafe up the path told a frightening story.

“Ohh, this is not gonna be good,” Toby whispered.

“Good is such a relative concept,” Chase replied, his grin now stretching so far it looked downright painful.

“Guys! Kids! Students!” Rafe skidded to a halt much as Chase had done moments before. “I don’t suppose any of you speak Sifanese?”

Ekoi came to a stop right after him, ears flat back, fangs bared and tail bristling; Rafe immediately spun around Toby and cowered behind him.

“What the hell did you do?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Professor Ekoi? Are you all right?”

Ekoi transferred her livid green stare to him, prompting him to take a step back, then hissed a few syllables in her lilting native tongue.

“Um, Professor,” Toby said hesitantly. “There’s not a doubt in my mind he fully deserves whatever you’re planning to do, but…can you please wait until I’m not in the way?”

“Don’t move,” Chase cautioned. “Don’t even twitch. Moving might prompt her to strike.”

“Urusai!” Ekoi snarled at him.

Chase immediately buckled to the ground, prostrating himself before her. She actually appeared to calm slightly, at least enough to look quizzical at this display.

Then, with a characteristic soft pop, help arrived.

“One afternoon,” Tellwyrn said incredulously. “That’s all. I leave you alone for one afternoon. Should I be disappointed, or gratified no one’s blown up the damn mountain? In hindsight it’s all so murky.”

Ekoi rounded on her and began chattering rapidly in Sifanese. Tellwyrn focused on her, narrowing her eyes, and occasionally replying shortly in the same language.

“Uh, what happened?” Gabriel asked hesitantly when a lull finally fell in the tirade. “I’ve never seen her this mad. It’s like she’s forgotten Tanglish.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, turning to give Rafe one of her foulest glares. “Kaisa does not sully her graceful tongue with our barbarous gutterspeech. Universal translation is one of the effects of her inherent magic. Consequently, when some stampeding fuckwit slips her an anti-magic potion, she finds herself disadvantaged in several rather important respects.”

“Whoah, whoah, wait, stop,” Chase said, straightening and gazing up at Rafe in awe. “You…you started a prank war with a kitsune?”

“Seriously, Professor,” Toby said over his shoulder, “even by your standards, that is needlessly suicidal.”

“Why are you kids still here?” Tellwyrn barked.

“Because he’s got a grip on me,” Toby replied.

“And I’m not abandoning my oldest friend to this madness,” Gabriel added.

Grinning insanely, Chase spread his arms wide. “Need you ask?”

“You know, there really is a very good explanation for all this,” Rafe said, poking his head out from behind Toby’s. “I’m awesome, she’s hot, and we are both deeply annoying people. Something like this was practically predestined. It’s just math.”

He and Toby both shied back as Ekoi thrust her face forward at them, baring all her fangs. She spat a few syllables, then whirled on her heel and stalked back the way she had come.

“I suppose I should be grateful,” Tellwyrn said with a heavy sigh. “Admestus, you are going to make this right. You do not provoke a kitsune that way, especially not on my campus; this goes above and beyond your general run of imbecilic behavior into a realm I can’t afford to tolerate.”

“Fear not!” Rafe proclaimed, bounding out from behind Toby (now that the danger had passed) and striking a pose. “If there is one man in all the realm who can calm the affronted feelings of yon lady, tis I, the glorious Professor Rafe! Gaze upon my manly ingenuity and bask, mere puny mortals!”

“She took your pants,” Gabriel noted.

“Nonsense, her magic’s—son of a bitch.” Rafe stared down at his legs. “Even with her magic dampened. Hot damn, that is impressive! I do believe I’m going to marry that woman.”

“She, um…appears to hate your guts, Professor,” Toby pointed out.

Rafe barked a laugh. “All the great romances start that way! Ask Teal.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said very evenly, “if you can swear to me that those don’t belong to a student, I promise to now and in the future withhold all comment on your choice of ladies’ bloomers as an undergarment.”

Rafe again bent forward to thoughtfully study his bare legs and the lacy scrap of clothing stretched far too tightly across his groin.

“…what kinds of comments would these be?”

Tellwyrn clapped a hand over her eyes, glasses and all, repeated the short phrase which had been Ekoi’s parting comment, and teleported out.

“’Bakka inoo,’” Chase enunciated carefully. “I gotta remember that one, it sounds nasty. I don’t suppose any of you have a clue what it means?”

“Library’s that way!” Rafe proclaimed, pointing. “And now, if you boys will excuse me, I must away to plot the mollification and subsequent seduction of my exquisite bride-to-be!”

“Excuse me,” Toby said sharply, “but do those belong to a student?”

“Hell if I know,” Rafe replied with a broad grin, “Ekoi put them there. I tell you, she’s the perfect woman! Ohh, this is gonna be a courtship for the ages! ONWARD TO GLORY!”

He took off down the path at a run, trailing maniacal laughter behind him.

“How old is he?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, I know he’s a half-elf and they have a longer lifespan. Do they age more slowly?”

“Really?” Toby exclaimed. “That’s what you’re most curious about?”

“I think I follow his line of thought,” Chase said solemnly. “The question is: why the hell has nobody killed him yet?”

“Yes.” Gabriel pointed at him. “That.”

“Excuse me.”

While they were speaking, Ravana had arrived, carrying a few books and now glancing back up the path in the direction Rafe had gone.

“Could one of you gentlemen kindly explain to me why Professor Rafe is dashing pell-mell through the campus, wearing my underthings?”

Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Man, it’s good to be home.”

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12 – 1

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“Don’t worry about it.”

Toby heaved a deep sigh, allowing his usual mask of calm and the posture crafted by years of martial arts to finally relax, now that he was surrounded by nobody whose opinion he needed to care about. This might be the only place where that was true, and so he let himself slump over the bar, absently toying with his “cup” of “tea,” which was a large snail shell with a flattish bottom, full of hot water steeped, somehow, in mushrooms. He didn’t know how in the world one made tea out of mushrooms, but after his last visit here, the flavor was unmistakable.

Poise and bearing were disciplines cultivated for their own sake, not affectations he kept up for appearances, but considering how many rules he was already breaking just by being here alone, it somehow felt right to let loose. It was oddly liberating.

“It was just a question,” the bartender hummed, idly running a threadbare rag over the bar’s stone surface, which didn’t need it. “All part of the gig, you know. You slouch at my bar, gazing morosely into your non-alcoholic beverage, I pretend to be interested in your problems. Bartenders and losers have been doing this dance since time immemorial. It’s bigger than both of us, sweetheart.”

Toby gave her an annoyed look; Melaxyna grinned right back, ostentatiously unrepentant. After a moment, though, he had to smile a little in response. It was slightly funny, anyway. That didn’t mean he could afford not to be careful. Sanctuary or no, a succubus was a dangerous thing. All the more so when she tried to appear otherwise.

“I was answering the question,” he said, “not telling you to drop it. That was what I got from my god. After traveling to Tiraas, requesting use of the central temple—and that’s not a small thing, paladin or no, it puts a lot of people out to clear off from the main center of Omnist worship—and did the ritual to call him down. All that, and that’s what I got. ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

“He said that?” Her grin widened, if anything. “That’s cold.”

“Good thing one can always count on a bartender for a sympathetic ear.”

“Well, let’s not forget you’re talking to a demon, here,” Melaxyna said, still grinning. “You can’t bring me this kind of validation and expect me to be all glum. No, I am not shocked to learn of a god of the Pantheon being heartless and dismissive to his allegedly most valued servant. Tough break, kid, but that’s pretty much how the bastards are.”

“It wasn’t like that,” he said, again pushing the shell cup back and forth between his hands. After one sip, the prospect of actually drinking it didn’t appeal.

Behind him, the sounds of other patrons in the Grim Visage formed a low hum. It was a different clientele than under Rowe; according to Sarriki, since the dismantling of his attempted dimensional gates, they hadn’t seen any visiting drow or gnomes, much less travelers from other worlds. Tonight it was mostly goblins, two naga and a small party of caplings clustered in one corner. He hadn’t realized caplings were sapient enough to patronize bars, and indeed, these appeared to be trying to eat their table. Sarriki still slithered about with her crafty smile, carrying trays of mushroom beer hither and yon. Now, Melaxyna’s surly hench-hethelax, Xsythri, was perched on the rail between the bar’s two levels, keeping a grim eye on everyone.

“Omnu isn’t much of a talker, as such,” Toby said slowly, frowning at his drink. “I’ve found that myself, and it’s been born out by what I’ve read of the writings of other Hands of Omnu. Trissiny and Gabe apparently have conversations with their gods, when they talk at all, but for me… Communing with Omnu is more like…what Teal describes of her relationship with Vadrieny.” He glanced up at the succubus, but she was just watching him attentively, now, and made no reaction to the archdemon’s name. “This time, it was a sense of peace. I mean…you could make the case that Omnu’s very presence is a sense of peace, but this was more specific. It was a message. Be a ease, don’t worry, all will be well.”

She shrugged, again fruitlessly wiping the bar. “Well, I’m not one to give the gods credit, but that sounds like good advice. Unless, of course, you went to him with a problem that was seriously bothering you and has far-reaching implications that you need to understand if he expects you to do your fucking job.”

“Well, this is one reason I’m down here,” Toby said wryly. “I’ve heard plenty of encouragement and platitudes from people who didn’t seem to register that getting encouragement and platitudes was what was bothering me in the first place. It’s tricky, finding someone willing to offer a critical view of the gods. Especially if they know you’re a paladin.”

“In their defense, that’s because paladins are usually the ones doing the rounding up and slaughtering when people do horrible, deviant things like think for themselves,” she said sweetly. “Not you, of course, but to the average shmoe who just wants to live his life, the difference between Hands of Omnu and Avei are fairly academic.”

“Yes, your unbiased perspective is a breath of fresh air,” he replied, quirking an eyebrow, and she laughed. He had to remind himself how deftly manipulative her kind were; even that laugh seemed friendly, approachable, effortlessly fostering camaraderie. At least she hadn’t tried to flirt with him, but then, she could probably tell as easily as Juniper that there was no point. “I confess I’d thought you might have some personal view on this. We’re talking about what is, for all intents and purposes, a weapon. A massively destructive weapon, one which incinerates demons. Like you.”

“The holy nova?” Melaxyna lifted an eyebrow of her own. “I’m sorry to tell you this, kiddo, but you didn’t invent it.”

“I’m aware—”

“Yes, using it as glibly as you describe and walking away is something new and interesting. Assigning more dangerous powers to their followers is actually a reversal for the Pantheon, considering Salryene hasn’t called a Hand since her last one scoured Athan’Khar off the map. And here I thought they might have actually learned a lesson, there. That’ll show me.”

“Magnan didn’t actually do that—”

“You’re Arachne’s student; I know you know your history better than that. If you build a horrible weapon and bend your energies to campaigning for it to be used, you don’t get to dodge responsibility just because someone else’s finger was on the switch. More to the point, you’re deflecting.” She cocked her head to the side, smiling smugly. “That’s what’s bugging you, isn’t it? Escalation.”

“Escalation,” he said, again frowning at his tea, “and…change. Change of what should be fundamental, immutable. Omnu is a god of peace. Why…why a weapon?”

“Putting aside the fact that the holy nova is just as useful for cleansing and healing as fighting demons,” she said, “you’re being tripped up by a willful misconception, there. Omnism is a religion of peace. Omnu is a god of life, and of the sun. Ask your friend the dryad how peaceable life is, and hell… The sun burns. Maybe you’re just turned around by all this because you’re expecting your god to act like you want him to act. Like the pleasant father figure your upbringing created an image of, instead of a nigh-omnipotent creature with as much of an ego and an agenda as anyone else.”

Toby’s frown deepened. Her own agenda lay thick over her suggestions, but beneath it was some logic. Enough to be worth mulling over, if he could separate the kernels of truth from the manipulations woven through them. They had to be there; Trissiny had made the point repeatedly, in their discussions about the Vanislaad, Eserites, Black Wreath, and others, that all good manipulations required a core of truth. Simple lies were far too easily debunked. Re-framing truth made a smokescreen that could be nearly impossible to penetrate.

He lifted his gaze to study her curiously; she just stared back, wearing a faintly knowing little smile.

“Well,” he said, shifting back from the bar, “thanks for the tea and conversation. I should probably go find out whether I’ve actually gotten away with this. I know students sneak down here all the time, but—”

“Why did you really come?” she asked mildly. “This is not your scene, Toby. Not just because it’s full of demons and monsters and located deep in an otherworldly pit of violence. Bars are not your scene. Besides, I clearly recall you and your little posse were rather close-knit. There are much more immediate people you could go to with your problems. Safer people.”

“Like I said—”

“Oh, all right, you want me to narrate? I can narrate.” She winked. “I’ve been around long enough to have seen this before, after all. Your whole problem is that you’re questioning your god. You know what a Child of Vanislaas is, and where we come from. Being that you’re a young man with a mind of your own and a conscience, not yet too blinded by dogma to have forsworn the use of both, you’d naturally seek out the perspective of someone who, like you, started out a mortal human, and yet ended up violently opposed to your Pantheon.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that mysterious,” he demurred. “I daresay I’ve met some people myself who I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see becoming incubi or succubi.”

Melaxyna’s smile faded. She had been leaning forward over the bar in a way which showed off her cleavage, possibly just out of habit, but now straightened up and folded her arms in a manner which, for once, was not suggestive. Toby shrugged and resumed getting up from his stool.

“I was a priestess of Izara.”

Slowly, he sat back down.

“I died in the Third Hellwar,” she continued, tilting her chin up. The gesture was prideful, but not condescending; she could do wonderfully expressive things with the tiniest touches of body language. “To make a very long story relatively short… My village was pressed by demons. I wasn’t a healer, specifically, but I damn well did my best. The light does heal, even if the one wielding it lacks much skill. It wasn’t enough, of course. And worse, all I could do was heal.” She bared her teeth in a contemptuous sneer. “My light wouldn’t burn the demons. Oh, once or twice, when I helped the defenders close to the gates, I’d actually singe one in passing. But if I tried? If I wanted to protect my home and family, and use the power I had to drive back the monsters that were trying to slaughter us? Well, Izara cut me off. Can’t have that. The goddess of love just couldn’t bear the thought of any of her precious followers surviving to carry on her will, not when they had the option of making some kind of obscure point of principle by being helplessly butchered. If I seem to lack sympathy for you because Omnu’s willing to let you kill in his name, well, now you understand my bias.”

She snorted and lashed her tail once, wings flaring briefly before settling back around her shoulders. “Oh, but we were almost saved! An actual, honest-to-gods Hand of Avei came to the village. Had two Silver Huntresses with her—do you know what those were?”

“I’m not familiar with them…”

“Well, look it up sometime, they were interesting. Anyhow, there the Avenists were, here to save the day! Huzzah, rejoicing! Except that no, they couldn’t be bothered.” Her fingers stiffened into claws, digging into her own arms. “One little flyspeck village wasn’t important. They were there to get supplies and reinforcements and continue on to the real battlefront. And by get, I mean take, as they made abundantly clear when some tried to bar them from our rations and limited weapons. The option they gave us was to let any too young, weak, or infirm to fight just…stay there and die, when all the food, weapons, and able-bodied fighters had been taken from the village, or come along and almost certainly meet the same fate on the road, because there could be no question of slowing their pace enough to protect them.

“So,” she drawled, “I took some initiative. Managed to catch one of the Huntresses unarmed, got a knife to her throat, and demanded that the Hand call on Avei. I figured there was just no way the actual goddess of justice would be party to that kind of barbarism if she could see it being done in her name.”

She met his eyes challengingly, ancient fury smoldering behind her own. “The demons didn’t kill me. Even the Hand of Avei didn’t. Avei did. Personally. She couldn’t be arsed to protect my people, or even to leave us with what we needed to protect ourselves, but somehow the goddess of justice found time to strike down a loyal cleric of the Pantheon for the unpardonable crime of standing up and demanding that she do the one thing which was her entire reason to exist.”

“I guess,” he said slowly when she stopped talking, “threatening a servant of a god and blackmailing a paladin gets an automatic damnation…”

“Oh, no,” she said, sneering again. “Oh, no no no. Vidius was a rather more reasonable chap, as I recall when I came before him for judgment. He’s really not too stringent; he said I’d done remarkably well in a terrible situation and thought I deserved reward beyond the average. Even kept at me on it when I refused; I had to cuss him out at some considerable length before he was willing to send me to Hell.”

“Did you…” Toby’s voice caught, embarrassingly, and he had to swallow before continuing. “You were already planning to seek out Prince Vanislaas?”

“Oh, Toby,” she said, shaking her head. “That was a different time. I was a backcountry yokel; for most people in my situation, one village was the universe and the horizon as unreachable as the sky. There were no telescrolls, no newspapers even; books were rare and precious, and we seldom saw a bard. There certainly weren’t any Rails or zeppelins. Shitty roads in most places, for that matter. I could read and do my sums, which made me as close as the village had to a scholar. No, I had no idea what a succubus even was, much less how they were made. All I knew, standing before the seat of divine judgment, was that at the thought of spending eternity with the fucking gods, I’d rather take my chances with the demons and the damned. At least I already knew what to expect from them.”

Toby did not voice the most immediate thought that came to mind: good deceptions had to contain a kernel of truth—except, perhaps, if they were about things which had happened thousands of years ago and left no records. Instead, he asked a question.

“Have you ever regretted it?”

“Regretted what?” she asked sweetly. “The years of wandering in Hell, pursued and abused by demons? Millennia of sneaking in shadows, matching wits with the gods’ followers, sowing chaos among their works wherever I could? The loneliness, the hardship, the privation, the constant enmity of an entire plane of existence, all just so I could make the point to the Pantheon that at least one soul was not going to stand for their bullshit?”

She opened her wings slightly, arching them menacingly above her head, and bared her teeth in a savage grin.

“Not once.”


Tellwyrn was frowning deeply and far away in thought as she climbed out of the sunken grotto, emerging through the gap between massive tree roots into the fading afternoon light beneath the forest canopy. So lost in her own reflections, in fact, that despite the acuity of her senses she did not realize she was no longer alone until she was forced to stop, her way forward blocked by another elf.

“And what,” Linsheh demanded icily, “do you think you’re doing? Who gave you permission to go in there?”

The mage stared at the shaman in silence for a moment.

“I honestly can’t recall the last time anyone gave me permission to do anything,” she answered finally.

Linsheh’s eyes narrowed to furious slits. “The time for you to seek knowledge here was before you spent so much time and effort burning those bridges, Arachne. You are not welcome in this grove.”

Another elf came bounding out of the forest, coming to a stop off to one side. “Elder,” he said worriedly, “please. She’s already been and come back, this won’t do—”

“Be silent, Adimel,” Linsheh ordered curtly.

“I was actually going to apologize to you,” Tellwyrn said in a soft tone. “Well… Maybe going is a little strong, but I was thinking about it very seriously. It’s been enough years now; with the benefit of some distance, thinking back on our various altercations, it’s seemed to me that I was unnecessarily rude. At any rate, Kuriwa seemed to think so, and much as she rubs me the wrong way I think the worst thing about her is how seldom she’s wrong.”

“Kuriwa,” Linsheh growled. “I might have known I’d find her at the back of this.”

“But that was before,” Tellwyrn continued, still deadly quiet. “It’s no secret to you, I’m sure, how the knowledge of what you’re hoarding down there would change the world. But you know, and I know you know, what it meant to me, personally. What it would have meant if I’d learned of it long before now. All the absolute hell I could have spared myself. And now, suddenly, I find myself thinking I wasn’t hard enough on you.” She tilted her head down, staring coldly over the rims of her glasses. “And furthermore, that it isn’t too late to correct that oversight.”

“Arachne,” Adimel exclaimed, “please. This is pointless.”

“I should hardly have to state that you do not frighten me,” Linsheh said, curling her lip.

“Isn’t that precious,” Tellwyrn replied, flexing her fingers. “I wonder how frightened you’ll be if I burn this grove to the ground.”

The shaman took one step toward her, snatching up the tomahawk hanging at her belt. “You were better off in the days when you didn’t dare challenge me openly, Arachne. All I need is the excuse of one fireball and my tribe will put a stop to your insanity, finally, for good.”

“That’s enough!” Adimel exclaimed, interposing himself bodily between them. “You are both behaving like—”

Both women pointed fingers at him.

A blast of wind pushed him one way while a burst of pure concussive force shoved the other; Adimel spun in a full circle, losing his grip on his staff, and staggered away to land on his rear in a fern, blinking in confusion.

“You really want to drag your tribe into this?” Tellwyrn asked, baring her teeth. “You know very well the lot of them don’t have the collective power to stop me doing any damn thing I please, Linsheh.”

“That’s right, Arachne,” Linsheh retorted. “Keep pushing. I always did hope I would be there on the day you learned how oversized your estimation of yourself is.”

“Ah, if I may?”

Both turned to glare at the speaker.

A drow man approached, wearing sweeping robes in deep shades of red and green. Having seized their attention, he bowed deeply.

“It is a tremendous honor to meet you, Professor Tellwyrn. I most humbly apologize for interrupting your discussion, but may I request with the utmost respect that you both refrain from destroying the grove while my delegation is present?” He put on a disarming little smile. “Reporting on the demise of multiple family members results in the most tedious interviews with my head of House.”

They stared at him as the silence stretched out, and then Tellwyrn let out a soft huff of amusement through her nose.

“Well, this I was not expecting. Asron, isn’t it?”

“Asron tyl Rinshae n’dar Awarrion,” he replied, bowing again. “Indeed, I was not expecting the great pleasure of making your acquaintance during this mission, Professor. It is honor enough to learn that you are aware of me. I am particularly grateful, however, that fortune has brought you here.” Turning to Linsheh, he bowed deeply to her as well. “Elder, I would not presume to involve myself in your personal affairs, nor those of your tribe. But, as we have established a precedent of laying aside old grudges to speak openly with one another, I must humbly suggest that this most fortuitous circumstance presents a golden opportunity for more of the same. Professor Tellwyrn, if she would graciously consent to join our discussions, has a unique and imminently relevant perspective on the matter under consideration.”

“So polite, these Awarrions,” Tellwyrn mused.

“Yes,” Linsheh replied with a sigh. “So much so that I can’t even bring myself to fault this one for his florid manner of speech.”

“You’re a fine peacemaker, Asron,” Tellwyrn said, finally stepping away from Linsheh and down the tree roots to the bank of the stream below. Behind her, Adimel had resumed his feet, and now folded his arms, directing a reproachful frown at his Elder. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. Hell, I think it’s a fine idea, and my only complaint is that nobody tried it thousands of years ago. Better late than never, and hopefully not too late still. But no, involving me in this isn’t a good idea at all.”

“Your modesty is admirable,” Asron said, not responding to Linsheh’s bark of scornful laughter. “But if anything, Professor, you are an expert at what we are seeking to accomplish. Blending together different cultures the way you personally have learned—”

“Young man,” she said pointedly, “you need diplomats. You literally just walked in on me expressing my pissy mood by threatening to burn down the forest. Tell me you can see the disconnect, here.”

The drow smiled again, this time with a hint of true amusement. “Well, with respect, I was not proposing to put you in charge of the discussion. But if, now or at any point in the future, you would kindly agree to join our conversations, I do believe quite sincerely that your perspective would be of tremendous value, even if you were willing to merely answer a few questions. You did, after all, express esteem for the spirit of the endeavor.”

She sighed and shook her head. “I will think about it. I have no shortage of my own business to attend to. Speaking of which.” Tellwyrn turned to aim a finger at Linsheh. “This conversation is not over.”

“You have nothing else to say that is of interest to me,” the shaman said disdainfully.

Tellwyrn grinned up at her. “I bet I can surprise you.”

She vanished without warning, leaving behind only a tiny puff of displaced air.

Linsheh rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Asron, I appreciate you coming to check on me, but as you see I am quite well. If you’d kindly return to the circle, I shall be back presently.”

“By your leave then, Elder,” he said diffidently, bowing to her, and then turning to glide back into the trees.

“Are you all right?” Linsheh asked Adimel.

He folded his arms and looked down his nose at her. “How humbling it is that you express concern for my well-being at this juncture, most esteemed Elder.”

“Well, if you’re all right enough to do that, you’re all right,” she said archly, then turned and paced off after the drow.

The blast of wind which struck her in the back failed even to ruffle her hair. Linsheh paused, turned, and said dryly, “Do you feel better now, Adimel?”

A pine cone plummeted from above, striking the top of her head.

Linsheh blinked, grimaced, and looked upward. She was standing beneath a redwood tree. There were no pines closer than the Wyrnrange.

“Much, thank you,” Adimel said with more cheer, gathering up his staff and striding off toward the village.

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11 – 42

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Trissiny exhaled sharply in relief as her boots touched down on the rooftop, though she did not fully un-tense until Kuriwa had let the rift she had opened close behind them.

“With all due respect,” she said fervently, “I devoutly hope I never have to travel that way again.”

Kuriwa gave her an amused smile. “Then, if you wish to keep making dramatic and surprising entrances, I suggest you keep company with friends who can teleport or shadow-jump. This is the best I can do with my craft; the divine offers nothing at all for rapid travel.”

Trissiny nodded, peering around to get her bearings. They were atop one of the mansion-like structures in Tiraas’s government district; just down the street, she could easily see the Svenheim embassy, which Kuriwa had just transported them into and then back out of by tunneling through a deeply creepy space between dimensions.

“I’m not sure about this morning’s work,” she murmured.

“I believe your ultimatum to the ambassador will have the desired effect,” Kuriwa replied, “coupled as it was with an alternative. Contracts for his country’s metalworkers to re-outfit the Silver Legions is by far preferable to having the Hand of Avei obliterate Svenheim’s intelligence agency. The stick always works better when the carrot is proffered as an alternative.”

“That’s what Commander Rouvad said. In almost exactly those words. That’s not really the part I’m concerned about, though.” She turned her back on the embassy, facing the shaman again. “I know Bishop Syrinx’s account of last night passes inspection, if just barely. But… Kuriwa, almost everyone we spoke with believes she honestly tried to kill Principia. And her entire squad!”

“Everyone,” Kuriwa said calmly. “Not almost. Don’t mistake Weaver’s mask of disinterest for disagreement.”

“It made sense when the High Commander explained it to me, but the more I think…” Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just not sure we did the right thing, letting her off that way. And apparently this is becoming a pattern. How many times is Basra Syrinx going to get away with literal murder and only face temporary exile or the loss of some possessions?”

“I would say,” Kuriwa mused, “that Farzida Rouvad is wiser than you, simply by dint of her longer experience. But one can be wiser and still be wrong—I know it all too well. In this case, however, I happen to agree with her assessment. Basra Syrinx, for all the disastrous potential she represents, is presently better left where she is.”

“I know why the Commander thinks that,” said Trissiny, studying her closely. “Why do you?”

“For entirely different reasons.” Kuriwa stepped over to the edge of the roof and seated herself on the low wall encircling it, tucking one leg under herself and regarding Trissiny seriously. “In fact, I strongly disagree with Rouvad’s assessment: she thinks she has Syrinx under control, and she is deeply mistaken. No, Trissiny, I am an old schemer, and I see the long-term value in this. Principia, for all her faults, is only a mere match for Syrinx because she allows herself to be constrained by her duty to the Legion and her care for her soldiers; when Syrinx pushes her too far, or when Principia advances herself enough to have the leeway, it will be swiftly finished. Then, too, the Bishop is rapidly accumulating enemies whose potency, or very existence, she does not realize.” She shook her head. “Basra Syrinx is not long to be a free agent…and perhaps, not long to be a living one.”

“So you think we should stand back and just let things unfold?”

“I generally don’t recommend that as a motivation, though as a course of action it can be valid. No… At issue is that Syrinx represents the rot that has accumulated in the heart of this Empire, as well as in the Church and the Sisterhood. Corruption, complacency, the triumph of individual profit over the greater good. It happens, when social structures grow too large. They begin to perpetuate themselves first and foremost, often at the expense of their original goals.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “All systems are corrupt. Yes, I can’t seem to get away from that.”

“They really are, though,” Kuriwa said, smiling placidly. “Sometimes—well, often—one must swiftly excise rot when it grows. However… One treatment for infection, when magical means are not available, is to introduce maggots to the wound. They will eat the infected tissue and leave the rest healthy and clean.”

“That is revolting,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

Kuriwa shrugged. “The healing arts frequently are. So it is with other things. Sometimes, child, it is more profitable in the long run to let the rot spread, even help it along, so that it can eat away at old structures. When they collapse, new and better ones may be built. If Syrinx is simply removed as she undoubtedly deserves, well… There is nothing to stop another creature such as her climbing as high as she has, which itself indicates a serious failure of multiple safeguards. I deem it best to let her cause the destruction she inevitably will, and let the Church and the Sisterhood heal from the wounds which result.”

“That’s consigning a potential lot of people to significant pain,” Trissiny said quietly. “And possibly much worse. I’m sorry, but I’m still not sure I can stomach the cost.”

“Good.” Kuriwa nodded slowly, gazing up at her, then turned to stare down at the street four stories below. “Look at everyone, going about their day… They look so small from up here. Living too long can have the same effect. One sees the larger picture, sometimes to the exclusion of a thousand smaller ones. Having watched too many lives come and go, they begin to blur together, to lose the spark of significance… And yet, that is only perspective. None of those people are smaller than you or I, nor any less alive. We see the world differently, Trissiny, but your perspective isn’t less valid than mine. It may be less informed, but still worthwhile for that; too much information can introduce confusion. Just make sure, as much as you can, that you are thinking clearly and carefully before you act.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “That’s a lesson I’m trying very hard to learn.”

“All you can do is try.” Kuriwa unfolded herself, rising, and reached out to squeeze the younger woman’s shoulder. “For now, I believe this business is settled. Don’t hesitate to call me again if you need me, child…or if you just want to talk. I always have time for family. You can get down on your own, I trust?”

“Wait.” Trissiny turned back to her, frowning suddenly. “Before you go… What does iyai mean?”

Kuriwa tilted her head to one side, and then smiled warmly.

“It means no.”


“Man, it seems like we’ve been gone from here a lot longer than we have,” Darius commented, setting his tray down on the table in the Guild’s apprentice cafeteria and plopping himself onto the bench. “Been a hell of a few days, right?”

“I already miss Rasha,” Tallie said a little sullenly, taking the seat across from him. “I mean, I’m happy for him, I honestly am. But he’s, I dunno… Kinda the conscience of the group. Know what I mean?”

“Not even a little,” Darius said cheerfully. “Hell, Tallie, he isn’t dead. Glory said we’re all welcome to visit—if anything, he’s our in with an established Guild member with a lot of cred. Be happy he got himself a sponsor, and a cushy room in her mansion, and be happy we’ve got ourselves a Rasha!”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “Cos we’re not gettin’ sponsors of our own. Y’know that, right?”

“Thank you, Sergeant Sunshine,” Tallie said acidly.

“It’s like the Boss said,” Ross grumbled. “Politics. We’ve been too deep an’ too high up; we’re mixed up with too many big deals. Nobody’s gonna wanna touch us; no tellin’ what kinda mess we’re tangled up in, far as they know.”

The other two frowned at him, then surreptitiously turned to peer around the room. No other apprentices were sitting nearby, and no one was paying them any attention. That could have been normal, of course; lunch was always sparsely attended in the mess hall, and the Eserites in general stayed out of one another’s business—except when they didn’t. After Ross’s glum pronouncement, though, the way everyone’s eyes slid past them was suddenly suspicious and disheartening.

Their own perusal of the cafeteria enabled Tallie to spot a friend approaching, though.

“Jas!” she called, immediately brightening. “Hi! Where the hell have you been all day?”

“Hey, guys,” Jasmine said, striding over and sliding onto the bench next to Tallie. “Sorry, had family business to deal with all morning.”

“I’ll just bet,” Darius said, grinning fiendishly. “It’s okay, Jasmine—it’s always a shock to learn you’re related to a dragon fucker. That’s natural.”

“Thank you, Darius, for your concern,” she said dryly.

“Now, I don’t say that to be judgmental,” he went on, airily gesticulating with a forkful of broccoli. “I, of all people! Why, you’d be amazed how many dragon fuckers there are among the nobility. We’re the ones, after all, who are so filled with ennui from our lives of tedious, idle luxury that we may be inclined to try something ridiculous to break the monotony. Like, you know, fucking a dragon. Not to mention that our womenfolk are often bred for beauty like prize racing hounds, exactly the sort who might tend to draw a dragon’s attention. It’s a deadly combination, really.”

“Anyhow,” Tallie said pointedly, glaring at him, “Ross may be right, but we’re not out of luck. So maybe we don’t get individual sponsors, fine, we’ll live. By the same token, we’ve got friends.” She grinned. “Glory, Webs, and Grip. C’mon, we all went through hell together! I bet we can finagle some training and maybe a few favors outta that!”

“I’m not sure I’d be willing to trust everyone on that list,” Jasmine said, frowning. “Two thirds of them, in fact.”

Tallie waved her off. “Pfft, this is the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not about trust, it’s about mutual interest. They all know we can be useful—we’re good people know!”

“Also,” Darius said thoughtfully, “we were involved in wrecking two very expensive carriages belonging to a couple of those.”

“I’m sure they will forgive us!”

All four turned to stare at the person who had just plunked a tray down next to them. Layla gazed challengingly back, wearing a simple and practical dress for the first time since they had met—with no jewelry or makeup, even.

“You can all just wipe those fish-like expressions right off your faces,” she declared, spearing a bite of her own fish. “Especially you, Darius. You surely didn’t think I was just going to toddle off back to my personal hell under Father’s increasingly heavy thumb where you so blithely left me, did you?”

“Uh, Lady Layla,” Jasmine began carefully.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla wagged a finger at her, smirking. “There will be none of that lady nonsense, understand? After all, I have it on good authority that we Eserites don’t have the highest opinion of the nobility. Really, putting on airs as they do. Just who do they think they are?”

“Kid,” Tallie said more bluntly, “no. This is a bad idea. Someone is gonna break your goddamn legs within a week.”

“Well, I’m not saying I necessarily will succeed all the way to full membership,” Layla replied, shrugging. “But I’m sure the education itself will be valuable, and in the meantime it’s something to do. Something which does not involve going home. And we make a good team, do we not? You lot can show me the ropes, and I’m sure we’ll be getting into and out of just all sorts of exciting scrapes in no time at all!”

She tucked the bite of fish delicately into her mouth and chewed smugly, clearly unperturbed by their expressions of dismay. Her own expression quickly began to wilt, however, and for decidedly different reasons, as she announced after finally swallowing.

“Eugh,” Layla said, grimacing down at her plate. “This is awful.”

“Yeah,” Darius agreed, still staring at her in something akin to horror. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”


The shadows were lengthening over the prairie when the Sheriff of Port Nonsense finally headed home for the day. Aside from its amusing name, it was a frontier village much like all its kind—a small patch of streets surrounded by outlying farms and cottages, one of which was her own home. Some Imperial sheriffs preferred to house themselves in apartments attached to their offices, so as to be close to the action, but there’d been none of that to speak of in this entire region since the days of Horsebutt’s crusade. Even the Cobalt Dawn had never struck this far south, and their annihilation seemed to have deterred any other elves or centaurs from leaving the Golden Sea, a mile or so to the northwest. As such, the Sheriff kept herself in the small house a good twenty minutes’ ride from town which she and her husband had bought. There she would stay, at the very least, until her remaining child was grown enough to leave home.

Rosalind Schwartz pulled her mare up just outside the gate to her own yard, studying the unusual scene unfolding there under the orange sunset. Her daughter’s presence was typical enough; Melody wasn’t one to stay indoors, or to stay still at all, and as usual had managed to get herself thoroughly dusty and inflicted a fresh hole on the already-patched knee of her trousers. This time, though, she’d had help.

It had been a good while since the Schwartz home had been visited by a Silver Legionnaire, and this one was a more unusual sight than most.

“Footwork!” the woman said, grinning indulgently at the teenager, bracing her own feet to demonstrate and extending her sword forward. “It all starts with how you stand. Stop that flailing around, an enemy could knock you off your feet with a good sneeze if you can’t balance properly in action.”

She wore a sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder, and was an elf—a black-haired elf. Rosalind had lived here long enough to know what that meant, though she’d never suspected one of them had joined the Legions, of all things. The elf, of course, had to have heard her coming, but for the moment kept her attention on the still-oblivious Melody.

“That’s so boring,” the girl whined, brandishing the stick she was using for a mock sword. “Come on, swords! Battle! Action! How can you—”

“Because the fundamentals are how you survive the battles and action,” the Legionnaire said dryly, sheathing her weapon. “Something tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about it, either.”

“Yeah, it’s even more boring when Ma does it.” Melody moodily swiped at imaginary foes with her stick. “I’m gonna enlist as soon as I’m old enough, Ma said I could. I just wanna have some adventures before I have to settle down and get all stiff and boring.”

“Military service doesn’t have a lot to do with adventure,” the sergeant replied with an indulgent smile, “though ironically, if you go into it thinking that, a stint in the Legions might be exactly what you need. Probably not what you wanted, though.”

Lucy picked that moment to snort loudly and shake her mane, irked at standing around out here when she had her stall and bucket of oats to look forward to at the end of a long day. Melody whirled, nearly overbalancing (and underscoring her visitor’s earlier point), to grin at her mother.

“Ma! Hi! We’ve got a guest!”

“So I see,” Rosalind replied, nodding at the soldier, who had turned to face her and now saluted. “Can’t say I was expecting this. I’m Sheriff Schwartz. What can I do for you, Segeant…?”

“Locke,” she replied. “Squad 391. Don’t worry, it’s not Legion business.”

“Wasn’t especially worried,” Rosalind replied, raising an eyebrow at the salute; she was discharged years hence, and anyway had been a sergeant herself. “Seeing as how the Legions have no business with me anymore. That wouldn’t be Principia Locke, by any chance?”

“Ah,” the elf replied with a wry grin, “I see my reputation precedes me.”

“She says she grew up right over there in the grove!” Melody offered brightly.

“Mm hm, so I’ve heard,” said Rosalind. “I don’t get over to visit the elves very often, myself, but I do find reason every now and again. Enough times to have heard their opinion of you a time or two…Sergeant.” She slowly raised her chin, studying the elf down her nose. “I have to say, the sight of you in that armor is very… Incongruous, that’s the word. A more suspicious person might wonder where you came by it.”

“Mother!” Melody protested, appalled.

“It’s all right,” Principia said with a grin. “Yeah, I’m well aware what you’d have heard from those rigid old trees in the grove. I probably won’t be around long enough for it to matter, but you can check up on me if you are so inclined, Sheriff. I’m with the Third, currently stationed in Tiraas; my captain is Shahdi Dijanerad. Anyhow, this is a personal visit. I was actually a friend of your husband.”

“You knew Dad?” Melody exclaimed.

“I did.” Principia turned to her and nodded. “Anton was a fine man and a good friend; I was very sorry to hear he had passed. Sorrier still that I didn’t hear of it until very recently. We’d fallen out of touch.”

“Interesting,” Roslind said quietly, patting Lucy when the mare snorted again and stomped a hoof in annoyance. “Anton never mentioned you. Not once. You seem like a peculiar thing to just forget about.”

“Yeah,” the elf replied with a sigh. “He was a great one for not mentioning things. I happened to run into your son Herschel in Tiraas this last week, which marked the first time I ever heard that Anton had a family. I never even knew he was married.”

“I see,” Rosalind stated flatly, stiffening in her saddle. “And is there…a particular reason that fact is relevant?”

Principia met her gaze directly, but sighed again. “Yes. It is. You and I need to have a long, awkward conversation, woman to woman.”

The Sheriff studied her guest in silence for a moment before speaking—to her wide-eyed daughter, not Locke. “Melody, it’s getting late, and Marjorie’s still laid up with that ankle. Go help her bring the sheep in.”

“But Ma—” Melody’s protest cut off instantly when Rosalind shifted her head to give her a look. “…yes’m.”

The teenager flounced out of the yard, shutting the gate harder than was called for, and stalked off down the road toward the neighbor’s property, just visible in the near distance. Neither woman spoke again until she was well out of earshot.

“I’ve had years to come to terms with life,” Rosalind said finally. “It’s been hard without Anton, but I stitched myself back together. And it’s not as if I didn’t know he was an imperfect man, or had my ideas about how some of his…adventures went. But that’s all history. Before you say anything else, I want you to think very carefully about what you came here to talk about. Be sure it’s something that needs to be dragged up again. Because if it’s not, and you drag it… I’m not shy about facing hard facts if I need to, but I’d just as soon not dig up the past for no good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Principia said, her expression dead serious. “I haven’t said anything about this to Herschel, because… Well, I consider it your prerogative. You’ll know best how to raise the matter with the kids, and this is all outside my realm of experience.” She grimaced. “This is not about reminiscing, though, and it’s not just about family. There are serious, practical reasons Herschel and Melody will need to know about their sister.”

Rosalind closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a steadying breath, then opened them and swung down from the saddle.

“C’mon into the barn,” she said shortly. “I’ve a horse to look after and evening chores to see to. You can help while you talk.” She turned her back on the elf, leading Lucy away. “Apparently, it’s the least you can do.”


Daksh sat on the pier, gazing out to sea as the sunset faded over the mountains behind Puna Dara. He had been there for over two hours when the weirdo came and sat down beside him.

After nearly a full minute of silence, he finally shifted his head to glance at his new companion, who was attired in an all-concealing robe of brown sackcloth, tightly closed over his chest. As if the deep cowl weren’t enough to conceal his identity, he had a coarse cloth scarf covering his neck and face below the eyes. His exposed hands were tightly bound in bandages.

In Puna Dara’s climate, the outfit was ridiculous to the point of suicide, even now with the heat of the day beginning to dissipate.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the newcomer said in a deep voice muffled by his absurd mask.

“Why?” Daksh asked without thinking.

The robed figure heaved slightly in what Daksh only realized a moment later was a shrug. “It can help.”

He returned his stare to the darkening horizon. Somehow, even this absurdity did not make much of an impression. “It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s the same as saying you don’t matter.”

Daksh actually laughed, bitterly. “Clearly, I do not matter. Not to my daughters, who chase me away from my own house. Not to my son Rasha, who disappeared to Tiraas to become a thief. I certainly don’t matter to any of those who used to buy my fish.”

“Is something wrong with your fish?”

“They are Naphthene’s fish now, not mine. My boat sank.” Daksh caught himself, then shook his head. “No, that is not truthful. I sank my boat. I was drunk. My family’s livelihood… No, I do not matter. Not even to me.”

There was silence for a while longer before the stranger spoke again.

“Would you like to?”

Daksh heaved a short sigh. “Ugh. Which cult are you recruiting for?”

The man’s laugh was a hoarse rasp, with a strange undertone like metal grinding on stone. The odd sound finally drew Daksh’s full attention.

“Perhaps there is a better question,” the man said. “Regardless of what…cult, or whatever else I may represent. If you could matter. If you could be strong. Fearless. Powerful. Invincible. What would that be worth to you?”

“You are mad,” Daksh said matter-of-factly.

“I may well be,” the hooded figure agreed, nodding. “My question remains.”

“If you could do this?” He shrugged. “You can’t, but if you could? Anything but my soul. That is all I have anyway, now, so it seems I have nothing to barter. Which makes two of us.”

“You are so wrong.” The robed figure abruptly stood, grabbed his coarse garment at the throat, and tugged firmly, dragging the enveloping layers of cloth from him in one improbably powerful sweep. Daksh shied away from his sudden movement, and then found himself gazing up at the man in awe.

He now wore only his arm bindings and a simple wrap around his groin, exposing the metal which partially covered him. His entire right arm was lengths of copper and steel, slightly twisted as if they had been repurposed from scrap, bound together with hinges and springs—and yet, below the wrappings on his hand, his fingers seemed to be normal flesh. Metal was his left leg from the knee down, and fragments of scrap clustered on the skin of his right like barnacles, as if peeking through from structures beneath the skin. From the artificial joint of his right shoulder, irregular lengths of scrap metal crawled across his chest, forming a very rough triangle whose tip covered his heart, over which a battered compass with a green glass casing sat.

Half his face was covered in copper plates and brass wires, including his left eye, which was a small blue fairy lamp.

“You, my friend, are not dead,” the half-metal man proclaimed, grinning exuberantly and exposing—unsurprisingly—iron teeth. “And that alone means you have much to offer. You are still a man. You still matter. You are worth preserving!”

He leaned forward, holding out the wrapped hand of his metal right arm.

“But you can always become…more.”

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