9 – 20

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“What the hell?” Weaver demanded.

Sound carried a long way over the Badlands; they had known something peculiar was afoot in Desolation long before reaching it. Once the weathered stone buildings of the town hove into view, the distant cacophony was compounded by the sight of people moving about in the streets, in greater numbers and with much greater energy than they had seen them do before. Though hints had begun to form as soon as they drew near enough to pick some meaning out of the noise, it wasn’t until nearly reaching the outskirts of the town itself that the three could be certain what was going on in Desolation.

It appeared to be a party.

Approaching the town from the same direction in which they had left, the group entered through the old streets leading past mostly abandoned buildings rather than the main avenue. As such, the citizens were a peripheral presence until they were well into the town itself, heard but glimpsed only in passing. From what little they could hear, everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Now, finally emerging into the central avenue, the group had to stop and stare. The street was all but filled, and all the festival atmosphere lacked were decorations. Whatever was happening had apparently not been planned, but resulted in most of the town’s population milling about, laughing, talking, shouting and drinking. Two groups of musicians could be heard, both playing exuberantly in the same frontier style, but between their unpolished performances and the multiple tunes running it was impossible to tell what banjo was supposed to be harmonizing what fiddle. As McGraw, Billie and Weaver arrived, gaping, a great cheer went up near Terminus Station, where most of the crowd seemed to be centered, followed by a loud toast to the Emperor’s health and more cheering.

Mere moments later, they were spotted. A general hue and cry went up, people rushing forward toward the three. Unlike their previous encounter with Desolation’s agitated populace, though, everyone was smiling. In moments they were being cheerfully slapped on the back and possibly congratulated or thanked. Between the general noise and the fact that a good half the crowd had clearly been well into their whiskey, it was hard to tell.

Several townsfolk stumbled back as a great puff of wind burst out from beneath Billie, where she had dropped a small object. The gnome lifted upward on a levitation charm, grabbing McGraw’s sleeve and clambering up to seat herself precariously on his shoulder.

“Well, damn!” she shouted, grinning madly. “I should blow up towns more often!”

“Why is it,” Weaver demanded, “that once everyone’s smiling you’re willing to take—”

“All right, all right, everybody give ’em some air! Land’s sakes, you’re gonna drown ’em. C’mon, clear a path.”

Somewhat reluctantly, the still-shouting citizens shifted, creating an opening through which Joe approached, smiling and gently shooing people away.

“Kid, what the hell did you do?” Weaver demanded.

“Exactly what I said I was gonna do,” Joe replied, tucking his thumbs into his belt and grinning. “How was your trip? Any luck?”

“Good bit of luck, in fact,” said McGraw, having to raise his voice over the din. “Maybe we oughtta discuss it in a quieter environment. Care to bring us up to speed, here?”

“Better yet, I’ll show you.” Joe turned to head back toward the Rail station, grinning and beckoning. “C’mon, I think you’ll like this!”

They continued to be shouted at, backslapped and offered drinks all the way to the station. It wasn’t far, fortunately, and while some of the most earnest carousing seemed to be taking place in its immediate vicinity, the station itself was an island of order, watched over by Imperial soldiers. Easily a dozen of them, enforcing a perimeter between the station’s occupants and the crowd outside.

A caravan was resting on the tracks, its hatches open; more troops were unloading crates, while others carefully unpacked them and laid out an orderly selection of arcane equipment. Sheriff Decker stood off to the side with two portly older men; he gave the approaching group a long, unreadable look upon their arrival.

“The rest of the Imperial Surveyors are already spread out through the town,” Joe noted as he escorted the others toward Decker’s group. “The uniformed folks currently unpacking are with the Army Corps of Enchanters. Looks like there’ll be plenty of work for everyone pretty soon.”

“What work?” Billie demanded, still from her perch on McGraw’s shoulder. She was a little too wide in the bottom to make it a comfortable position, but held her balance well enough. The old wizard made no complaint, but moved rather more slowly and carefully than was his usual custom.

“You remember Sheriff Decker, of course,” Joe went on as they joined the three men. “Allow me to introduce Mayor Tweed, who’s in charge in this town, and my old friend Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.”

“Mornin’, Elias,” the slightly younger of the two overweight men said cheerfully. “Bout time you brought me somethin’ other than trouble! And these’ll be Gravestone and the Tinker. Lemme see if I can figure out which is which!”

“This is a real honor, all of you,” added Paxton, grinning. “A real honor! Upon my word, the older I get, the more fascinating people I get to meet! Perhaps I should blame Joe, eh? Seems every time I encounter a paladin or dryad or famous wandfighter, he’s lurking around somewhere!”

“Well, I’ll take the blame for this one,” Joe said easily, “since I did bring you out here, an’ all. Last time, though, you came to my town.”

“Indeed, indeed! And I do hope you won’t take this the wrong way, Joe, but so far I’m enjoying this one a lot more.”

“At the expense of repeating myself,” Weaver said flatly, “what the hell is happening here?!”

Paxton turned to look at Joe in surprise. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I told ’em what I was planning,” the Kid said with a shrug. “Maybe they didn’t believe me.”

“Uh, point of order,” said Billie, finally hopping down. Despite the drop being easily twice her height, she didn’t so much as grunt upon landing. “You told us you were gonna go try to get the Empire to come out and help here. Since you were talkin’ about moving a massive bureaucracy off its bum in the space o’ one day, we all ‘ad a laugh an’ ignored you. Because that’s stupid, Joe. Grumpypants has a valid question.”

“Well, Mr. Jenkins gets a good share of credit, here,” said Paxton, chuckling, “but not all of it. We didn’t just spin all of this out of thin air; the plans have been percolating for a good few years now. Joe got myself and Bishop Darling on board, though, and we were able to light a fire under the relevant Imperial departments, and…here we are!”

“Where?” Weaver exclaimed. “Where are we?”

“It’s the most miraculous thing!” Mayor Tweed enthused. Beside him, Decker folded his brawny arms, looking far more skeptical. “No less than three major Imperial projects being constructed in and around Desolation! Look here, we’ve got it all laid out.” He turned and gesticulated at the wall of the ticket office, which was plastered with maps, blueprints and documents. They made little sense at first glance, having been slapped into place rather haphazardly, but Tweed carried on explaining. “First, the Rail line’s being extended—they’re finally putting in lines to Puna Dara and Rodvenheim! About time, I’d say. And that will make Desolation a hub, not just the end o’ the line. An international hub, even! Plus!” He leaned over to slap a hasty diagram of what seemed to be some kind of tower. “Zeppelin docks!”

“Zeppelin docks?” McGraw frowned. “Here? Why?”

“A step forward in another long-envisioned project,” Paxton explained. “You see, my friends, the common theme of these projects is diversification. In terms of transport, the Empire is heavily depended on its Rail network to get anything around. The Rail freeze this spring was an object lesson in how risky that can be. Zeppelin transport is many times slower, of course—but it’s a lot safer.”

“Really says something about the Imperial Rail service that a conveyance which can fall thousands of feet is safer,” Weaver commented.

“And that ties right into the other big deal going here,” Paxton continued. “The biggest deal, in fact! You see, a major transport freeze has the potential to cause more than just economic harm. A disproportionate amount of food comes from the Tira Valley and Great Plains—that’s the lion’s share of the really good farmland on this continent. In the old days, of course, kingdoms grew only as much as they could manage to feed themselves, but now, there are entire provinces that have to import food just to break even. The Stalrange, the Wyrnrange, the Tidestrider Isles… Tiraas itself doesn’t grow so much as an apple. There are places that just couldn’t survive if not for Imperial produce. A famine could be caused not only by a transportation crisis, but any localized disaster affecting our crop-producing regions.”

“What, aren’t there storehouses?” Weaver demanded.

“You’re gonna farm in the Badlands?” Billie said skeptically.

“In the mines!” Mayor Tweed said, beaming.

They all stared at him.

“I’ve a few thoughts on that,” Weaver said finally, “but I’ve been asked not to express such things to people who hold Imperial office.”

“It’s about Tar’naris,” Paxton said. “We learned a lot from the terraforming project there. Underground farming isn’t innately easy, but with the right enchantments, equipment and upkeep, subterranean farms turn out to be a lot less vulnerable to certain problems than conventional ones. Weather, for example, is a non-issue. The Surveyor Corps has been kicking around the idea of doing something similar on a smaller scale for the Empire’s benefit for years. Desolation has numerous underground spaces that are already cut in usable shapes, even better than natural caves. Better yet, it’s got a huge underground aquifer—there’s a natural lake far below the bedrock. This will be our test case!”

“Construction!” Tweed enthused. “Lots and lots of construction! Commerce routed through the town from all over the Empire! And ultimately, we’ll become a food-exporting province! My friends, by bringing us to the Empire’s attention, I can say without exaggeration or embellishment that you have saved this dying town from the brink!”

“Huh,” Weaver mused, studying the wall of charts and plans.

“Step one is scouting the land, of course,” said Paxton. “My own colleagues are at work in the area, and the Aces are gearing up to follow suit, as you can see around you.”

“Aces?” Billie inquired.

“Army Corps of Enchanters,” Joe explained. “It’s an acronym. Anyway, gentlemen, my apologies for interrupting your planning. If I could borrow my friends for just a moment? We need to have a word in private.”

“Of course, of course!” said Mayor Tweed. “And you’ll have to be our guests afterward. Heroes like you deserve to be celebrated!”

“Feels odd to be arguing against that,” Weaver muttered as Joe led them a distance away, toward an end of the Rail platform not being used by the Army to offload their surveying equipment. “In honesty, though, all we’ve done here was blow up the saloon.”

“Excuse you, I blew up the saloon,” Billie said haughtily. “I’ll take yer share of celebratin’, if y’don’t want it.”

“Elias, can you arrange us a little privacy?” Joe asked.

McGraw glanced thoughtfully at the nearby soldiers. “Well…”

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said a passing woman wearing a lieutenant’s bars. “There’s no law against sound-dampening effects near Imperial personnel.”

“All righty, then,” the old man said with a grin, and tapped the butt of his staff twice against the ground.

The sphere that sprung up around them was only barely visible, rippling like heat waves off the desert; its primary effect was to cut off sound from outside the bubble.

“Thanks,” said Joe, his expression growing more serious. “I need to pass on word from Darling: this stroke of good fortune comes with a warning. These plans were all things that’ve been brewing for some years already, but havin’ ’em all put into effect now is the result of more intervention than he could muster. It was Lord Quentin Vex who added his weight to the initiative that got all this in motion.”

“Vex?” Weaver frowned. “The head of Imperial Intelligence.”

“We’ve been seein’ signs of his handiwork out here, too,” McGraw commented, extracting a cigarillo from his case. “Much smaller ones, though. This is a whole different animal. What do the Imps want out here?”

“Almost certainly the same thing we do,” said Weaver.

“The reality is,” Joe continued gravely, “some of these projects are…less feasible than others. It’s lucky the underground farming is gonna be the biggest, because that’s the one they’re most serious about. The bit with extending the Rail…”

“Way ahead o’ ye,” said Billie. “Rodvenheim an’ Puna Dara are sovereign states; y’can’t just build infrastructure to their gates. That’s gonna require diplomacy, and I know bugger all about international relations but it seems t’me if either o’ them wanted a Rail line they’d’ve had one long since.”

“The zeppelin thing may be premature, too,” Joe added. “Right now, zeps are strictly military transport. Expanding them to carry civilian passengers and freight is a good idea, I think, but the fact is we’re talkin’ about building an installation for an infrastructure network that doesn’t exist.”

“Well, the key to making something exist is to actually build it,” Weaver pointed out. “I don’t see how any of this affects us, anyway. We’ll be long gone before any of these grandiose plans can fall through.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re not responsible,” Joe retorted.

“No, the fact that we’re not responsible means we’re not responsible! Even you, kid, don’t have the power to make the Empire do this—the Empire does what it wants. And we aren’t even involved!”

“I helped!” Billie chimed. “I cleverly created a sense of urgency by blowin’ up th—”

“Will you button it, you sadistic crotch goblin!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw commented, puffing on his cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But the Tirasian Dynasty has always ruled by carefully managing people’s opinions—both powerful interests and the general public. Sharidan’s pretty damn good at that game. Lord Vex is a crafty old crow himself, an’ not about to undermine the Emperor. However it may look from our limited perspective, Joe, I can’t imagine the Empire would invite the kind of unrest they would be by making grand promises out here and then yankin’ the rug out from under the whole province. In the age o’ scrolltowers and newspapers, that kind of hanky-panky could have continent-wide repercussions.”

“I guess,” Joe said, frowning.

“I’m not much inclined to trust governments myself,” McGraw said with a grin. “But this one knows its best interests and is reasonably competent. Surprising as it is to see them actually workin’ out here…well, I think the odds are good they intend to see the work done.”

“On a more pertinent note,” said Weaver, “how does all this help us? It’s great for the town and all, but…”

“It’s about positioning,” said Joe. “Previously, it was us and Khadizroth’s group, head-to-head in the Badlands. He had a defensible position, forcing us to go on the attack, and we were both out of favor with the locals, making the population a big fat variable. Now, Desolation is not only crawling with Imperial interests, but the local folks think we’re the bee’s knees. We have a secure fallback position, one we can deny to his group. Thanks to all this, the advantage is ours.”

“It is very early in the game to be counting chickens,” McGraw cautioned. “Still, you’ve got a good point there, Joe. Our position looks a lot better than it did yesterday. Now, concerning the other allies I’ve found for us—”

“Uh, lads?” said Billie, pointing. “I can’t exactly read lips through this shimmery bit, but that crowd looks suddenly less celebratory than it did.”

They all turned to follow her finger. Indeed, the motions of the large knot of people that had formed on the outer edges of the Rail station were far more aggressive than previously. Tellingly, Tweed, Paxton, and Decker all looked alarmed by this, and the soldiers had stopped what they were doing and taken up weapons.

“Oh, this could get bad in a hurry,” Joe said worriedly, striding forward through the wall of the bubble. The others swiftly followed suit.

Outside the dampening bubble, the crowd was indeed angry. There was no more music; there were threats and insults. Joe had to raise his own voice considerably to get a path opened up toward the center of the cluster. “Hey, hey, hey! C’mon, now, I thought this was a party! Let’s all settle down, here. What’s all the fuss about?”

He fell silent as the crowd finally parted, their seething voices subsiding somewhat as he deflected their attention to himself. In the middle of what had been a knot of citizens clearly on the verge of serious aggression stood two dwarves, a man and a woman. They wore simple working clothes and seemed wary, but not particularly alarmed at the prospect of the mob trying to form around them.

“They don’t belong here!” shouted a woman from the back of the throng. A chorus of agreement rose around her.

“Job-stealin’ tunnel rats!”

“Go back under yer own mountain!”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Joe exclaimed, holding up both hands. “People, please! C’mon. Look, I understand what’s been happenin’ here,, but you can’t just go blamin’ every dwarf you see for what the Big K company does.”

“They’re with Big K!” a man in the front shouted accusingly. “Ask ’em!”

“That’s true, in fact,” said the male dwarf. “Excuse me, Mr. Jenkins, isn’t it? My companion and I…”

Anything else he said was lost in a rising tide of imprecations from the surrounding crowd.

They fell quiet again when Joe drew his wand and fired it thrice into the sky. Rather than its usual quiet beams, he let loose several satisfyingly loud bolts of lightning.

“Okay,” Joe said into the relative quiet which ensued. “I take your meaning, folks. But let me pose you a hypothetical, all right? We all know the Five Kingdoms have been hit as hard as this region by the Narisian Treaty. Now, suppose some dwarven outfit came out here hirin’. Suppose they were lookin’ for experienced miners to take on work up in the mountains themselves. Payin’ well, so you could afford to send money back an’ take care of your families. Wouldn’t you folks jump on that?”

People muttered uncertainly; the dwarves simply watched Joe with speculative expressions. On the Rail platform, the soldiers stood ready, not going back to their work, but not moving to intervene yet.

“I think you’d have to be crazy not to,” Joe continued, grinning disarmingly. “But there you’d be, in dwarven country, takin’ jobs from the folk who live there an’ probably not makin’ any of them happy. But…well, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta, right? We all need to eat, an’ provide for our people. C’mon, we’ve had a big stroke of good luck in Desolation, today. Let’s not take out our frustrations on honest folk just tryin’ to make a living.”

“That Mr. K’s an asshole,” someone grumbled very loudly. “Pushin’ us around…” This brought another chorus of surly assent, but the general mood of the crowd had become much calmer.

“Well, now, let’s see a show of hands,” said Joe with a broad smile. “How many of you have never worked for an idiot or a jerk? Not once?”

Chuckles ran around the crowd now; only a few hands appeared in the air.

“Luke, you put your hand up this second!”

“Hey now, Pa, you run a good outfit, but remember that time you was sick an’ Uncle George had ta run the store fer a week?”

That brought outright laughter. People began to drift away, some looking abashed. In the next moments, a fiddle struck up a tune, joined quickly by a banjo and tambourine.

“Well, well, well,” Billie drawled quietly, jabbing her elbow into Joe’s thigh. “Talented, cute, earnest, and he knows how to work a crowd. You’re dangerous, boy.”

He coughed awkwardly, beckoning to the two dwarves, who stepped up onto the platform, McGraw and Weaver moving back to make room. The nearby soldiers stared very pointedly at the few remaining townsfolk who continued to watch the visitors with hostile expressions, but nothing further came of it.

“That was rather impressive,” said the woman, smiling up at Joe. “In fact, you remind me of Mr. K, somewhat.”

“I…have no idea how to take that,” he said frankly.

McGraw cleared his throat pointedly. “There somethin’ we can help you folks with?”

“Yes, in fact,” said the male dwarf, removing his hat and bowing politely to them. “I suppose there’s little need to ask who you are; the descriptions are quite distinctive. Mr. K would like to talk with you all, in a quiet and civil manner, at your earliest convenience.”


 

“I’m sorry I never manage to take you anywhere nice,” Teal said.

Shaeine turned her head, raising her chin so that Teal could see her smile even from the depths of her hood. “Everywhere is nice, so long as you are with me.”

The bard couldn’t repress a grin at that. “Hee… You are smooth, you know that?”

“Yes, I do.” Shaeine momentarily pressed the back of her hand against Teal’s. Much as she wanted to take Shaeine’s hand—or, to be honest, to take her in her arms—Teal respected her reserve as always. Spending time over the summer with Shaeine’s family had been very instructive. In any case, even if she had been tempted to doubt the drow’s affection, such nascent doubts were always swiftly washed away as soon as they found themselves in private.

“It bothers me, though,” she said more soberly as they continued to stroll. It was a quiet street, out of the way, but not deserted by any means. One wall of the entire block was formed by the exterior of the warehouse complex, beneath which was Malivette’s basement with its secret tunnel to Dufresne Manor. The rest was all shops, though—quiet, genteel shops, frequented by people who, one and all, had a suspicious stare for a figure in cowled robes walking alongside a short-haired girl in a man’s suit. “Having to hide you. You should be treated with more respect.”

“It would be one thing if I had to hide,” Shaeine pointed out. “There are no such laws, and frankly I doubt showing my face would lead to violence, or danger. We are simply acting to ward off misunderstandings. The initiative, the choice, are still ours.”

“Mm,” Teal mused. “You know what I mean, though.”

“Yes.” Again, that deft little hand pressed against her own. “I am proud to be seen with you, too. I get the better end of this deal; at least everyone can see how lucky I am.”

Teal couldn’t help grinning again. “Almost too smooth. How do you expect me to learn Narisian reserve if you won’t stop making me smile?”

“I am selfish. I’ll risk any hardship to enjoy your smile.”

After that comment, she couldn’t make herself withhold it.

They reached the end of the warehouse and turned around, heading back. Waiting for Trissiny to get back from the Imperial Army barracks, hopefully with the other two paladins in tow, was tedious business in the basement; Teal and Shaeine had volunteered to take the watch more for the chance at some fresh air than because they feared any kind of attack. Indeed, the street was peacefully quiet. It was a pleasant place, in truth, enough so that they could almost ignore the way people glared at them.

“Morning, dears,” said a flower seller as they neared; she had been turned around, rummaging in the back of her stall, on their previous passing. Now, the woman smiled, leaning forward and holding out a small bunch of violets. “I’ve just the thing to brighten your day!”

“Well, why not?” Teal said, coming to a stop and accepting the violets. “Oh, look how fresh these are! How much?”

“Nonsense, my lady,” the woman said warmly. “On the house, for you.”

“Oh!” Teal blinked in surprise. “Well, that’s very… I mean, I don’t want to put you out.”

“It is no hardship,” said the flower seller. “Merely a pittance. I think the three of you are more than due a spot of kindness.”

Muted sounds of activity continued up and down the street, but an island of total stillness fell around the flower stall.

“Excuse me,” Shaeine said evenly, “the three of us?”

“Some more hidden than others,” the woman said, still wearing that placid smile. She stepped to the side, moving with a pronounced limp, and began hanging bunches of wildflowers from the posts holding up her awning. “I know what it’s like, having to conceal who you are. Not, of course, in the way Lady Vadrieny must, but I’ve worn a cloak or two in my time. Rather stifling, aren’t they, Lady Shaeine? My apologies, I don’t actually know the right formal address in your culture.”

“I think you had better explain yourself,” Teal said quietly.

“Of course! My name’s Vanessa. Oof, sorry… You don’t mind if I sit down, I trust?” She pulled a wooden stool from the corner of her stall over to the front and perched on it with a soft sigh of relief. “Ahh… Getting better all the time. I’m afraid my leg just hasn’t been the same since I was in the Cathedral.”

“Your…” Teal narrowed her eyes. “The Cathedral?”

“The Grand Cathedral,” Vanessa said matter-of-factly, “in Tiraas. A broken femur is not a small thing, I’m afraid.”

“That is a fortuitous place to have it happen,” said Shaeine. “At least there were healers present, yes?”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Vanessa said, twisting her lips in an expression that was very nearly a sneer. “They healed it right up. Then broke it again. Then healed it, then broke it… Had this happened over a long stretch of time, I’m sure I’d have been able to count how many times. It was all back to back to back, though, on and on. Enough of that in one prolonged sitting, and strange things start to happen to your mind. You lose all sense of time, of place, of who you are… Eventually, there’s nothing but the pain. That’s the whole point, of course. As a side effect, the healings get less and less effective. The more repetitions, the more likely you’ll have lingering effects.”

“Y-you…” Teal stuttered. “Why would… Who are you?”

“I’m Vanessa,” she said with a patient smile. She produced a bundle of dark purple wildflowers from a drawer and laid them out on her stall’s counter. “You know very well who I represent, my lady. And I know what you’re here for. Tellwyrn’s little assignments aren’t generally of interest to us, but it’s a worthy thing you are doing. This poor city is in bad shape, and the authorities aren’t having any luck straightening it out.”

“What do you want?” Shaeine demanded.

“To help.” As she spoke, Vanessa deftly braided flowers together with a long strip of black ribbon, gradually forming a wreath. “In whatever way you need. Your group is a potent force, to be sure, but you are at a disadvantage in dealing with diffuse troubles such as Veilgrad’s. Dozens of issues are rising up in every corner of the city—of the province. You need more pairs of hands, the ability to cover more ground than the nine of you can alone. We stand ready to serve.”

“If you intend to threaten us,” Shaeine began.

“Threaten you?” Vanessa’s hands clenched on the forming wreath. She stared fiercely into Teal’s eyes. “The dark lady has countless warlocks, and can always get more. You are irreplaceable. Threaten you? I would spend the last drop of my blood protecting you, if that is what it required.”

“What…” Teal swallowed heavily, unable to tear her gaze away from the woman’s. “What did the Church… What did you tell them?”

“Tell them? Oh, please,” Vanessa smiled again, bitterly. “This is the twelfth century. No professional tortures anybody for information, that’s terribly counterproductive. No…you torture someone to get the attention of whoever cares about whoever you’re hurting. It’s not so bad, in the end. I’m getting help from a shaman; she says I should be mostly able to walk as normal after a couple of years of the right therapy, though I’ll always be able to feel when it’s about to rain. And they got my friends’ attention, all right,” she added darkly. “The Universal Church does not employ torturers at present. They haven’t any left.”

“I cannot believe the Church would do such a thing in the first place,” Teal said sharply. “And I certainly have no reason to trust you.”

“Of course,” Vanessa said agreeably. “Trust is earned; you hardly know me, after all. I am simply making the offer, my lady, because I hate to think of you not knowing the resources that exist at your disposal.” She smiled, warmly, holding Teal’s gaze with her own. “When you need help, call for us. We will come.”

“I don’t need that kind of help.”

“Right now, at this moment? No, you don’t. Far better to continue enjoying your day. I’d recommend against making assumptions about the future, though.” Vanessa shook her head. “Have you discovered anything about Veilgrad’s problems? Our working theory right now is that there is a chaos rift somewhere in the area. That can become a catastrophe the likes of which you can hardly imagine. Never turn down help.”

“I could call for the police,” Teal said. “Have you arrested.”

“For what?” Vanessa chuckled. “Don’t worry, my lady, I am not offended; you’ve had some unfortunate accidents of education. Experience is a good teacher. Just remember what I said, girls. When you need us, call.”

It was a shady street, but it was nonetheless shocking when the shadows swelled up around Vannessa, then receded, leaving nothing behind but the flower stall.

On the counter sat the small wreath of dark flowers, braided with black ribbon.

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19 thoughts on “9 – 20

  1. You know, I at least, reading Arachne’s history, thought that the name ‘Black Wreath’ was a result of people mispronouncing ‘Black Wraith’, and then the cult just going with it. But here, Now I’m imagining that that perhaps it was a deliberate change, from Elillial’s more offensive and overt tactics in the beginning, to trying to subtly and covertly win over the human race and throw them against the Pantheon. The Black Wreath are those humans that join in brotherhood and paint themselves as black (also as in black dragons) against the Pantheon.

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  2. Well, things just continue to get more interesting in Veilgrad. First Triss meets Shaathist Huntsmen who are actively working on the werewolf thing, then a Guild plant reveals that they’re open to helping out with the situation (Triss, Toby, and Gabe), and now Teal and Shaeine meet one of Mogul’s lieutenants who expresses a willingness to help, both there and elsewhere…. At this rate, they’ll be able to call upon a motley army of their own when the endgame begins.

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  3. Well. That last was odd. Who screwed up? The scenarios that come to mind are

    Someone in the church let their enmity get the better of them, and is now dead. That serves nothing except to illustrate how the church can be corrupted.

    Justinian wanted to make Mogul angry, and some disposable people are now dead. Which leads immediately to wondering what mistake he hopes to have the Wreath make.

    Vanessa is lying or overstating what happened to create an impression. If so we’ll likely see more such impressions shortly.

    I think complicated scenarios involving third parties can be ignored as being too unlikely for consideration for now.

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    1. You left out the possibility Justinian broke or turned Vanessa, and she’s here serving his interests.

      Not that I think that’s the most likely explanation, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

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  4. Typos:

    all the festival atmosphere lacked were decorations
    …atmosphere…was…

    y’can’t
    y’ can’t
    (maybe, vernacular is strange)

    here,,
    here,

    Reactions:

    My spell checker still hates Billie.

    Yeah… no. The help from the Empire for Desolation was still too fast, plans in place or not. I understand Vex probably wants to help give team Darling some backup, but these people are not in departments he has direct control over, so Vex himself had to have help in this.

    A “quiet and civil” discussion? Hmmmm… That’s where “Mr. K” says that Justinian is not going to be using the skull of Belosiphon the Black, oh no, he is planning on putting it in a secure place. No need to fight – we have the same goals. Which is realistically correct: Justinian might be able to use the chaos caused by the skull, but I bet he would much rather proceed with his own plans without big bad Belosiphon mucking things up. Raising a major power with plans of its own from the dead is probably not on Justinian’s agenda. They might even go so far as to turn over the skull if they know that Arachne has agreed to contain it. Or maybe Khadizroth has some nasty cards to play that don’t involve targeted spells and sharp objects. Or the turnover meeting itself could be a trap. Many possibilities, but I do believe that Justinian isn’t crazy enough to believe he can co-opt Belosiphon like he did Khadizroth and would not want another power player on the board – doing that is a loser’s move, and Justinian looks like he is winning.

    “The Universal Church does not employ torturers at present. They haven’t any left.”
    Unless I am missing something, that is in direct opposition to what she was saying just previously, since she was tortured at the Cathedral. Unless Vanessa is using irony or is saying that the Universal Church doesn’t employ professional torturers, but uses other people to do the same thing.

    It’s about time the Black Wreath contacted Teal/Vadrieny. Of course, they had to wait until she was out from under the Universal Church’s thumb, not under Arachne’s watch, not in the middle of a crisis, had shown some negative reaction to the Universal Church (think tapestry scene), and out in public since appearing to intrude on her private life could start bad feelings… OK, I guess this is close to the first time they would have had a good opportunity. Nevertheless, I expect they were watching her intently forever.

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    1. “The Universal Church does not employ torturers at present. They haven’t any left.”
      I took this to mean they had torturers, but then the Black Wreath killed them all in vengeance.

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    2. The Black Wreath already tried to contact/recruit Vadrieny when she was at the university, Principia prevented that from happening.

      I don’t understand why you attribute benevolent motives to the archpope here. It’s highly unlikely. First, him digging for the skull is what created the danger and the messages about it in the first place. Secondly, if he wanted to help with the clean up, he’d contact the proper authorities and not send in a black ops team whose entire existence he has to deny. Thirdly, why would he even be interested in this affair if it didn’t play a role in his plans?

      Belosiphon the Black used to be nearly as powerful as a god. A former red dragon empowered by an Elder God, he was vastly more powerful than normal dragons and even his remains are still treated as powerful objects. Not to mention the whole Chaos part.

      Hey, why would someone interested in ascension to godhood need powerful artifacts? Although I still doubt that’s the archpope’s real goal.

      Big K might still cling to his personal honor and try to find a peaceful solution but in the end I doubt he’d care much if his group had to kill a few adventurers. The whole setup says “trap” in neon lights and glitter.

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      1. Good point on the Black Wreath, but even then they tried to contact Vadrieny indirectly not directly. My comment on how this is one of the earliest times to contact her directly stands.

        “Hey, why would someone interested in ascension to godhood need powerful artifacts?”

        It has been repeatedly been emphasized that Chaos artifacts make all magic unpredictable and overuse leads to death. So unless Justinian is just randomly flailing around, he will not use this artifact, except to cause confusion in his enemies, and maybe not even then. And he has a vested interest in the current balance of power because he appears to be winning, so sending a team to neutralize something that is causing his oracles to scream DOOM is just basic self-preservation. I am sure he has some plan for using it, but I don’t think tapping its power directly or raising Belosiphon is part of that plan (registered guess). At absolute worst, I am guessing he plans to examine it for details on dragon ascension, hoping to get ideas about human ascension, but even then, the Chaos attached makes any information obtained highly suspect and just trying to look at it might be dangerous.

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    3. Study it, or use it as a weapon. Maybe use the chaos magic to help obscure his plans from the gods?

      On the situation in Desolation. Neither Vex nor Darling are in direct control of infrastructure products. But both of them have considerable political sway. Enough to blast through bureaucratic red tape.

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  5. Hmmm. I don’t know what to think right now. Except one thing: I don’t think Khadizroth is entirely on-message when it comes to Justinian’s goals. Team Booms and Boons might get a few surprises.

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  6. Hi, all! Quick check-in, here.

    So I got started way early tonight in the hope of actually having the chapter up early and going to bed early. Since it’s an hour to update time and I’m posting this, you can probably guess how that went.

    It’s not even a particularly difficult chapter, I’m just having a hard time slogging through. The brain is fickle like that; sometimes, creative circuits just don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Anyway, I’m more than half done and still at it. The chapter may be up a little late, but if so it won’t be by much.

    Stand by!

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