Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.
Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.
The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.
“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.
The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.
He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.
Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.
“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”
“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”
She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”
“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.
Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”
He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.
Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.
“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”
“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”
He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”
“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”
“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”
“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”
She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.
He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”
“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”
He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.
“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”
“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.
“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”
“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”
“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”
“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”
He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.
“Think they’re here after us?”
“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.
“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.
“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”
“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.
“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”
Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.
“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”
“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”
Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”
“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.
“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”
“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”
“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”
“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.
“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.
“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”
The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”
Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.
“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.
“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.
Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”
“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”
In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.
“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”
“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”
“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.
“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”
“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”
“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”
“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.
“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”
“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”
“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.
“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”
“What the fuck—”
“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.
The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”
Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”
“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.
“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”
“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”
“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”
“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”
“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”
“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”
“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.
“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”
“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.
“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”
“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”
“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”
“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.
“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”
Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.
“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”
“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”
“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”
“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”
Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.
“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”
“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”
“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”
“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”
Shook nodded slowly.
“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.
“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”
“That never works out in the long run.”
“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”
“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.
Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.
“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”
Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.
The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.
“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”
He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”
In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.
The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.
Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.
Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.
The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.
It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.
“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.
This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.
Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.
“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.
“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”
He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”
“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”
Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.
She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.
“Alia?” he whispered.
“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.
“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.
“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”
“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”
“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”
“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”
“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.
“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”
He froze. “…go back?”
“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”
“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”
She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”
“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.
“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”
“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”
“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”
“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”
“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”
He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.
“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”
He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.
The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.
“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”
Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”
Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”
“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”
“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.
“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”
Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”
Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”
Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”
“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”
“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”
He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”
Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”
“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”
“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”
Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.
“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”
Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.
The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.
By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.
The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.
“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”
“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”
“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.
Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”