9 – 35

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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34 thoughts on “9 – 35

    1. Wait you actually believe that there is good guys? Cute. The closest to good guys we get I think would be the children and that is mostly because they are too innocent to have started developing hteir own agendas.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Let’s sum it up:

    Justinian is still suspicious, surprise surprise, and his team in the Badlands is (almost certainly) a diversion. Or possibly he only learned later the Skull was elsewhere.

    Darling’s team *might* be a diversion. If Justinian knew the Skull was elsewhere, Darling also might’ve.

    Embras, and by extension Elial, is playing a dangerous and cruel game with the kids. Again, surprise surprise. Meanwhile, The Wreath seem to still be the place for people down on the luck, judging by what Embras alluded to the Church doing to Vanessa.

    Finally, Malivette seems to be almost as ruthless at Tellwyrn, but also seems to be as generally good-hearted as her.

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  2. That was fantastic. I love that Vette was bluffing about her fear of the valkries the whole time.

    One thing I’m not sure of- why didn’t Gabe hand off Ariel before they went in for the concluding catacombs chaos confrontation like was discussed previously? Was it decided that three paladins together were enough to prevent a chaos misfire in the magic that allows her to exist? (I could see Gabe or the others forgetting she was vulnerable, but that Ariel didn’t remind him was a choice).

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  3. Typos:

    aeons
    eons

    Malivetted
    (although I am sure Embras feels ‘Malivetted’ right now)
    Malivette

    Shaine
    Shaeine

    Reactions:

    I didn’t think there was a Friday update, but I checked this afternoon just in case and got a nice surprise.

    Holy sh** the implications of this are insane…

    Justinian had a strike team prepared, with advanced magical artifacts, and knew the location well enough to send the party well in advance. Justinian’s adventurer group were sent on a wild goose chase. Given that none of Khadizroth, Shook, the Jackal, and Kheshiri like being jerked around, that’s not going to make them happy. Given that they were planning on double crossing Justinian anyway, this is just a double-double-cross and Khadizroth at least is likely to get philosophical about it.

    Darling’s adventurer group were either sent on the same goose chase or just followed Justinian’s group instead of doing full fact checking themselves. This strongly makes it look like the two groups of adventurers were set up to kill each other, i.e. Justinian’s original plan – those who won’t work with him get killed. Whether he did it or not, Darling will fall under suspicion. A traitor is a useful thing to have around, as long as you know he’s a traitor – in this case Darling is the traitor to the Universal Church. I don’t suspect Darling of attempting to kill the adventurers as a primary goal, which means he is going to be severely pissed off, after he finishes admiring the trap.

    As Embras noted, Chaos cultists were unlikely to have actually planned a successful operation like this, so it looks like either Malivette or Justinian as the likely culprits – Malivette only because she is local and can apparently operate far more widely, quickly, and powerfully than previously indicated. Justinian is still the primary suspect.

    And the open question is whether the original collapse (earthquake?) that set the whole thing off was an engineered event.

    Apparently you can teleport near Chaos artifacts as long as deities are suppressing the aura. Apparently you can actually teleport the artifacts themselves with some additional controls.

    Justinian now has the skull. Yes, Salyrene clerics are technically in charge, but Justinian has functional control. Well fu**.

    Malivette knows Embras.

    Malivette claims to know the Wreath’s secrets. “You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.” That is not clearly the the secret as to why Elilial was kicked out, so perhaps this is another secret.

    Malivette can out-power several warlocks in close quarters, at least with the leverage of hostage taking included. Trissiny admits she couldn’t kill Malivette in direct combat. Malivette is willing to use vicious tactics, despite acting like Rafe a lot of the time. Malivette has all sorts of powerful divine artifacts and now has at least one disruptor. Malivette knows dangerous secrets. Malivette was already looking bad ass, but now she appears to be a really severe threat level.

    “I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”
    Yeah, that’s not good. Embras is trying to corrupt all of the Hands.

    I have been thinking that Justinian’s action were not in line with what the Pantheon really wants. I now suspect that thinking – it is appearing more and more that Justinian acts, just like the official picture, with the full authority and intent of the Pantheon (or at least multiple members of it). What if the real picture is more like the official one – the Pantheon knows “a great doom is coming” and they are using Justinian to clear the board of troublesome variables, e.g. adventurers, Chaos skulls, and oracles? It is still likely that Justinian has his own agendas, but the main actions he has done visibly so far may well be fully backed by the Pantheon. The bullsh** he said about universal apotheosis may have been given as a red herring.

    The moments of comedy in here actually highlight the drama even more. “get laid” “BEHOLD!”

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    1. What if some gods are working against the rest of the pantheon?

      What if the gods can’t interfere with the archpope because it’s part of their nature to protect him?

      What if the gods are misleading Justinian because apotheosis is only possibly every 8000 years and now that it’s coming again, they want to prevent anyone from replacing them, so they feed him false info? The Elder Gods used to be human too after all.

      What if the gods have to renew their godhood soon or they’ll lose everything?

      What if the pool of divine energy is limited and they’ll have to throw all kinds of artifacts in there to produce more?

      What if Justinian doesn’t care about the gods at all and is making a grab for worldly power?

      What if the gods are parasites that can only exist as long as they siphon off humanity’s energies, thus keeping them mortal and powerless compared to the other races? What if that was Elilial’s reason to betray them? Because they wouldn’t give up this power once they defeated the Elder Gods?

      What if I accidently spoil the story with my wild theories? I better stop now.😛

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      1. Ok

        The Archpope has been clear that he is after some sort of universal apotheosis.

        There is some sort of secret the gods scorch the earth to hide and the queen of the demons seeks to have found by humanity.

        Some deaths send you back to hell to be reborn and others seem more permanent ?

        I’m curious how that works.

        But sitting down and reading this start to today in the course of a week has been interesting.

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      2. My comments got caught in the spam filter, so I’ve logged in where I can post them without that happening, and revise the way I make them.

        Justinian: faction//apotheosis for all.

        Elilial: faction//some sort of focus on a secret the gods kill everyone who gets close to/got her thrown out of heaven and the god of justice pushed into neutral territory.

        Malivette: faction//herself, with a large helping of bluff.

        Darling: faction//reader analog, lost, trying to figure out what is going on and do the right thing — within his own focus.

        Everyone: //pretty much doing what they think is the right thing, with drives they do not necessarily understand (like Trissey’s drive to act like an apex predator where demons/undead are concerned).

        gods: faction//all gods require worshipers (so if they lose them, they become spirits prey to being eaten or destroyed). Two sets of them were humans once (it is surprising that the elder gods were human once as well, that opens up a huge set of questions, as does the fact that they harvested and cultivated humans).

        technology: a force without a faction, but a huge force multiplier taking off … reminds me of our world where it took 30k years to improve flint flaking technology, another 30k to discover agriculture, but 10k years from agriculture to nuclear weapons

        3500 BC, humans discover bronze, 5500 years later, humans have nuclear weapons. Once technology takes off, eight thousand years gets you to places we haven’t dreamed of yet.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_materials_technology

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    2. Malivette does not outpower several warlocks, they just care more about their own then about the items. Which proably can not be said for many other groups

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      1. Malivette outclasses pretty much anyone who’s not in Arachne’s weightclass or above (which means all the gods and dragons). In this story, most archetypes are severely overpowered compared to what we know from traditional fantasy. Just look at the dryads and dragons. Vampires are just more of the same.

        To put this into perspective:
        Trissiny, the Hand of Avei, more or less singlehandedly killed the demonic dragon from the hellgate incident. A monster said to be more destructive than normal dragons. She didn’t even get hurt.
        The same Hand of Avei clearly stated that she doesn’t stand a chance against Malivette, nor does anyone else in the group except Gabriel’s valkyries. A group that includes an archdemon, a demi-goddess, a priest, a mage with infinite energy and a brawler with an anti-magic weapon on top of the three paladins who are martial artists or mages themselves. This completely broken, overpowered group wouldn’t even be able to get close to killing Malivette.

        Embras and his posse never stood a chance, if Malivette had wanted to kill all of them, she could have done it. Near instantly, without letting a single target escape. Without breaking a sweat.

        Vampires are seriously bad news… unless they are cute and cuddly like Malivette.

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      2. @Daemion Malivette is no standard vampire either, she had training at Unseen University. Regular vampires would likely could be killed by paladins, undead are weak to divine magic after all, but being trained to use her abilities to the fullest, Malivette is pretty much unstoppable by anything short of any army.

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  4. I think it’s clear now, unless the author is REALLY messing with us,that the Black Wreath are in fact the good guys and the Church the bad guys . Not so much what they say, but their actions reveal their true nature – they way they treat their companions, bystanders, and yet more tellingly, their opponents.

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    1. That is a valid interpretation.

      If I were to spell out how I approach the story, it would be more to say that even bad guys often have a good point, and good guys aren’t really a thing.

      But spelling things out is boring; reading about characters grappling with uncomfortable realizations is much more fun.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well we knows that the Wreath keeps demons in check (contrary to the empire and the church), is more caring about mortals (Tellwyrn’s point of view and apparently malivette’s) and we also know that the goddess of judgment left the pantheon due to Elilial treatment.
      It should still be noted that we don’t see all the acts that the wreath is doing either and they really do have reasons to give a preferencial treatment to vadrienny’s friends.
      On the otherside we have the pantheon with a few gods with very disputable dogma and non affiliated gods who seem insane. So yes by comparison the wreath looks like saints, but we should remember that Elilial’s daughters seems to have commited their share of unsavoury actions if Sheyann reaction was any indication…

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      1. It’s like real life. Anyone who has power had to dirty their hands at least once. It might have been for good reasons but in the end, no one gets anywhere by being 100% pure good.

        For this reason I doubt that there is anyone in this story who would qualify as truly good. Or to go by the D&D definition of lawful good. Not even the paladins make the cut, although they come pretty close.

        On the other hand, there is no absolute evil either. I don’t know how much of a comfort that is for the victims of antogonists who just didn’t care about collateral damage. Someone who is indifferent might cause more trouble than someone with evil intents.

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      2. @Daemion I think Kheshri, and likely many other demons, are absolute evil. They manipulate and kill for the fun of it with no intention of making life better for anyone. Gold dragons may qualify as lawful good, although I may be forgetting details about them, and even if I’m not we don’t have a ton of information on them.

        Also, Fross is pretty good. I think she might count as lawful good too.

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      3. Absolute evil? I think the children of Vanislaav come close but we’ve seen some working for the Black Wreath that kind of behaved themselves.

        Fross is learning which rules she can break, so lawful good is no longer on the table.

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      4. Children of Vanislaav are don’t have the power to go on a murderous rampage, so they play the long game by working with the wreath. I doubt they are all intelligent enough to avoid being manipulated by the most skilled manipulators of the Wreath either, so they are often are likely ‘tricked’ into doing good things too. Although since they were at one point human, they might have some scrap of potential decency and not quite qualify for absolute evil. Vanislaav himself might have potential though, now that I consider it.

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  5. I’ve just started rereading this story and as such wanted to point out a (admittedly) minor continuity error I just stumbled across. In chapter 1-2 Trissiny readily identifies the instrument Tanq was playing as an ocarina, while in 9-16 she had to ask what the instrument was when Mary/Kuriwa gave her one. Just thought you might like to know.

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  6. “I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

    At first I misread this and thought AVEI said this, and I laughed harder than Ruda!

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