He couldn’t remember if he dreamed. The next thing he was conscious of was her face again, swimming into focus above him. It was a few seconds before he realized he’d actually opened his eyes.
The focusing continued, however, the haze on all sides resolving into the dim light of a room with its curtains half-drawn, and her face changed till it wasn’t her. The features shifted, the hair faded to black. Mary.
“Wh—!” Memory crashed down on Joe and he tried to sit upright. He was in a bed, drowning in pillows. “Is everyone—”
Mary planted a hand in the middle of his chest, gently preventing him from rising. “Everyone is fine,” she said soothingly, “with the possible exception of you. Be easy, Joseph, and take your time. There is no urgency. Decide how you feel and what you feel ready to do about it.”
He paused, slumping backward, and she removed her hand. “I feel…weak,” he said grudgingly after a few moments of following her advice. “And restless, but sleepy.”
“Not uncommon, after having been in bed as long as you have,” she said with a glimmer of amusement. “The weakness—”
Apparently, the door had been left open; at any rate, Billie didn’t need to push through it before bounding onto a nearby chair and hurling herself bodily at Joe, arms outflung for a hug. Mary snagged her by the back of her shirt, holding the struggling gnome bodily off the ground.
“Do not assault my patient, please,” she said firmly.
“Unhand me, y’great bully!”
“Hi, Billie,” Joe said with a smile.
“Hey, you’re up!” McGraw appeared in the doorway, grinning, then stepped inside, admitting Weaver behind him. “It is damn good to see you alert again, son. You had us right worried.”
“I’m glad to see all of you, too,” said Joe, while Mary set Billie down on the floor with a murmured warning. “But what happened? Last thing I remember…” He trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Well, it was no fun, and it left me with a good few questions. For starters, where are we?”
“You’re at my house,” said the newest arrival, poking his blond head in. Bishop Darling wore a conservative suit rather than his ecclesiastical robes, and seemed more relaxed than when Joe had previously seen him. “Which, by the way, you may consider your own until you’re back on your feet. I, uh, think you’ll find the room a lot more comfortable when it’s a lot less populated.” Indeed, it was suddenly quite cramped in the modest bedroom, but Joe didn’t spare a moment’s attention for that.
“What? We’re in Tiraas? But… You’re not supposed to move injured people by Rail. Unless…” He began trying to sit up again. “How long was I out?!”
“One day,” Mary said quietly, this time helping him up and arranging the pillows behind him for support. He needed it; it was hard to breathe, and the act of getting his torso upright wiped him out. “And we did not travel by Rail. McGraw brought us here via magic.”
“Really?” Joe turned his gaze to the old wizard. “You can do that?”
“There are exactly two places in the world to which I can teleport five people,” said McGraw, “and one is the Wizards’ Guild sanctum here in Tiraas. They’ve got a permanent portal focus on a major ley line nexus, to which all initiates are attuned.”
“You shoulda seen their faces when we all popped in,” Billie said, grinning. “Someday I wanna do that again when I don’t have a partner bleeding to death on the floor so I can properly enjoy it.”
“I really can’t tell you how relieved I am you’re comin’ through,” McGraw added solemnly. “I was right there, so busy catchin’ my breath I had no idea anything’d happened until that guy spoke. And then… Well, he was gone before I could even get a proper look, and there wasn’t a thing I could do for you. I’ve seldom felt so useless.”
“Despite our assurances that he wasn’t at fault, McGraw has seen fit to give himself a bad case of mana fatigue in getting us back here so expeditiously,” said Mary, a portrait of calm. “Portal nexus or no, that five-person teleport coming on the heels of his exertions in the crater had its price.”
“Are you okay?” Joe asked the old man worriedly.
McGraw waved a hand. “Feh, few weeks’ rest and I’ll be good as new.”
“Mana fatigue is a minor ailment,” Mary said, “provided the patient refrains from using magic until his system recuperates. Otherwise, he risks triggering a variety of permanent degenerative conditions, including anemia, hemophilia, diabetes, autoimmune dysfunction—”
“Lady, I know what the risks are,” McGraw said patiently.
She arched an eyebrow at him. “I have observed that men usually benefit from being reminded of the risks, whether they theoretically know them or not. Which brings us back to my other patient.” She gently smoothed Joe’s hair back from his forehead, an almost motherly gesture that took him aback. “Joe, you were stabbed directly in the heart. That is not a small thing. I reached you within moments; even so, I have lost patients under similar circumstances. I fear my magic might not have been sufficient if not for Billie’s aid; she administered a health potion via some kind of…device.”
“Hypodermic syringe,” Billie chimed in, beaming up at him. “Hottest shit out of Svenheim!”
“In addition to the wound itself,” Mary continued, “that knife was coated with a poison which appears to have been a carrier for raw infernal magic. You are extremely lucky that we didn’t have a priest with us. Most healing done these days uses divine magic; that would have reacted violently with the poison, causing massive internal hemorrhaging wherever it had spread and blasting a fist-sized hole at the knife wound itself.”
Joe swallowed again, heavily. “That…seems unnecessarily cruel.”
“Yes,” she said grimly. “As it is… Shamanic healing neutralizes infernal magic as a matter of course, but the damage was done; the venom spread throughout your bloodstream before I was able to purge it. The wounds are healed and I suspect you will recover fully—provided you follow my advice in the weeks to come—but for the time being, your cardiovascular system is in a state comparable to that of a sixty-year-old obese man recovering from a heart attack.”
“So,” he said wryly, “you’re saying I’m not gonna be attending any hoedowns in the next couple weeks.
Mary smiled, brushing back his hair again. “I’m saying I’ll put you back to sleep if you try. In fact, getting exercise will be vital to your recovery, but it will be gentle, supervised exercise, especially in the beginning.”
“Hey, you’re not alone in being useless,” McGraw drawled. “Without magic, I’m just an old man with questionable fashion sense. We can sit on the porch together complaining about kids on the lawn.”
“I have a finite amount of space,” Darling pointed out.
“Okay, but…what happened?” Joe demanded. “I mean, who was that guy, and why did he butt in? And what happened with Khadizroth after I—um, you know.”
There came a pause in which everyone’s expression grew grimmer.
“He is a professional assassin known as the Jackal,” Mary said finally. “Someone I neglected to kill when I last had the opportunity, for which you have my apologies. I assure you I will not repeat that error.”
“Khadizroth got away,” Weaver added. “Which was apparently the point. The Jackal got everyone to cluster around you instead of around the dragon, and spirited him off.”
“Weaver was the only one who stayed on point,” said McGraw, nodding to the bard. “He tried to apprehend Khadizroth, but…”
“But even a diminished dragon is more than I can handle on my own, it turns out,” Weaver said dryly. “I gave it a try and in two minutes was running for my life. In hindsight, it’s lucky I didn’t get a knife in my own back; I never even knew that asshole was there until I found you on the ground with the others.”
“So, you put aside your concern for me and stuck to the mission,” Joe said, grinning. “Good man.”
“I’m sure you’d have done the same for me,” Weaver replied offhandedly.
“Well, I sure will next time.” The bard actually laughed, sounding more relaxed and cheerful than Joe had ever heard him. “So, uh… How did you mean, diminished?”
“I bound him,” Mary said simply. “A dragon is a creature of shifting forms, as you know. Its larger shape is often called its true form, which is a misnomer; both are natural and intrinsic. In his full size, however, he has a larger aura to accompany his larger mass, and thus greater access to his powers in addition to muscle, armor and natural weapons. The spell I laid upon Khadizroth restricts him to his elven form, which greatly limits his options. Even so, as Weaver pointed out, he is effectively a shaman of nigh-matchless power in his current condition. So while we did not achieve our objective, it was not an unequivocal loss, despite the Jackal’s intervention. Khadizroth will be that much easier to deal with next time.”
“Yeah, well, considering we dealt with him last time with a wild-ass gambit that really should not have worked,” Weaver groused, “and in the future he’ll be on the alert for us, not to mention having a brand new assassin buddy… Forgive me, but I’m not gonna chalk this up as a win.”
“How long will your spell bind him, Mary?” Darling asked quietly.
“It has no limit on duration,” she said, shifting to face him. “I am confident that Khadizroth himself, in his current state, cannot free himself from it… But what can be done can be undone. The greatest impediment to him freeing himself at this time is that he will not be willing to appear vulnerable in front of any of the people who might help him. Nearly all of those are other dragons.”
“Okay,” he said thoughtfully, nodding. “The other thing you all should be aware of is that the Jackal, when he was last seen, was in the employ of Archpope Justinian.”
That brought another momentary silence.
“Doesn’t mean he is now,” McGraw said reasonably. “That Jackal’s a blade for hire, everyone knows that.”
“Ask yourself why he would have stuck his hired blade into that particular situation,” Mary said darkly. “Why follow us to Khadizroth? Why care? No one has an interest in this matter except Darling, the Church and the Empire.”
“And the Imps would have sent their own people,” added Darling. “They’d also have killed the dragon while they found him vulnerable, not helped him escape. No, this leaves the Archpope as the only other person who even knew what was happening out there, and the question is…why would he care? He’s not the vengeful type, and with Khadizroth’s Cobalt Dawn scheme broken up years ago, the dragon is no threat to his interests.”
“What remains,” said Mary, her face falling into a baleful stare, “is Archpope Justinian’s plan to gather powerful adventurers to his side, which you are allegedly to oversee, Antonio. Khadizroth in his current state is a very rare thing: a dragon powerful enough to be a potent force, but vulnerable enough that he may have no choice but to accept terms.”
“Hang on,” Billie objected. “I thought we were the ones working for the Archpope, here?”
“On paper, yes,” said Darling. “But when I look back on it, Justinian handing his adventurer program over to me came at a moment when he had to give me something to keep me loyal. I’ve asked him since you lot reappeared, and he claims the last he heard of the Jackal, the man was rotting away in the Sisterhood’s custody.”
“So it’s like that, is it,” Weaver said grimly. Darling nodded.
“Excuse me, it’s like what, exactly?” Joe asked.
“There are now two Church-sponsored initiatives to control adventurers,” Mary explained. “We represent one, the Jackal clearly being another. The Archpope has to know that Darling knows of his second group, but at the moment, I assume they are unwilling to confront one another.” She turned to raise an eyebrow at Darling.
“Do you really think anything good would come of that?” Darling asked dryly. “I’m in no position to take him on, and he doesn’t benefit from rocking the boat. None of this is particularly out of character for Justinian. He’s used his own agents to winnow each other down before—in fact, that’s what he was doing with the Jackal when I last crossed paths with him. I suspect he’s not shy about surrounding himself with people he knows are working against him, either. It’s a classic technique; keep your enemies closer, as the saying goes. This is a reminder that he is still in control, that he still holds all the cards.”
“Does he?” Weaver asked, staring intently at him.
Darling actually grinned. “He may hold them, but I very much doubt he understands what they do. The nature of individuals such as yourselves is chaos. That’s the specific thing adventurers are known for: succeeding when they should not. Justinian’s a planner and a manipulator; chaos is the one thing he’s least suited to handle. There’s also the fact that his other group are presumably operating under some kind of duress. They wouldn’t be adventurers in the first place if they were sympathetic to anyone in Tiraas looking to control him. No…for the time being, this game continues. Politely.”
Weaver folded his arms, his chin jutting out challengingly. “And that raises the issue of whether we want to continue playing.”
“Of course, you’ll still get paid for this expedition,” Darling said smoothly. “And Justinian has not blocked my access to his room full of oracles; I am still working on the answers I promised you.”
“Also, we’re not feckin’ idiots,” Billie added. “We’re all still in. Don’t give me that look, Weaver, you know damn well we are. None of us is gonna sit still while Justinian puts a collar ’round our necks. It’s either join him, try to ignore him, or stick with Darling and undercut him when we can, aye? Tell me none of ye are daft enough to think that’s even a choice.”
“All this can be discussed in more detail in the days and weeks to come,” Mary said firmly. “Right now, Joe needs rest.”
“I’ve had nothing but rest for the last day, apparently,” Joe complained.
“You were stabbed in the heart,” she said with a touch of asperity. “You will not be recuperated in a matter of hours. Or weeks.”
“Feh, don’t listen ta her,” Billie said cheerfully. “She’s older’n dirt’s granny. We’ll give you all the miracles of modern alchemy, have you back in shootin’ shape in no time at all!”
Mary gave the gnome an extremely level look, but offered no comment.
“Well, if we’ve got a little downtime,” Billie prattled on blithely, “sounds like a good opportunity to spend some quality time gettin’ ta know each other! And seriously, I’ve got questions. Like, Joe, how the hell did you manage that with the portals and that ridiculous shot you pulled off? And you!” She pointed accusingly at Weaver. “Just what the hell manner of beastie is it ye got sittin’ on yer shoulder, eh?”
Silence descended, in which they all peered warily around at each other.
Then Darling laughed out loud. “Well, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership. All right, I have to go tend to a political situation in the city. Try not to kill each other, please. At least not in my house.”
“So how was brunch with the Emperor?” Gabe asked as the group descended the steps into the Rail terminal.
“’bout as boring as I anticipated,” said Ruda. “We sipped tea, nibbled delicately on frou-frou little cakes and communicated entirely in mincing doublespeak. Got the job done, though, no one’s bearing any grudges, our great nations are still friends, yadda yadda, and everybody politely avoided mentioning how your great nation could pulverize mine with a good sneeze. Gotta say, though, I like your Empress. I think that lady is constitutionally incapable of taking anybody’s shit.”
“Well, that’s kind of true,” he said with a grin. “I was half expecting you to come back beheaded.”
“I’m not an idiot, Arquin. I don’t talk to people who matter the way I do to you.”
“Oh, so you don’t stab everyone you meet?”
“You are just never gonna let go of that, are you?”
“I cannot think of a single damn reason why I should.”
“Isn’t it kinda late?” Fross asked, rising upward a few feet to get a better view around the station. “Are we gonna be able to get a caravan?”
Afternoon had passed into early evening; there was still sunlight, peering through a rare gap in the Tiraan cloud cover, but it was reddish and streaming in from the west through the large plate glass windows which illuminated the Rail station. Indeed, the place seemed nearly deserted, the Rails themselves silent and the only people still present pushing brooms along the platforms in the near distance. The Empire was large enough that the sun didn’t occupy the same place in all its skies—by now it would be fully dark in Puna Dara and still late afternoon in Onkawa—but evidently it was past the hour when people were expected to be traveling.
“I think you kids have made quite a sufficient spectacle of yourselves for one week,” said Tellwyrn, bustling along in the head of their group. “There’s a reason I left you here all day rather than hopping the first available caravan. We have a special charter taking us back to Last Rock. They don’t usually like to run this late, but someone at ImCom agreed with me that the less attention we garnered, the better.”
“Well, it all works out,” said Gabe lazily. “I got to hear Trissiny’s speech and visit my dad. Nice, easy day after the week we’ve had.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t get to have brunch with our beneficent rulers, though,” Toby said with a smile.
Ruda snorted. “Now him she would’ve beheaded. Me, I was only worried about missing the paladins getting reamed out now that Her Professorship has graciously decided to rejoin us. The suspense is killing me.”
Tellwyrn glanced over her shoulder. “You’re a sadistic ghoul, Punaji. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“Not so much since I left home. I kinda miss it. Nobody pitches a yelling fit like my mama.”
“No one’s getting reamed out,” said Tellwyrn, facing away from her again. “You lot mostly did well.”
“Seriously? They practically got the place burned down.”
“Ruda, must you?” Trissiny asked wearily.
“I don’t must, strictly speaking. It’s mostly just for my amusement. You may have noticed I’m kind of a bitch.”
“Failure wasn’t really a prospect,” said Tellwyrn, coming to a stop and turning to face them. “As I told you up front, this was a lesson, not a test. Toby and Trissiny, it seems, did the best job of learning it, perhaps because they caused the most incidental trouble. And the lesson was…?”
The two paladins exchanged a wary look.
“Pick your battles?” Trissiny said finally.
“More or less,” Tellwyrn nodded. “Minor variations for your specific cases, but yes. I could indeed make a speech about the importance of not trying to slay every monster you come across, but as I said, you seem to have gotten the point on your own. You two did exactly what I expected you to do; you soaked up the lesson better than I’d hoped, though. Well done. Arquin, Fross, you weren’t in a position to be tested very thoroughly on your own terms, but you seem to have done well in assisting your classmates while not causing collateral damage. Punaji, of course, understood this well going in and very properly refrained from getting involved where her involvement would have done no good. And, of course, Falconer and Awarrion performed much the same, though I wonder if either of you are willing to look me in the eye and claim your chosen actions were due to a careful analysis of the needs of the situation and not you taking the opportunity to hold hands and canoodle on a romantic holiday in the big city.”
Teal and Shaeine glanced at each other, then Teal lowered her eyes, blushing. Shaeine met Tellwyrn’s gaze evenly, but said nothing.
Tellwyrn grunted. “Remember, inaction is a course of action; it’s only the right one in circumstances when it specifically is the right one. Most of the time, it’s one of the worst things you can do. And you.” She turned a baleful stare on the last member of the group. “I am not impressed, Juniper. Sheltered and naïve you may be, but there are limits to how much of your denial I’m going to tolerate. You are too powerful and too important to be allowed to stagger aimlessly around the world with your head up your ass.”
Juniper, who had been subdued and glum for days, slumped her shoulders and dropped her gaze, saying nothing in reply.
Tellwyrn grimaced, peering around. “And now, where the hell is the special caravan I chartered? They’re late. I swear, the more modern conveniences get installed the less anything runs on time… Hang tight, kids, I’m going to go terrorize the station master for answers.”
“Um, Imperial Rail personnel aren’t supposed to give out schedule information…”
“Yes, Fross,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “You have never see me bored enough to terrorize someone without good and specific reason. It is goal-directed terror, I assure you. Be right back.”
She swished off in the direction of the ticket office, leaving the students staring after her.
Gabriel stepped over to Juniper and draped an arm around her shoulders. “D’you…wanna talk about it?”
“No,” she mumbled.
He nodded, drew in a breath and said very carefully, “You, uh, heard her, though. Eventually you’re gonna have to talk about it.”
“Not right now,” she said with an edge in her tone. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He rubbed her shoulder soothingly. After a moment, she leaned against him; he staggered before catching himself and bracing one leg.
“Well, look who thought they were gonna slip away without saying goodbye!”
The group started in unison, swiveling around; Flora and Fauna had appeared behind them, wearing identical grins.
“Gah!” Gabe exclaimed. “Don’t do that! In fact… How did you do that? There’s no cover in here!”
They exchanged an amused glance. “We’re Eserites.”
“Honestly, Gabe, try to keep up.”
“It’s not that complicated.”
“I’m just so glad you decided to come visit,” he grumbled. Fauna laughed, stepping forward to ruffle his hair.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask,” said Trissiny with a smile. “How are you two? Last I saw you, it seemed like the Bishop was annoyed with you.”
“Oh, he’s always annoyed about something,” said Flora, waving dismissively.
“It’s all part of his charm.”
“He loves us, don’t you worry.”
“I think we’re actually gonna miss you, though, and not just because keeping tabs on you gave us an excuse to avoid studying.”
“I knew it,” Ruda exclaimed.
“Well, yeah,” Flora said with a grin. “You do realize we don’t always hang around seedy inns in Lor’naris, right?”
“Seriously, though, it was fun,” Fauna added, smiling with a little less mischief. “Someday we’ll have to do that without a riot brewing. I feel like we barely got—”
A thunderclap sounded right in the middle of the group; Flora and Fauna were bodily hurled across the platform, slamming into the far wall.
Tellwyrn reappeared in their midst, planting herself between the students and the two felled elves. Her body was encased in a suit of armor that seemed formed of pale blue light; she held a gold-hilted saber in each hand, both in a ready position. The crackling blue sphere of an arcane shield surrounded her; three orbs of lightning orbited her swiftly, emitting sparks and the sharp smell of ozone.
“What the hell?!” Ruda squawked.
Flora and Fauna surged to their feet, glaring at Tellwyrn with bared teeth.
“I will say this only once,” the Professor declared, her voice resonating hollowly from within her magic armor. “You are not my business. These students are. So long as you don’t move to combine those two things, I look forward to forgetting I ever saw you. Understand?”
“Do you really think you can—” Fauna broke off as Flora gripped her firmly by the shoulders from behind.
“It was good meeting all of you,” she said firmly. “Come on, Fauna.”
Fauna glared at Tellwyrn a moment longer, then sneered, whirled and stalked away toward the stairs out of the station. Flora lingered a moment, giving the students a sad look, then turned and followed her fellow apprentice, cloak billowing behind her.
Tellwyrn held her position until they were out of sight out the doors before straightening from her combat stance. Armor, shield and lightning balls faded from view, leaving behind only the telltale scent of ozone; she twirled both sabers once and then sheathed them at her waist. Or made motions as if doing so, anyway, despite the fact that she wore no scabbards; the blades vanished as if sliding into sheaths, and when she took her hands away, the hilts were gone too.
“Allow me to emphasize and elaborate on my initial question,” said Ruda. “What the fucking hell?! I liked them!”
“I don’t believe in coddling,” Tellwyrn said flatly, finally turning to face them. “You need to face the world in order to learn about it, and I’m not shy about sticking you into risky situations if it furthers your education. So on the rare occasions when I refuse to explain something, it’s because something is going on which doesn’t concern you, would fruitlessly endanger you to get involved with, and which even knowing about would necessarily involve you.” She dragged a hard stare around the group, making eye contact with each of them. “I am refusing to explain this. Understand?”
The students glanced around at each other.
“Understand?” Tellwyrn said insistently, this time getting a few muted acknowledgments.
“Wait,” said Juniper, “is this because those two are—”
“Juniper! You are not, now or at any time in the future, to discuss this with anyone unless I specifically tell you otherwise!”
“Um,” the dryad said meekly, “okay.”
“As for the rest of you,” Tellwyrn went on firmly, “If you ever encounter either of those women again, you are to immediately get as far away from them as you can, as fast as you can, and find me as quickly as possible. Is that clear?”
This time, she waited, staring them all down, until everyone had agreed.
“Good,” she said finally, turning away from them to the Rail, which had begun to glow and sparkle. “And…ah, there we are. Better late than never.”
The students stood in silence, staring at her back as she waited for the approaching caravan to come to a stop, her arms folded, tapping one foot. The doors hissed open, emitting no passengers, and Tellwyrn was the first to step through.
“I, uh, hope nobody saw that,” Fross said a little belatedly.
“The janitors are gone,” said Gabriel. “I guess that’s just good sense, with an archmage having a fit nearby.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” said Juniper, ducking into a car. One by one, the others followed her, arranging themselves inside.
Trissiny was the last to enter the caravan; she paused on the threshold, half-turning to look out at the station and the distant view of Tiraas through its huge windows, and sighed softly. Then she stepped in, pulling the door shut behind her.