9 – 12

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“And this person was unfamiliar to you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply. “I keep aware of the Guild’s leadership but I’ve always been somewhat standoffish. I’m afraid I’m not close enough to any other members to comment reliably on a person’s standing.”

“There must be hundreds of Sifanese in the capital alone,” Bishop Shahai said thoughtfully, her eyes on Commander Rouvad. “They are one of the Empire’s closest allies. I don’t know how common a name Saduko might be. A surname would be helpful, of course…”

“Which is doubtless why one wasn’t offered,” the Commander said dryly, glancing up and down the hall. They were having this discussion right outside her office, where Principia had waited for the two of them to emerge and given her report on the confrontation on the parade grounds. It was hardly private, but the subject matter wasn’t secret, either. “What of her…other name? Perhaps the Guild can tell us why this Gimmick would be working for dragons.”

“As Sergeant Locke pointed out,” said Shahai, “she is not working with the Guild on this matter, or she would not have come here and threatened Locke’s neutrality. I can make inquiries with them.”

Principia cleared her throat.

“You have something to contribute, Sergeant?” Commander Rouvad asked, raising an eyebrow.

“With the greatest respect, ma’am, I would advise that the High Commander do that,” Principia said, standing subtly more rigidly at attention.

“Oh?” Shahai said mildly.

“They will respect an open approach, and will not challenge the leader of a major cult directly. Your Grace…you are very smart. Being smart with the Guild isn’t a good approach. If they think you’re playing games with them…well, the games will begin.”

“The Bishop hardly indulges in scheming for scheming’s sake,” Rouvad said pointedly, “unlike some individuals we all know. This isn’t yet important enough I want to make it an official cult-to-cult affair; the existing interfaith infrastructure of the Church will suffice. Speak with your fellow Bishop, Nandi; Mr. Darling has struck me as a man who loves doing favors and forming connections. Locke, you’re certain Gimmick is the correct tag? Could it be a false one?”

“Tags are a sacrament, ma’am. Eserites don’t falsify them.”

The Commander raised an eyebrow. “What, never?”

“Not twice,” Principia said, pursing her lips. Shahai smiled in amusement.

“That leaves the question of this dragon, Zanzayed,” the Commander said, her dark eyes boring into Principia’s. “I realize you are jealous of your privacy, Locke, but this is not the time to be cagey. You are certain you know no more of him than you’ve told us?”

“I know of him, ma’am,” Principia replied. “In honesty, probably less than Bishop Shahai does. She, at least, has researched the Conclave delegates. Anyone who lives long enough and is active in the world learns the names of the active dragons; Zanzayed is the one they respect and fear the least. Beyond that, I have no idea. I am frankly a little alarmed that he’s interested in me. The feeling is not mutual.”

“According to your report,” said Rouvad, turning back to Shahai, “he called it a family concern.”

“I’m afraid that narrows it down very little,” the Bishop said, shaking her head. “Locke’s bloodline… How would you put it, Locke?”

“Half of them are loner tauhanwe and the other half are the most deliberately boring, traditional elves they can be, to dissociate themselves from the first half,” Principia reported. “Neither will have anything to say to emissaries from a human faith, if you can even find any. If you want to know what interactions Zanzayed has had with the Crowbloods, ma’am, it’s probably best to ask him.”

“Interesting,” Rouvad mused. “And is Crowblood your actual surname?”

“We don’t have surnames in the sense you do, Commander, unless they’re earned.” She glanced momentarily at the Bishop without turning her head. “It’s just something my bloodline tends to be called, owing to its oldest member.”

Commander Rouvad heaved a sigh and turned back to Shahai. “All right, Nandi, this is pertinent to your assignment. Do you need anything requisitioned to proceed?”

“I believe what I already have will suffice admirably, Farzida,” the Bishop replied. “If the sergeant and I are dismissed?”

“Of course. I leave this in your skilled hands.”

Shahai bowed to the Commander, Principia saluting behind her, then turned and glided off down the hall. “Come, Locke. Let’s go waste some time.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Principia said, following.

Commander Rouvad stood, frowning after them in silence for a long moment, before turning and departing in the other direction.


 

“Partial success,” Ruda announced, plunking herself down in a chair. She fished a bottle of ale out of her coat with one hand and snagged one of Juniper’s cookies with the other. “The Huntsmen definitely know something about the werewolves.”

“They told you so?” Toby said, frowning. “What did they say?”

“It’s not what they said, but what they didn’t,” said Gabriel. “And how they didn’t say it. They really did not like us asking about the werewolves; the whole lodge went dead silent, and suddenly everyone was a lot less friendly.”

“They were friendly?” Trissiny said, raising her eyebrows.

“Actually, yeah, they seemed like a pretty laid-back bunch before that point,” Ruda mused, leaning backward and tilting her chair up on two legs. “Good hosts, glad to have company.”

“Ruda got flirted with,” Gabriel reported with a grin. “A lot.”

“And why not? I am the fucking personification of brains, beauty and brawn.”

“Back on the subject,” Trissiny said with some exasperation, “what exactly did you learn? About werewolves or anything else?”

“Not a lot that was specific, or useful,” Gabriel said ruminatively. Suddenly he glanced around. “Uh, before we get into details, should we maybe wait for Teal and Shaeine to get back?”

“We can go over it again,” Ruda said dismissively. “Hell, there really aren’t details. You’ve already heard the whole damn thing, guys. We talked to the Huntsmen, they were nice—they’ve got a nice pad, by the way, I like their notion of decor—and everything was fine until Arquin happened to ask if having werewolves around interfered with the hunting. Then bam, serious faces, and nobody would talk about it. The lodge master finally said the subject was not fit to be discussed.” She shrugged and took a gulp of ale. “That’s it. It’s a start, but not much of one.”

“In a way,” Juniper mused, “it makes some sense. Wolves are sacred to Shaathists, right? And so is manhood. A werewolf is, like…both.”

“Any insights on this, Trissiny?” Toby asked. “You at least got some training on the other cults. The monks didn’t really give me any, and the Church was more interested in teaching me about demons and warlocks.”

“The training I got was mostly in threat assessment and how to deal with doctrinal conflicts,” Trissiny said, frowning. “I could explain in detail exactly how Shaathist dogma is aberrantly misogynistic, and how to handle being in a fight with a Huntsman, but as for exactly what they believe and why, or how they worship…” She shrugged.

“You Avenists sure are clear about your priorities,” Ruda commented.

“Yes, I would say that’s true,” Trissiny said flatly.

“Oh! It’s them!” Fross chimed, shooting straight upward and then darting out over the balcony to stare down into the market square below. In the daylight, she was hard to spot against the sky. “And…uh oh, I think something’s wrong with Teal.”

“Freeze!” Ruda snapped as all of them twitched toward the bannister. “Damn it, you numbnuts, we’ve got eyes on us. Basically all of them. Don’t act alarmed about something and definitely don’t direct attention to Teal and Shaeine. Fross,” she added while they settled reluctantly back into their seats, “what does it look like? Is she hurt?”

“Not to bad, I don’t think,” Fross reported. “She looks…tired. She’s kinda leaning on Shaeine.”

“What could make Teal…” Trissiny trailed off, glancing back into the crowded pub behind them. The townsfolk were still trying to be relatively discreet, but it was hardly a secret that their table was the center of attention.

“We’ll know momentarily,” Toby said quietly. “Sounds like it’s not urgent; Ruda’s right. Let’s not court attention that may lead to trouble later.”

“Any more than you can help by nature, that is?”

“On the fuckin’ subject of not drawing attention,” Ruda said in exasperation, “maybe it’d be best if any fucking inanimate objects at the table refrained from talking?”

“Nobody’s close enough to tell,” Gabriel said quietly, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “Still, though, she’s got a good point. Best to be discreet, partner. I’m not sure I wanna know what the locals would think about you.”

“You never take me anywhere nice.”

He rolled his eyes; Ruda snorted back a laugh.

“And for the record, ‘fucking’ is not punctuation, your Highness.”

“Fuckin’ is if you fuckin’ use it right. Fucker.”

“Come on, Ariel, you were asking for that,” Juniper said. The sword made no further comment.

It took a rather tense few minutes for Teal and Shaeine to navigate through the building to the upper-level pub, and cross the space toward their classmates. Up closer, Teal looked strained and tired, though she was walking under her own power now. Shaeine was even more inscrutable than usual, being fully hidden beneath her hood and gloves. A mysteriously cowled figure naturally drew attention, but the group had unanimously agreed it would be less attention and of a more harmless variety than the sight of a drow. All three Underworld entrances were on the other side of the Golden Sea from here; to the Stalweiss, dark elves were monsters out of legend.

“Hey, glad you two made it back all right,” Gabriel said, standing and solicitously pulling out a chair for Teal. “Have a seat, you look bushed. You okay?”

“Thanks, Gabe, but later,” Teal said tersely, glancing around. “Guys… Can we leave, please?”

“What’s wrong?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping the hilt of her sword.

“We need to go somewhere private and talk,” Teal said. “We have a big problem.”


 

“Forgive me if this is none of my business, your Grace, but who’s funding all this?” Principia asked, setting down her teacup. “I understand the basics of what you’re doing, but it seems somewhat…tenuous…to the military mind. How’d you convince a Legion quartermaster to let you go shopping on Avei’s purse?”

“Oh, no, neither the Legions nor the Sisterhood have paid for any of this,” Shahai said with a light laugh. “Not today’s excursions, nor our previous—and rather more expensive—shopping trips. It all comes out of my own pocket. It won’t be wasted,” she added more pensively, “eventually I’ll find places to donate everything. For now, though, the potential dragon bribes need to remain in my possession; I doubt I can get rid of that much wealth without drawing attention, and I want our targets to think I’m planning to shmooze them a bit later. And, subsequently, to grow increasingly curious when I do not.”

“Those are major expenses to come out of your own pocket, your Grace,” Principia said carefully.

“I can afford it,” the Bishop replied mildly. “As can you. For, more or less, the same reason. My rent is paid by the Church; the Sisterhood provides me meals and any necessary medical care. I prefer a simple existence, and hoard only a few possessions for their sentimental value. As it is not politically prudent to refuse my rather exorbitant salary, it just…builds up. Frankly I find it a relief to be able to unload it now and again. Projects like this are the reason I don’t simply donate everything to the Omnist food pantries.”

“Ah,” Principia said, nodding sagely and gazing out over the old spice market. “And thus do we establish a point of commonality and encourage me to open up a bit about my own mysterious history.”

“Your history is less mysterious than you may be aware,” Shahai said calmly. “And I do know that one of the most effective ways to disarm conversational manipulation is to point it out. I am glad, Principia, that you are growing more comfortable with me. It’s my hope that soon we will be able to dispense with this fencing entirely. I don’t begrudge you your caution, however.”

A silence fell, in which both elves contemplated their tea and the view. They were sitting on a balcony patio on the highest level of the old spice market, at a much more expensive and less discreet restaurant than that at which Principia’s squad had met Bishop Darling a few weeks prior. It did offer dampening charms and scry blockers to keep conversations private—almost all the shops in the market’s upper levels did—but this one, in fact, was chosen specifically for its high prices and outdoor seating. It was popular among people who had too much money and desired to be seen proving it. Principia would never have been caught dead in the place, were she not under orders.

Principia had a bag of spices on the table before her, their final purchase of the afternoon and the alleged purpose of their visit to the spice market. Their purchases from two (needlessly expensive) specialty butcher shops had been wrapped and delivered, as it wasn’t wise to carry meat around on a leisurely sojourn through the city. The whole trip had begun with a visit to a pricey restaurant, where Bishop Shahai had asked the chef to come out for a word, requested a recipe for bacon-wrapped shrimp, and had Principia write it down.

Now, they sat sipping tea and being seen. They had been there a good half hour already, and the Bishop showed no signs of wanting to leave. Principia knew better than to prompt her. Besides, there were other things about which she was more curious.

“Comfortable,” she said quietly. “You know, I think if I were comfortable, I’d go completely insane.”

Shahai cracked a grin at that, a broad expression of true amusement. “Well…perhaps not. You seem to be coping well with the routine and discipline of the military.”

“At least that keeps me engaged.”

“It can. You have the advantage of good leadership. Not every captain is Shahdi Dijanerad, however, and in terms of keeping things interesting, contending with a powerful enemy can be a great boon. Give it time, Locke, and not much of that. You will come to know what true drudgery is.”

“Fantastic,” she said fatalistically. “Well. Since we’re suspending the bullroar by unspoken agreement, we both know what I’m doing here. How did you cope with the…drudgery?”

Shahai sipped her tea, gazing out over the busy market. “I joined the Legions because my mate was an Avenist. One of the last Silver Huntresses.”

Principia’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh… You’ve been here a while, then.”

“Indeed.”

“Forgive me, but… You hold the Legion rank of Captain, correct? That seems…”

“Paltry, for one who has served more than three centuries?” Shahai gave her an amused sidelong smile. “There are loopholes to be exploited in regulations that were not conceived with elves in mind. For instance, if you meet the physical requirements, there is nothing barring you from re-enlisting anew after retirement. I have cycled through the ranks three times, and taken time for myself between careers. And, of course, one can refuse promotions of a certain level; Avei does not want ranking servants who don’t desire to be there. Ultimately, though…I always come back.”

“Why?” Principia asked quietly.

Shahai continued gazing into space. “When Dizhara died… Have you ever lost someone, Principia?”

She averted her own gaze. “Y—no. I dunno. I gave someone up, once. Never have fully sorted out how I feel about that. I actually thought of going to an Izarite temple for help, if you can believe it.”

“I would strongly recommend it, if you have the desire, and the uncertainty. The disciples of Izara, like all true faithful, are good at what their goddess commands. It was explained to me the best by a shaman, though, not any priest. Healing, he told me, is about growth. It only seems like the restoration of something old; it is in truth the creation of something new in the place and the shape of something previous. Our kind are slow to heal, physically and mentally, because we are slow to grow. Because we do not live as quickly or as fervently as the mortal races, because it is our natural tendency to seek equilibrium with our environment. How do sentient beings act, on average, as overall societies? Humans adapt and conquer. Gnomes explore and seek challenge. Demons destroy. Dwarves study and create. Elves…find balance.”

She smiled faintly, pausing to take a sip of tea. “The loss of a loved one creates a hole in your being, an absence where that person is meant to exist. It’s a huge part of you, simply no longer there. You can no more function in that state than after the loss of a leg or a lung, not until you’ve had time to heal. And healing means building up more of yourself, living your life, gaining new complexity and adding new substance to your being. That hole never goes away, but as you develop, as you grow, you gradually close it over with new parts of yourself, until eventually it is only a space, and no longer a wound.” Her smile grew slightly. “And military training…”

“My DS went on and on about that in basic,” Principia said quietly. “It was one of her favorite themes. The point of training, of becoming a soldier, is to break you down…”

Shahai nodded. “…and build you back up. When I lost my partner… In the many years since, I have continued to serve because Avei, her Sisters and her Legions have more than earned my loyalty, because my life here is one of purpose in which I find great fulfillment. But I joined, initially, to become a soldier. Because I would have become anything if it meant no longer being a broken shell.”

The silence that followed was oddly calm, considering the subject matter. Shahai lifted her eyes to gaze idly at the clouded sky; Principia was frowning in thought, her stare intent but unfocused.

“Well,” Shahai said abruptly, setting down her cup, “that should be enough time. Off we go! And walk slowly, Sergeant, I wish not to dissuade anyone attempting to intercept us.”

“I see,” Principia said, rising and picking up the package of spices. “You believe Zanzayed wants something urgently enough to have me—or possibly you—followed and accosted in public?”

“I believe nothing,” Shahai replied, walking serenely toward the front of the tea room. “It is a critical error to form theories in the absence of facts. I am, however, interested to learn whether he wants something that badly. It will not reveal everything, of course, but will narrow down the possibilities, in one direction or the other. Come along.”

It was a peaceful and quiet trip through the tea room and the upper levels of the ancient fortress, of course. These were the halls haunted by the rich, the powerful, and others who were careful of their privacy. Even had the peace not been enforced, by soldiers both Imperial and Avenist, to say nothing of private security personnel, hardly anyone was reckless enough to get on the bad side of a whole swath of the city’s elite by being disruptive in their favorite haunts.

“I almost don’t know which to hope for,” Principia murmured as they descended a staircase to a wide path along a lower level. “On the one hand, if this is urgent to Zanzayed it’ll be over with faster…”

“Knowing either way enables us to end it faster on our own terms,” Shahai replied in total calm. “I understand your uncertainty, however. The manner in which this plays out may determine—”

“Your pardon, Ms. Locke?”

Both elves halted, and turned in slow unison. A portly middle-aged man stood behind them—not the same one they had seen petitioning at the Conclave’s residence, but clearly one of his ilk. Well-bred, well-heeled and well-mannered, the sort of professional toady who made excellent foot soldiers in the social wars between the upper aristocracy. He clutched his hat diffidently in front of himself, not quite concealing the loud badge pinned to his lapel: a familiar multicolored hexagon overlaid with a vaguely wing-like sigil.

“I do most humbly apologize for this interruption, ladies,” he said, bowing. “If I could beg a moment of your time on behalf of my employer, Ms. Locke?”

The two elves exchanged a look, and the Bishop permitted herself a thin, satisfied smile.

Principia cleared her throat pointedly. “That’s Sergeant Locke, thank you.”


 

“Okay,” Ruda said in the queasy silence that ensued after Shaeine finished speaking. “That is fucked up in multiple directions, and I think we can all agree that Sherwin Leduc needs his ass kicked in the worst way. But I got the impression, Teal, that there was something more urgent than this going on. Not that we can’t spare the time to go deal with it, but it doesn’t seem like a crisis.”

Teal nodded, her expression unhappy. “I’m going to let Vadrieny explain; it’s easier than me translating.” So saying, she took a half-step away from the group and in the next moment, the orange glow of hellfire was added to Fross’s silvery illumination.

The basement in which they met had a single fairy lamp, kept dim more to avoid attention than to conserve energy. The warehouse above was busily in use, which provided excellent cover for its true purpose: below was a space which had a discreet exit into a back alley at one end, and the hidden opening to a tunnel leading to one of the cellars of Dufresne Manor. It was a long tunnel and a dark one, and not their preferred method of getting to and from the city, but it did afford them a way to do so without attracting the attention that Malivette’s ostentatious carriages inevitably did.

“The demon in the cage,” Vadrieny said grimly, “is called a Rhaazke.”

“I’m not familiar with that species,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Do they resemble Vanislaads?”

“About seven feet tall,” Vadrieny said, “very muscular, mottled skin. Slitted eyes. Claws, horns, feet like mine…no wings, but they do have spaded tails. Physically quite powerful, and gifted magically. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them, Trissiny; I don’t know much surface-level demonology, but it would be very hard for one to get to the mortal plane ordinarily.”

“That sounds kind of…nothing like a succubus, doesn’t it?” Juniper said. “So why’s Lord Leduc think she is one?”

“Lord Leduc,” said Shaeine, “is obsessive, emotionally stunted and deprived of social interaction, to say nothing of whatever psychological damage was inflicted by his family. Keep in mind that whatever they did was enough to get them arrested by the Empire—and this in a province in which they are such an established power that rival Houses are reluctant to move against one young man living alone in a crumbling manor. In short, he is exceedingly lucky not to have summoned an actual succubus. By this point he would be her willing slave.”

“What do you know about hellhounds?” Vadrieny asked.

“True hellhounds, or khankredahgs?” Trissiny countered.

“The first group. Like the ones Melaxyna had.”

“They are impossibly rare,” Trissiny said slowly, “because it is not possible to summon them from the mortal plane. They’re native to a… Well, it’s a dimension accessible from Hell but not from here. You have to go into Hell and open a portal from there to reach them.”

“Seems like a lot of effort for an exotic pet,” Gabriel commented.

“Hellhound breath is fantastically useful!” Fross chimed. “It counters any kind of magical sleep—any sleep at all, in fact! It’s such a potent awakener that it’s used in necromancy.”

“Which doesn’t explain the relevance of this tangent,” Trissiny said pointedly.

“Rhaazke,” said Vadrieny, “are the dominant species in the dimension from which hellhounds come.”

A momentary silence fell.

“Then,” Toby said slowly, “how did Lord Leduc summon one?”

“That is the reason I…overreacted,” Vadrieny said, looking slightly abashed. It was a most peculiar expression on her ferocious features. “Such a thing is profoundly impossible; it violates every law of… Well, suffice it to say, it can’t be done, and if it’s been done, something is terrifyingly wrong. I… Didn’t know I knew that. The information was just there when I saw her. Ordinarily I have more restraint, but the shock…”

“I see,” Trissiny said, staring intently at her. “Can we expect similar to happen if you are exposed to more demonic stimuli?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vadrieny said tersely.

“That sounds like an important development,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply, “but one we can worry about at a later date. Fross…are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I believe so!” the pixie chimed. “But even if we could afford a telescope that size, where would we put it?”

Everyone stared at her.

After a moment she dropped lower in the air, her glow dimming noticeably. “That’s…a joke. I was joking.”

“It’s all in the timing, glitterbug,” Ruda said, not without sympathy.

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Yes, well, anyway. I’ve just had a horrible thought. We were told there are chaos-worshipping cults that keep popping up in this town, right?”

“What of it?” Juniper asked.

“Oh, no,” Trissiny whispered, her eyes widening.

Gabriel nodded. “Chaos… Trissiny, how hard is the spell to summon a succubus?”

“You’re asking her?” Ruda exclaimed. “Why would she know?”

“Because it’s immediately relevant to my calling,” said Trissiny. “And the spell is appallingly easy, which is exactly how Vanislaads keep getting onto the mortal plane. Even other demons don’t like them, and won’t let them near a hellgate from the other side. The summoning ritual is simple, versatile and requires very little power. A layperson can do it with readily available arcane materials. In fact, few actual warlocks would want an incubus or succubus around; they know how much trouble they are. It’s usually some idiot fantasizing about a beautiful, sexually insatiable servant and having no idea what they’re messing with.”

“Right,” said Gabriel, nodding again. “So we’ve got a very simple incantation, cast by a clearly skilled warlock—and one not only competent, but thorough enough to have built an elaborate, sadistic demon prison before he even started. If this guy’s a little unstable, that could well be why he won’t believe his prisoner isn’t a succubus. They’re shapeshifters, and if it’s that simple and hard to botch…”

“Then how did he botch it?” Juniper demanded.

“Chaos,” said Ariel. “A spell which has not only gone inexplicably wrong, but gone wrong in a way which is totally impossible… This is consistent with observed chaos effects. It causes magic to misfire in horribly unpredictable ways.”

“What she said,” Gabriel added. “I mean, if it was just this one thing… But here’s this impossible magical happening, and also there are chaos cults in Veilgrad? Multiple ones? No, that’s too suspicious.”

“Then…we have an avenue of investigation,” Ruda said slowly. “So we can quit wandering around talking to random assholes. Surely the Empire didn’t just kill all these cultists. The Imps have to have some imprisoned. Boots, you said they were amenable to working with us? So we go to the Imperial facility, talk with the chaos-worshiping dipshits, and hopefully learn our next move.”

“Which is good,” Vadrieny said impatiently, “but we have a more immediate problem. Rhaazke are culturally sort of like drow: matriarchal and militaristic. They are also loyal to Elilial, and emotionally stable, like hethelaxi without the berserking. In fact, those two things are related. It was their pocket dimension that Elilial launched her first campaign against Scyllith from. She bought their loyalty and keeps it by altering them so they don’t lose mental stability to infernal effects. These creatures are dangerous.”

“Well, this one is in a cage,” Ariel pointed out.

“You’re not listening!” the archdemon exclaimed. “Metal is rare in Hell—she was wearing iron bracelets. This girl is powerful, possibly royal. She has family who are doubtless frantic about her disappearance. They will be using every considerable magical resource they have to track her down. If they manage to get to this plane and find her in a cage in that imbecile’s basement, they will raze Veilgrad to the ground in their outrage. If they figure out what he intends for her, they won’t stop with the city.”

“Oh,” said Ruda. “Well. Fuck.”

“I doubt any clan of Rhaazke is a match for the Empire,” Vadrieny continued grimly. “There’s no political entity in their realm with comparable numbers or resources. But by the time they were beaten, this city and its surroundings would be infernally irradiated ruins.”

“What are the odds of them getting up here?” Trissiny asked.

“Exactly zero,” said Ariel.

“The sword is correct,” said Vadrieny, nodding. “Also zero were the odds of that one Rhaazke being here.”

“The demon is correct,” said the sword. “If this truly is a chaos effect we are dealing with, anything is possible and nothing is truly likely. The nature of chaos is unpredictability.”

“Wait, that can’t be right, though,” Gabriel protested. “For it to mess up Leduc’s summoning, the chaos effect has to be here, right? They can’t follow it from the other dimension.”

“I dunno if that’s a help,” said Fross. “Chaos is trans-dimensional by nature. The whole point of it is it’s the stuff that exists outside of reality. From between dimensions.”

“Then Leduc and his prisoner just became our most urgent priority,” Toby said flatly, his expression severe. “In addition to the important matter of correcting his…mistake…we may find evidence in Leduc Manor of whatever chaos effect is working on Veilgrad. If we’re assuming that is the root of the city’s problems.”

“Beats any other theory we have,” said Gabriel.

“Is no one else going to point it out?” Ariel complained. “We are talking about releasing a powerful, hitherto unknown type of demon whose defining characteristic seems to be that we cannot send it back where it came from. What do you intend to do with the creature once it’s free?”

“Two points,” said Vadrieny, folding her arms, “both of which I’ve already been over. Rhaazke are emotionally stable, not prone to the aggression of other demons, and they are loyal Elilinists. I can make her behave. Or at least obey.”

“She reacted strongly to Vadrieny’s brief presence,” Shaeine added. “I’m relatively certain she recognized her.”

“Also,” said Ruda, glaring at Ariel, “let’s keep in mind we are talking about a sentient being—a person—who is being kept in a sadistic prison in an insane pervert’s basement, being tortured into compliance so he can make her his concubine. It is immediately morally necessary that someone put a stop to this horseshit, preferably while also stuffing Sherwin Leduc so far simultaneously up his own ass and down his own throat that he ends up a living portal to Hell.”

“I am willing to acknowledge demons as people strictly on a case-by-case basis.”

“Hey!” Gabriel snapped. “Do you wanna go back in the Crawl?”

“Well! Let us hope Rhaazke are more grateful than half-hethelaxi.”

“Enough!” Toby exclaimed. “There’s more to discuss, but Ruda is correct. This calls for immediate action, both tactically and morally. We can hammer out details on the way. Right now, I think we need to go have a talk with Lord Leduc.”

“You can talk,” said Trissiny, turning and stalking toward the door, one hand on her sword. “I have something else for him.”

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19 thoughts on “9 – 12

  1. Another longer chapter, with some good meat (if I say so myself). I’m pleased with this one; I think it benefited a lot from me having more time to mull it over before actually sitting down to type.

    I a still curious about those few days last week when TGaB was getting numerous hits from search engines, more than any other referral source. It’s obvious that a bunch of people were Googling the story, but I’ve no idea why. Nobody has any knowledge of this? If nothing else, it seems I owe somebody a “thank you” for the endorsement.

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    1. I recommended TGaB to my book club, but that’s only six people and it was three weeks ago. Most of them probably would have forgotten by now.

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    2. “TGaB was getting numerous hits from search engines”

      Is it possible that people are searching for something similar that has become an internet meme recently and they are false hits? Just wondering – I don’t know the search engine business well enough to make informed guesses.

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    3. I account for one google hit each update day that my work is slow enough for me to read at work, but beyond that I have no Idea where they are coming form.

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      1. Well, that probably accounts for at least some of it! That particular audience would be relatively well motivated to seek out new reading material; hopefully some of ’em found TGaB to their liking.

        Whether it is or not, I very much appreciate plugs like these. Much obliged!

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  2. Did you really just throw a Pinky line in there for Fross? I love this story more and more as I read it. Great chapter and keep up the fantastic work!

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  3. OK, good reason Vadrieny would go nuts. And completely unknown to the readers. The demon can’t go back, huh? Sidekick? For who? New student for Arachne?

    “Wolves are sacred to Shaathists, right? And so is manhood. A werewolf is, like…both.”
    Registered guess: the splinter sect is the werewolves. That gives the actual Shaathists lots of reasons to keep quiet about it.

    Fross is starting to joke? Just how ~!@#$%^&*()_+ fast is her intellect growing? I am still nominating her to off and/or imprison Jacaranda and become the new pixie queen. Of course, she might go crazy trying to “govern” her stupid kin, so maybe “first pixie archmage” is the better position for her.

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    1. im thinking that the Shaathists created the werewolves, as in the original werewolves in this world, considering it sounds super holy to them, and they never told anyone because it dosnt sound like it went well lol, and now the splinter cell is trying again

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    2. I’m sure Scorn’s kin could get her back from the main dimension in Hell if they have as many resources as Vadrieny implies. Getting her there should be doable for a half-decent warlock, and possibly for other skilled magic-users.

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      1. She probably knows a thing or three about interdimensional shifting, as well as the effects of Chaos. She’s not only a victim, here… but a possible source of help. Chaos isn’t good for anybody, regardless of race or home dimension.

        She probably would be willing to help out. For the minor price of seeing a certain twat get royally taken down eighteen pegs and splattered across the landscape.

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  4. Mini-update:

    Chapter is coming along, but it’s a slog. Not that the content is posing a challenge for me, I’ve just been up for about sixteen hours, I worked a full shift, and it was retail three days before Christmas. I’m physically and emotionally exhausted, which is not conducive to the writing process.

    I don’t anticipate a real problem, and it’s a good four hours to the usual posting time, but I am dragging. If it goes up a wee bit late, please nobody panic.

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  5. Great chapter! It allowed several bits of insight to fall into place for me.

    * I like how natural every detail about the story feels, and that’s what makes this world seem so alive and vibrant. Like the concept of tauhanwe: the next time I read a story with elves in it, I’m going to be confused when this convept doesn’t come up!

    * “Elves are slow to heal because they are slow to grow.” This whole conversation stands out to me, but I have to imagine Webb’s been sitting in that line since the beginning. That’s some amazing restraint!

    * “Humans adapt and conquer.” We know that the members of the pantheon were once human… have we just been foreshadowed? We’ve been seeing adaptation from the gods since the very beginning as well.

    There’s probably more that I’m forgetting, since it took me two or three days to read the whole thing.

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