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The sun was climbing toward noon as they approached the natural amphitheater set amid the twisting stone corridors of the Badlands. It was later in the day than they had planned to arrive, but McGraw had been adamant that they would not attend this meeting without bringing Raea and her fellow elves into the loop, and into attendance. Indeed, as the group approached, they found the rim of the hollow hosting a ring of figures, divided almost evenly. On one side were grim-faced dwarves, carrying a variety of tools and equipment but with wands firmly holstered. On the other, the elves stood impassively, like statues in gray-dyed buckskins.

“Looks ominous,” Weaver murmured, peering down at the makeshift tent erected at the base of the amphitheater. It was nothing more than a stretch of green canvas held up by four poles, which themselves were braced in piles of stone rather than driven into the ground.

“Looks like what we were told t’expect,” Billie replied. “They all down there?”

“I can’t see any more than you can, half-pint.”

Their angle hid the awning’s occupants from view, but one man stood at one of the poles, barely shaded from the sun, watching them. He was a wood elf in an incongruous pinstriped suit. Joe narrowed his eyes, hands straying toward his wands.

“Don’t,” McGraw advised quietly. “I know, Joe, I was there. We’ll deal with him an’ the others in good time, but we agreed to meet under a flag of truce. You’ll get nowhere in life by breakin’ your word.”

“I know,” he said tersely.

Below, the Jackal grinned up at them, sketched a mocking little bow, then turned and sauntered back into the shade.

Weaver drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Well, if we’re gonna do this damn fool thing, no point in stretching it out.”

He stepped out into the sunlight and began picking his way down the uneven steps. Beside him, the enormous panther padded along silently. The others followed, Billie hopping lightly from step to step, apparently with no difficulty.

They arrived and paused, just within the shade of the awning, studying their counterparts. Khadizroth sat behind a rickety folding table, looking exactly as he had on their last meeting, his expression calm. The others stood; on one side, the Jackal leaned indolently against a pole with his arms folded, which had to be an affectation as the pole was clearly not sturdy enough to support even an elf’s weight, and the awning had not so much as trembled. Opposite him stood a dwarf in sensible working clothes with his sleeves rolled up to reveal brawny forearms. A sharp-featured man in a cheap suit with slicked-back hair stood closer to Khadizroth, studying them through narrowed eyes.

“Why, Mr. Shook, isn’t it?” McGraw said, tipping his hat. “What a very small world it is.”

“Not really,” Shook replied, fixing his glare on the old man. “Just starts to seem that way to people who swagger around taking up more than their fair share of the space.”

Khadizroth smiled faintly.

“Well, well,” McGraw said with a rueful chuckle. “I confess I’m caught without a rebuttal to that. Point conceded, son.”

“How lovely to see you again, Mr. Jenkins,” the Jackal simpered. “It’s such a relief to find you in good health!”

“Guess your reputation’s a bit overblown, then, ain’t it?” Joe replied sharply. The assassin’s smile thinned.

“I don’t miss a mark, boy. Not in the long run.”

“How’re ye doin’, big K?” Billie asked cheerfully, waving. “You look different! I can’t put me finger on it. Have ye lost weight?”

“This is going marvelously already,” Weaver grunted. “If I want to exchange threats and insults with dumbasses, I’ve got the gnome. Can we get on with it, here?”

“Somebody got that thing on a leash?” Shook demanded, pointing at Raea.

“That thing,” the Jackal said condescendingly, “is a shaman. They don’t get put on leashes unless they’re into that.”

“Welcome,” Khadizroth said. His voice, though soft, cut through the chatter and effectively silenced it. “Honor prevents me from claiming it is a pleasure to see any of you again, but I am glad you agreed to speak with us. Please, have a seat.” He indicated the folding stools set up across the table from him.

Nobody moved toward them.

“You seem to be missing somebody,” McGraw noted.

“Everyone is present who was invited to attend, and more besides,” the dragon replied calmly.

“The succubus isn’t around,” said Weaver. “Nowhere in the vicinity, in fact.”

“Oh ho, your little friend can tell that, can she?” the Jackal said with a broad grin. “That is excellent information to have, thanks ever so.”

“You, too, are different in number than I recall,” said Khadizroth, fixing his eyes on Raea. “Shall I infer that the torch has been passed?”

“Don’t you worry about Mary,” said Joe. “She’s around, too.”

“Splendid. There are things I wish to discuss with her, as well.”

“I’ll bet,” Weaver snorted. “Let’s get to brass tacks already. What do you have to say to us, dragon?”

“No.” Shook cursed and shied back as Raea spoke, suddenly an elf again. “First he will explain the desecration his agents have been committing against elven culture in this area.”

The dwarf flushed slightly and lowered his eyes.

“Yes, that matter deserves to be addressed,” Khadizroth said seriously. “Ah…Raea, is it not? Welcome. As I’m certain everyone here knows, we are all gathered in this desolate corner of the world in search of the skull of Belosiphon the Black, one of the few powerful chaos artifacts known to exist. I assume you are also aware of what happens to magic in the presence of chaos.”

“Virtually anything,” said McGraw, nodding.

Khadizroth nodded back. “Indeed. That is the issue. The traces of elven culture in the area mostly take the form of small shrines—individually not powerful, but all blessed and most with a significant fae component which ties them strongly to the land itself. Thus, if and when the skull is unearthed, each and every such object becomes a potential focus of chaos, a source of random magical effects, which pose a potentially significant threat.”

The dwarf cleared his throat. “I’ll assume you noted our removal of the elven items specifically due to your own interests. We’ve also been removing every magical object we find from the area.”

“How many magical objects can there be around here?” Weaver demanded.

“Not a lot,” said the dwarf. “The elven stuff is actually less than half of it, and all told it’s still not more than a few tidbits per square kilomark on average. Much is fairly modern equipment, or pieces thereof, left over from mining operations, though we’ve also found any number of enchanted bangles and weapons dropped by adventurers who knows how long ago. The archaeologists will have to sort that out.”

“Archaeologists?” Raea said sharply. “What have you done with these things?”

“The mining debris we disenchant and destroy,” the dwarf replied. “Everything else is crated up—carefully, I promise you—and shipped back to Svenheim on the carts that bring our supply deliveries. It’s all going to the Royal Museum.”

“A museum?” she repeated, her voice climbing an octave.

“The Royal Museum,” said Khadizroth. “An institution which handles cultural artifacts with the greatest care and respect. It does not sell to private collectors, nor destroy anything which may hold religious significance. The curators will also return any such artifacts to any individual, tribe or family who has a claim to them.”

“If they’re willing to hike up to Svenheim and press their case, that is,” said Weaver, folding his arms.

Khadizroth nodded gravely. “Yes, there is that, in addition to the imposition of removing these objects from the land in the first place. It is an inadequate solution; unfortunately it was the best I could manage under the circumstances. To that, I add my own apologies—also inadequate, but more than deserved.”

“You could have just talked to the elves about this,” Billie pointed out.

“Which elves?” The dragon raised an eyebrow. “Raea and her compatriots are the only elves in the area right now, and their defense of elven culture extends to harassing those who tamper with shrines, notably not the protection of shrines themselves. Even among the forest tribes, it takes months and often years to get Elders to take action, and those one can at least find. These artifacts are the leavings of plains tribes, all of which are doubtless somewhere deep in the Golden Sea by now. This was, I repeat, the best we could do.”

“Well,” McGraw said, glancing at Raea, who only frowned at the dragon, “I suppose that’s as good a segue as any to the central matter at hand. We seem to find ourselves in a race to acquire the skull.”

“Allow me to establish some common ground up front,” Khadizroth said with a small smile. “Based on our prior dealings, I credit you with enough intelligence that I assume you do not wish to possess the skull. My assumption is that we are all concerned not with who shall have the skull, but who shall not. Am I correct?”

“That’s the long and the short of it,” Joe agreed, nodding. His eyes kept straying to the Jackal, who grinned and finally blew him a kiss.

“The real short of it,” said Weaver, “is you’re trying to take the damn thing to Archpope Justinian, who absolutely does not need to have it.”

“On that,” said Khadizroth, “we are all in agreement.”

“Hang on a tick,” said Billie, frowning. “We are? Don’t ye work fer the bugger?”

Shook snorted loudly.

“Ostensibly,” said Khadizroth, smiling placidly. “His Holiness ordered and financed this expedition, yes. We are to retrieve the skull and return it to the Universal Church.” He glanced aside at the dwarf, who smiled and bowed. “Upon our successful uncovering of the artifact, I fear we shall all find ourselves incapacitated by our treacherous mining crew, who will then abscond back to Svenheim with it.”

The wind whistled softly into the ensuing silence.

“Huh,” McGraw said at last. “Gotta say, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Look around you, old man,” said Shook. “Do any of us seem like the type of people who’d work for the Archpope because we respect him? The last thing that asshole needs is more power.”

“A chaos artifact isn’t even power,” added the Jackal. “It’s dangerous, that’s all. Not dangerous like a weapon—dangerous like an earthquake. Any damn thing might result from someone playing around with it.”

“No, I believe this sentiment to be quite universal,” said Khadizroth. “The prospect of Archpope Justinian obtaining the skull of Belosiphon is absolutely unacceptable. That brings us to a significant question, and the reason I asked you to speak with us. What are your plans for the skull?”

“We’re not to that point, yet,” Weaver said sharply. “You’re still halfway through an explanation. Svenheim? What the hell is gonna happen to it there?”

“The Royal Museum,” said the dwarf, folding his burly arms. “They have the facilities and the experience to contain dangerous objects of that magnitude. It’ll go into an extra-dimensional vault, and stay there till the end of time. Or at least of dwarven civilization. Whichever comes first.”

“Mr. Svarveld has experience with such dangers himself,” Khadizroth added, nodding to the dwarf. “All of our chosen crew have; that is the reason we hired them.”

“That’s a government institution, ain’t it?” Joe said quietly. “This Royal Museum. Answers to the King of Svenheim, if I recall right?”

“That’s so,” said Svarveld, frowning at him. “And I hope you’re not implying that his Majesty would be mad enough to attempt to use the skull.”

“I know nothing at all about his Majesty,” said Joe, “and I don’t mean to cast any implications or aspersions of any kind. What I know is that governments are not to be trusted with the prospect of acquiring power.”

“That’s a solid point,” Shook said, frowning.

“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting he actually is an Eserite under all the greasy thuggery,” the Jackal mused aloud.

“If that assuages your curiosity,” Khadizroth said, “perhaps you are willing to respond in kind, now? I confess the prospect of Bishop Darling acquiring the skull does not please me, either.”

“Darling doesn’t want it,” Joe said quickly. “He’s of the same mind as the rest of us—just wants the thing out of circulation.”

“And you know this,” the Jackal sneered, “because he told you so?”

“Oh, Darling’s a snake, we’re under no illusions about that,” McGraw said easily. “The first step in successful snake handling is knowin’ what species of viper you’re dealin’ with. Darling’s not the type to want to meddle with things like that; he is the type to want them secured someplace as far from his own carefully-laid plans as possible. No, he’s on the up-and-up about this one.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Shook muttered.

“Then what do you plan to do with it?” Khadizroth asked.

The group glanced at each other.

“I’m not sure,” Joe began.

“No,” McGraw shook his head, “there’s no harm in saying. We’ve the same intentions as yourself: remove the skull from the world. In our case, by giving it to Arachne Tellwyrn.”

Another silence fell.

“I think,” Khadizroth said carefully, “you have failed to consider the implications of that plan.”

“Tellwyrn?” Shook turned to frown at the dragon. “Is that as terrible a goddamn idea as it sounds like to me?”

“Very likely more so,” Khadizroth said grimly.

“That’s because you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Weaver snorted. “Arachne has the power to remove the thing from the mortal plane, and definitely has the sense and reason to want to do so. She, unlike any of the other options I’ve heard named, has also already disposed of dangerous chaos artifacts this way.”

“I am willing to credit Arachne with her virtues, such as they are,” said Khadizroth. “Though sense and reason are not traits I would have ascribed to her in any significant quantity.”

“Sounds to me like you don’t know as much about her as you think, then,” Weaver retorted.

“No?” The dragon leaned forward, his featureless emerald eyes intent on Weaver’s face. “I’ve no doubt you know her more personally than I. My own interactions with Arachne have been at a safe distance and adversarial in nature. In fact, let me tell you how one of these transpired. She and I found ourselves contending for possession of— Actually, that hardly matters anymore. Suffice it to say, she won that round, driving me away by gathering up an alliance of other interests to keep me occupied.”

“Well, good for her, then,” Joe snapped.

Khadizroth sighed. “Not getting possession of the scepter did not harm me unduly in the long term, nor do I think she gained very much from having it. What I found distressing was what she did to achieve this. The woman actually negotiated an alliance between a cell of the Black Wreath and Izitiron the Red, who had previously been at one another’s throats, and set them on me.”

“Aw, ye poor big baby,” Billie said, grinning.

The dragon gave her a very flat look. “Deal with that sometime before you sneer at it, young woman. It was a significant problem—and not just for me. That union of diabolists went on to cause untold havoc over the years to come, not that Arachne ever lifted a finger to do anything about it. The price of her success in that one little conflict of interests—which, I repeat, was a relatively minor affair—was paid in the lives of the Silver Legionnaires who finally put a stop to Izitiron’s personal cell of warlocks decades later. And this was after they had opened four new hellgates, all of which are still open today. If I were to sit here and tabulate the sum total of the harm done, it would take the rest of the day at least.” He sighed heavily and shook his head. “That is the problem. Arachne sees the task in front of her and charges at it, paying no heed to the ripples she spreads or the consequences beyond achieving her immediate goal. Yes, I’m sure she does possess the sense not to want to use a chaos artifact, otherwise she would not have lived so long. But if you place that object in her hands, you are trading a crisis now for one in the unknowable future. All it will take is something to arise which makes her think using the skull is a worthwhile gambit.”

“What could possibly make her think that?” Joe demanded. “You are talkin’ about the most intelligent woman I ever met.”

Khadizroth transferred his gaze to the Kid. “Considering the company you keep, Joseph, I’m sure it has not escaped your notice that the world is growing more dangerous. All of this, all our interactions and adventures, are pieces of a larger puzzle whose shape we cannot yet see. A great doom is coming, and Arachne is exactly the type to meet something like that by throwing every possible thing she can at it. No… I cannot countenance her acquiring the skull.”

“Well, that makes your position clear, then,” said McGraw in a mild tone. “Though you’ve not given us any reason to think the thing’s any better off in the Royal Museum’s hands. No offense intended, Mr. Svarveld.”

“There is no good outcome here,” Khadizroth said gravely. “By far the best is that the skull remains firmly lost in whatever dark hole it resides in now. With the alarms raised by the oracles, however, I fear we must dismiss that prospect from consideration. What remains is to find another hiding place for it, ideally somewhere out of the hands of anyone who would use it. In my years, I have found dwarves to be eminently sensible and responsible folk. I adjudge that delivering the skull to Svenheim is the least objectionable prospect.”

“Then you adjudge wrong,” Billie said, planting her hands on her hips. “Ye cannot possibly be daft enough not ta see it. Responsible or not, you’re talkin’ about placin’ that thing in the custody of a King. Even if he never finds a use fer it, one of ‘is descendants will, sure as the bloody tides.”

“Governments tend to swell till they overtake other considerations anyway,” the dragon said softly. “Better Svenheim than Tiraas. We were told about your efforts in Desolation. What do you imagine the Imperial government is really there for?”

“The skull, I expect,” McGraw mused. “Which is somethin’ you ought to consider if you intend to get rough in keepin’ it away from us. We’ve already had a great deal of useful help from Imperial Intelligence.”

“Oh, is that what you think?” the Jackal asked, grinning nastily.

“Why would Imperial Intelligence go to the effort of tracking down the skull when they can have some other poor saps do it?” Khadizroth asked quietly. “It will be quite dangerous to handle, and the search is made risky by the conflicting interests currently raging over the matter. You’re adventurers; in the Empire’s eyes, are you are disposable tools which not only can but ought to be disposed of sooner rather than later. By involving the Empire, all you fools have done is ensure that someone well-funded and highly trained will be poised to swoop down on whichever of us obtains it first. We have the same ultimate goals—we only disagree on one frankly minor point of strategy. We have common opponents, in the Universal Church and the Empire, two institutions which must be prevented from getting the skull. Can we not reach a compromise?”

“What, send half of it to Svenheim and half to Last Rock?” Weaver said disdainfully.

“We do seem to’ve reached a sticking point, there,” said McGraw. “How ’bout this: let’s take a little time to think this over, shall we? We might be persuaded ’round to the notion of letting the Museum take the skull.”

“There are all kinds of reasons why that—”

“Or,” McGraw continued loudly, cutting Weaver off, “the reverse may happen. You understand the risks of placing that object with a government institution; I’d ask you to consider the risks of putting it in Professor Tellwyrn’s hands are the same in nature and necessarily somewhat lesser in probability.”

“Perhaps,” Khadizroth mused. “Perhaps not.”

“Give it a day or two,” McGraw said with a smile. “The skull ain’t likely to suddenly turn up now. If we can reach an understanding… Well, that’s a darn sight better’n us fighting took and nail over it, don’t you agree?”

“On the contrary, I was quite looking forward to that part,” the Jackal said with a grin.

“Now correct me if I’m wrong,” Billie said cheerfully, “but I get the impression nobody even among yer own team there gives a flyin’ fig’s fart about yer opinion, aye?”

“Then again,” the elf replied brightly, “there are advantages to us all being on good terms! Why, I do so enjoy having a gnome in a pliable position. Your mouth is at just the right height—”

Weaver’s wand cleared its holster in a split second, and the crack of the lightning bolt he fired into the ground was deafening at that range.

Immediately there was a chorus of yells, weapons were raised, and everyone darted backward out into the sunlight, away from each other. Only that prevented a full-scale showdown, as the dwarves and elves on the rim of the crater paused with their own upraised weapons, now that they could see all parties on their feet and unharmed.

“We are here under a truce!” McGraw snapped, forcefully prodding Weaver backward with his staff. “Put that damn thing away, you buffoon!”

“I will explain this once,” Weaver said, ignoring him in favor of staring coldly at the Jackal. “I’ve put in the time, here; I have endured weeks on end of this gnome’s bullshit. You don’t talk to her that way. Clear?”

“Oh, my,” the Jackal drawled, his grin stretching to truly insane proportions. “I do seem to have struck a nerve! You have my deepest and most sincere apologies, Mr. Gravestone, sir.”

“Be silent,” Khadizroth said curtly. “I did not call them here for you to insult and abuse them.”

“He’s not the asshole who started shooting!” Shook snapped, his own wands in his hands.

“Peace!” the dragon thundered. His voice blasted over them like a tidal wave, augmented magically to resonate across the depression and out though the winding canyons. Khadizroth slowly turned his head, panning his gaze across all those present. When he spoke again, it was in a more normal tone. “I believe this is a stopping point. As Longshot has pointed out, we each have things to consider.”

“I don’t know what was actually accomplished here,” Joe muttered, one of his wands still in hand, but pointed at the ground.

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” the Jackal said sweetly. “Exactly as much as was ever going to be.”


 

“Think we’ve reached a safe distance?” Joe asked some minutes later, pausing and turning back to look at the others.

“Far enough that it would be difficult even for the tauhanwe to hear,” said Raea, folding her arms. “You have something you wish to say?”

“I have something I wish to have said to me,” Joe replied, turning to glare at Weaver. “What was that?! Have you lost your mind? And since when do you even care about Billie?”

“You know what your problem is, kid?” Weaver said mildly. “You take far too many things at face value. If Billie and I really hated each other as much as we let on, there’d be bloodshed.”

“Aye, ye remind me a bit o’ me brothers,” Billie said, grinning, and slugged Weaver on the thigh. “Less ‘andsome, o’ course, but what can ye expect?”

“That aside,” said McGraw, “that was a hell of a stunt you pulled back there. You coulda started off a whole showdown right on the spot.”

“Yeah? Let me tell you what I think about that.” Weaver stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked faintly. “First of all, that conversation wasn’t going to get anywhere. We could’ve gone round and round as many times as it took to decide who should get the skull, but the ultimate fact is that neither group would ever trust the other enough to work together, or let the other obtain it. There is just too much bad blood here. That is a gaggle of unspeakable greasy-fingered evil-minded fuckers if I ever saw one, and I dunno what they think about us but I strongly suspect it’s not any more friendly. We got the only useful thing we were gonna get with the revelation that they aren’t fully in bed with the Archpope—which, come on, wasn’t exactly arcane physics to figure out, anyway. I just saved us a very hot, thirsty afternoon of tedious and pointless yammering.”

“Be that as it may,” Joe began.

“Furthermore,” Weaver continued more loudly, “if the showdown had started right there, that would have been just about the best scenario we could hope for. Power for power, both groups are a close match, and let’s keep in mind the extra muscle we’ve all got together.” He nodded at Raea, who merely raised an eyebrow in reply. “We’ve got elves who are skilled fighters, with several magic-users. They’ve got miners. An all-out battle would be decisively to our advantage, and we’re likely never going to see another situation like that where everyone was arranged like chess pieces. Next time, they’ll have had time to prepare. And on the subject of that, the wild card here is that fucking assassin. He snuck up on us last time; if we’re gonna fight that guy, and you’d better believe we’ll have to, I’d much rather it start from a standstill with the element of surprise on our side, and not give him the chance to do what he does and creep up on somebody again.

“Plus,” he added with a wolfish grin at Billie, “him being the vicious little shit he is, thanks to my little production we know exactly who he’ll go right for next time.”

“Yes, I see you clearly act out of affection for your friend,” Raea said, deadpan. Billie just threw back her head and barked a laugh.

“I know you’re all more comfortable thinking of me as a surly oaf,” Weaver said, curling his lip. “I wouldn’t still be alive if I could suss out situations and make plans, though.”

“In the future,” McGraw said flatly, “before you do any sussing or planning, include us. Clear?”

Weaver shrugged. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it. Discussing it with you would’ve made the whole thing moot.”

“You saw an opportunity to attack under a flag of truce,” Joe snapped. “Under other circumstances that is called a war crime!”

“I didn’t attack,” Weaver replied, now smiling placidly. “I made a sudden loud noise. If they had attacked, well, your conscience would be clean, now wouldn’t it?”

“Uh huh, that’s all very persuasive,” said McGraw, “but I will repeat my point. Do not do that again, or anything like it. Are we clear?”

“I have to concur,” Raea said flatly, staring Weaver down. “That was reckless, whatever your reasoning.”

“I’m hearing a lot of complaints about how you don’t like my strategy,” the bard replied, “but not a word about how any of my reasoning was flawed or my conclusions incorrect, or the results— Kid, what the hell are you doing?”

Joe had turned away from him and begun scrambling up the fairly gentle slope to his right, quickly getting atop the stone outcropping and onto the upper of the Badlands’ two flat planes. From that vantage, looking out over the twisting cracks in the sprawling landscape was rather like an extremely close view of dried-up mud.

“Just wanna see if I can get a look at ’em,” he said, pulling a spyglass from his pocket and peering back in the direction from which they’d come.

“Unless one of them is daffy enough to climb up there,” Raea said dryly, “you won’t catch so much as a glimpse. The angles are impossible.”

“Well, the meeting’s over, and all,” Joe mused, “and it sounds to me like that bit about thinking things over and trying again was an excuse—we are really not going to let those monsters get the skull, and they won’t let us, either. So… And by the way, the angles aren’t impossible. Just very, very unlikely.”


 

“No, we won’t be hearing anything further,” Khadizroth said calmly, not looking back at the others as he walked. Shook and the Jackal flanked him, falling behind when the twisting corridors became too narrow to walk abreast. The dwarves were still packing away the makeshift pavilion, table, and stools. “It was worth attempting, both ethically and for the chance to size up our opponents. The personal issues here overwhelm the professional, however—and even if every member of this party were willing to put those aside, I do not expect them to.”

“Should’ve brought Vannae, then,” Shook said. “If nothing else, he could make inroads with those other elves.”

“I prefer to keep a few elements in reserve,” the dragon said. “They may or may not know he is here; we can’t be sure how much Raea’s scouts have observed of our movements, and he mostly stays indoors. I will say this much: Raea is a poor substitute for the Crow. Mary’s absence changes the equation in our favor.”

“If she is absent,” the Jackal pointed out. “She likes to lurk.”

“She is not good at lurking silently,” Khadizroth said evenly. “And she is prone to wandering off in pursuit of her own projects. She may be hiding nearby, it’s true, but that would be out of character. No, her absence from the meeting strongly suggests her absence from the entire issue.”

“We’re talking about Mary the fuckin’ Crow,” Shook growled. “I’m hesitant to gamble my life on the fact she’s not here. And yeah, those are the stakes.”

“You are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “In any case, consider the different constitutions of our respective forces. We have miners; they have elvish raiders. This is not a race to obtain the skull. Their most logical move will be to let us acquire it, and attempt to take it from us. That places the initiative in our hands.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning.

“I like where this is heading!” the Jackal crowed, bounding ahead of them and turning to walk backward. They stepped into a junction of canyons, a fairly wide space that permitted sunlight into nearly every crack. “If we control the timing of the skull’s emergence, that gives me time to work my own special magic. All we have to do is thin their numbers a bit before they confront us.”

“Well, don’t bother with the old man,” Shook said, grinning. “He’s likely to keel over any day now anyway.”

“You just get more delightfully thickheaded every time I talk to you,” the Jackal replied. “Yes, he’s old. He’s an old adventuring wizard who’s been at it for decades. Beware an old man in a field that kills men young. No, between the lot of them, I’d say McGraw and the boy augh!”

The pencil-thin beam of white light that tore through the air was traveling at such a shallow angle that it was nearly horizontal, shooting straight down the canyon through which they’d just come. It was totally silent and existed for only a split-second, barely long enough to be seen in the bright sunlight.

The elf shrieked and staggered backward, clapping a hand to the side of his head where it had clipped him. Khadizroth and Shook both spun to stare backward, then in unison darted to opposite sides of the opening.

“Now that I don’t believe,” Shook said softly, clutching his wands and peering around in the direction from which the shot had been fired. “There’s nobody anywhere near… And we saw them head off the opposite way. I mean, you hear stories about the Sarasio Kid, but nobody can shoot like that. It isn’t physically possible!”

“I assure you, the stories are not exaggerations,” said Khadizroth, swiftly crossing to the Jackal, who had slumped against the wall, clutching his head and hissing furiously in pain. Blood now trickled out from between his fingers. “You are right, no one is nearby; I would sense someone attempting to ambush us. Keep your heads down. Let me see it, Jack.”

“Hey, uh,” Shook said, pointing at the ground a few feet from them. “You dropped something.”

All three fixed their eyes on the triangular object lying on the dusty stone, a line of blood tracing one of its sides.

The Jackal’s eyes widened, his face contorting into a snarl of pure animal rage. “No.”

Khadizroth bent to pick it up, his lips pursed, then turned back and gently but firmly pried the Jackal’s hand away from the side of his head. “I see… Wands.” He sighed, studying the shorn-off stump of the elf’s ear. “This is cauterized. I can reattach it, but that is…involved. There will almost certainly be scarring, and it may not completely match your other ear in length. We must return quickly to the office where I can work in peace with supplies; this is not something I can do here.”

“I killed him too quickly the last time,” the Jackal grated. “Lesson learned.”


 

Five hundred yards away, the Sarasio Kid lowered his spyglass, no longer afforded the momentary glimpse of the other party through the sprawling network of canyons. Even that one brief opening had been nearly miraculous. The shot, though… Anyone telling the story would make it seem miraculous, but in the end, it was all angles and forces. Just math.

“That’s one for one, you bastard,” Joe whispered, holstering his wand. “The next time’ll be the last.”

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30 thoughts on “9 – 24

  1. You may have noticed a lack of any changes in the donation goal despite the fact that there have been Friday chapters for the last three weeks. That was due to an incredible surge of generosity on Christmas and immediately thereafter; there haven’t actually been any donations since then apart from the usual Patreon amounts.

    I considered this and decided to leave it alone rather than raising the goal. I think it better serves the story and is more fair to the readers not to bump up the donation threshold to a level that the current degree of participation doesn’t support. I mean, sure, it’d be bumped back down after another three weeks of not being met, but I really think it makes sense to consider holiday generosity its own thing.

    Edit: And a donation cleared even as I was typing that! So we’re still a smidge below the goal but looking closer to it now.

    So, see you possibly Friday!

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  2. I was a bit wrong on what Khadizroth plans to do with the skull, but at least he is trying to keep it out of the Archpope’s hands. Overall, a responsible reaction. Too bad Darling’s group can’t let it be.

    Go Joe! Strategically sound, too – now the Jackal won’t go for the quick kill, which gives Joe and the others time to work. Really to bad the angle wasn’t good enough to core the bastard’s head, though.

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  3. Khadizroth made a very reasonable argument that omits a pretty critical fact: Svartheim, as we know, is in pretty dire straits due to the Imperial treaty with Tar’naris. A government in dire straits can make very poor decisions, ones that loyal citizens would be appalled by, particularly if the decision-making is concentrated in a small number of people under high pressure. And it’s certainly no skin off Khadizroth’s metaphorical nose if something dreadful happens to Tiraas or one of her allies — whether Tar’naris or Svartheim — as a result of those terrible decisions, is it?

    Meanwhile, if Tellwyrn wants to make a terrible chaos-related decision, she already has the capability twice over. The risk of that decision happening probably isn’t much higher with a third (although I expect the magnitude would be). But of course, Khadizroth and company aren’t exactly primed to see things that way, quite understandably.

    This was a really great chapter, and as much as I’m eagerly awaiting the powder keg going off, the last few chapters are examples of _why_ I’m waiting so eagerly — the thought and detail put into all these characters, the setting and the metaphysics has really invested me in them. Looking forward to what happens next!

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    1. Part of the issue with Tellwyrn is that we have what is likely a positive bias to her and Khadizroth a negative bias. We have been shown several of the occasions Tellwyrn has saved the world, and how much she loves her students, whereas Khadizroth has largely seen her from a distance, and sees long term effects which could possibly resulted regardless of her intervention. We don’t have good statistics on how much could go wrong with giving Tellwyrn the skull.

      Giving the skull to the dwarves would be idiocy though. Maybe the government is stable now. Maybe it’ll be stable for the next thousand years and is never even conquered. But all it takes would be one mad king to press the big red button, or even just approve some minor research testing, and it all goes to hell.

      There aren’t any good choices here though, it seems. Personally I think divine assistance should be looked at, preferably through one of the student paladins. The Gods would be almost certainly anti-chaos, given that it’s one of the few things that could pose a threat to them, and if you offer the skull to them on a platter they’ll take some form of action. And there’s no risk of them abusing it, since if they were desperate, they’d already have enough power to screw the world a dozen times over.

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    1. He’s pointing out the fact their line-up is different.

      Mary the Crow was their shaman when they last met.

      ‘number’ means ‘team/group’ here, rather than ‘1, 2, 3, 4’

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  4. “That thing,” the Jackal said condescendingly, “is a shaman. They don’t get put on leashes unless they’re into that.”

    I lost it at that.😀 Brilliant.

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  5. Typos:

    We’ve the same intentions as yourself
    We’ve the same intentions as you
    (character speech, may be written as intended)

    She and I found ourselves contending for possession of— Actually, that hardly matters anymore.
    (I don’t how a trailing sentence and the start of a different should be managed, but my memory says it is usually managed with an ellipsis)

    Reactions:

    Does every long-lived being in the world have an Arachne disaster story? It sure looks that way. Khadizroth does have a point about her and consequences.

    Justinian’s group can control the timing if and only if they can control the information – as soon as the skull is unearthed, the very first information leak is likely to result in active hostilities. And even if they can control a hundred or more mouths, the effects of the skull may be too evident to conceal. Both groups are likely to be maneuvering in the mean time. The Imperials probably plan on waiting for the Pyrrhic winner of the fight between Justinian’s and Darling’s groups, when both sides are severely reduced. Attacking either one early would be disadvantageous; however, since the Imperials brought miners they can take over if Justinian’s group is eliminated early. So, strategies:
    —Justinian’s group: control information on how far along the digging is; prepare, including assassination
    —Darling’s group: monitor Justinian’s group; prepare, perhaps including assassination
    —Imperials: monitor both groups; prepare; wait for, or better yet initiate, the confrontation between the other groups
    Mexican standoff – the group that openly attacks first is guaranteed to loose. The winning moves are intelligence, assassination, and getting the other groups to fight first. If I were a really ruthless Imperial intelligence officer, I would try to assassinate one of Darling’s group in the Jackal’s style, thereby setting off active hostilities.

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    1. Arachne is still the safer option, if she felt the need to bring a chaos artifact into play, then she has two of them already. Adding a third poses a much smaller risk than giving the skull to the dwarves.

      What is also interesting is Justinian himself. He has to know that his merry band of misfits is not loyal to him or his interests. He has a small army that’s mostly ornamental and that’s pretty much it as far as we know. Question is… what else is he hiding? He can’t feel safe with just that.

      Plus, we don’t know if Big K actually told the truth now.

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    2. Justinian’s group can also slow down their mining and get things in position so they could mine a larger area in a short time when they’re ready. It wouldn’t be very efficient, and there’s a significant chance they still won’t find it, but since they’re the ones with an assassin, time’s on their side. Assuming Mary isn’t able to wrap up her business in that extra time, that is.

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  6. The question I’m most interested in, is whether the skull is even here in the first place. We already know that the oracle’s “dragons” is unrelated to this quest in the badlands, and while we know that chaos is . . . chaotic, we also know that there are chaos incidents occurring hundreds of miles away with the students.

    It’s entirely possible that this whole conflict is the result of a misinterpretation, either accidental or as a deliberate attempt to get the two batches of adventurers to thin each other out.

    Of course, they’re here now and even if the oracle’s weren’t initially about the skull, someone finding it might be why the oracles won’t shut up about it…

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    1. The trouble with oracles is that you only know what they are about after the fact. I wonder, do the groups in the Badlands even know about the Conclave yet?

      I’m fairly sure Mary knows about Trissiny & Co’s task in Veilgrad, so the moment she returns to her adventuring group, things should become more clear. Maybe they can leave that area altogether and go to Veilgrad instead to find the skull before the others do.

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    2. “We already know that the oracle’s “dragons” is unrelated to this quest in the badlands”

      I disagree. All sources we have agree that a bunch of oracles saying the same message means universal doom. The Conclave’s appearance is a major political event, but they aren’t going to start a fight for no reason – that would defeat the point of their organization. Yes, they are dragons and they are political chaos, but they aren’t universal doom and they aren’t Chaos.

      The worst knock-down, drag-out fight possible from Darling’s group vs. Justinian’s group doesn’t qualify as either universal doom or big ‘C’ Chaos. As bad as that would be, it would be a local problem.

      On the other hand, if someone actually raised Belosiphon the Black, he has good reason to attack those who put him down last (some members of the Conclave) and he is Chaos. In addition, there would be major powers, e.g. Arachne, the Pantheon, the Empire, and even Elilial, who would strongly object to his existence and would fight if he appeared to be a threat. So if he comes back, he may pull the other dragons and major powers into a fight, which would be universal doom (or at least continent-wide doom). All signs point to Belosiphon the Black being the actual problem here – the other dragons may get pulled into the fight, but they aren’t the cause.

      And the problems occurring in Veilgrad were already explained: Chaos often causes problems a long distance from the physical location of the rift/artifact.

      Other than that, yes, oracles are often misinterpreted because they are frustratingly vague, and self-fulfilling prophecies are common. So the chance that there are hidden aspects to the various doom/Chaos prophecies is fairly high, but the chance that everything is unrelated to Belosiphon the Black is negligible.

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      1. Remember, too, that Justinian has agents in Svenheim beyond the summoner who attacked Yornhaldt. If one of Mr. K’s party suggested the dwarven city as a repository, Justinian could count on a betrayal by them to deceive Darling’s team into dropping the skull into his lap. And I don’t get K’s argument about Tellwyrn. If she doesn’t intervene, it’s usually because she does have reasons.

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      2. @Redmonitor

        I don’t see what your reply has to do with my comment – did you mean to reply to one of my earlier posts?

        However, you make an excellent point – there are already Universal Church agents in Svenheim, so Khadizroth’s plan to keep the skull safe from Justinian there is doomed to failure.

        In any case, as Weaver noted, personalities trumped negotiations here – they are going to fight.

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      3. @Remonitor

        The argument from Khadizroth is that she DOESN’T always have good reasons not to intervene. We’ve been shown a pro-Tellwyrn story. Most of our information about her comes from either HER university, or from people who have heard legends about her. Legends don’t typically include the long term impact to a regions political and criminal structures. According to Khadizroth, Tellwyrn’s great short term, but her intervention might cause terrible long term problems that spiral out of her control. We don’t know if this is true or if there’s other factors at play, one person’s testimony isn’t enough to convict someone, but it shouldn’t be dismissed either.

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  7. Khadiroth acts like a gentleman – but surrounds himself with scoundrels, or “greasy-fingered evil-minded fuckers” as they are also called. And we know he sees human civilization as a threat to dragonkind. His Plan A, an army of progeny, was foiled. Seems likely he has a Plan B….

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    1. I think the Jackal, or someone anyways, managed to put Khadizroth on a sort of magical leash after he was weakened by his fight with Darling’s group back a couple arcs ago. He doesn’t want to be here, would probably be a key member of the Conclave in making sure they had significant independence from the Empire, but has to be here and is making the best of a bad situation by being polite and trying to get Shook to be less sexist. At least, I think that’s what happened, it was a while ago and my memory isn’t perfect.

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      1. No need for a leash. If K went back to the dragons in his weakened state, he’d get himself killed and no one would be sad about it. He needs help, but help is hard to find. I doubt there are any shamans able or willing to break the seal Mary put on him. He can’t ask anyone else either, his only hope is that a god undoes the seal. Or maybe Justinian’s oracles will tell him how it’s done… in any case, he’s only part of the Archpope’s posse because they promised to help him with his little problem.

        He could have ignored Justinians offer and walked away… and by now he’d probably be dead. It’s not like dragons are friendly blokes who’ll let you crash on their couch, no questions asked. They are upset because of his (failed) plan, some of them oppose his entire ideology and others would just kill him because they want his treasures and right now he’s easy prey.

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      2. Yes, now I remember that, I wonder how Khadiroth can afford to doublecross the Archpope and “lose” the skull to the dwarves. And would the Jackel go along with that? It may well be a lie. The dwarves may be innocently going along with it.

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  8. I like to see this side of Tellwyrn. Shows that while she’ll fight like hell to protect those she cares about, she’s still a selfish person. Of course, it’s entirely possible Khadizroth is lying or misleading Darling’s adventurers about the events.

    (Why does Shook think Tellwyrn getting the skull is a bad thing? He barely knows her.)

    Also, am I the only one that thinks the argument against Tellwyrn getting the skull is a bad one? If she’s facing something that’s so dangerous she considers *throwing a fucking chaos artifact at it* a good idea, I’m not sure how much worse she can make the situation.

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    1. (Why does Shook think Tellwyrn getting the skull is a bad thing? He barely knows her.)

      Because she’s female. He generally has a very low opinion of women and Arachne was responsible for him getting jailed.

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  9. Very risky, Mr Weaver. I’m sure your attempt to start a fight was carefully reasoned in advance and not rationalised after the fact. Or I would be if I’d seen any evidence of your planning anything in advance before.

    And Joe, hasn’t anyone told you never to do an enemy a small injury

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  10. Something I’ve been meaning to ask- do we know what the semantic difference between a witch and shaman is? Is it a matter of skill / experience, whether or not the practitioner is an elf, or a philosophical difference in how they collect and apply their power?

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    1. I think it’s the philosophical difference. As far as I know, witches are practitioners of Fae magic in a similar way that wizards are practitioners of Arcane magic. Shamans, however, are people who are in tune with nature, which includes Fae magic but is a more total life philosophy.
      Sort of like a dwarf who is adept with divine magic vs a priest. Both use the magic, but there’s a lot more to being a priest than magic.
      Also like the difference between normal warlocks and Black Wreath members.

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  11. Hey, guys. Friday chapter is funded; I’ve got about a third of a piece written, and I’m struggling with a case of exhaustion that coffee is not treating. I really hope not to have it up late, as I have work in the morning and shouldn’t be up too late anyway, but I’m not managing to write at my usual pace. Stay tuned.

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