5 – 14

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Joe hunched his shoulders, trying to lift up the high collar of his coat to the brim of his hat and offer his ears some protection from the Tiraan cold. The coat was new, and pleasingly thick—a necessary adaptation to the climate—but he’d lacked the foresight to invest in a scarf or gloves. The weather in Sarasio made such considerations unthinkable, and so he hadn’t thought them. He was kicking himself now.

The sidewalks in this ritzy neighborhood had been cleared of ice, so he felt safe in accelerating his pace, the better to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. Carriages and riders passed him on the road now and again, but no one else was braving the elements on foot, which spared him the effort of removing his hat should a lady pass. Manners came before comfort, but he could still be grateful that the need didn’t arise. Any other time, he might have peered around appreciatively at the graceful houses with their elegant gardens; despite having grown up in a rough town, he couldn’t help feeling that all this was much more to his taste. The girls back at the Shady Lady would give him no end of ribbing for that…

The right house wasn’t difficult to find; he’d memorized the address, the old brownstones were clearly numbered, and the street was logically laid out. The gate at the correct address was unlatched and standing open a couple of inches in unspoken invitation. Joe carefully restored it to the same position behind himself after slipping through, crossed the narrow garden in a few strides and pulled the bellrope.

He had only a couple of seconds to wait on the little porch before the door opened, revealing a young ginger-haired woman in a black-and-gray suit.

“Mr. Jenkins?” she said. “Welcome; you are expected. Do come in.”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, removing his hat as he stepped inside. Faint social discomfort nagged at him; she was obviously some sort of servant, but he wasn’t about to relax his standards with regard to the treatment of ladies. It worsened when she deftly helped him out of his overcoat; Joe tried not to shuffle his feet awkwardly as she hung it and his hat on a peg in the hall alongside several others. He was accustomed to doing for himself.

“This way, please,” she said, indicating a short hallway splitting off near the stairs to the second floor. “The Bishop and the rest of your party await.”

“I’m not late, am I?” he asked uncertainly. He’d been careful to allow himself plenty of time…

“Not at all, sir. Please, make yourself comfortable within. Refreshments shall be provided momentarily.”

Joe nodded to her and stepped warily through the indicated door. It was a well-appointed parlor with blue patterned wallpaper, tastefully furnished and just short of crowded; the group wasn’t large, but neither was the space. He had only a moment to gather impressions before his host descended upon him.

“Mr. Jenkins! I’m so glad you could come. Please, have a seat, enjoy the fire. I hope the Rail ride wasn’t excessively horrible.”

“Could’ve been worse,” he replied, carefully eying the man now vigorously shaking his hand. Antonio Darling was blond and well-groomed, wearing an open and honest expression of the kind that, in Joe’s experience, honest people seldom used. “Thanks. Hope I didn’t keep everyone waiting.”

“Well, you’re the last one here. What do you think?” The speaker was a man in a dark suit who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, to judge by his face, unlined but set in a disgruntled expression that gave the impression of being habitual. He had a somewhat scruffy goatee set in a wash of five o’clock shadow, and brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. What appeared to be a guitar case leaned against his chair.

“Oh, don’t be any more’ve a dick than you can help,” said a gnomish woman perched on the arm of the couch, reaching over to swat the man’s knee. “We’re all early; no need to criticize the boy fer bein’ the only one with the good manners to show up on time.” She grinned and winked at Joe, who smiled tentatively in response. He’d never met a gnome before. She wore what he’d have thought of as men’s work clothes, with an improbable pair of thick goggles perched atop her reddish hair.

Joe sank into the only available seat, on the couch between the gnome and the only other woman present, nodding at each of them and doing his best not to stare. The other woman was an elf; she had upward-pointing ears like the wood elves he was used to, but was dressed in the style of the plains tribes, in bleached and fringed buckskins with faintly dyed vertical patterns that would have provided camouflage in the tallgrass. Most strikingly, her hair was black. She gazed at him contemplatively for a moment before nodding back, face expressionless.

The other man present, sitting across the low table from him in another chair, nodded as well. He was an aging fellow in a ragged suit that had once been of good quality, his brown face deeply lined and fringed by a neatly-trimmed white beard. An impressive wizard’s staff leaned against the arm of his chair, inches from his hand.

“Welcome, everyone,” said Bishop Darling, returning to his own seat at the head of the table, a position from which he effectively commanded the room. “Now that we’re all here, allow me to introduce everybody! I, of course, am Antonio Darling, Bishop of the Universal Church and your host. It’s good of you all to come; I apologize for the short notice and appreciate your flexibility.”

“I’m as flexible as needed when properly bribed,” said the lean man in the black suit.

“Indeed,” replied Darling with a smile. “This, of course, is Damian Weaver. Occupying the other chair is Elias McGraw, and on the sofa, our new arrival Joseph Jenkins, the irrepressible Wilhelmina Fallowstone—”

“That’s Billie, to those who don’t want their kneecaps blasted off,” said the gnome, grinning and punching Joe in the arm. For such a tiny person, she hit hard.

“And, finally, Mary the Crow, who presumably has another name but declines to share it.”

“I offered you my name once, if you’ll recall,” said the elf mildly. “You weren’t interested.”

“Forgive me, dear, I’m not quite myself when mind controlled. By definition.” There was something icy in Darling’s smile; Mary smiled in return, evidently in complete calm. “We’ll have tea and biscuits out in just a moment, but for now, I imagine you’re all curious why I asked you to join us.”

“I might be mistaken,” said McGraw, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But given the roster you’ve assembled, I’d have to guess you want something difficult, dangerous and possibly of questionable legality accomplished.” Joe silently agreed. He had heard, of course, of every one of these people; he’d grown up on the stories of their exploits. Being intimidated by the company he kept was a new experience for him, but he found himself tongue-tied.

“The legality of what I want is something of a gray area,” said Darling with a grin, “but we’ll come to that in a moment. There’s an important background to this that you should understand before we get to discussing any specific tasks. Ah, thank you, Price.”

The girl in the suit had returned bearing a tray of tea and cookies, which she set on the low table and made a discreet exit. The Bishop began pouring tea and handing out cups as he continued.

“I’m sure you heard about the recent rash of murders in Tiraas, targeting clerics in supposedly secure areas.”

“I followed that rather closely,” McGraw said, nodding.

“I didn’t,” said Weaver. “Murders? What happened?”

“The details are gruesome and mostly irrelevant,” Darling continued, his expression solemn. “The short version is that virtually anyone associated with the Church or a major cult who was both known to be involved in some kind of shady business and had taken part in operations against the Black Wreath has been wiped out. Most were killed inside actual temples, where they by all rights ought to have been safe from warlocks or even assassins.”

“Sounds like the Wreath made themselves useful for once,” said Billie, grinning. “Is this still goin’ on? I’ve been out east for the last few months.”

“Not that I’ve heard,” said McGraw. “the assassinations trailed off a couple weeks ago. Almost as suddenly as they started.”

“What’s reasonably sure is that this was beyond the capability of the Black Wreath itself,” Darling said, folding his hands in his lap now that everyone had their tea. “If they could do stuff like that on a whim, they’d likely have been doing it for lo these many years. His Holiness the Archpope is of the opinion the Wreath contracted with high-level, extremely dangerous adventurers to do the deeds themselves. Two such, the assassin known as the Jackal and our friend Mary, here, were known to be in the city during these events.”

The five of them exchanged a round of wary glances. Well, four of them; Mary seemed calm to the point of being disinterested.

“High-level adventurers,” McGraw said at last. “A fella could almost take that for an accusation, your Grace.”

“Oh, don’t be dense,” Weaver snorted. “If he thought we were priest-killers of that caliber, he wouldn’t have put himself in a room with all of us, Butler or no Butler.”

“Lemme stop ya there,” said Billie. “’Priestkiller’ is the common name for a gnagrethyct, a particularly nasty bugger of a demon. Not something you wanna accidentally bring up in the wrong company, ‘specially when the Black Wreath is being discussed.”

“Why, thank you, Miss Fallowstone,” Weaver said with saccharine disdain. “I do so enjoy a spot of aimless pedantry with my tea.”

“Enough,” Mary said quietly. “Focus.”

“I bring this up,” Darling went on, “to explain Archpope Justinian’s newest project. There just aren’t that many adventuring types left in the world, at least not of the caliber of those of you can claim. You five represent a significant chunk of those who are still in the business, so to speak.”

“I’m out of the business,” Weaver cut in, “and I’m still waiting to hear about what you offered to tempt me back in.”

“I am coming to that,” the Bishop assured him. “His Holiness has decided that if the likes of you are still going to exist in this world, they should work for the Church, or not at all. Those who can be recruited, he plans to use to deal with those who refuse. I am responsible for executing this program.”

Another silence fell, this one colder; now, they all stared at Darling. The expressions were not friendly.

“A fella could take that for a threat,” McGraw said grimly.

“Same objection applies,” Weaver mused. “You’re not quite daft enough to threaten us all to our faces, are you, Darling?”

“Indeed,” said the Bishop with a knowing smile. “I should point out that it is Justinian’s grand idea. I am the man in charge of making it happen.”

“It’s unclear to me why that hair needs to be split,” Joe said quietly.

“Is it truly?” Mary asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He’s not gonna just come out and say it,” said Weaver with a smug little smile. “One doesn’t just up and tell a bunch of dangerous strangers that one isn’t completely in the pocket of one’s nigh-omnipotent boss.”

“Let’s just say that my warning you all of this is a good faith offering,” Darling said smoothly. “You all know, now, which way the wind is blowing, and have some time to arrange your affairs to deal with it in whatever fashion you will. I, for my part, have a much more personal matter for which I would like to employ your skills. Justinian’s adventurer project means I can justify making the Church’s resources—and funds—available to you if you should choose to help me with this goal, and while you are officially on a Church payroll, you are assured not to be a target.”

“Uh huh,” Billie said wryly. “And once you hook us, we’re good an’ hooked. We leave, the rest hunt us down, yeah?”

“Nope,” said Weaver, pausing to sip his tea. “The hell I’m going to mix it up with any of you lot, I don’t care who’s paying or how much. And if I walk out of this deal, be it right now or after a long series of engagements together, I will go straight back to Last Rock and screw anybody who wants to try and dig me out.”

“Gonna go back to hidin’ under Arachne’s skirts, then, eh?” asked Billie with a smirk.

“First of all,” Weaver replied, looking down his nose at her, “there is no shame in taking advantage of the protection of an extraordinarily powerful and cranky individual, and second, you’d take position behind her skirts too if you knew what an exquisite little butt she has.”

“Language,” Joe said coldly. Everyone turned to stare at him. “Let’s consider what kinds of conversation are appropriate in the presence of ladies.”

They continued to stare. Finally, though, Mary smiled.

“Oh, this one is absolutely adorable,” Weaver said at last, grinning unpleasantly.

“He ain’t exactly wrong, however,” McGraw noted. “If you can’t be a gentleman, at least show a little restraint. And in any case, all this is cuttin’ into our host’s exposition, which I for one would like to hear.”

“Thank you,” said Darling gravely, his lips twitching with repressed humor. “I’m not going to make you any guarantees about what the future may hold. Suffice it to say that for right now, I’m offering the prospect of sanctuary from the Archpope’s bad list and the opportunity to profit considerably.”

“What’s the job, then?” asked Billie, cocking her head to the side.

Darling smiled beatifically. “I want to hire you to deal with a dragon.”

“Oh, hell yes!” she crowed, hopping up to stand on the couch and grinning with manic glee.

“Hell, no,” said Weaver, standing and setting his teacup on the arm of the chair. “Include me out. I have been on more than my share of suicidal exploits, thank you. There’s not enough gold in the Imperial treasury.”

“Please!” Darling held up a hand. “Everyone, please. Sit, allow me to explain. I wouldn’t presume to drag you all out here with only the offer of something as pedestrian as money. Recall that the telescrolls I sent to each of you indicated that far more valuable forms of payment would be rendered.”

“Knowledge,” Mary said quietly. Weaver and Billie sank back into their respective seats, both studying Darling very carefully now.

“Knowledge,” the Bishop said, nodding. “As a high-ranking official of the Universal Church, I have access to certain resources of an oracular nature.”

“Bullshit,” Weaver said, smiling pleasantly.

“Language,” Joe said automatically.

“Hush, child.”

Mary shifted in her seat. “He speaks truth…at least partially. The Archpopes have been accumulating oracles of all kinds for centuries; that is precisely why they are so rare in the world at large. I am surprised to learn that anyone besides Justinian himself has access to them, however.”

“That is a fairly recent development,” Darling admitted. “But think about it: my claim is its own proof. Each of you wants something, some specific piece of knowledge that, for all your skills and powers, you have not been able to acquire yourselves. Billie wants to know a location; the Kid is hunting for a name, Longshot for a method. The Crow seeks the elaborate answer to a deceptively simple question, and Gravestone wants nothing less than to spit in the eye of a major god without suffering the obvious consequences; he only needs to know how. And assuredly, none of you have let it be known what you’re all after. How, then, did I find out enough of your desires to tempt you out here?”

The Bishop leaned back in his chair, hands folded before him, wearing a smile that was half serene and half smug.

“And knowing what I seek to know,” Mary said softly, “you would still help me learn it?”

“I will, if you agree to accept my terms, do my best to uncover your answer and deliver it to you honestly and in full,” Darling said gravely. “In your case, however, I make no promises about what else I may do with that information.”

“Hm,” she mused, but spoke no further.

“I am similarly skeptical,” Weaver commented. “You described my ambitions pretty well. I’m finding it hard to believe a man of the Church would be willing to help me in that.”

“The Church, though it tends to forget this fact, is ultimately just an administrative convenience,” said Darling with a grin. “It’s there to help the various cults coordinate and avoid conflict. It’s not my god you’re looking to thwart; I don’t figure it’s any of my business how you feel or act toward other faiths.”

“And after we deal with this dragon of yours, we get our answers?” McGraw said, peering at the Bishop through narrowed eyes.

“That is the somewhat thorny issue,” Darling admitted. “I don’t know if any of you have ever tried to extract a straight answer on a factual subject from an oracle, but it’s very much like pulling teeth. Rectally.”

“Convenient,” Billie noted. “And bloody disgusting metaphor, by the way. I might just borrow that one myself.”

“Be my guest,” Darling said with a smile. “Getting your answers, in all honestly, is likely to be a longer-term project than wrangling Khadizroth.”

“Khadizroth the Green?” Weaver exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, you don’t ask for much, do you?”

“What I mean,” Darling pressed on, “is that what I am offering does, indeed, imply a longer-term cooperation between us. For your immediate help, however, there will, as I said, be ample remuneration, provided by the Church.”

Another quiet fell.

“Tempting,” McGraw said, stroking his beard. “Very tempting. Also tricky and potentially problematic in several different ways.”

“If by that you mean it’s a big fat trap, then I agree,” Weaver said grimly. “I’ve not quite made up my mind whether the bait is juicy enough to lunge for.”

“By all means, you should take time to think it over,” Darling said smoothly. “In fact, talk amongst yourselves without me present. I do have certain time constraints, but I certainly won’t begrudge you taking the day to consider.”

“A whole day, eh?” Billie said dryly. “Well, that’s downright magnanimous of you.”

“Time is, as I indicated, a factor.”

“Welp!” She set aside her plate and hopped down from the couch; on the floor, she wasn’t tall enough to see over its back. “If we’re done here for the time being, how’s about us honored guests toddle off and have a high-level adventurin’ lunch? Seems we’ve got notes to compare.”

Weaver sighed. “Might as well, I guess.”

“I for one would welcome some additional perspective,” Joe murmured.

“Perfect!” the gnome grinned up at him. “I know just the place.”


 

“Hey there, neighbor!” Kheshiri said cheerfully, popping out of a side room.

Saduko jerked away from her, skittering almost to the opposite side of the hall, and the succubus tittered in amusement. It was a reaction of pure revulsion, not startlement—the enchantress had proven quite difficult to surprise. The demon was in her disguise as the local girl Shiri, a pretty young woman who had no apparent reason to arouse such a reaction. Luckily for Saduko, they were alone in this particular hallway.

“Why are you off your leash?” Saduko demanded coldly.

“Oh, Master’s off playing with his wands again,” Kheshiri said, pouting. “I swear, all he does anymore is gossip with Vandro and blast artificial targets. I’m just about crawling up the walls with boredom.”

“That is neither my problem nor of any interest to me,” the woman said with her customary Sifanese reserve. They weren’t quite as cold as drow, but they had stern ideas about proper behavior. “Leave me be, creature. I have no wish to interact with you outside of planning sessions.”

“Or even then?” Kheshiri asked, grinning. Saduko merely turned and strode away. “That’s a shame,” the succubus said cheerfully, falling into step behind her, “because I find you very interesting. What ever can you be up to, sneaking about the way you do?”

Saduko’s shoulders stiffened—almost imperceptibly, but Kheshiri was finely attuned to the tiniest shifts of body language. She grinned savagely, enjoying the effects of her needling. “It’s how good you are at it that caught my attention. People sneaking around clumsily are dull; they almost never lead to anything good. Just fools having affairs and stealing things, mostly. But you? No uncomfortable glances around, no awkwardness or fumbling, you just very skillfully manage to be coming and going from empty places all the time, just when nobody’s there to catch you. How very fascinating. I just can’t resist a puzzle.”

“In the courts of Kiyosan, discretion is a priceless skill,” Saduko said icily. “One must step lightly and know how to avoid attention, or one does not survive, must less prosper.”

“There, see!” Kheshiri said brightly, running a few steps to bring herself alongside the woman. “Already you’re sharing things about yourself. I feel very close to you. We’re making progress!”

“I explain the minimum that I must, because you will make trouble otherwise,” the woman snapped. “Now leave me.”

“Aw, don’t be like that. Whatever you’re after, you just might find I can help. I’m a helpful kind of girl!”

Saduko came to a stop, reached into the collar of her shirt and pulled out a necklace, a silver ankh on a thin twisted chain. She thrust this at Kheshiri, chanting a few words in Sifanese.

Kheshiri yelped and staggered backward against the wall; her facade rippled, momentarily exposing glimpses of her milky complexion and sharp features through her disguise. The shadow of wings flickered behind her for a bare second.

“That,” she snarled, “is rude.”

Saduko smiled coldly. “I attempted the polite approach first, for all that things such as you deserve no such consideration. Now leave, before I am forced to be truly insistent.”

“See you when I see you, then,” the succubus sneered, and faded into invisibiliy.

Saduko stood staring at the place where she had been for a moment, then glanced warily around the hall before turning to continue on her way.

At the next intersection, she suddenly spun, yanking out the ankh again and brandishing it, snapping out her chant.

“Dammit!” Kheshiri squawked, popping into visibility a mere few feet away and staggering backward.

“You have entirely consumed your meager allotment of my patience,” Saduko said, glaring at her. “I am also carrying a wand, creature. If I have to dissuade you from meddling a third time, I shall be forced to assume the holy symbol is insufficient for the task.”

“You are not nearly as clever as you think,” Kheshiri growled. “A smart person would make allies out of enemies, not the other way around.”

Saduko didn’t even bother to answer this time, reaching into her pocket and drawing out a short wand. Its stubby shaft couldn’t hold a large power crystal nor provide sufficient carving space for the runes that would improve its range and accuracy, but it’d be more than adequate for delivering crippling electric shocks from a few feet away.

“Fine!” Kheshiri snapped, backing away. “Your loss, bitch. When it counts, remember I made the offer.” She faded from view again, continuing to retreat as she did so.

For a moment, she feared the woman would fire the wand into the apparently empty hall for certainty’s sake, but after another few seconds of suspiciously staring about, she pocketed it again and went on her way.

The succubus, of course, followed her all the way to her room.

At the door, Saduko played her little trick with the ankh again, holding it up and delivering the singsong blessing as before. Kheshiri, waiting invisibly a few feet away, grinned in silence. Very few people ever actually encountered demons; in this age of scrolltowers, newspapers and mass-printed novels, a lot of folk had acquired some truly absurd notions in lieu of the survival knowledge their ancestors might have had. For example, when dealing with demons, faith counted for nothing; you needed power. That demanded a pact with some god or other, which it was clear that Saduko did not have.

Satisfied that she had at last driven off her pursuer, the enchantress began unlocking her door, and Kheshiri did a quick survey of their surroundings to see what she could use. Potted plants, wall hangings, windows… Ah, windows with unsecured shutters. They were in a hallway near the back of the estate; as with most places in Onkawa, the window was large and left open by default to admit a cooling breeze. Kheshiri slipped silently over to it, leaned out and took a grip on the shutter.

As Saduko opened her door, she yanked. The shutter clattered against the window frame, simulating an errant gust of wind, an illusion aided by the powerful flap of the demon’s wings, which it effectively disguised.

The children of Vanislaas were gifted with the power to shift into any shape worn by their erstwhile species—that is, they could disguise themselves only as humans. Kheshiri, never one to be content with any limitations placed upon her, had pressed the boundaries of what was acceptable and possible to the point that even those trained at handling incubi and succubi had often been completely blindsided by her tricks. In a way, that had been her downfall; ultimately, the Black Wreath had found her too interesting (and too potentially useful) to simply destroy, but far too dangerous to leave running around loose. Thus she had been cornered and bound to that damned reliquary.

Now, the thing she shifted into was human, technically—a human a bare few weeks into its earliest development cycle. Her timing was perfect: once propelled forward into the air by the beat of her wings, she shed nearly the entirety of her mass in a display that made a shameless mockery of physics, shriveling to a tiny blob of invisible flesh. Immediately she was blind, deaf and totally helpless, the zygote unable to do anything but exist, and that not for long in the open air. It wouldn’t take more than a second, however. As Saduko spun to stare at the banging shutter, the little lump that was Kheshiri sailed right over her head, through her open door and into her room.

Unable to see, she had to guess at the timing, but she was well-practiced at such dicey maneuvers. Just inside the door, Kheshiri snapped invisibly back to her true shape, spreading her wings to halt her forward momentum. There was, of course, no space to glide, but she had ample room to come to a midair halt, clasp the thick beams supporting the high ceiling and swing herself up onto it, where she crouched catlike, wings compressing against her back. Barely a second had passed; to Saduko, the tiny sound of moving air this caused was only a continuation of the same gust that had startled her in the first place.

Satisfied, the enchantress stepped into her chambers, closing and locking the door behind her, oblivious to the demoness crouching above. Kheshiri could feel the lines of power trapping the walls and windows, the spells that would alert their mistress if the door’s frame, hinges or lock were manhandled, even the few miscellaneous enchantments on the carpet ready to impede the unwary. Saduko hadn’t exaggerated her resume, clearly; she was a very competent spellcaster when it came to security. She’d neglected, however, to provide measures to warn her of anyone passing through a door that she herself had opened, and as Kheshiri had learned long ago and many times since applied to her own benefit, nobody ever looked up.

The enchantress made a quick visual check of her room, no doubt ensuring that her spells were all active. Lucky that she hadn’t added anything specifically to detect demons, especially since she knew she was sharing a house with one and clearly wasn’t happy about it. It had been a gamble, risking that, but anti-demon measures were divine magic; few arcanists had reliable tricks in that line, and hardly any of those were as young as Saduko. Kheshiri noted with some satisfaction that her room wasn’t nearly as large as Shook’s suite, nor as well-appointed.

Her smugness vanished when Saduko knelt before a small cabinet, taking nearly a minute to disarm protective spells and open it, and drew out a tiny idol. The faint, acrid crawl of nearby divinity stung her while the enchantress prayed. No priestess was she, but sincere enough in her faith that her meditations attracted some small amount of her god’s attention.

Kheshiri slunk backward as far and as silently as she could, till she was huddled against the wall, barely clinging to the beam, and poured as much concentration as she could manage into her invisibility, even reaching into her rarely-used gifts for deflecting divine detection, tricks she had learned from an unwary Elilinist warlock ages ago. She didn’t fear the bombast of Avei, the pursuit of Shaath or the various eccentricities of most of the gods, but this one… This one was savvy. He didn’t fling his power around, but he kept an eye on his people, and they were capable enough to be treated with caution.

Despite her discomfort and fear, Kheshiri’s imagination bloomed with this revelation, and with new possibilities.

People in the Empire tended to think the Empire was the world. It was understandable; in addition to being the planet’s most politically powerful government, Tiraas housed the leader and central offices of the Universal Church, as well as those of nearly all the Pantheon’s cults. It was easy to overlook the fact that the cults existed outside this continent.

Which, she reflected as Saduko tucked away her little idol of Eserion and set about re-sealing its housing, made this a wonderfully clever ploy on the part of the Thieves’ Guild; send in a foreigner to infiltrate Vandro’s operations, and nobody would think to wonder if she might be one of theirs. Even if they did, it was unlikely Vandro had the capacity to check up on her history in Kiyosan—if that was even where she came from. Saduko’s accent was right, but accents could be faked, and there were more than a handful of ethnic Sifanese born and raised in the Empire.

It seemed that Kheshiri wasn’t the only party interested in derailing the planned heist for her own benefit. She was going to have competition and no end of trouble. This whole thing had just gotten immeasurably more complicated. Even as she began pondering the problem of getting out of this room undetected and unscathed, Kheshiri grinned to herself.

Oh, the fun she was going to have.

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21 thoughts on “5 – 14

  1. If you support gambit pileups, vote for The Gods are Bastards! I very much appreciate everyone’s support. This week, thanks to your voting, we briefly edged out the Zombie Knight and were nipping at the heels of Pact. That’s a huge deal, to me! Topwebfiction is by far my biggest source of new readers; every vote helps me out.

    I’ve been wanting to start a system of posting bonus chapters (of which plenty more are owed) on Saturdays and Sundays, but most weeks I just don’t have the energy when the time rolls around. I feel bad about sitting down to write and coming up dry, especially when I think about the famous work ethics of the likes of L. Ron Hubbard or Nora Roberts, who apparently writes eight hours a day, seven days a week, no exceptions. Then I reassure myself with the knowledge that neither of those is considered a great name in literature, no matter how prolific. End of the day, I’d rather put out work I’m proud of than strain my creative faculties just to produce wordcounts.

    My hours at work were cut a little last week, so I actually had extra time and energy to write… But I’m still using the dinky computer that hurts my wrists and eyeballs to work with. Got the call from the computer hospital today that my laptop is fixed and I’ll have it back by tomorrow! So happy for that. But then my work schedule is back to normal. Bleh…

    What I’m leaning toward right now is doing a week of bonus chapters in between every book rather than in between every volume. Nice way to break up the story and flesh out the background of the world and characters. What do you think? Good idea, or would you rather just have main story content as quickly as possible?

    Regardless, everyone have a safe and hearty weekend and I’ll see you Monday!

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    1. I absolutely adore world-building and interludes that show the setting/main story/main characters from new perspectives. My vote is very much for this proposed system that has more of that.

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    2. The story’s moving on just fine. I’d like to have a couple of questions answered in bonus chapters or otherwise, starting with what by Vidius’ lower mask is a Butler???

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    3. Bonus chapters are cool, though sometimes a little jarring – I haven’t been able to think of Juniper the same way since we saw her TORTURE SOMEONE TO DEATH in Heart Of The Wild. The greater risk is that they can sometimes feel a little exposition-y (I understand that their purpose is, in fact, exposition, but there’s such a thing as subtlety). Infodumps are something this story sometimes struggles with anyway (the lecture scenes being the most serious offenders), so I’d be careful with that.

      That being said, the world of TGAB is interesting enough that I don’t actually mind the infodumps, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  2. This is like two heist movies in parallel.😀

    If you want to get a lot of votes, you can always copy what Unillustrated does with Citadel: Hide the newest chapter behind a vote barrier as “bonus” and people will have to vote for your story just to read it. Can’t say I’m overly fond of it but it catapulted the story to #1 within weeks.

    That being said… I don’t think the ranking says everything about the quality of a story. Or if it appeals to the reader. TGAB is easily the best one on the list, in my opinion, and I read almost all the others, too.

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    1. I appreciate the compliment! But honestly, the vote barrier thing is not in the cards. I find that practice skeevy and dishonest; it’s requiring people to cast their support for something before having decided whether they want to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you there. I hope no other story copies that practice because then everyone else will have to.

        Like

      2. I’ve been messing around with it, and honestly I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, pretty much every serial I keep up with I’m happy to vote for. While I make a point of always voting for TGAB because it’s my favorite, I don’t end up consistently voting for other serials that I do read, like twisted cogs and twig, because I’ll often just read the chapters via rss or wordpress reader. For citadel, it’s kinda annoying because it updates three times a week, but I really don’t mind voting in exchange for reading a week farther ahead, I’m already getting a great story for free.
        Personally, I really don’t find it skeevy or dishonest, just kinda annoying to setup and maintain because it requires a few more minutes of messing around with links each update. My greatest worry is that it’ll lead to a link arms-race of sorts. If everyone begins adopting the vote barrier, then we’ll see stories on the bottom always above 10 votes, which will make breaking into TWF more difficult. At this point, I think I’m going to move toward making the vote barrier optional, just give people the links to both the next chapter and the vote-then-read link in the same place.

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  3. Hmm: how many irons does Eserion have in any given fire? I’d say his fingerprints are everywhere, but I’m pretty sure he knows to use gloves.😛

    And, if ever you feel tempted to downgrade to Hubbard to up the productivity, kindly put the mug down, please: overcaffeinated is a problem.😉

    Like

  4. Typos:

    bellrope
    usually bell rope

    invisibiliy
    invisibility

    spellcaster
    usually spell caster

    Reactions:

    Interesting that Mary has a lever. It is not surprising that Darling would use such means to motivate the various adventurers. What is surprising is his willingness to spill the beans on the Archpope’s plans. I understand why he did it, but if that sort of thing gets back to the Archpope then Darling is, at a minimum, going to be kicked out of the group and maybe killed.

    Gambit Powers Activate! Go Kheshiri!
    (not really, I just want to see the mess)

    Like

  5. Nice to finally see Darling’s crack team in one room, although we won’t really know what they’re capable of until we see them in action. It’s also just nice to see the Sarasio Kid again, walking cliche though he may be (I imagine there’s more to his character than what we’ve seen, but what we’ve seen seems decidedly Sue-ish to me).

    I find the use of the phrase “high-level adventurers” to mean “expert adventurers” interesting. It’s not really a term you’d apply to any other profession, is it? High-level authors, high-level programmers, high-level taxi drivers… businesspeople, perhaps, but there it refers to their place in their corporate hierarchy, as oppose to how good they are at their job.

    By the way, is this the first time we’ve gotten a physical description of Price? Because I was picturing her as middle-aged and dark-haired, and it kind of threw me.

    My threat estimate on Kheshiri just clicked up a notch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use that particular loophole in a “take any human form” power. And faking her reaction to the religious invocation was pretty clever, too.

    On that note, one has to wonder just how much deliberate misinformation is floating around about the various mysteries of the world in this setting. I’d never really considered it before, but my money is on “a lot”.

    Like

    1. Joe is one of my favorites. He’s a relative newcomer to the story, though; his introductory scenes were meant to establish how awesome he is, and now that he has an actual story role, we can begin to find out how flawed he is as well. That’s the best part of exploring a character.

      There is a fair amount of leaning on the fourth wall in this story. There are in-universe justifications pertaining to the interconnectedness of worlds, but that’s mostly for my own amusement as the whole thing has little story relevance. I may explore that a bit more in the sequel. Which, yes, there will be one, but we are so far from that even being a consideration.

      Price has been described briefly, to the effect that she’s a younger woman, a redhead and has rather elfin features. I don’t care to go into much more detail than that; I find I get better mileage from letting readers flex their own imaginations. She was really only described in passing, so I can well see those passages having been missed.

      And oh, yes, there is misinformation. Don’t trust anything you learn about from the mouth of a character. Especially the gods.

      Like

  6. A general update as we go into the weekend!

    My computer is back home and working. I am so, so happy. I can set my wrists comfortably on the keyboard! Nice flatscreen monitor not directly in my freaking face! Bliss.

    Been doing a lot of mental planning ahead on Book 5 during work today, as it was starting to feel a little unfocused. I think this may end up being the longest book yet in the series, perhaps pushing toward thirty chapters; I’ve started relentlessly axing any planned scenes that I don’t find entirely necessary. My rule for TGaB is that every chapter should contain either plot movement or significant character development, ideally both. I don’t want it to end up like Tales of MU, which is a great series (Alexandra Erin does absolutely brilliant character work), but long ago fell into the Inuyasha trap.

    There are a lot of things in Book 5 that excite me, though. Kheshiri and Shook in actual action rather than just standing around being assholes, worldbuilding on dragons, character development for the freshmen, notably Trissiny, Gabe and Juniper, and the Posse (Darling’s team) introduced and set to work. It’s all a little overwhelming, really; I’m gonna have to pace myself going forward. Maybe focus future storylines on smaller groups and only one or two at a time, though I also don’t want to end up like that one book in the Wheel of Time series that only featured a third of the cast. That’s the serial game: learning as I go, finding balance as best I can.

    Stay tuned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you got your computer back.🙂

      So far you’ve done an excellent job and I trust you to continue delivering a quality story. I like that you think about these things first, I’ve seen lots of authors writing themselves into a corner or going on long tangents.

      Tales of MU and Wheel of Time are two perfect examples of how not to write a long series. I still read it but… meh. The excitement is gone. Brandon Sanderson briefly managed to revive WoT but the final book was crap again, thanks to Jordan having it written already. Tales of MU… I have the feeling Alexandra has no fun writing it anymore and that shows.

      Anyway, I’m sure you won’t make those mistakes, your entire style is different.🙂

      Like

    2. I’m so happy you can now return to working for me for free in comfort.😛

      Book 5 sounds exciting to me, too. I’m particularly looking forward to more character development on Gabe, who I feel needs more love (from the narrative, I mean. Not from, say, dryads). I’m also curious to see what you do with Juniper, since I don’t feel I really get her yet.

      I can’t offer you any useful advice on balancing everything you have to get done, so… good luck?

      Like

    3. You can get a keyboard fairly cheaply, if a similar problem ever happens again. That way you at least spare your wrists. Monitors are a different story.

      Speaking of computer issues, have you backed up your files locally (external drive) or remotely? There are a number of sites that will allow you to do remote backup for free, Google drive for one.

      Like

  7. So, thoughts on the info they want? For reference: “Billie wants to know a location; the Kid is hunting for a name, Longshot for a method. The Crow seeks the elaborate answer to a deceptively simple question, and Gravestone wants nothing less than to spit in the eye of a major god without suffering the obvious consequences; he only needs to know how.”

    Billie: Something valuable and rare, is most likely. Treasure perhaps. That’s a bit cliche, so perhaps the location of a person?

    Kid: Name of a family member? Name of someone related to the White Riders (ie. did someone convince his adopted mother to go Tea Party on Sarasio?) perhaps?

    Longshot: A method to do something outrageous, of course. I don’t think it’s the method for becoming a god, since repetition is no fun, nor is it the method for spiting a god and surviving, for the same reasons. Method for taking out an old enemy?

    Mary: “How do I become a god?”

    Gravestone: Avei is the obvious choice, since she’s the law, one of the most powerful ones (in terms of both mystical might and influence on the world, through her Legion), and very opinionated. For that same reason, I doubt it’s her.

    Like

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