7 – 13

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“So, we’ve got that hangin’ over us all fuckin’ summer,” Ruda groused. “Come back for our sophomore year and immediately get put to work scrubbing mulch and basting doors and whatever the hell housekeeping tasks Stew thinks up until Tellwyrn gets tired of our suffering. Hoo-fucking-ray.”

“Scrubbing mulch?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Have you ever cleaned anything in your life, Princess?”

“Arquin, you will never be demonic enough or divine enough that I will refrain from kicking your ass. Bring the skeevy dude in the hat down here and I’ll kick his ass, too.”

“Sorry to interrupt your blasphemy,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “but I won’t be joining in your mulch-scrubbing this fall. I’m staying on campus over the summer.”

“Yup!” Fross chimed, bobbing around them. “Professor Tellwyrn is letting us do our punishment duty over the summer and get it out of the way. It’s pretty accommodating of her! We broke a lot of campus rules.”

“Considering she’s still punishing us for obeying a direct command from the gods, I’m not gonna get too worked up about her generosity,” Gabriel muttered.

“To be technical,” said Fross, “she’s punishing Trissiny and Toby for obeying a direct command from the gods, which is actually not at all out of character given her history. The rest of us don’t really have an excuse. I mean, if she’s not gonna accept a divine mandate as a good reason, citing friendship probably isn’t gonna help. Anyhow, I’ve gotta go finish cleaning up the spell lab I was using. Nobody leave campus before I can say goodbye! Oh, Ruda, looks like your dad is here. See ya later!”

The pixie zipped off toward the magical arts building in a silver streak, leaving the others staring after her.

“What?” Ruda demanded. “My—what? Oh, shit.”

It was a characteristically sunny day, with a brisk wind across the mountain cutting the prairie heat. The campus of the University was teeming with people, despite the fact that many of the students were already gone. Parents, friends and family members were everywhere, picking up their kids and being shown around on one of the few occasions when non-initiates of the University were welcomed there. A few curiosity-seekers had also snuck in, though they seldom lasted long before Tellwyrn found and disposed of them. Professor Rafe had already been informed that if he didn’t remove the betting board set up in the cafeteria speculating on where various journalists and pilgrims had been teleported to, he himself would be walking home from Shaathvar.

Now, a sizable party of men and women in feathered hats, heavy boots and greatcoats were making their way up the avenue to the main lawn, on which the six freshmen had just come to a stop. Toby and Juniper had both departed that morning, leaving the rest to make more leisurely goodbyes as they still had time.

Trissiny touched Ruda’s shoulder lightly from behind. “Are you okay? Do you need—”

“No,” she said quietly. “I have to face this. Guys, if I don’t get to talk to you again, enjoy your summer.” Squaring her shoulders, she stepped forward, striding up to the group of oncoming Punaji.

They stopped at their princess’s approach, parting to let the towering figure in the middle come forth. King Rajakhan was a looming wall of a man, a bulky mass of muscle who would have looked squat due to his build if the proximity of more normally-sized people didn’t reveal that he was also hugely tall. The bushy black beard which was the source of his nickname did not conceal a tremendous scowl. He stepped up, folding brawny arms across his massive chest, and stared down at his daughter.

Ruda, uncharacteristically subdued, removed her hat respectfully and stopped a mere yard from him. The onlooking pirates watched, impassive and silent; the remaining freshmen edged closer.

“The news I hear has impelled me to spend from our people’s treasury to have portal mages bring me here,” he rumbled. “I am pleased to see you whole, daughter. Less pleased by the report I have from Professor Tellwyrn. I understand that you were given an order to evacuate, and you disobeyed it. Through magical subterfuge. This is true?”

“My friends—my crew—had to stay, by orders of the gods,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t raised to leave people behind in danger.”

“I hear your justifications, but not the answer I asked for,” Blackbeard growled.

Ruda stiffened her shoulders slightly. “This is true, sir.”

He snorted. “I further understand that you slew three shadowlord demons and uncounted buzzers yourself, placing your own life in danger.”

“Yes, sir,” she said woodenly. “Alongside eight of the best people I know.”

“I further understand that you were stopped only because you somehow ingested the poison blood of your enemy.”

“Yes, sir. We grappled too closely for swords. I bit its throat.” Her lips twisted in remembered disgust. “They have very tough hides.”

He slowly began drawing in a very deep breath, his huge chest swelling even further, then let it out in one explosive sigh that made his beard momentarily flap like a banner. Somehow, it occurred to nobody to laugh at what would otherwise be a comical sight.

“In all the nations on land or sea,” the Pirate King said with a faint tremor in his voice, reaching out to place one enormous hairy hand on Ruda’s shoulder, “there has never been a prouder father.”

“Papa!” Ruda squealed, launching herself into his arms. Rajakhan’s laughter boomed across the quad as he spun her around in circles, the pirates around him adding their cheers to the noise (and half of them brandishing weapons).

“As I live and breathe,” Gabriel said in wonder.

“I feel I have just gained a better understanding of Ruda’s upbringing,” Shaeine said softly, “and some of what has occurred thereafter.”

“Hey, Teal,” Tanq said, approaching the group but watching the loud pirates curiously. “Does your family own a zeppelin?”

Teal abruptly whirled toward him, growing pale. “…why do you ask?”

“I just wondered. There’s a little one moored at the Rail platform down in town; I saw it when I was sending a scroll… It’s got the Falconer Industries crest on the balloon. I just wondered if it was a company craft or if FI was making them now. Pretty sweet little rig, if I’m any judge.”

“Oh no,” Teal groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes. “Oh, no. I told them… Augh!”

She took off down the path at a near run.

Tanq blinked, staring after her, then turned to the rest of the group. “What’d I say?”

“Teal laboriously made plans regarding our travel arrangements from the campus,” Shaeine replied. “I gather they have just been abruptly modified. Excuse me, please? If I don’t see you again, my friends, I wish you the best over the coming months and look forward to our reunion.” She bowed to them, then favored them with one of her rare, sincere smiles, before turning and gliding off after Teal.


She was about to unleash Vadrieny and swoop upward for a better view when a fortuitous gap between buildings happened to give her a view down onto Last Rock, including a familiar silver shape perched at its edges, with an even more familiar sigil emblazoned on its side.

“Why!?” she groaned. “Why would they do that? I had everything arranged!”

They care about you, and this campus was recently the site of a major crisis. Which we jumped into the middle of. Makes perfect sense to me.

“Oh, whose side are you on?” she snapped. Vadrieny’s silent laugh bubbled through her.

It’ll be all right, Teal. They’ll understand.

“I know how to deal with them. I was gonna have time to explain things on the magic mirror, and then they’d have had the carriage ride to get used to it… Oh, gods, this is gonna be so awkward. Damn it, why don’t they ever listen?”

So they may not understand as quickly, or as easily. They will, though.

“Teal!”

She whirled at hearing her name, beholding two well-known figures striding quickly toward her from the direction of the upper terrace.

“Speak of the demon,” she said fatalistically.

“Well, that’s a nice way to greet your parents,” Marguerite Falconer said, trying without success to look annoyed. Beside her, Geoffrey grinned in delight, not even making the effort.

“This place is somehow smaller than I was imagining it,” he said. “But so…gothic. With all this grandiose architecture and these overgrown paths, I almost can’t believe it’s only fifty years old. We actually managed to get lost, if you can believe that!”

“I can believe it,” Teal said in exasperation. “What are you doing here with that airship? I made plans! Everything was arranged!”

“Well, excuse us for jumping the wand,” Marguerite replied, raising her eyebrows and pushing her spectacles back up her nose. “What with our only child, who has already suffered far more than her fair share of disasters, being stuck in the middle of a hellgate, we were just a little anxious to see you again.”

“C’mere,” Geoffrey ordered, stepping up and sweeping Teal into a hug. She hugged him back, despite her annoyance, relaxing into the embrace as her mother joined it from behind.

“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” she mumbled into her father’s cardigan. “I just wanted to… I mean, I had a plan. There was some stuff I wanted to, uh, get you ready for before it, y’know…”

“Oh, Teal,” Marguerite said reproachfully, finally stepping back. Geoffrey released her, too, ruffling her hair. “Dear, it’s all right. It’s not as if this is some great secret. You know we’re fine with it.”

“I mean, for heaven’s sakes, our best friend is an elf,” Geoffrey added with a grin. “You said you were bringing someone special home for the summer holiday. We can manage to put two and two together.”

“I’m sure we’ll love her. Our daughter can only have good taste!”

Teal sighed heavily, staring hopelessly at them. At a glance, nobody would take the Falconers for two of the richest people in the Empire. They were a matched set, both with mouse-brown hair cut short, which looked almost boyish on Marguerite and rather shaggy on Geoffrey. He had a round, florid face decorated by a beard in need of trimming, while her pointed features had been described as “elfin,” but they shared a preference for comfortable, casual clothes in a masculine style. Even their glasses were identical.

“Well, I did try,” she said finally. “Give me credit for that much, at least, when this is all falling out.”

“Oh, Teal, I’ve missed you,” Marguerite said fondly. “Dramatic streak and all.” Geoffrey snorted a laugh.

“Teal? Is everything all right?”

Teal heaved a short, shallow sigh, then half-turned to smile at Shaeine as the priestess glided up to them. “Well, that remains to be seen. Mom, Dad, may I present Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. Shaeine, these are my parents, Marguerite and Geoffrey Falconer.”

“It is an honor and a pleasure,” Shaeine said, bowing deeply to the Falconers. “Your daughter is a great credit to your lineage.”

“My, isn’t she well-mannered,” Marguerite said with a broad smile. “Teal, I can only hope the rest of your friends are such a good influence.”

“I gather you have not introduced them to Ruda yet,” Shaeine said calmly. Teal snorted a laugh.

“Ruda Punaji?” Geoffrey said with a grin. “I’m curious to meet that one, after your letters. But maybe in a more, you know, controlled environment.”

“Oh, stop it,” Marguerite chided, swatting him playfully. “It’s lovely to meet you, Sheen. Don’t mind my husband, he belongs in a workshop, not among civilized people.”

“That was an excellent try,” the drow replied with a smile. “It’s actually Sha-ayne.”

“It’s all one vowel,” Teal added. “Just changes pronunciation partway.”

“Really?” Geoffrey marveled. “I fancy I speak a smidge of elvish. Not as well as Teal, of course, but that’s a new one.”

“Don’t be an ass, Geoff, she’s Narisian. Of course they have a different dialect. Shaeine, yes? How did I do?”

“Perfect,” Shaeine replied, smiling more broadly. “You have an agile tongue, Mrs. Falconer.”

“I’ll say she—”

“Don’t you dare!” Marguerite shrieked, smacking her husband across the back of his head. He caught his flying glasses, laughing uproariously. Teal covered her eyes with a hand.

“Anyway,” Marguerite said with more dignity as Geoffrey readjusted his glasses, still chuckling, “I’m sure we’ll be glad to meet all your classmates, honey, but we should see about getting your luggage together.”

“We saw that crazy tower you’re apparently living in,” Geoffrey added, “but I guess it’s not open to visitors. Inconvenient, but a fine policy in my opinion! I remember my own college days. Barely. It’s also a fine policy that this is a dry campus.”

“Will your girlfriend be meeting us there?” Marguerite asked. “I’m just about beside myself with curiosity! Don’t look at me like that, it’s a mother’s prerogative.”

Teal closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her teeth, and let the breath out through her nose, trying to ignore the hysterical mirth echoing in her mind from her demon counterpart. Shaeine half-turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow.

The silence stretched out.

Suddenly Marguerite’s face paled in comprehension, and she settled a wide-eyed stare on Shaeine. “Oh.”

Geoffrey looked at his wife, then his daughter, then shrugged, still smiling innocently. “What?”


“So, is this the new thing?” Trissiny asked, pointing at the sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt opposite his new wand, which rested in a holster. “You’re a swordsman now?”

“Oh…well.” He shrugged uncomfortably, placing a hand on Ariel’s hilt. “I just… I don’t know, I find it kind of comforting, having it there. Is that weird?”

“Taking comfort in the weight of a sword is certainly not weird to me,” she said with a smile. “I’m a little surprised you would enjoy it, though.”

“Yeah, I kind of am, too,” he said ruefully. “It’s just… The whole world just got turned upside-down on me, you know? I’ve only had Ariel here for a couple months, but it’s still something familiar. Something I can literally hang onto.”

“I do, know,” she said quietly. “I remember the feeling all too well. It was a very different circumstance, of course… I couldn’t begin to guess whether that would make it more or less shocking to experience.”

He laughed. “Less. Much less. Modesty aside, Triss, you’re pretty much a model Avenist. Me, I’m not even Vidian. I never even thought about whether I’d want to be. It’s not as if I ever prayed, after that one time. Burned my goddamn tongue, and I mean that as literally as possible.”

Trissiny nodded. “There’s… I guess there is just no precedent for what you’re having to deal with. I’ll help if I can at all, though. Anything you need to talk about, just ask. And not just me, of course. Do you know how soon Toby is coming back to campus?”

“Just a couple of weeks, actually. He needs to spend some time with the Omnists and the Universal Church over the summer, but apparently shepherding my clumsy ass is also a significant priority.”

“I have the same duties,” she said solemnly. “But I’m not making my trips to Tiraas and Viridill until later in the summer. I guess I just drew the first Gabriel shift.”

“Har har.” He stopped walking, and she paused beside him. They were in a relatively shady intersection of paths, with the bridge to Clarke Tower just up ahead. Towering elms, swaying and whispering softly in the gentle wind, shielded them from the direct sun. “Triss, I am scared out of my fucking mind.”

“I know.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I know. Look, Gabriel, it’s… It’s just a hell of a thing, okay? But…and I mean this sincerely…you will be all right. I truly do believe you can do this. I would never have predicted it in a million years, but in hindsight, it makes a great deal of sense. This will work. You’ll be fine.”

“That…” He swallowed painfully. “Hah. That means a lot, Trissiny. Especially from you. More than from anyone else, maybe.”

“Well, there’s that, too,” she said, smiling. “Whatever else happens, Gabe, you can always count on me to let you know when you screw up.”

“Well, sure. It hardly even needs to be said, does it?”

She laughed softly. “Well…anyhow. I’ve got to head inside here for a minute. You’re going to be in the cafeteria for dinner?”

“Along with the other losers who are staying over the summer, yup.” He stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “I do need to visit the Vidians at some point, but they’re coming here. So’s my dad. Apparently there’s kind of a controversy around me at the moment. Can’t imagine why.”

“Probably best not to have you in circulation just yet,” she said with a grin. “Well… I guess I’ll see you around campus, then?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling back. “See you around.”

Gabriel watched her go, until she passed through the gate onto the bridge itself, then shook his head, still smiling, and resumed his slow way along the path.

“That girl has a powerful need for your approval.”

“What?” He laughed aloud. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And considering what recently—”

He stopped, frowning and staring around. There was no one nearby.

“Granted, I only know what I’ve heard from conversations around you, but didn’t she try to murder you once? That would weigh on the conscience of anybody who has one. The more she gets to know you as a real person, rather than the imaginary monster she was reacting to at the time, the uglier that whole business must look to her. Of course, a properly spiritual person could recognize all this and deal with it, but… Let’s be honest, Avei doesn’t go out of her way to pick deep thinkers.”

He had spun this way and that, growing increasingly agitated as the voice droned on, finally resting his hand on the sword’s hilt. Through it, he could feel something. Not quite energy, but the potential for it; the same feeling he was used to experiencing when working with raw magic.

“You… You’re the sword!”

“’The sword.’ That’s lovely, Gabriel, really charming. It’s not as if you don’t know my name. Look, I suggest you find a relatively private place to sit for a while. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”


Tellwyrn was grumbling to herself, mostly about journalists, as she kicked the door shut behind her and strode toward her desk. She hadn’t gotten three steps into the office before her chair spun around, revealing a grinning figure in a red dress perched therein.

“Arachne! Darling!”

“Out of my seat, Lil,” she said curtly.

“Ooh, have I told you how much I love this new schoolmarm thing you have going on?” Elilial trilled, giggling coquettishly. “So stern! So upright! It’s very convincing, dear. A person would never guess how much fun you are in bed.”

The chair jerked sideways and tipped, roughly depositing its occupant on the carpet.

“Oof,” the goddess of cunning said reproachfully, getting back to her feet and rubbing her bum. “Well, if you’re going to be that way…”

“What do you want?” Tellwyrn demanded, stepping around the desk and plopping down in her recently vacated chair. “It’s not as if I ever see you unless you’ve just done something terrible or are about to. You’re just as bad as the others in that regard. Though in this case I guess there’s rather a large elephant in the room, isn’t there?”

“All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”

“Mm,” the Professor said noncommittally. “I heard you were down to seven of them.”

“Six, now,” the goddess said with grim satisfaction. “Demons get agitated if you lean on them too hard; I do try to let them have some leeway. But there are some things I simply will not put up with.”

“A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”

“I may have a few ideas, yes,” Elilial purred. “What’s it worth to you?”

“You are having a deleterious effect on my already-strained patience.”

“Oh, Arachne, this is your whole problem; you’ve totally forgotten how to enjoy life. Yes, fine, I may have given a helping hand to some of your dear students.”

“You promised to leave them alone, Lil.”

“I promised to bring them no harm.” Elilial held up a finger. “In fact, I went one better and did the opposite. You know I caught a couple of those little scamps trying to summon a greater djinn? I cannot imagine what possessed them to think they could control such a thing. Pun intended. Really, you should keep a closer eye on your kids; I can’t be saving their lives all the time.”

“You haven’t spent much time around college students if you believe they think before doing shit,” Tellwyrn growled. “Did they at least try to hide in the Crawl first? If any of those little morons did that in one of my spell labs I swear I’ll visit them all at home in alphabetical order and slap their heads backwards.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very fearsome,” she said condescendingly. “But enough about that, why don’t we discuss the future?”

“Oh, you’re already going to tell me what you actually want?” Tellwyrn said dryly. “That has to be a record. Are you in a hurry for some reason?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about my problems, dear, though I do appreciate the concern. But yes, I am interested in, shall we say, tightening our relationship. We’ve worked so well together in the past, don’t you think?”

“I remember us working well together once.”

“And what a time that was!” Elilial said with a reminiscent smile.

“You called me a presumptuous mealworm and I goosed you.”

“A whole city left in flames and shambles, panicked drow fleeing everywhere, Scyllith’s entire day just ruined. Ah, I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Don’t you miss it?”

“I have things to do,” Tellwyrn said pointedly. “Teaching my students. Looking after their safety. Getting tangled up with you is hardly a step in pursuit of that goal.”

“I think you’re wrong there, darling,” the goddess said firmly, the mirth fading from her expression. “This weeks little mess was but a taste. No, before you get all indignant, I am not threatening you. I am cautioning you, strictly because I like you, that the world is going to become increasingly dangerous in the coming days, and the wisest thing a person can do is develop a capacity to contend with demons. And lucky you, here you have an old friend who is the best ally a person could have in such matters!”

“Oh, sure,” Tellwyrn sneered. “And all I’d have to do to achieve that is make an enemy of the Empire on which my campus is built, not to mention that crusading spider Justinian.”

“Well, there’s no reason you have to tell them about it, you silly goose.”

“Mm hm. And in this…partnership…you would, of course, be telling me the total, unequivocal truth about everything you’re doing, in all detail?”

“Now you’re just being unreasonable, Arachne. I’m still me, after all. I can’t function without a few cards up my sleeve.”

“This sounds increasingly like a bargain that benefits no one but you,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “I can’t help thinking I’m better off with my current allies. None of them are invested in ending the world.”

“You know very well I have no interest in ending the world. Merely the deities lording over it. Really, I am very nearly hurt. You of all people know me better than that.”

“I do indeed, which is why I’m declining your very generous proposal.”

“Are you sure?” Elilial asked with a sly smile. “You’re not even a little bit curious to know which of your little dears are opening hellgates and fooling about with dark powers beyond their ken?”

“You could just tell me, you know. It would be exactly the kind of nice gesture that might have led me to consider your offer if you’d made a habit of making them before now.”

“Now, now, giving something for nothing is against my religion. I’m just saying, Arachne, I’m a good friend to have. In general, and in your case, very specifically.”

“So the world at large is about to have demon trouble, is it?” Tellwyrn mused, steepling her fingers. “And I’m likely to see my students imperiled as a result, yes? Well, I now know who to blame if they do suffer for it. You have my word, Elilial, that if that happens, I will be discussing the matter with you. Thoroughly, but as briefly as possible.”

The goddess’s smile collapsed entirely. “Only you could be so bullheaded as to turn this into an exchange of threats so quickly. I came here in good faith to propose a mutually beneficial partnership, Arachne.”

“You came here to use me,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I don’t particularly mind that. I don’t even much object to being lied to about it. I might actually have been amenable to the idea, except that you want to use my University and my students in the process. That will not happen, Elilial. I strongly advise you not to try.”

“Do you truly believe yourself equal to the task of opposing me?” the goddess asked coldly.

Tellwyrn clicked her tongue. “And now come those threats you didn’t come here to make…”

“If you insist on relating in those terms, I’ll oblige. You’re a blunt instrument, Arachne. Oh, you were clever enough in the distant past. Your deviousness in Scyllithar was inspiring, and I mean that sincerely. I was deeply impressed. But you have spent the entirety of the intervening three thousand years swaggering around throwing sucker punches and fireballs until you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. It’s gotten to the point that all I have to do to aim you in the direction I want you to look is scrawl a warning outside your door telling you not to. That barely even counts as manipulation, Arachne. It’s embarrassing to both of us. And you think you’re going to set yourself up against me? In the wide world, with all its subtleties and illusions waiting to serve as my props?” She snorted. “Please.”

“Well, perhaps you have a point,” Tellwyrn said placidly, shrugging. “After all, I’ve spent three millennia trying to get close to all the various gods, seeking their help. You, meanwhile, have been trying devotedly to destroy them for more than twice that time. Tell me, since you’re so much more dangerous than I…” She smiled sweetly. “How many of them have you killed?”

They locked eyes in silence, neither wavering by a hair.

Finally, Elilial let out a soft sigh through her nose. “I think you just enjoy being difficult for its own sake.”

“Well, no shit, Professor.”

“I’ll repeat my offer, Arachne,” the goddess said mildly, stepping back from the desk. “But not often, and not infinitely. You’ll have a limited time in which to come to your senses.”

“That’s fine, if you insist. But I’m not any more fond of repeating myself than you are, Lil. Really, if you want to save yourself the bother, I won’t blame you in the slightest.”

Elilial smiled slightly, coldly, and vanished without a sound. Only the faint scent of sulfur remained behind her.

Tellwyrn just sat without moving, frowning deeply in thought.


“You’re sure?”

“Yes, we’re sure,” Fauna said testily. “It’s not really ambiguous.”

“Or difficult,” Flora added. “Took us all of half an hour to sift through the records.”

“The Nemetites organizing the thing are extremely helpful. The nice lady was able to pull the public record for us and explain what all the legalese meant.”

“It’s held through a dummy company, you see, but she knew the legal and cult codes to identify the buyers. So yeah, we had the answer pretty quickly.”

Darling swiveled in his office chair, staring at the unlit fireplace. “Not the trap she was expecting,” he whispered.

“Oh, gods, now he’s muttering to himself,” Fauna groaned.

He returned his gaze to them. “All right, sasspants, since you’re so smart, interpret what you found for me.”

“Oh, come on,” Flora said.

Darling held up a hand peremptorily. “Let’s not forget who the apprentices here are. No matter what the question, whining is never the correct answer.”

Fauna sighed dramatically, but replied. “It wasn’t truly hidden. We were able to get the truth in minutes, using entirely legal means. The means provided by the library itself, even.”

“So, not a secret,” Flora said. “But… Meant to look like a secret.”

He nodded. “Go on…”

“A message, maybe?” Fauna continued, frowning as she got into the exercise. “Either a barrier only to the laziest of inquirers…”

“Or a hidden signal to someone smarter,” Flora finished. “Or possibly both.”

“Very good,” he said approvingly, nodding. “That’s the conclusion to which I came, too. Of course, your guess is literally as good as mine.”

“So you’re in the dark, then? Why was it so important to find out?”

“And no more of your shifty bullshit,” Flora said pointedly, leveling a finger at him. “Damn it, we’ve had enough of that this week. None of this ‘I’ll tell you when it’s time’ crap.”

“Yeah, you sent us to deal with something you could’ve sniffed out yourself in less than an hour; we’re entitled to know what’s going on, here, Sweet.”

“Why is this important? What does it mean that the Thieves’ Guild owns Marcio’s Bistro?”

Darling turned his eyes back to the fireplace, staring sightlessly while his mind rummaged through possibilities. He was quiet for so long that Flora, scowling, opened her mouth to repeat her demand before he finally answered.

“I don’t know.”

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40 thoughts on “7 – 13

  1. Blaawwwwgg…so tired. BUT! We are finally back on schedule.

    This is another chapter whose various scenes have been in the planning since I started this whole project. It’s an important one to me, and I hope it came out well. Sorry it’s up late; I felt the need to take my time and get it all right.

    Final chapter of this volume Friday! Stay tuned!

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      1. Well, cunning is an integral part of Eserion’s version of freedom and thievery, if Sweet’s explanation of the rules of his cult are anything to go by. It’s occurred to me before that there has to be some crossover in their fields of worship.
        By the same logic, Vidius being the god of *duality* would make him well suited to playing both sides of the divine divide.

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  2. Gabriel’s not praying got me thinking. I wonder how many atheists are there in Tiraas? It’d be a tricky thing to do, since there are essentially multiple Jesuses(Jesi?) appearing every generation in the form of paladins, but I’m sure there’re some nutjobs out there still denying the existence of gods.

    What would they call people who don’t worship gods too, but believe in them? Atheists deny the existence of gods and don’t believe in them at all, agnostics believe there may or may not be gods, but what would you call someone who believes in gods but doesn’t worship them?

    It’s interesting that something finally managed to throw Darling off his game too. I was considering adding the trope Magnificent Bastard to the TV Tropes page for him, but he clearly doesn’t deserve the title now. Justinian might fit the bill though, more information will be needed about his plans all the same to see how well they’ve really been going.

    I’ve forgotten, does anybody know if Toby has parents or if he’s an orphan? I don’t recall it ever saying his parents are dead/missing/negligent, but then I don’t recall any mentions of his parents either.

    I wonder why Ellial really visited Tellwyrn. I can’t believe that she’d fail to manipulate someone as blunt as Arachne, but apart from getting Arachne pissed at her, the meeting seemed to have accomplished nothing. Maybe she knows that in the near future the Empire’s going to get extremely angry at Arachne and that she’ll be in need of new allies, so wanted to lay the groundwork?

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    1. The Ellial / Tellwyrn scene did look like two people just playing out their roles, didn’t it? But Elilial did get across at least one point – there is something demonic going on that isn’t her plan. Not that she is above lying, but Arachne didn’t question that like she questioned Elilial’s motivations.

      Like

    2. Something demonic, and not under Elilial’s control kind of implies Scyllith. Who apparently Arachne and Elilial fought together once. OTOH Scyllith lost that one, she surely wouldn’t try again unless she had new allies or some other edge which she didn’t have then.

      Lil’s terribly impressed by Justinian so his plans probably proceed apace. I don’t know if he’s part of the great doom, but it seems possible. It was his insight and/or trick which revealed Lil to the Emperor, which I don’t think she wanted, so J’s not on her side for sure.

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      1. “Something demonic, and not under Elilial’s control kind of implies Scyllith.”

        Sounds right. Guessing here, but what if Scyllith does what Embras tried to do to Dawnchapel – weaken the overall dimensional barrier between the human realm and hell, thereby making it far too easy to summon or create a hellgate? Then when everyone is weakened from fighting demons that can come through to easily, she makes her move.

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    3. “I’m sure there’re some nutjobs out there still denying the existence of gods”
      Depending on the definition you put behind the term god it is very doable to say they aren’t god without being a nutjob.
      In some case religion state that a god must be good witch is obviously not the case of some divinity (damned be relativism), some other definitions say that the god is a supreme being which they aren’t seing that there are several of them, some religions make them completly disconnected from anything temporal and the gods of the pantheon are clearly linked to concept…
      Then, some people knows the gods are mortals which underwent some magic procedure or something, making them enhanced humans. So you would have plenty of basis to deny godhood to pretty much anybody and/or anything. One could even argue that being a god is just a language convention for very powerfull people/thing and that you’re only a god until people stop treating you like one.

      However it is very unlikely in a period which seems to be the begining of some sort of industrial revolution with magic that common people would question the legitimacy of the gods. Maybe some scholar could be begining to question it but not that many.

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      1. Sounds like an odd variation of Pratchet’s witches’ beliefs in gods: the witches know gods exist, so there is no room for faith and little for belief.

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      2. ….and of course the quote at the top of the tropes page is straight from Pratchet. I should have read the tropes page first.

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      3. No, I’m talking like denying the gods exist at all. Like how some people deny that the moon landing ever happened, these people would deny that there really are super powerful beings around that exist in a different plane of existence. It’s believable too, since there is little proof that there really are gods, and there are very powerful people like Justinian who clearly benefit if everyone believes gods are real. Obviously it falls apart if you study all the effects gods really had on the world, but then that’s why they’re nutjobs.

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  3. Typos

    But so…gothic.

    The word is usually capitalized, according to dictionary.com. On the other hand, it’s not really clear where that word would have come from in the Bastardverse (Word of God is that there’s no translation convention), so who knows?

    No character tag for Ariel.

    Thoughts:

    Really, though? I fall behind for ten days and when I come back Gabe’s a paladin and Darling’s colluding with Elilial? Bah! But anyway, about this chapter…

    The scene with Blackbeard (young person does something stupidly brave and rebellious which nevertheless turns out mostly OK, authority figure asks stern question, gets response, and immediately reveals that they’re actually super proud of the young person) has been done a zillion times. Given what we’ve seen of Blackbeard so far, I’m amazed Ruda was surprised even in-universe.

    Way to not make your daughter’s girlfriend feel uncomfortable meeting you, Mr Falconer. I was particularly impressed with your cultural sensitivity towards the Narisian emphasis on privacy.😛

    “So stern! So upright! It’s very convincing, dear. A person would never guess how much fun you are in bed.”

    That’s not terribly surprising, but it does make me wonder whether the Pantheon (or the other gods) make a habit of dallying with mortals, and if so, whether the resulting offspring have any particular status. We know there’s at least one coming, so maybe we’ll find out.

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    1. Good catch on the tag, thanks.

      Reader interpretations are of course valid, especially where things have been left vague. I didn’t see Ruda and Blackbeard’s exchange as one of surprise, though; more a little ceremony they had to go though.

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      1. Sorry, I don’t buy it. When she first hears that her dad’s shown up, Ruda does not say “Excuse me, everybody, there’s a thing I’ve got to do.” No, she says “‘What?’ Ruda demanded. ‘My—what? Oh, shit.'” That sounds like she wasn’t expecting him to show up.

        Then she goes off to meet her father, “squaring her shoulders” on the way. When he begins his interrogation, she gives excuses, prompting him to tell her to just answer the questions directly. That doesn’t sound like she was expecting him to be proud of her–she expected him to reprimand her severely, and she’s squirming.

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  4. Typos:

    onlooking
    (my spell checker likes ‘on looking’, but I am uncertain)

    (not a typo, but, how does blowing out a breath make a beard flutter – the air movement is clearly above the beard, not through it)

    This weeks little mess
    This week’s little mess

    more fond
    fonder

    (further) Reactions:

    Now that we have the back story on Ruda, the little scene there is interesting – her father is rewarding her fierce nature at the same time that Ruda is realizing that they are becoming little more than tax collectors with pirates as ancestors and she is considering rolling over for the Tiraan empire. That definitely makes that scene sort of bittersweet.

    Teal’s parents seem nice – not quite what I was expected considering she was apparently under a lot of pressure to fit into high society. What I mean is they aren’t clearly high society, so why are they pressuring her? On a different note, unconscious racism is not as bad as the conscious sort, but still nasty enough.

    Geeze, once Ariel starts talking she is really long-winded. Nice to see she opened up to Gabe; perhaps it is because she sort of got the cleric she wanted.

    Just like it was nice to see someone point out Darling’s shortcomings last chapter, it was nice to see the same someone point out Arachne’s this chapter. Becoming a blunt instrument indeed. I guess the frankness expressed by Elilial is partly because there are few enough characters who could get away with being frank with Darling or Arachne.

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  5. Finally.

    Ariel is talking to Gabriel, Trissiny and Gabe are getting closer, Teal and Shaeine are taking their relationship to the next level, Ruda shows yet another facet and Arachne’s weaknesses have been pointed out to her.

    And now I think we finally know who Arachne was boinking in Sarasio. It wasn’t Vidius, it was Elilial. Surprising, but welcome. ^^

    If I was in Arachne’s position a couple thousand years ago, I would try to change my image. I wouldn’t be a schemer, I’d be a brute. I’d use force as my primary tool, I’d be blunt and honest and direct. I’d show no patience for word games, I’d say what I think no matter how diplomatic or not it may be.
    I’d build my entire reputation on that. The few times I did use complicated plans and devious scheming will be forgotten by history, overshadowed by my usual bluntness.

    That way everyone thinks they know what I am about, they think I’m predictable, they see me as less dangerous because there’s nothing unknown about me. My word is taken for granted because people -know- I don’t lie.

    All just to make them underestimate me, to make my life easier… and to have the final advantage when push comes to shove.

    Arachne is all about adaptation, it’s what she tells her students they need most… it’s why the paladins were sent to her university in the first place… she would never have made it to her current age if she truly was as blunt as everyone believes she is.

    At least… that’s how I’d do it. ^^

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    1. I’d love to believe that. It makes so much sense. Thing is, there is a little voice in the back of my mind pointing some things out. Arachne killed a god, and presumably gained his/her/its power. How godlike does this make her? We know that gods are influenced by belief. Does the fact that everyone believes her to be a brute influence her to become a brute? It makes sense for her to be a schemer and hold things in reserve, but how much do other influences matter?

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      1. She’s not a god, even if she has that power stored somewhere. She said she has no clue how ascension even works.

        Since she is no god, she is not bound by those rules.

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    2. That wouldn’t really work that well. For one, how’d you know when to cash your secret plan and reveal that you’re secretly a master manipulator? Crises happen all the time, and who knows which ones going to be your last. And even if you do save it for the perfect moment, I can’t imagine whatever advantage it gives would outweigh the benefits of just trying your hardest the whole time. If you had power like Tellwyrn, you could probably carve out your own nation, and have a professional army to back you up if you ever need help that badly.
      And back in the early days, when you don’t have all the techniques and skills you’ve mastered after centuries, you wouldn’t have the raw power to back up your blunt words. People are going to get pissed at you, and eventually one’s going to attack you, and it’s going to work because no one likes you well enough to help and you don’t have the raw force to stop them.

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    3. After a few centuries out of practice, how good a schemer do you think you’d be? Skills need to be used to be kept honed. Even if that’s different for immortal elves it still helps a great deal to have a network of contacts to inform and carry out your schemes, and those take time and effort to place and to maintain relations with.

      If I had to guess, I’d say that Arachne’s divine power, if she has one, is related more to the university she’s spent so much effort to create and maintain. The one on top of an unnamed Elder God’s fortress. A tribal god, but of a tribe of exceptionally powerful individuals.

      Like

  6. You’re going about this all wrong.

    Of course you need to have a secret plan but that doesn’t mean you actually -do- something about it. For example, I could see Tellwyrn having a plan regarding the gods. Hell, for all we know she executed her plan when she created the university 50 years ago, after talking to pretty much every god in existence over the course of her life.

    What you do is make yourself useful. You collect favours, you have people indebted to you, you squirrel away powerful artifacts, you set up the game board with you in a strong starting position that still doesn’t look dangerous to the outside. You make sure everyone knows of you and use that reputation like a weapon.

    Have you noticed that even random demons know who Arachne is? Even the pixies know her and they have basically no contact with the outside world.

    She hasn’t even changed her style in years. Green dress, spectacles, scowl.😛
    She made herself into something between an icon and a parody on purpose.

    Someone who interacts with Elilial, Eserion, Vidius and people like Principia doesn’t win without having a head for scheming herself.

    Like

    1. Tellwyrn becoming blunt and not that subtile would make sense. With old age she must have become quite crazy, anyone gets trauma or else during his or her life and hers did last some time. She seems quite civil but with a little bit more than 3000 thousand years she must be pretty insane on some level.

      Her being subtile before and not anymore would also make sense : you tend to be more subtile when you’re not powerfull enough and more blunt when you have the power to back it up. I remember D&D campaigns in fantasy setting with the character begining as crafty and humble and becoming blunt and not subtle as they become more and more powerfull. And after a long time you lose your edge after 3000 years or mauling anything that annoy you, you kinda forget how to do anything else.

      Or she could be be crafty enough for the goddess of cunning to not sense that Arachne is being one of the brightest of cunning on the world.

      Like

      1. Some of my comments from other chapters:

        Arachne is actually behaving very closely to what I imagine immortals would be like.
        It’s similiar to playing a videogame for the n-th time. You know exactly what everyone is going to say, you know exactly when and where to say what to whom to get the desired result, you have seen the story play out so often that there are no more surprises left… so you skip all cutscenes and don’t let the NPCs finish their lines, you fast-forward directly to the important parts and don’t have the patience to deal with every minor issue anymore because you know in the long run it won’t matter.

        Arachne clearly multiclassed in every single way possible to her. Hell, I’d do the same if I was going on adventures for nearly 3000 years. Dual wielding arcane warrior. Heh. She’d almost be a match for a dragon on her own.

        Like

    2. Creating the university is a hell of a networking plan. Remember that she draws her students from the most powerful, disruptive, and/or destructive up-and-comers she can find. So for 50? years, she has met and had a formative hand in shaping some of the most powerful/disruptive people in the empire (and many outside it). And whatever else the students remember, she makes a very public effort to protect them. So even the amoral or psychopathic ones will turn to her when in really deep trouble and the normal social reaction would be significant gratitude. And yes, she will turn some of the off with her bluntness, but not all. Bottom line: Arachne has a ready-made loose coalition of major power players who are at least somewhat indebted to her. Subtle or blunt, anyone who discounts that is f***ing stupid.

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      1. Anyone who discounts that ***in the story*** is stupid – I mean no offense to the posters here. Apologies if it came off that way.

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    3. I find it hard to believe that she could be actually scheming and the fucking GODDESS of scheming doesn’t know it. Either Ellilial is lying about thinking Arachne is blunt, or Arachne is blunt. Both are equally plausible in my opinion, it’s hard to know at this point. The argument she’s gotten forgivably sloppy/is suffering from trauma is just as likely as she’s been holding an ace up her sleeve the whole time.
      She probably could trick everyone else into thinking she isn’t really scheming though I suppose, excluding Eserion, greater djinn, and maybe some other great powers that haven’t been mentioned yet.
      As far as building up allies with the university, that’s obvious. In the story I mean, good eye Unmaker, it’s harder to tell as a reader. I doubt any major player could see what she’s been doing for fifty years and not realize she has a plethora of extremely powerful allies. Most of the other great powers just didn’t act against her because it benefits them as much as her, getting one of your soldiers trained by Arachne would be a huge advantage, and all the great powers have probably sent some sort of agent to Arachne, excluding possibly Black Wreath.

      Like

  7. Not discounting the goodwill her teaching and protecting may have earned, let’s remember that at that age gratitude toward a teacher isn’t that common. Having student gratefull isn’t quite the same as having a coalition. They will be most likely be prone to help to a certain degree but would they help if it goes against their interest? I’m not so sure.

    Take the class we are following, Shaeine, Ruda,Trissinyn, Toby and now Gabriel have loyalties that goes first to other powers. As long as Arachne doesn’t interfer with the politic of their gods/nation their wouldn’t be much problem in helping but seing as Shaeine is prudent in doing anything that could be seen as a Tarnaris interference (that and most of her interaction with Tellwyrn were conflictual and not in a good way with Shaeine often insulting or scolding Tellwyrn out of annoyance) I wouldn’t count on her implication. That would left maybe Fross, Juniper (whose stay in the university wasn’t that happy) and up to a point Teal (who has interest in Tiraas and couldn’t really go too strongly against anything pantheon or Tiraas and just learned her other half is linked to Elilial in hell).

    In the older class we see rabid drow (i forgot her name) who may be gratefull to her, the other in the same class may actually resent Tellwyrn : the 2 would be rapist will probably dislike her, November has been humiliated by Tellwyrn with a good reason but she doesn’t seem that gratefull.

    Something else : Tellwyrn is insulting people permanently and treating them after 5 years of abuse even with good intentions and even if she helped, most people would be pissed off at her. When reading it we find it amusing or “in character” but being woken up a 5 o clock in the morning then teleported not fully clothed to be sent to the other side of the country without explanation or notice would put the person doing that on my shit list.

    Like

    1. They’re in boot camp. Soldiers might not appreciate being put through the abuse of the drill instructors while they’re there, but afterwards they see that it made them stronger, and they’re glad they went through it–many of them, anyways. That’s probably what Arachne is counting on.
      .
      About their having other, primary loyalties? Sure they do–so she will never turn to Trissiny to help her against Avei, or to Toby to pitch in against Omnu. One of the major advantages of having a lot of allies is that you can pick which ones to turn to in any given situation.

      Like

  8. …Tricks, despite his name, didn’t strike me as smart or subtle as Sweet is. Sure, you don’t get to be the boss of the Thieves Guild by coincidence, but he various reactions during the Drow district crisis felt natural and kinda subpar, compared to some of the other players.

    Yet, Tricks apparently successfully made an emotional trap again Lily, of all people.
    Divine help or not, that’s one HELL of an achievement.

    Like

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