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After its previous chaos, the darkness and quiet of the fabrication plant was oppressive. It also served to alarmingly magnify the sound of rushing water.

“Looks like something’s still switched on,” Gabriel said, pausing at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of the group crept back in behind him. Indeed, directly ahead, lights still glowed in the central command station. It was the only source of illumination aside from the transparent ceiling, which barely emitted enough sea-filtered light to stand out from the darkness.

“I will go check it out!” Fross chimed, and zipped forward before anyone could stop her. The pixie vanished into the station and the rest of the party watched her silver glow dart around within while they lined up at the base of the metal stairs.

“Wouldn’t your valkyrie friend make a better scout?” Milady murmured. “Undetectable and invulnerable…”

“She’s already looked, says its safe,” Gabriel replied quietly, then grinned. “Fross saves all our butts twice in an average week; I don’t like to discourage her from jumping in.”

“Time is a factor,” Principia said pointedly, glancing at the nearest spout of water, which glistened faintly in the dim glow of the command center, and stepped forward off the stairs and onto the walkway proper.

Before she got any further, Fross returned. “It appears safe!” the pixie reported. “There are still some lights turned on in the machines built into the walls and floor and I couldn’t tell what they do but nothing that was nailed down reacted to my presence. There is something else there, though, some kind of golem, I think. It looks like a trash bin with metal spider arms and one of those little flat display panels for a face, and it makes bell noises almost like me!”

“See!” Juniper exclaimed. “Giant mechanical spider! I told you!”

“Oh, a Caretaker unit,” Milady said eagerly. “That’s good news! They’re meant to look after Infinite Order facilities like the Avatar, but they’re kept separate from the machines and their programming can’t be altered. Poor guy’s probably the only thing holding this place together; we couldn’t ask for better help in fixing it. Come on!”

She set off down the walkway, Principia close behind her. Fross shot ahead again, a silver streak zooming back into the alcove. The rest followed more slowly, peering warily around at the darkness as they went.

Their approach was halted just before the entrance to the command alcove, when a chunk of the machinery within detached itself and moved to sit in the doorway. It was very much like Fross had described: a squat tube on wheels, bristling with multi-jointed mechanical arms and with a single flat panel on the front of its upper segment which glowed with lines depicting a stylized face.

“See!” Fross chimed, zipping back to hover above the golem. It emitted a chiming noise in response, the lines of its “face” altering to form a broad grin. It made unmistakable beckoning gestures with two of its arms and retreated back into the alcove.

“And…you’ve seen those before?” Toby asked warily.

“One,” Milady admitted. “And…it wasn’t turned on. But I’ve had their functions described to me in detail.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” Principia said. “Caretakers are perfectly harmless at worst. They’re designed to be annoyingly friendly and helpful. The Mysterious Stranger here is right, this is a stroke of luck. C’mon.”

She brushed past Milady and stepped into the alcove after the Caretaker golem, leaving the rest to follow.

The platform was octagonal, with entrances on two sides for walkways and walls of glass that sloped outward; it had no ceiling, being open to the roof of the plant itself with its view of the murky seawater above. The original construction seemed to have included transparent panels at waist height, horizontal and slightly angled, which housed the controls. Several of these were knocked out, though, and more machinery had been installed, in a rather haphazard fashion. The additions looked altogether tacked-on and seemed to be the product of a different mind than the clean, glossy aesthetic of the Infinite Order. With moving parts, blinking lights, protruding hoses and wires, they looked rather like things modern dwarves might build, or even the workings of an enchanted factory. These ran along the edges, a couple were installed onto the floor itself, and several extended from the upper edges of the slanting walls to hang overhead. Altogether the whole looked too heavy for this platform to support, but the metal felt as solid beneath their feet as the very ground, not vibrating at all when stepped on.

One entire wall had been knocked out to make room for a flat display which protruded half out into space, and this was the source of most of the light still active. It was a broad, flat table with a three-dimensional map of the middle part of the continent, its geography obvious to those familiar with it, centered on the Golden Sea and with the Wyrnrange, Stalrange and Dwarnskolds forming borders, apparently crafted of solid light. Hovering above this, also formed from light, was a slowly rotating globe. It was difficult to gather around the map because a large gate of some kind had been installed attached to it, little more than an empty metal door frame on a thick base with built-in machinery and control panels. This jutted out into the center of the alcove, taking up much of the available space.

The Caretaker wheeled over to this apparatus and began gesticulating at it and at them with its multiple arms, whistling and chiming urgently.

“Okaaay,” Ruda drawled. “So…it’s a map, and a globe of the world.”

“That’s not the world,” Juniper said. “Look, the continents are all wrong.”

“It’s a world.” Principia slipped past the Caretaker and leaned partly over the map display, peering closely at the planet hovering above the continent. “That’s Earth.”

“I thought this was earth,” Toby said.

“What?” Milady frowned at him. “I’ve never heard it called that.”

“Every word for the world I’ve encountered in any language means some variation of ‘dirt,’ ‘land,’ or ‘home,’” said Fross, now orbiting Earth and casting very odd shadows across its luminous surface. “I guess planets only need names if there’s more than one, otherwise it’s just a constant, like the air or sky. And there aren’t any other planets within sight of our telescopes or astro-scryers, so…”

“Adventurers and their bantering,” Principia muttered. “That is Earth, the planet the Elder Gods came here from, thousands of years ago. Where the human species originated.”

“Okay,” Ruda repeated irritably. “What the fuck is it doing hovering over the Golden Sea?”

“Hey, there’s Last Rock!” Juniper said, pointing to the protrusion of the familiar mountain near the edge of the map.

“It’s their escape hatch.” Everyone turned to stare at Gabriel, who himself was staring off to the side, frowning in concentration in the way he did when relaying words from Vestrel. “It’s… Okay, the thing itself isn’t here, but this gadget is clearly some kind of link to it. Apparently… The Elder Gods were prepared for their experiments here to go badly, so they set up a permanent portal back to where they came from. Except, not exactly there.” He paused, his frown deepening. “It’s…not exactly Earth, but an alternate dimension. That’s what a lot of their technology was based on, traveling between dimensions. It’s how they came to this planet without having to spend years in—Vestrel, do we really need to know that part? Okay, so they opened a portal to this alternate Earth that was almost identical to theirs, at a fixed point in the past where a lot of their favorite myths and stories came from and where the technology was advanced enough they wouldn’t be dealing with ignorant savages, but not so much that the people there could have stood against them. If they had to abandon this planet, they were gonna go there and conquer it.”

“That,” Ruda stated, “is vicious, cowardly, and generally fucking despicable.”

“Sounds about right,” Milady remarked.

“And apparently the gate still works and is still open.” Gabriel transferred his pensive stare to the map display. “And…it is in the center of the Golden Sea, which is what causes the whole region to be spatially unstable. Huh. The things we learn.”

“I am just kicking myself for not spending more time asking Vestrel about the past,” Fross chimed in agitation, now zipping back and forth in midair. “Of course I can’t exactly talk to her but there have to be workarounds there and I didn’t realize how old she is but oh the things she must know!”

“Vestrel would like everyone to know that she’s not an encyclopedia,” Gabriel said wryly. “And also I’m to add to our enigmatic friend here that if she wants to hear long-winded valkyrie explanations, she knows who to ask.”

“Oh, good, that fun conversation isn’t done, then,” Milady muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

“None of which explains what the fuck all this is doing here,” Ruda said loudly. “This place is flooding as we fucking speak, guys. Archaeology later, fixing this shit now!”

“That is a point.” Principia, now frowning deeply, slid out of the group and began prowling around the edges of the alcove, studying the panels. They were active, emitting a faint glow, but displayed nothing but the Infinite Order’s sigil. “We told this thing to reboot, right? I can’t help noticing that nothing is booting up. I realize this place is wrecked, but the central computer was functional enough to talk to us. Should it take this long?”

“You’re asking us?” Juniper exclaimed. “I thought you were the expert! Isn’t that why we brought you?”

“Vestrel recommends percussive maintenance,” Gabriel reported. “If that means what it sounds like, I have…doubts.”

The Caretaker began chiming loudly. As they all turned to stare, it backed up to the far edge of the alcove, and then retracted all its metal arms until just the clawed grabbing mechanisms from each protruded from its central body.

“Um,” Juniper said hesitantly, “what’s it doing—”

She broke off as the golem suddenly burst into motion, charging across the alcove to slam its body against the side of the metal gate. It rebounded, chiming in agitation, and toppled over; Toby reflexively dived to catch it, and then yelped and was borne to the floor under the golem, whose weight he had clearly underestimated.

“Oh, that’s grand,” Ruda exclaimed. “I thought you said that thing would be helpful!”

Suddenly, all the lights in the room flashed, and the panels turned red. A hum rose in the air as technology came to life around them. Everyone froze, though moments later Juniper un-froze at Toby’s grunt and resumed heaving the Caretaker off him.

“I am not going to say that,” Gabriel muttered into the tense silence which followed. “If you want to tell people you told them so, get somebody else to summon your spooky ass.”

The oddly resonant, feminine voice from the panels outside suddenly spoke, though not comprehensibly. Several of them jumped in surprise, while the rest just frowned at the unintelligible jabbering.

“I recognize some of those syllables,” Fross said thoughtfully.

“You’re doing better than I am,” Toby grunted, brushing himself off. The Caretaker chimed apologetically at him, extending an arm tipped with an actual brush to help.

“Is this…progress?” Principia asked.

Milady cleared her throat. “Computer, set language to—”

“Dialect identified,” the computer’s voice declared from all around them. “English, North American, twentieth century. Warning: there are multiple leaks emitting seawater. The facility’s structural integrity is below seventy percent and in danger of collapsing from water pressure. Warning: the Avatar governing intelligence has suffered catastrophic corruption and cannot be safely booted in its current state. Warning: there has been a category one security breach resulting in nanite contamination of the planet’s surface. Warning: this facility is flooded. Warning: widespread damage to the facility has reduced the production capacity of this fabrication plant below twenty-five percent. This facility’s condition is beyond critical. Multiple immediate actions are urgently necessary.”

“No shit!” Ruda exclaimed. “How the fuck do we fix this?!”

“Uh, computer!” Fross said loudly. “What course of action do you recommend to begin repairs?”

“That’s what I just said,” Ruda growled.

“The major repairs necessary will require the guidance of this facility’s Avatar.”

“But the Avatar’s broken!” Principia exclaimed. “That’s the whole damn problem, you hunk of—”

“A fresh iteration of the Avatar can be loaded,” the computer informed them. “Corruption resulted from the installation of unapproved equipment, which can be removed with the Avatar’s guidance. Recommendation: the extant iteration of the Avatar program should be isolated behind firewalls and left inert, and a new iteration loaded from the last stable restore point to oversee repairs. It should be possible to complete repairs before the Avatar becomes too corrupt to function, and then either debug its program or load another fresh iteration.”

The computer stopped talking, and they all peered around at each other in varying degrees of confusion.

“Did you guys follow any of that?” Toby asked.

“I think so,” said Fross. “If I understand correctly, it sounds like sense.”

“Yes, actually,” Milady said slowly. “I think that would work.”

“Vestrel agrees,” Gabriel added. “Okay, then, if there are no objections? Then I think you’re still nominally the voice of Naiya here, Juno. Care to do the honors?”

“I, uh…” The dryad shrugged fatalistically. “Oh, why not. Computer thingy! Do the…stuff you just said. The plan. The iterations and loading and all of it.”

A musical chime sounded from the air around them, and a circular image appeared on all the surviving screens, slowly cycling down.

“What was that, now?” Ruda demanded.

“Two ascending chimes is an affirmative acknowledgment,” said Milady. “It’s doing it. So now, I guess, we wait…”

And then the screens cleared, and patterns of light appeared all around them in the air. From one rose a three-dimensional, translucent projection of the bald man in tight purple clothing. Unlike his previous appearance, he was calm and composed in aspect, smiling slightly at them with his hands folded.

The Caretaker began chiming in delight, brandishing its arms victoriously overhead.

“Greetings,” his resonant voice said soothingly from the machines all around. “Welcome to Fabrication Plant One. I am Avatar Zero Two, the governing intelligence of this facility. And… I am extremely embarrassed.”


“Are you seriously going to stand there doing drugs?”

“You should try some of this, Eleanora,” the Emperor said with a smile and a hint of mischief.

“I will not,” she said scathingly.

“There’s barely enough coffee in here to be detectable,” he said, taking another sip and ignoring her growl. “It’s mostly milk, sugar, whipped cream and…some kind of syrup. This is basically a warm mug of dessert.”

“It’s called a Tiraano, your Majesty,” Underminister Shanaar said tremulously. A mousy woman with large spectacles and a habit of holding her thick folder of paperwork before herself as if she could hide behind it, she was clearly overwhelmed at presenting her report to the Imperial couple in person. “It’s… Ah, that particular one is from La Chez, a Glassian cafe which has pioneered artisanal coffee in the city. I have procured samples from six other establishments if you wish to try—”

“That will not be necessary,” Eleanora said frostily, and Ms. Shanaar cringed, shuffling surreptitiously behind her cart of warming mugs. The rich scents of coffee, cream, and flavored sugar filled the room headily, drifting from the steam her “samples” emitted.

Sharidan gave Eleanora a reproachful look, and she repressed a sigh, but deliberately moderated her expression. He was right; there was nothing to be gained by bullying hard-working public servants just doing their jobs as ordered.

Shanaar cleared her throat and began shuffling papers pointlessly, lowering her eyes to them. “Yes, well, um, your Majesties… As you can see for yourselves… Or, uh, not, if you prefer… Most of the uses of coffee in the city’s upscale cafes are relatively harmless. The flavor of the raw stuff is quite unpalatable and the upper class don’t seem to take to it without heavily mixing it with more, ah, wholesome ingredients. The temperance movement is targeting them mostly because the rich are usually the source of major social impetus. My report clearly indicates the only potential public health risk is from the less-common uses of the drink in its purer form, which is beginning to catch on among the working class. The Thieves’ Guild has begun to make institutionalized use of it, and it’s increasingly popular among factory workers… Actual risks are uncertain, we haven’t linked coffee to specific diseases. It simply grants a rush of energy when consumed. The, uh, long-term effects… There’s just no data, yet. We need time to study. It will take years to know the full implications.”

“The short-term effects are already known,” Eleanora said brusquely. “And this is beginning to grow popular in the city?”

“The first coffee crops planted on the continent have been harvested, processed, and distributed,” Shanaar said timidly. “Not much yet, but it’s a start. They’re out in the Onkawa highlands, the only region with the right climate in the Empire. With that, the price has suddenly dropped, and… That is, yes, your Majesty. My department has recorded a nearly four hundred percent increase in use over the last five years. That began from negligible numbers, of course, but still. Coffee is still much less popular than alcohol or glittershrooms, but it is catching on.”

“It seems simple enough to me, then,” Eleanora said, turning her disapproving stare back on her husband, who continued to sip appreciatively at his mug of the drug under discussion. “We add it to the list of proscribed narcotics and begin issuing exemptions for establishments that want to sell it, just like alcohol or opium. We silence those temperance harpies and gain a new source of revenue…”

“We can’t do that, your Majesty.”

Shanaar quailed at Eleanora’s cold stare.

“Can’t?”

“Th-the active ingredient is called caffeine,” the Underminister sputtered. “I-it is also the source of th-the stimulant properties of tea and ch-chocolate. If the government declares it a health hazard, entire industries will be massively disrupted, channels of trade—”

Quentin Vex suddenly strode into the room; the Hand of the Emperor standing discreetly in the corner looked at him but did not otherwise move, indicating he detected no threat. Vex stepped to one side of the door and coughed softly into his fist.

“Underminister,” the Emperor said smoothly, “you will please excuse us. Thank you for your report; we will finish this meeting at a later time.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Shanaar squeaked, pressing her folder to her chest and scurrying gratefully out. Vex shut the door behind her.

“Well?” Eleanora demanded.

“Tellwyrn, Vadrieny, and the Sleeper were all in the city a few minutes ago,” the spymaster said immediately. “Fortunately, that ended as well as it possibly could have. Tellwyrn bound the warlock—the Masterson boy—from using magic, then allowed Vadrieny to abduct him. She headed off in the direction of Tar’naris with him in tow.”

“Well, that’s one way to resolve that,” Sharidan murmured. “Narisian justice might be exactly what that little beast deserves.”

“Further,” Vex continued, “I have addressed the issue of the traitors by informing Tellwyrn of their probable destination.”

“I suppose that means we won’t be getting that airship back,” Eleanora said sourly. “Really, Quentin, you usually prefer a lighter touch.”

“Desperate times, your Majesty.”

She shook her head. “And the situation in Last Rock?”

“Is under control. She did not mention it.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, she didn’t mention it?”

“Just that, your Majesty. She made no reference to the renegade Hand on site. Thanks to Fedora’s appeal to his surviving connections in the city, we know she must be aware. That she did not request further help with the matter tells me she is addressing it. As I said before, your Majesties, Tellwyrn putting him down is an optimal outcome. She has nothing to gain by exposing Imperial secrets or using them as leverage against us.”

The Hand present glanced at him again, then resumed his ceaseless survey of the room.

“Unless Fedora is working against her, as well?” Sharidan suggested.

Vex shook his head. “If there is one child of Vanislaas I trust not to bite the hand that feeds him, it’s Fedora. He only turned on us because he had neared the end of his usefulness to the Throne, I would soon have needed to get rid of him, and he is too intelligent not to discern those facts. Tellwyrn can keep him busy potentially forever. No, I rather expect she’ll find Murgatroyd a surprisingly loyal agent. More than any of his kind I’ve encountered, he desires stability. Further, we have independent confirmation from Colonel Azhai that she warned Tellwyrn to the best of her ability. She and Reich both smelled a rat, but Azhai toed the line. Reich was willing to defy the renegade Hand’s direct orders to get back in touch with Intelligence. I suspect the Archpope’s influence there.”

“And she didn’t mention this.” Eleanora turned to stare at the window, frowning deeply in thought.

“Nora,” Sharidan said quietly, finally setting down his absurd coffee-laced beverage, “I have never pried into this, but you haven’t exactly made it a secret that you’ve got some personal grudge with Tellwyrn. Be mindful of your bias, here.”

“You’re right,” she said, then returned her stare to Vex, noting for the first time that he looked physically haggard. The man had apparently not slept in two days. “Quentin, in your professional opinion, what is the error in judgment Arachne Tellwyrn is most likely to make?”

He hesitated only momentarily before replying. “She is rather prone to overestimating herself, your Majesty. So…your point is taken. That Tellwyrn believes the situation in Last Rock to be under her control does not necessarily mean it is so.”

“What, specifically, do we know of the situation? Beyond the presence of the renegade Hand and his intentions?”

“…little, your Majesty. He has recruited Reich and several local civilians. With the departure of the zeppelin in that direction we can assume someone in the Archpope’s conspiracy has knowledge of these matters and an interest in intervening. We do not know his exact plans or timetable. I have dispatched agents to investigate, but it will take time for them to get in position. And there is also the inherent danger of irritating Tellwyrn.”

“Damn Tellwyrn and her precious little feelings,” Eleanora barked. “She lost control of one of her students, who has cause a major crisis with that hellgate, assaulted Narisian diplomats and apparently was just in the capital. Quentin, can your people penetrate her wards on scrying and teleportation?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said warily. “In theory. But…so doing will, of course, provoke a response. She’ll strengthen the wards and it will be that much more difficult the next time. With Tellwyrn, that could very quickly make them impenetrable, even to us. Again, I prefer not to poke at—”

“Sharidan.” She turned to the Emperor. “Am I overreacting?”

“You’re reacting more personally than usual,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But…no, Nora. I think you’re right; the combination of the Sleeper, the conspiracy, and an apparent connection to Justinian’s plots, plus our own renegade, and you’re right. I believe the time for the hands-off approach has ended. Quentin.” He turned back to the spymaster. “I want you to shift every scryer you can spare to punch through those wards. Find out what is happening in Last Rock, in detail.”

“And,” Eleanora added, “have mages standing by to teleport troops on site.”

“Now that may be too much,” Sharidan warned.

“Invading the University in force would be a disaster,” she agreed, “as I bet the renegade is about to learn. But if what we learn from scrying indicates that the situation there is as out of control as I fear, we should be ready to move in support of the Professor. A small force, comprised of specialists.”

“Very good,” the Emperor agreed, nodding. “Put a strike team and a squad of the Imperial Guard on standby, but do not deploy anyone without our express order. I’ll want your report on the situation on the ground ASAP, Quentin.”

Vex, in defiance of both his customary demeanor and all formal protocol, heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes, your Majesties. Your will be done. I will see to it immediately.”

Then, while they watched in bemusement, he stepped forward, picked up one of the steaming cups of coffee from Shanaar’s tray, and took it with him as he strode out to make the arrangements they had ordered.


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13 – 28

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The door was hard to close; once Mogul had shown her the trick, she had managed to deflect her attention from it but not shut it off entirely. It was something that had always been there, creeping out in Vadrieny’s relationship to sound, in the way her magic sometimes sang through when Teal created music and they were both caught up in it. It was more than physical sound, more than the delicate mechanisms of the ear detecting vibration in the air. Something in her being that superceded mundane physics, like the means she used to fly, sought out and connected to it, and Mogul with his bell and his explanations had opened a door she had no idea how to close again.

Despite the speed of the air rushing past her, the sounds of the city rose up in an infinite clamor as she soared above Tiraas. Teal had been in cities plenty of times and was familiar with their cacophony, but now each sound, each voice and crash and clatter, registered individually. Mogul had said it could be overwhelming, but she viewed it with some detachment. Whether it was her musical training or just the long experience of disregarding unimportant noise, she let the hubbub slide past.

She could definitely detect the shrieks and responses to her arrival in particular, and winced. Well, there was nothing to be done about that, unfortunately.

Vadrieny arced toward the center of the city, but not too far, carefully avoiding Imperial Square. Both the government and the Church knew who she was, but she was under no illusions what would probably happen if an archdemon came diving out of the sky right at the Palace with no warning. Even coming over the walls had been pushing her luck. She only needed to glide in a wide sweep to orient herself; during previous trips to the capital she had not been encouraged to take to the air. It was quick work, though, to get her bearing and locate the Narisian embassy, in the aptly-named Embassy District two blocks distant from the Square.

Very carefully, she slowed her descent, banking as she approached and pumping her wings to settle as gently as possible into the courtyard. The people crossing the space between the front gates and the doors, a mix of drow and humans, wisely scurried off the main path to make room, while soldiers in House An’sadarr uniforms stepped forward with weapons upraised.

Immediately upon landing, Vadrieny submerged herself, leaving Teal standing in the chilly air in her House Awarrion robes. She turned to face the startled onlookers with the calmest expression she could muster, painfully aware that her hair must be a disaster.

“I am very sorry for startling you,” she said with well-practiced public calm, bowing to the public. “Everything is all right; there is no danger here. My apologies for the intrusion.”

She turned to approach the embassy’s door, and found her way blocked by two soldiers. Already stepping forward, Teal trailed to a halt; these had swords out and upraised. They were An’sadarr, not Awarrion, but surely they had been told about her?

“It’s all right. Let her pass.”

The armored women obeyed immediately, sheathing their weapons and stepping aside to flank the open door again, in the process revealing the slim figure of the Ambassador.

Shariss yr Shareth a’nar Awarrion wore her hair shorter than most Awarrion personnel save the House guards, in a style not dissimilar to Teal’s which was more associated with a martial path than a diplomatic one in Narisian culture. She generally had a famously unique sense of style, as evidenced by her robes: black, rather than deep red and green as was common among her House, and custom-designed in a shape evocative of a Tiraan business suit, complete with lapels and high collar and subtle embroidery hinting at pinstripes.

“Teal,” Shariss said, a masterpiece of a syllable which conveyed a greeting, a question, and a dire warning all at once.

“Ambassador,” Teal replied, bowing again. “I apologize for interrupting your business, but mine is urgent. May I speak with you in privacy?”

“Of course,” Shariss said neutrally. “This way, if you please.”

The Ambassador set a brisk pace, which suited Teal perfectly. They strode—or in Shariss’s case, glided—through the embassy’s main entry hall, both acknowledging the stares of visitors with polite nods, then passed through a side door into a hallway. Shariss led her up a narrow flight of stairs, along a short hall, and through a heavy wooden door into a small conference room with a window overlooking the street outside, which marked it as a place for meeting human visitors as Narisians generally preferred fully enclosed spaces. It also bore some kind of enchantment for privacy, to judge by the way the sounds from without were fully cut off once Shariss shut the door behind Teal.

“It’s just lucky I was alerted to your approach in time to meet you personally,” Shariss said, an open edge in her tone now that they were in private, turning to fix Teal with a stare. “I trust you realize the trouble that entrance may have created, and that this is worth it?”

“I do, and I think so,” Teal said, swallowing nervousness with the help of a rush of wordless support and affection from Vadrieny. “I was just intercepted in Puna Dara and informed that the Sleeper has been identified.”

Shariss’s eyes narrowed, but she just nodded for Teal to continue.

“His name is Chase Masterson, and I can well believe he would do such…things. My source indicated he fled Last Rock upon being outed and was directed to come to Tiraas to be recruited by the Imperial government. And further, that Professor Tellwyrn had been sufficiently agitated that she would be pursuing with the intent to kill him on sight.”

“Source?”

“An agent of the Archpope. Embras Mogul of the Black Wreath was also there, and he is under orders from Elilial herself to support Vadrieny as needed. He was able to confirm some part of the story and clarify others. And debunk a few obvious lies.”

“So,” Shariss said with another nod, “you consider this account credible, overall.”

“Mostly, but it also contains misdirection. Tellwyrn is not a fool, nor is she mindlessly violent; she’ll be trying to capture Chase as well, to get the cure for the sleeping curse.” Teal drew in a steadying breath. “According to Mogul, the Archpope’s intent is to prolong conflicts in Puna Dara and Last Rock by removing Vadrieny and Tellwyrn, respectively, from those locations. It was probably he who outed Chase. And as infuriating as it is to have to take the bait…this is a question of loyalty.” She permitted a hard edge to creep into her own voice. “While he’s here, and not caught by Tellwyrn or the Empire yet, Chase is in play. Vadrieny possesses a tracking ability that may lead to him, which makes this our one chance to put him in the hands of House Awarrion. I…abandoned an assignment from the University and left my friends facing a very uncertain situation to come here after him. I can’t let it be for nothing.”

Shariss simply nodded once more. To a Narisian drow, choosing House above all other considerations was nothing more or less than expected, particularly of a daughter of the Matriarch. Teal was not so sanguine; her friends were physically powerful enough to resist most material dangers and neither she nor Vadrieny likely could have contributed much to fixing ancient Elder God machinery, but this had still been a painful decision. It was her decision, though, and she had made it. Now there were only the consequences to deal with.

“Very good, then,” the Ambassador said. “What do you need from me?”

“I’ll need to be on the roof,” Teal said, “to listen. And…in Vadrieny’s form.”

“That will cause nearly as much of a stir as your entrance,” Shariss noted.

“I’m sorry for…”

The drow held up one hand. “Be sorry for nothing. I will run whatever interference is necessary with the Imperial government to buy you time. That’s nothing more or less than the task your mother and the Queen charged me with; it is my duty and an honor to aid you.” She turned and unlatched the window, but then paused just before pushing it open. The Ambassador shifted her head and gave Teal a look that was very undiplomatic. “Get him.”

Teal nodded deeply in thanks, stepping forward and pushing the window open. Shariss stepped back from the rush of city noise and cold air, but Teal climbed up onto the sill and leaped out.

There were shouts from the street below, followed by screams when Vadrieny burst forth again and propelled herself upward with a powerful beat of her wings. She paid them no mind, rising and circling till she was above the embassy and then setting herself down carefully on its highest point, a small spire surmounting its central done.

It was a position not designed for perching upon, but with her claws wrapped around it, she held still even against the buffeting of the wind. Vadrieny closed her eyes, fully extended her fiery wings, and listened.

Deliberately, consciously opened to it like that, it was overwhelming for a moment. She could tell how that ability had always been there, but unnoticed and ignored till now—the way sound interacted with her, the way Teal’s music poured out and Vadrieny’s perception of it had aided her in creating it. Having been crammed into a mortal body and nearly destroyed in the process, she had rebuilt her consciousness by clinging to Teal’s; who knew what other senses she might still possess, dormant and waiting to be awakened? Thanks to Mogul’s intervention, now, she didn’t know how to stop it.

But it was Teal, not Vadrieny, who provided the key to making this useful. According to the warlock Vadrieny had, in times past, used precisely this ability to separate sounds out in order to hunt her mother’s enemies, but right now she had no idea how that was done. Teal, though, could single out one note from an orchestra… Or one voice from a city.

They clung there, feathers spread like hundreds of antennae, with every tiny vibration of sound thrumming through fiery plumes, ears, aura. Slipping through their shared consciousness like threads of silk through fingers, searching for one familiar voice.


She arrived first upon a flat rooftop not far from the city’s center. Tellwyrn took a moment to glance about, noting the nearby spires of the Grand Cathedral and the Temple of Avei; the structure atop which she stood had a view straight down the avenue which passed between them into Imperial Square. Well enough; a central position wasn’t really necessary for this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Finding him was the work of moments. She had to close her eyes and release a gentle pulse with her will, the softest exertion of arcane energy that rippled out across the entire city, passing through and around its chaotic morass of active enchantments without disturbing them. Rare was the wizard who could detect that, but if any were near enough to feel it, they would also feel whose locator spell that was and know better than to meddle in her business. Indeed, she felt a tiny ripple in response, the distinctive faint pressure of Zanzayed off in the Conclave’s embassy, acknowledging her presence. She ignored him; her business lay with the other ping that resulted.

Chase Masterson was in no position to detect that spell, but he was a student of her University and therefore Tellwyrn had long since made certain of her ability to find him at need. In theory, she could have done so from anywhere in the world, but it was easier and much faster to start from close by. Her information was correct: he was in the city. That would make this a very short pursuit indeed.

She opened her eyes, this time channeling power through the inherent charms on her spectacles. In the sixty years since acquiring them in that unfortunate little town on the N’Jendo border, she had made certain not only to research their history but to experiment with their abilities, and it was now the simplest thing in the world to turn her head and focus her eyes and mind to see him. Though he was far enough away that even elven eyes could barely have picked him out from the crowd, and there were hundreds of buildings and other objects separating them, Chase was a speck in her vision that she would not lose now that she had it.

Not even when he abruptly shadow-jumped to a different part of the city. She turned again, unerringly. She had the scent now, and he wasn’t getting away that easily.

First, preparations. The spell she wove using only the exertion of her mind; no reagents, no gestures even, simply a matrix of arcane and infernal energy crafted into an invisible cage on the rooftop, half-completed so as to allow its target to move within, ready to be finished and snare him once he was in position. That took only moments longer. The more time it spent here, the more likely someone would find it—or blunder into it—but she did not expect this to take long enough for that to become an issue.

Tellwyrn opened her eyes, studying the flows of magic through her spectacles. Everything was in order; no reason to delay further.

Teleportation was a specialty of hers; many mages hesitated to use it in cities at all, particularly in crowded areas, but Tellwyrn had no trouble planting herself abruptly in an opening in the crowd barely big enough to accommodate her. She ignored the cursing and single shriek that resulted from her sudden arrival, focusing only on Chase.

She had appeared right in front of him, which wasn’t deliberate; any arrival point within a few feet would have ensured the reaction she wanted. He had apparently just slipped out of an alleyway and was heading down a busy sidewalk, but now skidded to a halt to avoid running right into her.

For one second, they locked eyes in silence.

“Okay, y’got me,” Chase said with a bashful grin, raising his hands. “I’m away from campus without permission. I was gonna get a note from Miss Sunrunner, but—”

Doubtless he thought he was being clever by shadow-jumping away mid-sentence, but no amount of infernal mastery made his reaction time a match for an elf’s. Tellwyrn’s eyes shifted minutely, following the trail he made through spacetime, which was at the same time a tunnel connecting two points and those points being brought to the same location for a moment. Like most such effects, this made no sense to minds accustomed to classical physics; it had taken her several decades of practice to be able to do that without suffering crippling nausea and a migraine, but a wizard’s mind was flexible.

Intercepting and redirecting a shadow-jump was doubtless part of the knowledge Chase had been granted; at least, Elilial definitely knew the technique. Just because he understood the theory, though, did not mean he could do it. That required a great deal of practice; it was as much a matter of intuition as skill. Countering that technique was a whole order of magnitude harder. Even she would have been hard-pressed to manage it, which was one of the reasons she disdained shadow-jumping. Chase had no chance.

Tellwyrn teleported back to her rooftop, arriving at the same moment Chase’s interrupted dimensional jump spat him out right into the middle of the snare array. It instantly closed like the jaws of a bear trap, meeting his own reflexive defenses.

With more time and attention she could have carefully crafted a spell to ensnare a specific foe, but it hadn’t even been necessary in this case. Chase was no wizard; he wasn’t even a proper warlock, just a silly boy with powers he didn’t respect or deserve. His instinctive reactions were exactly as she had assumed, a retaliatory use of infernal magic to disrupt the arcane element of the snare and try to convert it per the Circles of Interaction to a form he could subvert. Then, he encountered the spell’s infernal component and wasted precious seconds being stymied.

“Oh ho!” Chase exclaimed, grinning in delight. “Someone’s been dabbling in the dark arts herself! Shame on you, Arachne, and after you present yourself as such an upstanding—”

A proper caster of any kind would also know better than to try engaging in repartee while already in a battle of magic. She could have arranged an even more complex spell to finish trapping him while he stopped to jabber. Knowing Chase as she did, this outcome was predictable enough that it would have been a safe bet. Again, though, there was no need to have bothered. She simply applied the last element of the spell.

The divine magic that flared around them was pure white and of an intensity that met and incinerated the infernal he was trying to use. Not that in her own spell, though; that had been arranged beforehand in precisely the proper configuration. Magic of the third school fit neatly into the existing array.

The whole thing collapsed inward, plunging to a single point in the middle of Chase’s aura like a balloon popping in reverse. Arcane, infernal and divine energy clamped down on and through him, settling over his mind and his very being like a solid shield and cutting him off from accessing magic.

Any magic.

“…okay, I’ll hand it to you,” he said aloud after a moment. “That I was not expecting. But…you know, in hindsight, I dunno why.” Again, he grinned insouciantly, not in the lease perturbed by his predicament. “All those thousands of years doing nothing but chasing down gods and getting their attention, it’s downright idiotic of me and everyone else not to have guessed. So, whose priestess are you? Wait, don’t tell me! It’s Vidius, isn’t it? In the stories you always got along real well with him.”

She continued to ignore his prattling, already weaving another spell. This one was visible, since she felt no need to conceal it, and Chase stopped talking to warily eyeball the circles of arcane blue that appeared around him, rotating and marked with glyphs.

“Hnh,” Tellwyrn grunted, eyes tracking rapidly back and forth as she extracted data on the spells he had recently cast, pulling the information directly from his own aura. “And there it is, the infamous curse. It really was you.”

For once, he seemed to have nothing to say. The binding did not restrict him physically, but he just stood there. Even Chase Masterson wasn’t daffy enough to think trying to escape or attack her would lead anywhere useful.

“And…oh, Chase.” She shook her head. “Of all the idiotic… You know, embarrassingly, it was Ezzaniel and not one of the magic professors who came up with the theory that you were reacting like a Vanislaad. He’ll be insufferably smug about this. But honestly, you summoned one and destroyed its soul to absorb that aspect? There is a reason warlocks don’t do that, Chase! Because any warlock knows where his soul will go in the end, and refrains from doing things which will ensure Prince Vanislaas spends an eternity ripping him a series of new ones!”

“Eh,” he said lightly, shrugging and regaining his characteristic grin. “I bet I can take him. It’ll all work out for me in the end. It always does.”

“You sad little idiot,” she grunted, already studying the cluster of data that was his sleeping curse in four dimensions. It really was hellishly complex, pun entirely relevant. She could crack this, though. It might take time, but certainly less than Alaric, Bradshaw and the others would have to spend.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be my teacher. If I’m an idiot, whose fault is that?”

She consigned the data to a carefully partitioned-off segment of her memory and focused on him again.

“Who else?” she asked curtly.

“Ah.” Chase stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked at her. He was dressed for a Last Rock winter—which wasn’t even properly a winter—but despite the snow scattered around the roof and the sharp wind, he didn’t even shiver. “That’s right, you’ll be wanting to know who else got a brainjob from the Dark Lady. How many, what they know, the whole works. Well, that seems like important information, doesn’t it? Not to mention, and I don’t mind admitting it, the only thing I’ve got to bargain with, here. So, say I’m in a mood to be accommodating. What’s in it for me?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “You have to know you’ll tell me anything I want to hear, in the end.”

Chase gazed back at her with that insufferable little smirk for a long moment. She waited; his patience was no match for hers and they both knew it. Slowly, the smirk receded, but rather than intimidated, his expression grew thoughtful.

“Why’d you ever bring me here, Arachne? Oh, not this.” Grinning, he gestured around at the empty rooftop. “No, I totally get this part right here. I meant…the school. Your big infamous University for future heroes and villains and other things that haven’t been things since the Age of Adventures. Me, just some fucking guy who got chucked out of a lodge. I never understood it, but I wasn’t gonna look that gift horse in the mouth. But seriously, since we’re here… Why? Tell me that. What the fuck was I ever doing at that school?”

Tellwyrn pursed her lips, debating internally. Well, if all he wanted was conversation, that cost her nothing. It was one of the less troublesome paths to an accord.

“Are you aware, Chase, of just how you are…different?”

“I think the word you mean to use there is ‘defective,’” he replied with a wink. “Oh, not that I think I am. Mostly I notice that almost everyone but me are hypocritical idiots obsessed with mushy shit that objectively does not matter. They don’t even really believe it, either; we just all have to pretend, because that what you’ve gotta do to live in a society. I’ve always had a feeling that you, of all people, knew better.”

“That mushy shit is what makes everything possible,” she said, heaving a sigh. “Empathy begets cooperation; cooperation begets everything else. You think you’re so special? Without people connecting to each other, working together, you’d be special running naked through the woods searching for tubers and grubs to eat. Civilization is a product of people being able to look into one another and see reflections of themselves. And Chase…you should know better than that by now.”

“Ah, yes, here it comes,” he said sagely. “The long speech about how I suck. Lay it on me, teach.”

“I had a friend,” she said, shifting her eyes to gaze at the city’s distant walls. “Morgan Corrassan. A charming asshole who loved fun a lot more than self-preservation, like you. Just like you, Chase. Anth’auwa, as the elves say: missing that little piece in the brain that contains your connections to other thinking, feeling beings. But the thing is…my friend Morgan figured out how to get along in the world. He made himself useful, was always friendly and kind to others, spoke respectfully to authority figures. Hell, the man carried candy around to give to children every time we passed through a village. Do you think he gave a shit about them? Children were just particularly annoying meat-marionettes as far as he was concerned. Morgan got it, Chase. He grasped that the way to succeed in life was to be a source of pleasure and utility to others. That society is a thing you can neither ignore nor spit on without consequences. He and I had some crazy times together—this was back when dungeon-delving was a legitimate career. Every time I needed someone really reliable, there was always good ol’ Morgan. Because, in a way, he was more stable than a so-called normal person. His issues were comprehensible; I always knew exactly what he was, what he was about, and what might cause him to turn on me. So I never let that happen. A normal person might do any goddamn thing at all—people are as skittish and irrational as horses at the best of times. If you know how to handle them, if they know how to handle themselves, anth’auwa can be some of the best friends out there.” She shook her head slowly, turning back to him. “Morgan died a rich man, at the age of seventy, in bed from a stroke. On silk sheets, under a literal pile of prostitutes. He willed his entire fortune to the Universal Church, and I will be eternally bitter about that because it’s a practical joke I will never top. That’s all it was, Chase. He wasn’t a better man than you. I don’t think terms like ‘better’ are even applicable to people like you. He just did the one thing you apparently couldn’t be bothered to: used his fucking brain.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Chase said solemnly. “Truly, I am touched.”

“Most human societies have never worked out a way to cope with your kind,” she said, folding her arms and staring at him over the rims of her glasses. “Or even to recognize them. Plains and forest elves just expel anth’auwa from the tribe to be someone else’s problem. In Tar’naris, you would be identified and studied, and if found useful, put to work. Narisians are great ones for not wasting resources, and your nature does lend itself to particular fields. Someone with obsessive focus and no regard for the pain of others can make a fantastic surgeon, for example. Of course, they would also assign you a dedicated handler, and if you weren’t found to be useful enough to justify the expenses of keeping both yourself and your minder, you’d end up food for the spiders that make the silk. Then, of course, there are the Eserites; the Guild attracts anth’auwa. They probably think they’re doing the public a service by slitting their throats and dumping them in ravines. And I don’t have to tell you of all people how Shaathists react to the kinds of trouble you cause.”

“Oh, that wasn’t personal,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “They’ll take any excuse to boot boys out of the ol’ fraternity. More wives for whoever’s left.”

“It’s just a damn shame, is all,” she said quietly, still gazing at him. “So much potential, constantly going to waste. And worse, turning out to be a danger to society in most cases, because society fails to identify people with your condition and give them the support they’d need to turn out productive. It can be done; I’ve seen it done. There’s no reason it can’t be done on a large scale. You were my first real try, Chase.”

She twisted her mouth bitterly to one side.

“I am…disappointed.”

“Yeah? Sounds like quite the noble goal you’ve got going there.” Chase grinned broadly, stuck his hands back in his pockets and slouched nonchalantly. “It lines up really well with your oft-stated educational philosophy, too. Yeah, I actually have listened to all your talk about how every problem in the world is due to people not thinking. And you know what, maybe you’re not wrong about that. I don’t think that’s what went wrong here.” He grin broadened. “Maybe, Arachne, you’ve just bitten off more than you can chew with this one. Maybe it’s a worthwhile goal, and ought to be left up to a competent teacher.”

The wind whistled across the space between them, carrying with it the chill of late winter and the hubbub of the city. Tellwyrn shifted her gaze to stare past his shoulder, and pushed her spectacles back up her nose.

“So, anyhow!” Chase said in a cheerful tone. “Here we are. I still have information you need, so the question is: what’s it worth to you for me to cooperate, hmm?”

“I confess I had hoped you’d start acting in your own best interests, belatedly,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Of course, I came prepared to get it out of you by whatever other means proved necessary. Circumstance does tend to intervene, though. Now that we’re all here, I think I’ll just let her take care of it.”

He blinked, his grin faltering, but it returned in full force the next moment. “Oh, come on, that’s downright insulting. You don’t think I’m gonna fall for—”

Probably expecting Tellwyrn to intervene, Vadrieny came swooping in at a low angle and high speed. She slowed just enough to snatch Chase without maiming him, but in the next instant had pumped her wings and shot upward in an arc carrying her straight for the walls, captive clutched firmly in her claws. It was only seconds more before they were out of sight, an orange streak of fire vanishing above the horizon.

Tellwyrn sighed softly. “You may as well come out. I assume you wanted to talk to me, since you showed up in person. Admirably quick response time, by the way.”

“Truth be told, I had scryers on standby watching for something else when you started flinging spells around.” At the other end of the roof, near the fire escape, Quentin Vex materialized out of the air in the act of removing an invisibility ring from his finger. “You’re not going to stop her?” he asked, pacing forward to join the Professor.

“Oh, I will be having words with that girl about what she’s doing here instead of where I directed her to be,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But later. With regard to this… No, that’s an acceptable resolution. She’s heading west by northwest, toward Tar’naris. The drow will get any answers needed out of him. They are better prepared to handle both warlocks and anth’auwa than you or I are, frankly. And whatever else they do to the little shit, he’s brought on himself. So!” She turned to face him directly. “Sorry my little bag of tricks distracted your attention, but since it’s you and not half the Azure Corps here to greet me, you must want something.”

“Well, this is rather embarrassing,” Vex replied, “but I’m afraid we’ve had a problem containing a local…issue. And it has come to affect us both.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that a cabal of treasonous individuals loyal to the Archpope above the Empire have been rounded up and arrested over the course of the last two days. Most were members of various cults, and the cults have taken point on this. A group of two dozen Imperial soldiers, however, slipped our net, stole a zeppelin, and according to its last sighting, are heading toward Last Rock.”

“…why?” Tellwyrn asked in a dangerously calm tone.

“Come, Professor, you have to know all the events going on here are interconnected. Justinian’s sticky fingerprints are all over the mess in Puna Dara, and while this is the first solid indication I’ve had that he’s also involved in your problems out there, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it you?”

She grunted. “Well, Lorelin Reich is in Last Rock again. Two dozen troops, hm. Where’s that zeppelin now?”

“I don’t know,” he said, scowling. “That’s the problem. Probably somewhere over the Green Belt by now, but they know very well that if they come withing range of any mag cannon emplacements they’ll be shot down. So they aren’t. The farther they get into the Great Plains, the more empty space there is in which to hide.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Scrying the location of a moving vehicle isn’t as easy as that, or your people would just do it yourselves. By far the most effective action here would be to use another, faster flying unit, and go search.”

“I don’t expect you to do any specific thing, Professor,” Vex said, resuming his customary mild smile. “I just thought you deserved to know about the group of armed men and women apparently planning to intervene on your campus. And to know that the Empire has already written the airship off. Anyone reducing it to shrapnel would be doing the Silver Throne a service. But, with that message delivered, I had better get back to my increasingly exhausting duties. Always a pleasure, Professor.”

He bowed politely to her, then turned and ambled back toward the fire escape. Tellwyrn watched him go, and waited until he reached the street below before acting.

She devoted two solid minutes to cursing under her breath, cycling through twelve languages. At last, still grumbling to herself, she held out a hand.

A polished wooden flute popped out of midair into her grasp. She lifted the instrument to her lips and began to play. Only a few bars of music emerged before yet another person stepped out of thin air onto the rooftop; after her earlier seeking spell, he had probably been waiting specifically for this.

“Seven down,” Zanzayed the Blue crowed, a living portrait of smugness, “three to go! Have you given any thought to names yet, darling? Me, I’ve already picked out curtains for the nursery. Blue, obviously.”

“If it ever gets as high as nine, I’ll just drop the damn thing into the Azure Sea,” she snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself any more than you can absolutely help, Zanza. When have you ever gotten the better of me in the long run?”

“Now, now, poppet, if you were going to get rid of it you’d have done so when we first made our little bet. And at seven of ten allowed favors invoked, I am numerically winning. So!” He grinned a particularly insufferable grin. “How may I be of service?”

“You’re going to think this is dreadfully prosaic,” she said dryly, “but I need a ride.”

 

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13 – 27

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Darkness receded into dimness, and most of the group shifted physically, both to fall into balanced stances and to peer around at their surroundings. It was a tunnel, that much was no surprise, but after the few seconds it took to make sense of the view they discovered that the walls were curved lengths of glass, or at least something transparent. The murky landscape outside and the relatively faint light they emitted was due to the view being of the bottom of the harbor. There was little to see except mud and the odd strand of kelp, and at that depth there would have been little sunlight even had it not been storming above. The broken wreck of a ship barely visible through the gloom off to their right helped put it all into perspective.

“Ta dah!” Mogul sang, spreading his arms and grinning at them. “Here’s what I can tell you: the Rust themselves stay away from here, and have for years now. They do try to control the access tunnels so you’d have had some issues pushing through, but this place is dangerous as hell and they’ve long since got what they need outta there. So, you’ll have privacy, at least.”

“And you know this because…?” Ruda turned a scowl on him, fingering the hilt of her sword.

“We keep an eye on them,” he said. “I’ve already been over this. I also warned you that I am not going in there, but it bears repeating: this is where we part ways. Nor am I gonna loaf around out here; I don’t mind doing the odd favor but I’m not a taxi service. You’ll have to make your own way back. Try not to let your friend in the cloak get killed and you should be able to find the path. And with that, I will wish you good luck and bid you farewell.”

He stepped back into the dimness, bowing and doffing his hat, and darkness thickened to encompass him, then dissipated to leave nothing behind.

“How thick would this glass have to be to be…um, solid, under this kind of water pressure?” Gabriel asked, touching his fingertips to the curved, transparent wall.

“I am pretty sure that’s not glass,” Fross replied, “if only because the answer to your question is ‘no.’ Really, I don’t get the utility of making the tunnel transparent, anyway. It’s not like there’s anything to see.”

“If this is part of the original construction, then ‘utility’ probably wasn’t a factor,” Milady said, squeezing past the rest of them in the crowded tunnel to approach the door up ahead. “The Infinite Order liked everything grandiose and extravagant. And also, it may not have been underwater, then. It was Naiya who flooded or buried all their facilities, and that was long after the Pantheon’s uprising. Let’s see…”

The tunnel terminated in a metal wall just beyond them, a smooth surface too glossy to be steel and inset with an unfamiliar sigil. It was encircled by an arc of glass—or otherwise transparent—tubing where it met the arched walls of the tunnel, which emitted a weak purple glow. Nearby, a few small screens were attached directly to the transparent walls, flickering faintly.

Milady stepped up to touch the sigil in the center of the door. Nothing happened.

“Surely you didn’t think it would be that easy?” Principia asked, slipping through the press of bodies more adroitly after her.

“Not really,” Milady replied with a sigh, turning to the nearest screen that was still active. “But it was worth trying. It’s awfully embarrassing to try to pick a lock, only to find it wasn’t locked in the first place.”

“Hah! You’re not kidding. I’ve actually had that experience.”

“You, the great thief?”

“We all start somewhere, kid.”

Principia hovered back slightly, watching, but let Milady fiddle with the screen, the pair of them leaving the students to their own devices. Ruda positioned herself at the rear of the group, facing down the empty tunnel with her sword drawn, while Toby pressed himself awkwardly against the arched wall, trying to get a look at what lay ahead. The angle made that fruitless, unfortunately.

“This place is spooky,” Juniper muttered, wrapping arms around herself. “I know I’ve abused the word in the past, but it’s unnatural. I hope my bunny’s okay…”

“I hope my city’s okay,” Ruda said, absently poking the curved wall with the tip of her sword.

“Uh, maybe don’t do that?” Gabriel suggested. “If it’s reinforced by magic, prodding it with mithril…”

“Yeesh.” Ruda whipped the blade away from the walls and stepped to the center of the tunnel.

“Okay, this doesn’t even constitute security,” Milady said, straightening. Even as she spoke, the purple tube encircling the wall ahead began to glow more brightly. “I think the Rust tried to shut this down without really knowing how it works; they turned off the power to the door but didn’t manage to lock it.”

“Probably didn’t have permission,” Principia said, watching the door. “This thing seems to think Scyllith is using it, so it probably wants her credentials before it’ll do anything too—”

She was cut off when, with a flash of the sigil in its center, the metal door abruptly slid straight downward into the floor, opening an archway into the space beyond. Immediately, an ungodly torrent of noise blasted out, a blended cacophony of thumps like distant thunder and the constant roar of rushing water. Before the group could even begin to make sense of this, or the bare glimpse of a large open space beyond, the noise was overwhelmed by an even louder sound: a shrill burst like nails on a blackboard, causing all of them to cringe back and cover their ears and Principia to fall against Milady with a cry of pain.

And then, a scream.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” howled an echoing voice from within, and the door slammed shut again. This time, the purple half-ring around it turned a dull red and began pulsing slowly.

For a moment, they just stood there, straightening up and staring. Then Principia laughed weakly.

“Hey, good news!” she said, massaging her long ears with both hands. “We’re in the right place.”

“Hm.” Milady was already back at the panel. “Now it’s locked. Avatar override… Drat, we need a member of the Infinite Order to countermand this.”

“Well, we don’t fucking have one of those,” Ruda growled.

“We might,” Milady said, frowning thoughtfully at the screen. “I’ve previously convinced devices like this that I had Naiya’s permission to use them by getting help from her daughters… But that was with more than one, and with a stable Avatar that was willing to work with me in the first place. I don’t have a better idea, though. Juniper?”

The dryad was already at her side, peering at the screen. “How’s this work?”

“It responds to either touch or speech,” Milady explained. “And the facility should have the ability to sense your connection to Naiya’s transcension field. I mean, magic. Here, I’ve pulled up the door controls. Touch that green rectangle there, please.”

Juniper did so, and received a pleasant chime from the screen in response.

“Access insufficient?” she read from the result. “Rude.”

“If I may?” Gabriel stepped forward, drawing his wand, which then extended to its full scythe form. “Give me a little room if you would, ladies. I would really hate to nick somebody with this.”

Everyone backed up while he approached the door. There was no room in the tunnel to swing the long weapon, but he grasped it just below the blade and, carefully holding its haft out of the way as best he could in the confined space, drove it against the metal.

Incredibly, even with his relatively weak swing, the ragged-looking blade sank fully half its length into the glossy door, right in the middle of the Infinite Order sigil.

Reddish tendrils of oxidation began to spread outward from the rent, deepening as they expanded. Right before their eyes, metal darkened and curled away, beginning to fall in flakes to the ground. Rust spread like a colony of lichen, arms reaching all the way to the edges of the door, and the innermost surface rippling and crumbling to emit the chaotic noise from the facility.

“I…don’t know what that alloy is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t rust,” Milady said weakly, staring at the door as the ancient metal rotted away.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel said in a soft tone which was almost obliterated by the sounds from within. Enough of the door had dissolved that the scythe had come loose, and he set about scraping it against the edges of the hole he had made, encouraging the oxidation to spread further.

“Holy fuck, Arquin,” Ruda exclaimed above the noise emerging from the gap. “And you’ve just been carrying that fucking thing around for the last year?!”

“Perhaps Vidius entrusted it to him because he’s not the sort of person who would carelessly swing it about,” Toby suggested.

“Hey, June, a little help?” Gabriel turned to her with a grin. “I think the rest of this calls for more muscle than I’ve got.”

“Now that I can do,” she said, stepping up and grabbing one edge of the rusted gap he had made. Her first few handholds simply collapsed in her grip, but finally she managed to seize a relatively solid edge and pull. The weakened metal tore away in her grasp, and with a little more tugging she finally ripped a large chunk entirely free, exposing a gap big enough for them to step through.

By that point, there was nothing between them and the clamor inside the facility; it was almost too loud to converse. Gabriel slipped through first, ducking under the bent exposed edge of the torn door, Juniper right behind him. The two stepped forward into the space beyond, forming an advance guard while the rest of their party came through in single file—with the exception of Fross, who zipped in right behind Juniper.

Fabrication Plant One was a vast open space apparently set deep into the floor of the bay; at any rate, they emerged right under the ceiling. In fact, directly above the metal platform onto which they stepped was a transparent dome supported by an artistic lattice of metal filaments, revealing the murky light of the ocean above. Stairs descended from directly in front of them to a series of walkways which mostly extended around the edges of the huge chamber, though one, supported by apparently nothing, stretched out dead ahead to terminate in a machine-lined emplacement right above the center of the room.

Ladders extended down to the open area below, where enormous machines stood upon the floor, or were attached to the walls. Or so it appeared they should be; it was hard to tell, because the chamber was partially flooded. About three stories down, seawater rippled under the glow of the room’s bright lighting. There was little order in the equipment there, as well, further obscuring the architecture. It was not like the mess of lichen-like machine parts that characterized the Rust’s hideaway; all the devices here were built on a much larger scale and mostly at angles, lacking the sense of organic growth. It was still chaotic, though, with screens, cranes, grasping arms, and other devices of inscrutable purpose protruding randomly from the water and poking this way and that, affixed to each other in peculiar arrangements serving no obvious purpose. Some moved in evidently pointless patterns, others emitting various noises of constant motion—and in some cases, impact, as they crashed against each other and the walls, showing no evidence of any governing intelligence.

There were no less than four visible leaks in the walls, all near spots where pieces of machinery were flailing with particular abandon, one emitting sparks from some kind of energy cutter. Streams of seawater of varying size poured into the chamber. Large networks of pipes had been built, lattices chaotically extending over the other equipment, attached to pumps which were taking the water away…somewhere. A number of them had been broken by other machines and were squirting seawater back into the flood.

Oddly enough, once they were out in the open space and not the confined, echoing tunnel, the noise didn’t seem nearly so oppressive. At least, they had no trouble hearing Ruda’s muttered observation.

“What a fuckin’ mess.”

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’d better get to quickly,” Principia noted. “I don’t know how long this has been going on, but sooner or later it’s gonna flood completely. Or maybe just collapse under the water pressure.”

“WHO DARES!” bellowed the voice from before. One of the huge machines extended an arm to grab at another, and ripped free a large transparent panel, then raised this to hover near their platform at an angle. In the large sheet of what was probably not glass there suddenly appeared the translucent image of a man, seemingly made of purple light. He was bald, clad in a tight suit of some kind, and leering at them with wide eyes and bared teeth. “Who dares intrude upon the sanctum sanctorum of the Infinite Order?!”

Milady stepped forward and raised her voice. “We’re here to—”

“Hah! It was a rhetorical question, fool! NONE SHALL PASS!”

The arm abruptly dropped the panel, which splashed into the flood below, and reached down in a different direction, this time seizing another extending arm which held at its tip a spark-spraying arc of energy clearly designed to cut, judging by the singed and sliced-off state of several nearby chunks of metal. The larger arm grabbed it behind the cutting device and yanked; with an appalling screech, the second arm was torn free, its damaged end emitting a gout of sparks and occasional arcs of electricity. The machine raised this up, rearing back in clear preparation to slash at them.

“No, you don’t,” Gabriel snapped, leveling his scythe. Black light blasted from its tip, impacting the improvised weapon and knocking the cutting arm cleanly from its grip to tumble into the floodwaters below. Where the dark energy struck, the original arm began to seize up, its joints ceasing to function as rust spread along them.

“Well played!” cried the eerie voice again, and another transparent panel popped up from below, this one held aloft unevenly by two hovering machines. It bobbed and wove awkwardly about, the poorly-coordinated flyers apparently trying to tug it in different directions, but it was steady enough to give them a ghastly view of the purple man grinning insanely at them. “But I have many weapons in my arsenal, oh yes! SOON YOUR DOOM SHALL—”

They never did find out what to expect of their doom, as one of the flying machines abruptly won the tug-of-war, jerking away and subsequently losing its grip on the display panel, which sailed off to clatter against the wall and then tumble gracelessly down to the water.

“There is a crazy man living in the walls,” Fross reported. “Is that normal?”

“All major Infinite Order facilities have an Avatar,” Milady explained, “an artificial intelligence installed in the machines who runs the place, keeps it in order. The one I’ve dealt with before was the very soul of self-possession; the state of this poor fellow is probably the reason this place is such a disaster, and also how he lost control of whatever it is the Rust are using. I think we need to get to there.”

She pointed ahead, at the central platform. It was a partially enclosed spot, with transparent walls sloping outward such that whoever stood within would have a good view around the fabrication plant’s floor. It had also clearly suffered a great deal of recent construction, most of which was visibly haphazard. Machines had been grafted on, parts of the transparent walls ripped away and some shattered to let beams, wires, and pipes pass through. The large clusters of technology affixed to it were supported by a mixture of pillars rising from the flooded floor below and beams attached to the ceiling above.

The ceiling was mostly transparent; some of them had been bolted right into the clear surface. Several of those attachment points were emitting tiny sprays of water.

“Of course we fucking do,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“It occurs to me,” said Toby, “that crossing that narrow walkway while the crazed Avatar flings pieces of machines at us is going to be…dicey.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Principia noted.

“Gabriel!” Ariel said suddenly. “Grounding and deflecting charm, applied to the platform, now!”

“What?” he exclaimed. “I can’t just do that without—”

“I can!” Fross chimed, zipping around them in a circle and emitting a blue glow as she did so. A gleaming set of runes appeared on the metal beneath their feet.

Barely a second later, a snake-like protrusion slithered up from one of the nearby banks of machinery, its “head” sparking with unevenly discharged electricity, and jabbed itself against the metal walkway adjacent to them. Immediately, a circular area around them lit up and sparked violently as voltage surged against and around it. Fross’s enchantment held, however, keeping the current being pumped into the metal from reaching them.

“Why, you sneaky bastard,” Gabriel said almost admiringly, taking aim with his scythe again. Another dark blast of energy reduced the metal tentacle to shrapnel and cutting off the voltage.

“Will you stop doing that?!” came the Avatar’s voice from somewhere below them. “Security protocols require that you just DIE already!”

“There’s no way,” said Juniper. “These catwalks are horribly vulnerable. And if we make it there, what then? All he has to do is knock that whole mess down and that’s it.”

“That’s clearly a command center,” said Milady, “and he has obviously augmented it. I think it’s too important to destroy; if we get there…”

“You’re counting on two very uncertain things,” said Ruda. “That you’re right, which we can’t know, and that this guy’s lucid enough not to stab himself in the heart even if that is his heart. Which, from the looks of him, he’s not.”

“Actually,” Principia said thoughtfully, “I suggest we retreat.”

“We can’t fucking leave!” Ruda exclaimed. “We have to fix this shit!”

“I said retreat, not surrender,” the elf replied patiently. “Back up, guys, out into the tunnel. We need to regroup and come up with a plan.”

“Yeah, you’d BETTER run,” the Avatar crowed at them as they clambered backward through the wrecked door. “Flee for your insignificant lives! FLEE MY WRATH!”

“It’s a little disappointing that we can’t slam this,” Juniper said as she climbed through. They went in reverse order, making her the next to last to exit, Gabriel right on her heels with his scythe shortened back to wand form.

“Here’s the thing,” Principia said once they were back outside the immediate range of the mad Avatar’s machinations. “Infinite Order systems are supposed to be decentralized.”

“Of course!” Milady exclaimed. “Some functions may be locked to certain consoles, but there are screens out here. If we can get into them, we can do…something, surely.”

“I thought you said he locked those down,” Ruda snapped.

“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” Fross chimed thoughtfully. “If we can get him to make a mistake…”

“How?” Toby asked.

“Arquin.” Principia turned to him. “I know valkyries are only able to interact with the mortal plane under certain conditions. Can you make those conditions?”

Gabriel frowned, then tilted his head and looked off to the side the way he did when listening to Vestrel.

“…apparently I can,” he replied after a moment. “It’s within the purview of the highest-ranking priests of Vidius, which includes me, and the divine scythe provides a shortcut. What did you have in mind?”

“You said you got the Infinite Order’s computers to recognize you as Naiya by getting her daughters to help,” Principia said to Milady. “We’ve got a dryad, a valkyrie, and a pixie.”

“What does the pixie have to do with it?” Milady asked, frowning.

“Oh!” Juniper straightened up. “Well, she’s sort of a…granddaughter of Naiya. Pixies are created by one of my fallen sisters, Jacaranda.”

Milady blinked. “They are?”

“You think that’ll be enough?” Toby asked.

“Not for anything too complex,” Principia said. “Look, I’m no expert on this technology but I have had brushes with old Elder God machines a handful of times, and I do know one trick that consistently works. If they’re not functioning right, you can reset them.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Ruda demanded.

“Shut them off,” Milady said, her eyes widening, “and then turn them back on. Yes! When these systems boot up, they’ll automatically seek to identify and correct any flaws in their program. If the computer will recognize Juniper, Vestrel and Fross as having Naiya’s credentials, we can trigger an emergency shutdown. That’s an important but simple command, so hopefully they’ll be enough. Then we can deal with the sub-OS and find out what’s wrong with the Avatar!”

“The sub…what?” Gabriel scratched his head.

“Long story,” she said impatiently. “It’s a good idea. What do you need to do to get Vestrel out here?”

He was looking off to the side again. “Okay. Vestrel says a simple invocation will do; apparently these things are connected enough to magic that if she can just brush the mortal plane, it’ll detect her presence. I’ll just need a little space here. Clear a circle, if you would.”

They all backed away while he extended his scythe again and began gesticulating carefully with it, marking a circular area on the floor in front of the door.

“Brace yourself,” Milady said softy to Juniper. “One thing I discovered working with a mix of valkyries and dryads is that for some reason, your older sisters are inherently frightening to your generation.”

“I know a bit about that,” she replied. “Aspen told m—”

Juniper cut herself off, eyes widening, and stumbled backward into Toby. The circle Gabriel had lightly scraped on the floor had begun to glow a faint gold, and a wavering figure appeared in its center. She was translucent and obscured, as if seen through cloudy water, but they could make out the shape of a person garbed in black, with folded wings, carrying a scythe.

“You okay?” Toby asked, bracing Juniper by the shoulders.

“I…yeah,” she whispered, straightening up. “Thanks. That’s just… She’s just…”

“Over here,” Milady said gently, beckoning her. “Fross, you too. I’m hoping Vestrel is close enough to register automatically… I need you to instruct the computer to initiate an emergency shutdown of the Avatar.”

“I…okay.” Juniper edged toward her, eyes never leaving the vague shape of Vestrel within her summoning circle until she reached the screen closest to it. There, finally, she turned away, leaning down toward it. “Um… What was the word? Computer? Computer!” she said more forcefully in response to Milady’s encouraging nod. “I…instruct you to…initiate an emergency…shutdown…of the Avatar!”

Nothing happened.

“Tell it who you are,” Principia muttered urgently.

The dryad cleared her throat. “My name’s Jun—oh,” she said, breaking off as Milady elbowed her. “Right. I am…Naiya!” Juniper winced, mumbling to herself, “that seems really disrespectful to say…”

Abruptly, all the screens changed to a flat white display with the sigil of the Infinite Order in its center.

Beyond, the noise of the fabrication plant did not let up.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Ruda said sardonically. “What was Plan B?”

“Computer!” Fross chimed, zooming straight up to the nearest screen. “We are avatars of Naiya, here because this is an emergency and she is not able to come in person! Check our inherent magic—uh, transcension field connections to verify this! You will need to compensate for a partial translocation to the chaos dimension in the case of the third avatar present. This is an emergency command, due to the obvious state of disrepair of this facility! You will shut down the Avatar and all connected systems immediately.”

“Acknowledged,” an oddly resonant feminine voice suddenly said from nowhere. “User Naiya identified with seventy percent confidence. Confidence sufficient to initiate reboot in safe mode. Rebooting.”

And then, abruptly, the lights in the fabrication plant went off, the machines shut down, and total silence descended.

“How,” Milady asked incredulously of Fross, who was now the only source of illumination, “did you know how to do that?”

“Well, it’s a machine, right?” the pixie replied. “A thinking machine? It stands to reason that a machine which thinks would do so in the most logical way possible. I can kinda relate. That’s how I would’ve preferred to—”

Something enormous landed right on top of the arched transparent ceiling with a deep thud, making all of them jump and several shout. In the faint glow of Fross’s silver aura, they could make out a patchwork of scales and metal plates pressed right against the tunnel walls, all but blotting out the entire view.

“It’s…the serpent,” Ruda said slowly. “Holy shit. Is it…dead? Does that mean we won?”

“I really hope this stuff is a lot stronger than it looks,” Gabriel muttered, reaching out to touch the transparent barrier.

“If it can stand up to the water pressure for thousands of years I don’t think that is going to hurt it,” Fross chimed. “Also, it may not be dead. Some creatures go dormant in bad weather; I don’t know anything about sea serpent biology but we did arrange for that storm in part to make it retreat from the surface. So, hey, at least we’re making progress!”

Milady drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Don’t celebrate prematurely. Now we have to figure out what damaged the Avatar, fix that, turn him back on, figure out what nanites are and how the Rust got them, put a stop to that…”

“And,” Gabriel added, cracking his knuckles, “it occurs to me that with everything shut off, those machines are no longer pumping out the water coming in through those leaks, so we just put ourselves under a very unforgiving deadline. Let’s get to work, guys.”

 

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13 – 26

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 25

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“Too quiet,” Vex murmured, ignoring or not seeing the annoyed glances both Bishops gave him.

Cliche aside, he was correct. This was just a cargo warehouse attached to the zeppelin docks; it wouldn’t have been bustling when not actively in use. Still, it was nominally a military facility, and the complete lack of guards wasn’t right.

Vex gestured, and the five men and women in plain clothes accompanying him immediately scattered into the surrounding outbuildings. Basra started to follow one, but Darling grabbed her by the shoulder. From the look she shot him, he thought for a moment she was going to go for her sword, but in the next instant she had gone still again, turning to stare intently at the warehouse where their trap was supposed to have been laid.

Supposed was the word of the day. All this would have been over before midnight, had anything gone according to plan, and yet here it was pushing mid-morning and the three of them were still chasing their tails all over the city—and now, beyond it. They were in the fortified town across the bridge from Tiraas on the eastern edge of the canyon, still legally part of the capital, but to Darling at least this didn’t feel like his city.

They were all running on static at this point. Even Vex’s unflappable demeanor was starting to fray. Despite Darling’s concern, Basra hadn’t caused any problems since being separated from High Commander Rouvad hours ago; as she grew more exhausted, she grew more focused, until by this point she seemed to see only whatever obstacle was right in front of her with no context. That had several times raised difficulties, but at least was easier to manage than Darling had feared. He had seen her cooped up for days with people she didn’t like; seeing her run ragged wasn’t nearly as bad.

“What were you expecting to find?” Darling asked quietly.

“Having the storage facility’s usual personnel cleared out was part of the plan,” Vex replied, staring fixedly at the warehouse. Oddly, when he actually was tired, he didn’t put on his usual sleepy expression. “We coaxed no less than twenty disaffected Imperial personnel here, most of them military, five magic-users; last thing we want is dockworkers and admins caught in some kind of crossfire. But, if my agents had secured the targets as planned, one would have met us. There are signals they should have placed if that was not possible, and none are displayed. I sent four of my best here, and something’s happened to them.”

“Four,” Basra said curtly, “against twenty.”

“Four of mine,” he retorted. “Ordinarily that should have been plenty.”

One of Vex’s spies suddenly re-emerged from a gap between the warehouse and the fortress wall, crossing to them with long strides.

“No sign of the targets,” he reported without preamble. “Four people are inside the warehouse, tied to chairs, bags over their heads. I observed one moving. Two in Army uniform, no way to confirm identities.”

“That screams trap,” Basra said.

Vex glanced at her but spoke to his agent. “Any sign that our trap went off, Marshal?”

“No telling, sir. The gas leaves no visible traces, and our people would have concealed the tanks.”

The spymaster drew in a breath and let it out through his nose. “If the traitors were deft enough to thwart our agents, Syrinx is right; their best move would have been to use them as bait and lure us into our own trap. All right, you know the protocol. Go in and get them out, but sweeping for triggers the whole way. I don’t want anybody else caught in this cock-up.”

The man nodded once, turned, and strode back in the direction whence he had come.

“So…we just wait?” Basra demanded irritably.

“Intelligence work is a lot like soldiering,” Vex replied, “at least insofar as it involves a lot of tedious standing around.”

Another of his agents reappeared, this time from behind them.

“Sir, there’s an additional situation,” she reported. “None of the zeppelin dock’s personnel are present; our plan didn’t involve removing them. The command tower is locked and seems to have been barricaded from the inside.”

Vex’s eyes narrowed, then darted back and forth rapidly as if he were studying equations no one else could see.

“Avelea,” he said suddenly. “How many zeps should be at this dock?”

“Just the stanbys, sir,” Nora Avelea replied. The only agent Vex had kept by his side, she had been the soul of professionalism apart from being notably frosty to Darling. Well aware of her issues with the Guild, he had opted not to make a thing of it. “Almost the whole fleet is deployed right now, between the mission to Shengdu and flood relief in Thakar. This dock should only have two staffships and two troop transports at the ready.”

Vex nodded to her, glanced once at the Bishops, then turned and strode away. Basra immediately followed, Darling coming along after only a momentary hesitation. Avelea fell into step behind him, slipping a hand into her pocket in a gesture he was certain she’d meant him to observe.

“What are we doing?” Basra demanded.

“Taking a quick headcount,” Vex said cryptically. He was leading them toward the nearest stairs that led to the fortress wall, which in this case meant a corner turret that housed a mag cannon emplacement. Darling noted the lack of soldiers on patrol, which was not right, before they passed into the tower stairwell. The four of them climbed quickly but in silence, apart from Basra’s barely-audible muttering.

Even she fell silent when they emerged onto the artillery platform overlooking the actual zeppelin docks.

Both staffships were tied up to the tower dock, high enough that they could see the weapons bristling from their undercarriages below the gas capsules. Proper mag cannons were far too powerful to mount on an airship; firing one would send the vessel into an uncontrollable spin. An Imperial staff ship had a bomb bay, four grenade launchers, and eighteen staff emplacements, the latter weapons augmented for range and power beyond that of the average battlestaff, which was about the most that could be used from a lighter-than-air vehicle. There was no sign of any personnel in the tower or aboard the ships, either.

And there was a single, much larger troop transport moored at the lower docks.

“They stole,” Basra said incredulously, “a zeppelin? Vex, you can track those, right?”

“They carry locator charms, obviously,” he replied, staring down at the docks. “To pull this off they’d have needed the aid of zeppelin personnel, who would know where to find those and how to disable them. What we cannot yet do, though, is render them invisible, so wherever they went, they’ll have been seen. Damn it, I’ll have to return to headquarters to get the reports I need to follow up on this… Antonio, suppose this were a job you were running. You’re fleeing in an airship. What’s your next move?”

“Well,” Darling said, leaning against the parapet and frowning at the lone remaining transport, “step one would be to throw the assclown whose idea that was off the damn airship. A zeppelin is the worst possible choice of getaway vehicle. They aren’t fast, agile, or stealthy. You can’t even have a fall guy head in one direction with it while the rest go in another, since you can’t board or disembark from it without landing the whole thing.”

“Parachutes,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Vex said, stroking his chin. “They could jump, leave it adrift, and scatter into the countryside…if all they want is to get away. But if they’re going somewhere in particular…”

Abruptly, he turned and strode back to the stairs.

“Where would they go?” Basra demanded, again following.

“They have no safe havens,” Vex said as they descended. “Twenty troopers, even with a few casters among them, aren’t a match for any significant military emplacements. Even most House guards could repel them. It’s enough to intervene effectively in an already-upset situation, though, if they do it right. If these are going for one of Justinian’s projects… It’ll be Puna Dara or Last Rock.”

“Last Rock?” Darling exclaimed.

“Justinian is throwing these people under the carriage, remember,” Basra added.

As they emerged into the courtyard again, Vex cast a cool glance over them. This was a tense moment; ostensibly, the two of them worked for the Archpope in this regard. But both of them knew the broad strokes of what was really going on, and Vex had to know they knew. The question was what Vex knew about their actual loyalties.

Hell, even Darling didn’t know Basra’s actual loyalties, if she truly had any, and he knew that his own vagueness on the subject was a sore point with the Imperial government.

“Sending them into a battle would be a very convenient way of getting rid of them,” Vex said suddenly, breaking the tense silence, “and potentially a way to tip the balance of one in the process. Justinian rarely does anything with only one purpose. I can’t prove he’s behind the unfolding situations in either place, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know damn well he is. And he knows I know, and so on, endlessly. We need to get back to the capital. Avelea, I’m leaving you in charge of this operation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have to find out where that damn zeppelin went,” Vex said to the Bishops, already striding back toward the fortress entrance with them moving to flank him while Marshal Avelea peeled off to intercept two more Intelligence agents coming to report. “Antonio, can you wrangle the Church end of this?”

“What’s to wrangle? At last check-in, that was going well, Sisterhood aside.”

Basra made a sound like a cranky rattlesnake.

“That is my concern,” Vex replied, “and why I need Bishop Syrinx elsewhere. Will the Huntsmen listen to you, if you need to give orders?”

“Maybe,” Darling said. “If not, they’ll listen to Andros Varanus, and he’ll listen to me.”

“Good enough, I suppose,” the spymaster grunted.

“And what is it you want from me, now?” Basra demanded.

This touched painfully on the reason the night’s operation had gone so poorly. On the Church’s end, only the cults of Eserion and Shaath had been confirmed clean of conspirators, and as both cultivated physical prowess as a matter of course, they were being used to corral targets from the other cults. Most of the cult leaders had signed on for this, but upon learning of this development, High Commander Rouvad had abruptly reversed course and dug her heels in. She remained adamant that no Sister of Avei, traitorous or not, would be placed in the custody of Huntsmen or Guild enforcers. In the end, Darling had had to steer Basra out of the Commander’s office before she could complicate the situation further by getting herself excommunicated.

“The Sisterhood is close to the military,” Vex said. “We already suspect that’s how these have kept a step ahead of us all night; until Rouvad manages to clean house, the Silver Legions are compromised. We know of one existing conspiracy target which you sent trusted soldiers to protect last night, but that was when we thought all of this would be wrapped up by now. Your Grace, did you make arrangements to have those soldiers relieved by other, also specifically trusted troops, or to remain at their post past time for a shift change? Because otherwise, Legion protocol…”

“Shit!” Basra hissed. “If they’ve still got enough women in the Legions they’d have gone right for…”

“Exactly,” Vex said grimly.

“How could that still be a priority of theirs?” Darling asked skeptically.

“Tamisin Sharvineh’s personal security has foiled no less than nine assassination attempts since she moved into that house,” Vex replied. “These conspirators penetrated it—and then took out Carruthers Treadwell, who knew nothing damaging that my people hadn’t already uncovered, thus gaining nothing and adding murder to the charges against them. They’ve now stolen an Imperial zeppelin, which is an incredible feat of skullduggery and a damned stupid thing to do given how little they can do with that vehicle. These people have no overarching strategy, Antonio, or at best a laughably bad one, but they are devastatingly effective in their individual tactics. Attacking your apprentices again is foolish, pointless…”

“And entirely in character,” Basra finished, curling her lip. “Trissiny Avelea’s in that group. The greatest risk is an outcome that will let valuable witnesses or dangerous agents slip away. The girl’s improving under the Guild’s tutelage but she is not capable of containing this. Not yet.”

“Bloody hell,” Darling muttered. “Right then, I’ll head to the Church to coordinate. Quentin, you’ll have to check with your people… And Bas, I suppose all you can do is make for Sharvineh’s place and hope they’re still there.”

“If they’re not,” she said flatly, “it’ll mean those idiots have harmed one of my paladin’s little friends. In which case I’ll just have to follow the smoke and bloodstains.”


The sound cut through the noise of the increasingly agitated city, the rush of air over her wings, and even the gathering fury of the oncoming storm. It was both sweet and vile, a sound that was not quite a sound—something that Vadrieny knew, though she couldn’t recall how, was meant for her alone.

She was soaring above Puna Dara, and had been on her way back to the palace, when it appeared in the air all around. Now, she changed course, unconsciously zeroing in on the source of the high, thin noise. That, by itself, was bizarre; she had never been able to do that before. For a moment, she hesitated. In part to reassure herself that she could, and indeed, the sound had no hold over her; she swooped back toward the harbor, and immediately was blasted off course by a burst of wind that was very likely not a coincidence. The wind was the irate sea goddess’s doing, though; the sound was something else entirely. It was not coming from the sea.

It tugged at her, though, and she decided to investigate. If nothing else, this sudden intervention at this of all times demanded some kind of response.

Following it was as easy as falling; it was as if the noise left a trail through the air, like a scent to a bloodhound. Vadrieny swooped toward a flat roof in Puna Dara’s market district. Even through the rain starting to fill the air, she clearly saw a figure standing there alone, wearing a white suit.

And holding up a bell wrought from black metal.

She arced high overhead, then abruptly plummeted down, spreading her wings at the last moment to slow herself and land with a solid thump, but not enough force to crash through.

“You have some nerve,” the archdemon snarled.

“Me?” Embras Mogul lowered his peculiar bell, putting on a wounded expression. “I have some nerve? One of us just spat in a goddess’s eye, young lady, and it wasn’t me. That was an impressive move, incidentally, trapping Naphthene in her own nature. She doesn’t dare invite the Dark Lady’s personal fury by striking you directly, not standing apart from the Pantheon as she does, but she also cannot ignore a challenge that direct. Very clever. Which, of course, is how I know it was Teal’s idea.”

“What do you want?” she snapped. “I am busy and have nothing to say to you unless you want to discuss your betrayal in Veilgrad.”

“I’ve never betrayed you in Veilgrad or anywhere else, you little thug,” the warlock replied, his smile abruptly vanishing. “I saved your friends’ lives by keeping them away from those chaos freaks. Furthermore, you know this quite well, and these histrionics are unworthy of you. Let me explain some things to you, Vadrieny. Your mother’s orders are that you be kept out of the events unfolding in the world, now that you don’t have your sisters’ protection. It’s not in my power to keep you out, but I am certainly barred from drawing you in. More to the point, you are the absolute last creature I want mucking around in my carefully laid plans. You’ve never been anything but a flying ball of brute force. How much esteem do you think the cult of the goddess of cunning ever had for you?” He actually took an aggressive step toward her, tilting his head up to glare at he from beneath the brim of his omnipresent hat, which somehow remained firmly attached to his bald head despite the gathering gale. “Would you like to learn how many of your sisters tried to arrange for your demise, hmm? Lucky for you, Azradeh had a soft spot for you from the beginning, and she was by far the smartest of the lot, which is saying something. I bet you can guess who the least clever was.”

“Are you serious?” she said incredulously, too astonished to be hurt. “You called me down here, in the middle of all this, just to insult me?”

“I am making a point,” he retorted. “You think everything I do is calculated to manipulate you toward my own ends, because you’ve absorbed the Church’s paranoia about your mother’s own cult. Look at it from my point of view, Vadrieny. If you were me, would you want you to…” He curled his lip. “…help?”

“I wonder,” she said, stepping toward him, “if I took your head off, would that finally prompt my mother to speak to me? It’s beginning to sound increasingly worth trying. She has some things I want explained.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind and you know it,” he snorted. “Teal could never bear that. I called you here, Vadrieny, because somebody wants a word with you. Somebody who means you no good. I have decided to make it easier for him to find you explicitly so that I can supervise this conversation—not because I have nothing better to be doing right now, but because your mother wants you looked after to the best of our ability.”

“Who are you talking about?” she demanded.

His eyes cut past her shoulder, beneath the fiery arch of her wing, and he nodded once.

She whirled to find herself facing a wood elf wearing a pinstriped suit and an insolent grin, who had definitely not been there when she approached from above. His blonde hair was slicked back in a style that popular fiction associated with sleazy salesmen and Thieves’ Guild enforcers; whatever held it in place was apparently more than a match for the wind howling in off the sea.

“Top of the morning to ya!” the elf said with ebullient cheer. “I just caught the tail end of that, but damn am I impressed! And not a little bit envious, I don’t mind admitting. Flipping off an actual deity is still on my to-do list. If I may be forgiven for presuming, I bet your mom is damn proud of you, missy.”

Vadrieny narrowed her eyes, then half-turned her head to speak over her shoulder.

“What, exactly, is this?”

“Calls himself the Jackal,” Mogul said disdainfully. “Murder for hire. Good at what he does and good for absolutely nothing else.”

“Somebody’s in a spiteful mood today,” the assassin said with a wink. “But anyway, Miss Vadrieny, I won’t take up too much of your time—I am here on behalf of my current long-term employer to deliver a message.”

“I don’t think I want to hear—”

“Chase Masterson has been outed as the Sleeper,” he said, raising his voice slightly over both her protest and the howl of the wind, and Vadrieny immediately fell silent, flexing her claws. “But wait, it gets better! He has also been recruited by the Imperial government and directed to Tiraas. Furthermore, your dear Professor Tellwyrn is on her way to kill his ass. If she gets to him first…no justice, and no cure for the sleeping curse.”

“Nonsense,” Vadrieny snapped. “Professor Tellwyrn would never do something so—”

His howl of derisive laughter tore through the wind. “Are you serious? Tellwyrn would never do something so…what? Reckless? Destructive? Selfish? Thoughtless? That is her entire three-thousand-year resume! Sure, she’s made a good show of acting like a civilized person the last few decades—more’s the pity, she used to be fun—but this is bigger than you, Masterson, or even her. People are pulling strings who know exactly what strings to pull and exactly how hard, and trust me, it’s not all that hard to make a creature like Tellwyrn revert to form. But hey, maybe you’re right! Maybe it’s all under control. Maybe you aren’t the only one who can get to Masterson first, deliver him to Narisian justice and secure the remedy for your lover. Excuse me, wife. Felicitations, by the way, sorry I missed the reception.”

“I don’t mind people trying to manipulate me,” Vadrieny snarled, “but being this blunt about it is just insulting my intelligence.”

“Lemme just draw a distinction there,” the Jackal said, holding up one finger. “I am acting on the orders of my employer, whom I do not like and about whose agenda I do not give one single fuck. In fact, I think it’d be smashing if he doesn’t get what he wants, for a change, so I’m gonna go ahead and offer you a little insight. Yes, he is trying to manipulate you, and not just you. Like I said, Tellwyrn’s strings are being yanked as well. Shit’s going down in both Puna Dara and Last Rock right now, and the guy holding my leash would prefer that it stay good and messy in both spots for a while longer. That means sending a wild goose to Tiraas that you and Tellwyrn can’t help chasing after: the Sleeper. You two are the most physically dangerous players in each location and getting you both out of the way is a means of making life harder for your various allies and prolonging the conflict.”

“Generous of you to be so…helpful,” Mogul said in a tone almost dry as the sky had been an hour ago.

“Let’s just say,” the Jackal drawled, “there are changes in the wind. I may be bound to…what’s his name…for now, but eventually he will go down. They all do, in the end. I wouldn’t mind if it’s remembered, at that time, that I am not his obedient lapdog.”

Vadrieny shifted sideways and stepped back, to keep both of them in view, but cocked her head slightly in Mogul’s direction.

“He’s been on permanent retainer for Archpope Justinian for the last few years,” the warlock said flatly. “Quite secretly, of course. This is the kind of man the Archpope cannot admit to consorting with.”

“A less credible accusation I’ve never heard,” she sneered. “You would blame the Archpope for the rain if you could get away with it.”

The Jackal chuckled. “If Embras Mogul starts blaming Vernisites for everything going wrong, that’s how you know he’s letting personal vendettas cloud his judgment. Anything else he has to say, you’d be wise to heed. I speak purely in the abstract, of course,” he added with a wink. “About this specific matter I have no comment.”

“The more I learn about Justinian,” Mogul added in a more thoughtful tone, “the more I suspect he is not actually on the Pantheon’s side.”

“Welp, sounds like you crazy kids have your own stuff to work out,” the Jackal said brightly. “Family stuff, religious stuff, and that’s a doozy of a combo if I ever heard one. I’ll leave you to it. Cheers!”

Vadrieny jerked toward him, but the elf had already produced a shadow-jumping talisman from his pocket and begun twisting it. He was grinning madly at her even as darkness swelled and swept him from view.

She halted, glaring at the space he had occupied. At this angle, she was facing the sea; the horizon was growing darker with a line of stormclouds that was coming ashore fast.

“No, I can’t help your friends,” Mogul said behind her. “I cannot imagine a scenario in which they would let me. Several of them chose to be even more unreasonable about Veilgrad than you are, which is really saying something.”

“I didn’t ask,” she said, turning to scowl at him.

“We are going to assist in keep the mess in Last Rock under control,” he continued.

“I don’t want you going near—”

“That is not up to you,” Mogul interrupted. “Just because I have to protect you doesn’t mean you get to order me around, missy. The Wreath has a vested interest in Tellwyrn’s research program; with that threatened, we will move to back her up. What you do now, with this warning, is entirely your call. Personally, I would ignore it.”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned to look again at the harbor. The Rock rose up from the shoreline, dominating the city; just past it, she could see the serpent, already struggling visibly to maintain its course in the increasingly choppy waters. In that fortress, her friends would be awaiting her return, already prepared to head into the tunnels.

Mogul sighed so heavily it was audible over the weather. “If you are going hunting, Vadrieny, either the Sleeper or the Rust… There’s something you should know. That sonic magic you have, the reason we chose to pair you with a bard…” He held up the bell again and shook it, causing that chime to resonate through her. “If nothing else, let me show you a trick.”

 

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13 – 24

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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